Thursday, October 13, 2016

Experience a slice of rural Rajasthan near Mumbai

Acrobatics perform against the setting sun at Chokhi Dhani
Acrobatics perform against the setting sun at Chokhi Dhani

Chokhi Dhani, Bhiwandi

There is a slice of Indian exotica at Chokhi Dhani, the Rajasthani make-believe village with its camel rides, earthen ware, bangle sellers, fire-eaters, an astrologer with a speaking parrot, potters, bejewelled and tattooed dancing women, and turbaned men. So, instead of the savvy urban fun activities, we chose to soak in some village aura.

Puppet show
Puppet show

The kids and I have been to Chokhi Dhani  before but that was more than five years ago. I wanted to go again — now that the kids are learning Indian history and geography — when they understand the nuances of culture and cuisine, and especially because rural India seems like a strange land, foreign and vague to them.

The Chokhi Dhani ensemble — the food, the activities and the ambience — comes alive at 4 pm. We are greeted at the entrance by a burly man with a traditional welcome — tika, gulaal, lamp et al. The reception area is decorated with Rajasthani artefacts, beautiful doorways and drawings. The entry fee covers snacks, dinner (you have to choose a time slot) and several complimentary services.

The space is sprawling and there’s Folk music playing in the background. You can choose a variety of things to do. We wander around marvelling at the details. There is staff that serves and guides you, and traditional entertainers, acrobats, craftsmen and others who play roles in the spaces allocated to them. At some places, there are figurines so lifelike that we spoke to them only to realise they were not real.

There is a range of activities here that kids of different ages can have fun doing. You can go for a bullock cart ride with the family, or mount a camel for a trot around. You can also settle down to watch Folk dances like Bhavai, the fire-eater performance or the juggler.

The puppet show was amazing and the kids loved it, just as the tightrope walker made them hold their breath. The potter on his wheel had an irresistible charm and the kids ended up making tiny pots themselves. At the Haat Bazaar, you can pick up accessories like lac bangles and other trinkets.

To keep the easily bored city dweller entertained, Chokhi Dhani blends the traditional with the modern. So, while there’s the village astrologer with his parrot that will pick a card and tell you your fortune, you can purchase coupons and do a bit of balloon shooting, archery, ring throwing, bioscope — and the kids gravitate there.

If that isn’t enough, there is also a kid’s play zone with toy trains and swings (the large India swing is reminiscent of Sholay), hair braiding, sketch artists, rustic crannies and traditional homes to wander into. My daughter Vani and I got mehendi done — as the g­­rand finale—before which, we chose bangles that got fitted for size.

We sat down to tuck into a fixed buffet with unlimited dishes. With the ghee-laced dal baati and baajre ka khichda, the meal couldn’t have been more Rajasthani. The unlimited jaljeera, gola and kulfi didn’t hurt either.

Chokhi Dhani is a long way off and may not be something one does on impulse. But if you want a slice of rural India in all its colour, then this is a neat option. The camels looked worn out as did the artisans.

But it’s a vicious cycle—the more people patronise a place, the better it is for its artisans and performers — human and animal alike, isn’t it?

Fact file

Where: Kalyan Bhiwandi Road, Nashik Highway, Bhiwandi, Thane

Best for: Girls and boys, from five to 15 years.

How to reach: Being on the highway, it is easiest to reach by road. Via train, you can take a central line train to Kalyan and then hop into an auto.

Timings: 4 pm to 11 pm. Schools who contact Chokhi Dhani will be allowed entry from 9.30 am onwards, with revised rates.

Budget: Entry fee is Rs 350 (child) and Rs 600 (adult)

Food: Available

Water: Available

Rest Room facilities: Yes

Where else to go: You need a good three hours to enjoy the place to the fullest, so you may not want to head elsewhere.

Parent Poll: Ideal cultural and entertainment destination, yet it seemed to have lost its spark.

Rating: ***

Kids’ Poll: Enjoyed their first camel ride, archery, pottery, acrobats and puppet show.

Rating: ***

What’s Good: The staff was well trained. It felt straight out of a 1970s Bollywood film set. The sunset is picturesque.

What’s Not So Good: We noticed neglect in the upkeep. Some acrobats were very young. Disposable plates and cups are used extensively.

Safety tip: Be with the kids while they explore, especially ladders and heights

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