Text by Vanya Lochan.
Photograph by Shweta Yadav.
“Everything is culture,” asserts Siddharth Chakravarty, Sustainability Director at Six Senses Fort Barwara, Rajasthan, as he welcomes me to the Earth Lab (also a key element of Six Senses properties across the world), to introduce me to the initiatives that make the luxury resort one of the greenest in India. Across the world, Six Senses is known for its resolute philosophical stand on sustainability. In their words: “…who says sustainable can’t be sumptuous?”
India’s first Six Senses resort, the repurposed 700-year-old Fort Barwara in Chauth Ka Barwara near Ranthambore, Rajasthan, has been designed to perpetuate the heritage and practices of the Barwara community as they have operated over generations. The 14th-century fort, which was originally owned by the royal family of Barwara, has been carefully restored by the leading hospitality brand in tandem with the Espire Group and the fort scion Prithviraj Singh.
In an attempt to reinterpret the rather sophisticated ancient systems of sustainable existence, the resort design has sensitively incorporated traditional elements such as rainwater collection tanks to complement — rather than detract from — the fort’s historical existence atop a hill, amid rich plant life and a functioning village that goes back centuries.
The Six Senses environmental and social sustainability policy focuses on energy efficiency, water and waste management, social commitment, the protection of its natural surroundings, air quality and noise control, and it is central to their efforts to improve their ecological and carbon footprints.
On a crisp Saturday morning, I am patiently escorted from my regal Aravali View Suite across the beauteous arcades and pristine balustrades overlooking multiple green stretches to the Earth Lab, where I meet Chakravarty. Along the way, my Guest Experience Maker (GEM) Shweta Yadav has not been able to contain her praise for the Sustainability Director and how he is one of “the wisest people at Six Senses”.
“It’s supposed to be ‘EARTH LAB’ and not ‘EARHT LAB’,” Chakravarty brings the mistake on the bronze tablet to my attention. “However, this plaque has come all the way from Maharashtra. I couldn’t help but think of the carbon emission generated, and decided that we need to do better than think about spellings. After all, we know how ‘earth’ is spelt!”
Image courtesy: Siddharth Chakravarty.
Excerpts from a conversation….
What were you doing before you joined Six Senses? Do tell me more about your role at Fort Barwara.
After completing my hotel management degree and my WSET 3 (Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 3 Qualification), I went on to work as a sommelier and a coffee master.
But faced with a deep personal crisis then, I was confronted with too many questions that I didn’t have the answers for. It was at this time that I started reading books by Sri Aurobindo. I went to Rishikesh to study Yoga Vedanta and that’s how my journey in rural Pondicherry [now Puducherry] began. I joined as the director of Sri Aurobindo Society, where I got the opportunity to spearhead many education, rewilding and palliative care initiatives. I wanted to apply the principles I had learnt beyond the spiritual world and, to my surprise, I found that every one of them is of use in this world! One of the tenets of my learning was “everything is one” – today, while I know why I should not be using chemical-laden insecticides, I can correlate why plastics are not the right solution, why travelling as an activity is a source of Scope 3 emissions if you don’t learn something higher or don’t impact the place positively.
At Fort Barwara, I work closely with the hosts, guests as well as the surrounding community to rebuild a better and greener future. I try to build an ecologically sustainable society through employment opportunities and ensure that the resort remains at the leading edge of sustainable practices in waste management. Currently, I am developing a workshop focused on upcycling and recycling various kinds of wastes. The aim is to bring the hosts and guests together for the cause.
Photograph by Vanya Lochan.
Tell us more about the Earth Lab….
The soul of Six Senses is sustainability and our Earth Lab is the place where our property showcases its efforts to reduce consumption, produce locally, and support communities and ecosystems. Guests are invited to visit the Earth Lab to reconnect with the natural world and learn some simple life hacks that will allow them to make a difference.
At the DIY desk, guests are invited to make their own essentials and daily-use items. You can make your own lip balm and add different flavours to it — we have vanilla and lavender. We make our own toothpaste and beeswax covers (which we use in the pantry to cover food), as well as our own mosquito repellent and hand sanitisers. We recommend a lot of lifestyle changes — and making our own essentials is a big part of it.
Most of our essential oils come from our alembic. We only use materials grown inside the property, such as lemongrass, vanilla and lavender. We also have an in-house potter. He is the sixth-generation community potter at Barwara. At Six Senses, we believe in employing people who are hyperlocal and regularly invite people who work in the village to visit the fort.
To the left of the alembic is the Sustainability Oath Tree. Whenever new employees join, I do a two-day Sustainability Information Session with them and then I take their oaths wherein they state that they will abide by certain rules and not hurt the flora and fauna in any way, not just within the premises but in their personal lives as well.
How do you support the locals?
Employing them is the first step towards empowering them. The next, of course, is buying what they produce and helping them to enhance the quality. If you think about it, every fort is designed to be sustainable and self-sufficient. Because if you are attacked, the only option is to sustain yourself internally for a long time. That cannot happen without the support of the community around. This is why you have people making your shoes, stocking your food, stitching your clothes, creating utensils — and that’s how you survive.
There is a mochi [cobbler] community here that has been making shoes for the past six generations and these shoes are sent to Jaipur and other places for sale. So far, they have seen little growth mostly because of the middlemen. We consider it our duty to employ them and help them sell their products. I keep asking our upcoming in-house arts and crafts gallery to help the locals create high-quality products and market them. I am also in talks with an NGO to bring a designer here who could help the locals improve their quality and learn to do better on their own terms.
Another example is the shirt I am wearing [shows me the pink tiger block print on his white bush shirt]. Local women from Dastkar [a craft collective] have printed this shirt by hand and it’s such precise work! Printing takes a lot of focus, but they have been doing this for several generations and this is all done using vegetable dye. We have been trying to engage with Dastkar actively and hope to work more closely with them.
I encountered a lizard in the garden – some hotels would not see it as an asset. How does Six Senses, which is situated in the middle of a village atop a hill, feel about this?
You must realise that this is their space too. In fact, it’s their space that we are in. We have lizards, snakes and rodents here, and our attempt is not to kill but to coexist. This is why we have lemongrass repellents installed in the living areas. Our staff has been instructed not to get anxious upon spotting these. Instead, we simply inform our guests, and if we do spot a snake or a larger creature, we simply leave it outside the property.
We value every living being, whether it’s our insects, spiders, caterpillars or snakes — they are all part of the larger ecosystem.
Every creature has its position in the food chain, and each one is helping maintain the balance.
I have heard that you mostly hire locals. What is the work culture and hiring process like at Six Senses?
This is an industry where people are expected to work long hours – the emotional impact of working in the hospitality industry is also unbearable at times, but that’s not who we are. We want to create the kind of beautiful culture where team members assert that they are being taken care of by their employer. You will meet a local, Govind, who works in F&B. I keep asking my HR and training managers not to select only those who speak good English. Let’s not set immaculate English as a criterion. Look, people may speak in Hindi, log Rajasthani bhashaon mein baat karenge, yeh unki jagah hai, yahan hum aaye hain, humein unki tarah baat karni hai. [People will speak in Rajasthani languages; this is their land, we are the ones who have come from outside, and we should be speaking like them.] In fact, if a hotel can’t bring its guests into the back area, then the hotel doesn’t deserve to be walked into. You should know the inside story.
Here we are at the store room….
Tell us about the innovations at the resort. What are you currently working on?
As I keep telling everyone, everything is about the system and I strongly believe that deprivation creates innovation and gives way to alternative solutions. You might have seen that hotels use a lot of plastic, hai na? [Isn’t it?] That’s something we have eliminated. See [shows colourful satin bags filled with pulses], we get everything in cloth bags. I had managed to change our entire storage system but, more recently, and because it’s been raining, our chefs have been worried about sogginess and mites. This is why, two days ago, we had to get some of the pulses and grains in, as my vendor asserts, biodegradable plastic covers. These cloth bags are all tracked — they come in, get washed and are sent back to the vendor to be replenished. Mindful consumption means lesser production!
[Walks ahead and hints at the floor] The “system” I speak of also extends to the way we do things. For instance, I am strongly against regular wet-washing. The water index here is quite low, so we sweep some of the areas. I keep telling the sanitation staff that even though we are harvesting and conserving rainwater, we are not offsetting it yet. One of my visions is for Six Senses to be in a position to not just offset but to regenerate more water than we use.
I am also working towards a seed bank. Genetically modified seeds actually drain the soil of nutrients and create a cycle wherein it becomes difficult to switch back to natural seeds. Hence, a bank of indigenous, unmodified seeds.
Let’s walk over to the laundry….
What’s special about the laundry room?
Well, to begin with, our laundry is smart! What I mean is that all these washing machines have sensors and everything is calibrated to ensure that no extra chemicals or water is being consumed to clean the linen here. No manual dosing.
All the chemicals we use are taken to our sewage treatment plants where they are recycled. Our machines are so powerful that they can clean the water and make a very effective microbial solution that we use in our gardens where we grow food and flowers. Septic tanks usually have a foul smell because anaerobic fermentation takes place inside them — that is, bacteria break down the waste and generate nitrogen-laden remains. Now, the idea here is to replace generally-used expensive chemical-based bacteria with naturally-occurring microbes that do the same job of eating away the grease. That’s good science! You can generate these microbes with pineapple skin, watermelon skin, and so many other things that you would usually throw away. We put all these skins and peels in the tank and then we add molasses and let one stock ferment for one month. Then, we add an N70 soapy solution and some wet charcoal, and that’s it! We give this biochemical to the kitchen staff to put in the sinks and let the microbes eat the grease away. This way, we don’t need to order anything, everything is free and also smells nice!
It’s a bit hot here, isn’t it? Let me take you to our refrigeration unit.
I have never walked into a freezer before!
Look here [points at a dessert plate on the refrigerator shelf], the kitchen folk have started using our beeswax liners. Once we were able to establish that we are not using plastic film to cover our food, our chefs, albeit gradually and begrudgingly [chuckles], started accepting our ‘home-made’ biodegradable reusable beeswax covers. The head chef comes with his team to the Earth Lab, makes the liners we saw earlier, and brings them here.
Photograph by Vanya Lochan.
The hotel’s welcome note mentioned that you grow your own food and depend largely on local produce. Would you tell me more about it?
We grow most of the herbs and quite a bit of the produce that we use in the kitchen. We have recently installed aeroponic farming towers at the resort. It’s the future of agriculture! I am currently experimenting with a few of these to grow vegetables for the kitchen. If we just spend four or five minutes a day, with about 40 machines, we can grow all the yield locally. A motor throws the water upward every 15 minutes. All the roots are in the air and because of that, they grow very fast. In merely a month and a half, we will have eight kilograms of pak choi growing here! Once we have more machines, we won’t need to source leafy produce from outside. Do you know what I want? I want to create a culture where we are aware of the effort it takes to grow the food we consume.
We have also developed a system called SPI, which is short for Sustainable Performance Index. Everything that comes into the hotel gets tracked. One of the duties of a Sustainability Director is to conduct audits of the food and beverages we receive — what we get, how far it comes from, what the scope would be of them coming from a lesser radius and whether our procurement is helping any of the local communities. The whole idea is that if I am getting cheese from France, how am I sustaining those around me? At Six Senses, we believe in refusing first. Refusing something first is the easiest. If you are still convinced that you will be able to make use of it, then take it in. As you might have noticed, your welcome drinks and some of the other products placed in your room had a note with a barcode. We have installed this system all over the hotel for our guests to scan and learn about the products they are consuming or using.
I have been told by my Guest Experience Maker that you are strict when it comes to food wastage and maintain a board that tracks waste. I am curious to know more.
This is our staff canteen. All of the food cooked and served is weighed here. Do you see that board? “Waste = Opportunity”, we say. We have divided the board into “Total Wet Waste”, “Total Cafeteria Waste” and “Weekly Projection”, the last one being an estimate of the anticipated serving and cooking quantities for the week. Everything is on display for everyone and no one can run away from the truth [chuckles]. I know how much food is being prepared, how much is consumed, and how much is being wasted. We also know who is wasting how much. Tracking opens up the opportunity to do better, waste less, and think about just how much could have been saved for someone else to consume.
With all these complicated systems in place, how do you ensure smooth execution?
In order to make any big system work, you need to make it very easy to operate. This happens only when you have empathy for both the guests and your colleagues. The next step is to create confidence and this includes being open to failure. Finally, it all boils down to communication and collaboration — keeping the team abreast of plans, training them to accommodate new challenges and being prepared to embrace ambiguity.
At Six Senses, everyone — even the security personnel — is part of the sustainability system. After all, the security guards scan everything that comes in and goes out. I asked them to measure the different kinds of waste and share the report every day. I also made them responsible for the composting process. The micro-distribution of tasks not only ensures accountability and smoothness of execution but also makes it easier for everyone to recognise which unit needs work if something goes astray — and that’s how we know whom to catch if we find vegetable waste going out instead of being composted!