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How My Grandpa, a 90-YO Forest Officer Helped Design the Perfect Sustainable Jungle Retreat

A certified naturalist, Luv Shekhawat created Utsav Camp in Rajasthan’s Alwar, with guidance from his 90-year-old grandfather, a former forest officer. The jungle lodge, which blends sustainability with rustic charm, opens up to the Sariska Tiger Reserve, offering its guests a wildlife experience.

How My Grandpa, a 90-YO Forest Officer Helped Design the Perfect Sustainable Jungle Retreat

What are the fondest memories you have of your grandparents? For Luv Shekhawat, it is childhood birthdays celebrated in the forests of Jaipur with his paternal grandfather. They would munch on fruits while birdsong provided the music for the day. “Good times,” says Luv reminiscing about them.

Having a grandfather who served as a Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) certainly had its advantages. According to Luv, it not only brought certain perks but also cultivated a growing passion for the outdoors and wildlife.

He recalls the year 2010 when he bought a piece of land in the southern part of the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan’s Alwar, the deja vu was evident.

“At once, I knew that the forest is where I always belonged. It was in my destiny to return.”

Not the rugged terrain of Alwar nor the challenges posed by the proximity to the famous (and controversial, as you’ll see) Sariska Tiger Reserve could hinder Luv’s enthusiasm to bring the area to life. He built a nature retreat that was christened Utsav Camp, a name that borrows from Luv’s paternal grandmother.

Set against the backdrop of the majestic Aravali Hills, the 35,000 sq m retreat built mindfully using local materials, speaks the language of nature. By integrating locally available acacia, terracotta, bamboo, cane, sandstone, and rosewood into its decor and architecture, Luv has infused a unique personality into every element that dots this lodge.

Tigers are a common feature near Utsav Camp due to its proximity to the Sariska Tiger Reserve
Tigers are a common feature near Utsav Camp due to its proximity to the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Picture source: Luv
The entire retreat is a beautiful feature against the backdrop of the Aravali Hills
The entire retreat is a beautiful feature against the backdrop of the Aravali Hills, Picture source: Luv

Here, days are simple, time slower, and morning greetings are delivered by the Sun’s gentle rays that seem to creep into the cabins and flood them. Luv prides himself on creating a space where nature has the last word.

A refreshing and playful energy envelops the retreat. Guests are spoilt for choice with the 20 rooms being divided into nine stone cabins, eight Swiss tents, and three forest bungalows.

The first category upholds sustainability with its facades built out of raw rubble. The second offers guests a chance to completely immerse themselves in nature with canvas tents whose porches open out to the sprawling outdoors. The forest bungalows, meanwhile, are striking against the backdrop of the hills, and their glass facades let you feel as much a part of the wild as if you were actually.

Anyone who points out the raw and rustic demeanour that the retreat reflects is treated to a tale of how this was the exact intention Luv set out with.

Guests can enjoy safari experiences, birding and buffer trail walks while staying at Utsav camp
Guests can enjoy safari experiences, birding and buffer trail walks while staying at Utsav camp, Picture source: Luv
Luv has transformed the 35,000 sq m land from a barren one to a thriving forest
Luv has transformed the 35,000 sq m land from a barren one to a thriving forest, Picture source: Luv

A naturalist’s dream

From a professional hotelier in Jaipur to a naturalist at the helm of affairs at his forest lodge, Luv’s journey is telling. He’d always harboured a dream to start something of his own where he could marry his culinary prowess with his love for nature. And a lodge seemed the best call.

But hard work lay ahead. 

“I knew I needed to understand the technical aspects of how wildlife works. Watching my grandfather, I’d learnt the importance of putting your feet in the mud and learning the right way,” he says.

Thus began Luv’s quest to become certified as a naturalist — something that he says, in hindsight, stood him in good stead. As for his choice of location, well that’s a story in itself. 

The decor and architecture have bamboo, rosewood, acacia, terracotta and sandstone ingrained in them
The decor and architecture have bamboo, rosewood, acacia, terracotta and sandstone ingrained in them, Picture source: Luv
The canvas tents ensure sunlight floods the rooms and opens out onto a porch where one can view the wilderness
The canvas tents ensure sunlight floods the rooms and opens out onto a porch where one can view the wilderness, Picture source: Luv

Once famous as the epitome of tiger tourism in Rajasthan, the 800 sq m area of the Sariska Tiger Reserve was the perfect home to the beasts owing to its mountains, grasslands and cliffs. A 2002 survey by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) revealed 16 tigers present in the area. Three years later, there wasn’t a single one.

Poaching was suspected to be the primary cause. A joint investigation by the Rajasthan police, forest department, and NTCA led to the culprits — a local poachers gang that had been using traps, poisoned bait, and other illegal means to hunt the tigers.

In the aftermath of the investigation, the Government launched a massive drive to revamp the tiger conservation efforts in the country, and the reserve. As of 2021, the number of tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve grew to around 21.

While not many had attempted to start a homestay in this area, Luv says being a pioneer comes with its fair share of challenges. “The area was remote, there were no proper roads built and no  electricity.”

But even in the face of difficulty, the beauty of the natural terrain and its potential kept him going. After five years of work on the land, in October 2015, Utsav Camp was ready to open its arms to its first guests.

Indigenous trees like neem and jamun fill the landscape of Utsav Camp
Indigenous trees like neem and jamun fill the landscape of Utsav Camp, Picture source: Luv
Right from the courtyard to the pool and more, everything is powered by solar panels
Right from the courtyard to the pool and more, everything is powered by solar panels, Picture source: Luv

A labour of love between grandad and grandson

Utsav Camp is a glimpse into the past, and at the same time, a step into the future. But, compliment Luv on being the brains behind this work of art and he says his 90-year-old grandfather deserves the credit. “A constant guiding force through the process” is how Luv describes him, pausing to laugh at a few instances where the former chided him for the blunders he was making while designing the retreat.

Recalling these instances, Luv shares, “When I bought the piece of land, I began planting lots of fruit trees. But, when my grandad saw what I was doing, he said ‘You can’t put anything anywhere’. He then explained how this area needed indigenous trees since it is a deciduous forest. Then I started planting palash, neem, and jamun.

You can enjoy a sunset dinner while being entertained by Rajasthani artists and their folk music
You can enjoy a sunset dinner while being entertained by Rajasthani artists and their folk music, Picture source: Luv
The forest lounge opens up to a majestic view of the Aravali Hills and the deciduous forests
The forest lounge opens up to a majestic view of the Aravali Hills and the deciduous forests, Picture source: Luv
Trails are a great opportunity to spot different birds and wildlife of the area,
Trails are a great opportunity to spot different birds and wildlife in the area, Picture source: Luv

His grandfather was also instrumental in guiding Luv in constructing the greywater system that takes the wastewater, filters it, and channels it into the garden.

“I always took his advice seriously,” Luv says. “He was the last batch of people trained by the British and joined the Indian Forest Institute in Coimbatore in 1945. He was among the first trained people who joined the Government of Rajasthan Forest Department in the capacity of a ranger and helped set up Ranthambore.”

Luv recalls the day his grandfather was on site and Luv was planning to clear out the garden for a “well-manicured lawn”.

“He shared a lesson with me that I still follow. He told me to look for dry leaves at the bottom of the ground. These, he said, were indicators of a healthy ecosystem,” Luv adds.

Today, Utsav Camp is a sustainable oasis in Rajasthan, powered by solar panels and following a stringent zero-mile approach to source produce.

Guests are promised a holistic wildlife experience. To this end, loud music, partying, etc, is prohibited. While Luv enjoys thrilling his guests with tales and information about the species observed on a safari and nature walk, the magnitude of the message he is championing is always on his mind.

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“Sustainability is not an option. It is our way of life.”

Edited by Pranita Bhat

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