A drive past a scenic and winding jungle terrain led me into the rustic confines of the jungle Lodge, wherein I was greeted by Anshuman Singh- the in-house naturalist and his wife, Priyam Kumari, who served as the Lodge’s hostess. Before proceeding with the write up, I’d like to specify that the duo happens to be related to me very closely- Anshuman is a cousin related to me matrilineally, which makes Priyam my bhabhisab. Having met them formally over the past few years over weddings and similar social gatherings, this visit counted as the first time that I was getting acquainted to their day-to-day life as professionals whilst connecting with them on a one-to-one basis.
Fortunately for me, experiencing the Samode Safari Lodge in their presence not only enhanced the hospitality I received but also acquainted me to the distinctive topography of Bandhavgarh through a lens that they developed ever so persistently. Hence, it is a privilege for me to be featuring the Samode Safari Lodge, a fascinating creation of my uncle, Rawal Yadavendra Singh of Samode, his older brother Rawal Raghavendra Singh and their family. Through this brief travelogue, I strive to provide my readers a personal account on the re-invention of hospitality that I witnessed at Yadavendra mausasab’s property in Bandhavgarh.
Tired from a full day’s length of travelling, I descended from the taxi into an engulfing aroma of lemongrass that burned from oil lamps scattered all around the lodge’s premises, which also kept the insects at bay. A hot towel and a refreshing glass of fruit nectar jointly directed me to an unhurried rejuvenation after which, I was escorted over a wooden deck and then a bridge, past the pool and into a rustic looking settlement. A cluster of what seemed like Gond huts were furnished with finely curated luxuries on the inside. Being a hotelier myself, I am well aware of the fact that an inviting bed and aesthetically pleasing rooms are usual benchmarks for all luxury hotel chains. However, it is in the sheer presence of a Bohemian chandelier and a by-standing veena amidst Bandhavgarh’s wilderness that Samode exceeds its contemporaries. My bathroom wall had an overpowering Gond-painting of birds that pleasantly contrasted against the elephant shaped basin and accompanying amenities. The adjacent door led to an outdoor bath and another one in the room opened up the space to a small sit-out. A sheesham television cabinet was supplemented by a backdrop of locally-captured photographs, of tribals as well as the wilderness. Altogether, every inch of the living space echoed its thoughtful creator, who had an overflowing flare for art and and attention to detail in a way that did not impose itself on the surrounding wilderness. If anything, it only paid further reverence to it.
As I absorbed the elaborate surroundings, the day approached its twilight zone. While heading out for supper, I noticed a caretaker light each lamp manually along the radial path of the resort. Walking past him, I was escorted to dine with the Lodge’s naturalists and other guests under an enormous mahua tree from which there hung pretty lights and lamps, making the setting offer nothing short of a fairytale. Chef Shafat and his team grilled some succulent prawns and kebabs over a charcoal grill, which I relished with their home-made daal and naan. My sweet tooth was pampered twice that evening- first by a molten lava cake at dinner, followed by a chocolate truffle which I found lying on my pillow when I returned. While getting into bed, I lifted the quilt to find a hot water bottle that had aptly warmed my bed on the chilly night.
A sweet treat and warm feet- could a holiday get any better? Yes, it could. Priyam bhabhisab had left a hand-written Wordsworthian quote on my bedside which read, “One impulse from a vernal wood, may teach you more of a man, of moral evil and of good, than all the sages can.”. This quote reminded me of the safari that awaited me the next morning.
By 6 a.m., Anshuman dada was ready with his safari hat, binoculars and a few fleece quilts on the back seat, waiting to take me on my first encounter with the Bandhavgarh forest reserve. We had a five hour-long safari which included the sighting of three tigers, a meeting with the local elephants and the spotting of several exotic birds. Upon returning, Priyam bhabhisab had an nourishing breakfast laid out for us, with everything from pancakes, eggs and cereal to desi nashta. The most noteworthy item in this spread was the homemade granola mix, which Chef Shafat had created by mixing a wholesome assortment of seeds, dry fruits, nuts and grains and toasted with a jaggery sprinkle. The breakfast counter also had a Calvin & Hobbes comic, which the management changed every day. It took me back to my childhood, where I would read comic after comic, always amused by the unique friendship that Calvin held with his imaginary pet.
The masterful packaging of nostalgia and homeliness was amplified in the way Samode Safari Lodge fed its guests. When asked about her take on experiential tourism, Priyam bhabhisab shared her insight: “Travelers today are looking for deeper connections to places and its people. They want to have more emotional/ romantic experiences that can stay with them as beautiful memories long after they have left that place, and quite possibly forever!”.
Each day’s lunch menu was customised with a soup, an entrée, a dessert and other accompaniments arranged thoughtfully in a three or five course meal. On my second day I was served spinach pancakes with tomato salsa in the afternoon; with the dinner surprise being khus golgappas and a set thaali. The precision of each dining experience gave away only too easily the amount of thought that must have gone into each course that was being served. What’s more, the specific meal venues and menus were constantly shuffled, hence ensuring that each guest got a highly varied set of dining experiences throughout the course of their stay. What I had learned from my first day at the Samode Safari Lodge was that Yadavendra mausasab and his team did not know what mundanity meant. And this applied externally to the plate as well.
No two days were the same in any respect, and yet, the Lodge permitted you every possible space to unwind, relax and reflect. The range of locations that it offered were as vast as its dining opportunities- there was the mahua tree ground that I previously mentioned, the billiard room, the reading room, the upper deck, the lower deck, the swimming pool and the back lawns to name but a few common areas.
After every safari session, the naturalists would gather in the common areas of the lodge, discussing their respective expeditions with one another. In this way, not only did I return from Bandhavgarh with my subjective visuals of the park but with a whole lot of possibilities and imaginations that I gathered from the fellow guests and naturalists. “Every day at the Lodge ends with me sitting around guests- talking, learning, laughing and connecting. It’s the most beautiful way to end even the toughest of days.” Priyam bhabhisab comments, while sharing her experience as the Lodge’s hostess.
As we got onto discussing the blend of wildlife and luxury tourism, she states, “Samode is a known luxury brand. Trained resident naturalists keep the balance as they are not just guides in the jungle, but also hosts to the guests.” Speaking of the naturalists, it was heartwarming to see young gentlemen of my age being so passionate about a profession that entails a remote and rather isolated lifestyle. But the personalised ethos of the Samode Safari Lodge had carefully knitted together its members as a unified family. They congregated to eat, share, laugh and often even sit in silence besides one another and go through their daily share of work or relaxation. As a guest, one just blended into their lifestyle for those few days. Being ushers of wildlife tourism, the naturalists outdid their compeers in the hobby of sighting. In that, sighting for them was an event that had stages before and after it. The stage before it was filled with excitement, pensiveness and even predictions. The stage after the sighting resonated either with the thrill of having sighted what they hoped for; or the reassurance of a better next time.
All in all, the Samode Safari Lodge instilled its own special re-invention in the spheres of experiential hospitality in a manner that surpassed conventional methods of luxury lodging. Be it in one’s personal living space, communal spaces, gourmet dining or forest expeditions, Samode went that extra mile without making it seem cumbersome in the slightest way. Unlike popular hotel culture that streamlines its services or
personalises it in highly mechanical ways, the Samode Safari Lodge had extended hospitality to a measure whereby distinguishing between hospitality from heartfelt personalisation became impossible, simply because it drew no lines to begin with.
Some Brief Facts
The Samode Safari Lodge is situated in the Mardari Village of Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria District, just in the periphery of Bandhavgarh’s forest reserve.
The easiest way of getting to the Samode Safari Lodge is by taking a flight to Jabalpur, which is an easy two and a half hour drive from there. Alternatively, it is five hours away from Khajuraho and Kanha.