The remote village of Purushwadi is perched high in the jagged hills of Maharashtra state in western India, where life for the tribal farmers has hardly changed in centuries. Locals live with their animals in mud-brick houses with dried cow dung floors, there is no electricity or running water and the day revolves around backbreaking work in the fields under the harsh rays of an unforgiving sun.
Home for Hans Lewis, an artist and web entrepreneur, is only 140 miles (220 kilometers) away in the teeming metropolis of Mumbai. But India's bustling hub of international finance, media and entertainment which happens to be a hot, polluted, noisy and crowded city of at least 14 million people might as well be on the other side of the world. Despite the energy-sapping journey, he feels it has been a poetic experience. " Its given me a fresh perspective on life away from his daily focus on money and climbing the career ladder, which is being in touch with nature, how people live by little means, with absolutely no electricity, simple farming," he told AFP. Inir Pinheiro, whose company Grassroutes takes white-collar city workers and middle class youth groups to Purushwadi and another nearby village, says it's important such lifestyles are not lost completely.
In a few short hours, Lewis and his friends had swum in a crystal clear river, helped farmers thresh wheat, chopped wood with a long-handled axe, and eaten home-cooked food with locals in the dim light of their meagre huts.The money spent for a night in the village, goes straight into the 450-strong community, supplementing their income from the cultivation of rice, wheat, millet and pulses and, crucially, stopping them for heading to the city to look for work. But as well as boosting greater understanding between people at the opposite ends of India's rigid social ladder, who would never otherwise meet, the aim is not to bring along "the baggage of tourism," said Pinheiro."We don't want to change the villagers' lifestyle in any way," he said, describing the business as "responsible rural tourism".
Purushwadi's tourism clerk, Balu Kondar, is happy to see the city folk and treats them as honoured guests. "I feel good about it and my family feels good about it," said the 27-year-old."We're providing a service and the people who cook the food get money out of it. At the same time as money comes in, the village's reputation increases." For the hardworking women, too, there is relief from long days of taking goats and cows to pasture, sowing seeds or bringing in crops, not to mention the two-mile trek to fetch water at least once a day.
Pinheiro's aim is to expand, tapping into Indians' fierce pride in their identity and heritage and a growing domestic tourism market that sees more than 500 million Indians takes holidays in their own country every year.
"I can go back and put my photos on Facebook or any of these networking sites and tell people I've experienced basic living and milked a goat in the morning. But more than that, you come here and have a change in aspirations. Realistically, we understand that we're not very different," he said.