In the era of Kindle, would you visit a village dedicated to books?
On the way to Mahabaleshwar over a weekend, we spotted a huge signage that read Pustakanche Gaon – Bhilar. Predictably, the next morning we showed up in the village to find out more.
Bhilar is a quiet town, sandwiched between the twin hill stations of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani in Western Maharashtra. Much like its neighbours, its population of barely 3000 earn their revenue from strawberry farming. Every second house in Bhilar is not without a patch of green in the backyard, where strawberries are grown and sold in the local markets.
Inspiration for the Bhilar book village
In 2017, the State Minister for Education and Cultural Affairs, Vinod Tawde launched Bhilar as the official book village of India. The inspiration came from his own visit to a Welsh town named ‘Hay-on-Wye’, one of the first book villages in the world. The charming Brit town is known for its plentiful bookstores and a literary festival that attracts about 200,000 visitors in May each year. When Richard Booth popularised this concept in 1970, little did he imagine that the rest of the world would follow suit. Today, book towns have sprung up in Japan, Belgium and Netherlands. India too is familiar with book streets like the famous college street in Kolkata, Avenue road in Bangalore, Flora Fountain in Mumbai, and not to forget the Jaipur Literature festival. But converting an entire village into a book town was a first for us.
While Hay-on-Wye is the ultimate paradise for bibliophiles, Bhilar’s book village is in its infancy stage. Their focus is on promoting the historical and cultural significance of Maharashtra. The 15000 odd books in Bhilar are predominantly in Marathi, although the State department is planning on expanding the collection by adding English and Gujarati books to tap tourism from Gujarat and the metropolitans in Maharashtra.
A community initiative
At the heart of it, Bhilar is a community initiative. Locals have volunteered to turn their houses into libraries and reading hotspots to promote Marathi culture and bring the joy of reading back into the lives of people. Visitors simply walk in, grab a book and read in quietude, while the family goes about their chores in the rest of the house.
We entered one such quarter that belonged to Pushpa, and browsed through the plethora of books that were neatly organised in the almirahs provided by the state department. The crackle of woks in the kitchen was music to our ears and the aromas were distracting. It takes a while to get used to the feeling that you’re barging into someone’s house unannounced and going through their bookshelves. But the locals are warm and welcoming – their doors always open, although removing your shoes is considered polite.
Books at the Bhilar book village
In our conversations, Pushpa mentioned that 25 homes, shops and temples in the village have opened their doors to visitors like us. Each of the household gets about 300 to 400 books in a particular genre like poetry, biographies, magazines and science. Her house exhibited children’s novels. We spent two hours discovering Bhilar on foot, hopping from one residence to another.
It’s easy to spot the houses exhibiting books. Apart from neatly placed signage, each of the houses has large colourful murals that indicate the genre of books they store. Like a lovely one-storey residence named ‘Mangaltara’, which has a mural of Shivaji Maharaj and a fort suggesting history books, particularly that of the Maratha warrior. The murals have been aesthetically designed by 75 artists from an NGO from Thane in the Mumbai metropolitan region.
Another house had a section called Charitre and Aatmacharitre meaning biographies and autobiographies. The book racks displayed memoirs of personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Marathi social worker Dr. Prakash Amte, industrialist Ratan Tata and Mother Theresa among other inspiring personas. I struggled to read a few pages on Sardar Vallabhai Patel before giving up since Marathi has never been my strength. But I catch a glimpse of my niece deeply engrossed in reading one of the books and the sight is immensely satisfying. In the era of Kindle, Bhilar takes us back in time to the days when visiting libraries brought us joy – flipping through stained pages and discovering scribbled notes. Bookmark this one!
How to reach Mahabaleshwar
Bhilar is 16 km from Mahabaleshwar, a popular hill station in Maharashtra. The nearest metropolitan is Mumbai at 260 km. One can easily drive down from Mumbai in 5 hours. There’s daily buses too.
Where to stay in Mahabaleshwar
Mahabaleshwar has a variety of accommodation options ranging from budget hotels to high-end resorts. I’d suggest Mango Hotels Valley View for a boutique luxury experience or Treebo Winter Town for a budget hotel experience. I’m quite familiar with both the hospitality brands and use them often while travelling across India.
(A version of this story was first published for Air India’s in-flight magazine – December 2018 edition)
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