A eco-friendly resort in Wayanad that is in sync with its surroundings. - PREMA MANMADHAN

The undulating Banasura Hills in Wayanad stand as sentinels to the biggest earth dam in India, the Banasura Sagar dam. Just a few kilometres away, in rugged hilly terrain, stands the Banasura Hill Resort, perhaps the biggest earth resort in the country. Driving into Banasura itself is an experience. The nearest airport and railway station is at Kozhikode, three hours away. If you come from Kochi, it takes about seven hours, but once you reach the Ghat section, it's a pleasure, looking out for wildlife, monkeys at every hairpin bend (there are nine) and sweet water bursting forth from the granite boulders. The resort is at Vellamunda, before Mananthavady. The last stretch of drive over uneven roads is not a pleasure but once you reach there, it feels like the back of beyond.

It's just nearing completion but many of the 31 rooms already have guests who marvel at the two-storied main building made of mud with a roof of bamboo and coconut palm fronds. Touch the mud walls and the texture is rough, but strong. The other cottages in the 35 acre resort also have walls made of rammed mud. Some are laterite.

Best of both worlds

Cement seems out of bounds in this eco-friendly place though all the creature comforts of a resort can be enjoyed: Posh spacious rooms with modern bathrooms, terracotta flooring with wooden floors around the bed to keep off the cold and tastefully built furniture. There are fans in the rooms, but no air-conditioners but the mud architecture ensures that temperatures are regulated naturally.

The resort is the brainchild of Shankar Thiruvillakkat, MD of Assyst Global Services Pvt. Ltd., a software solutions firm. “Initially, it was envisaged as a getaway for the staff and their families to unwind. It somehow became a big project, when I met architect Eugene Pandala, who is the chief architect of Banasura. I was convinced about the feasibility and eco-friendliness of earth architecture,” says Shankar.

Eugene Pandala is one of the few Indian architects who believe in the goodness of mud and who has built earthen structures. The Pazhassi Raja tomb, also in Wayand, in Mananthavady, is a mud structure and was built by Pandala for the Kerala Government.

The resort is built with mud from the very site that it stands on. It seems incredible, but it's true. Earth scooped out from the hill slope to create a plain was used to build the resort right there. “Only five per cent cement has been added,” explains Shankar. Are earth buildings durable? Part of the Great Wall of China is mud and the biggest earthen building is a world heritage site, the Dejenne Mosque in Mali, which can seat 3,000 people. Pretty convincing, considering that 50 per cent of the world's populace lives in mud houses, in West Asia, Africa and in India.

Says Pandala, “The project was conceived strictly keeping in view the norms for the conservation of natural heritage of the Banasura Hills and the project area. The mud used for making earthen structure should ideally contain about 20 per cent of clay. And this was available at the property. For the two-storied structures, the use of steel was kept minimal. Using mud to build houses can save our riverbeds from being exploited.” Local tribals were called in for the labour and their expertise in building with mud was also tapped.

Better option

Rammed earth walls can't be made all at one go. Only three-foot high walls can be made in a day and it must dry before the next instalment is made over it. Pandala says that earth dwellings cost only half that of the conventional building. Shankar and Pandala are out to prove that mud can be the rich man's option too, to be closer to nature.

Walk out of the main building and the view is simply amazing: The mist plays hide and seek among the majestic hills. The mist almost never lifts from the highest peak, even at noon. Reserved forests border one side of the resort, 3,500 ft above sea level. Trek uphill to the edge of the property and a waterfall comes into view, amidst natural vegetation, trees, shrubs and vines. On the opposite side flows a stream, boulders et al, that marks a natural boundary.

There is no planned landscaping like rows of flowers planted in military order. The landscaping concept is to keep all the existing vegetation and plant only local species of plants. Vetiver(Ramacham) is planted to prevent soil erosion and more than 2,500 bamboo saplings have been planted to form a bio fence. The bamboo can be harvested for the buildings' roof in the future, says Shankar.

The multi-cuisine restaurant has quaint tables, single planks of wood as tops in the original shape of the trunk, sawn from a single chunk of a tree, for uniformity.

The nights are cool; the morning begins with birdsong and there's guided trekking in the hills. The vast spaces, cool clime and greenery are what stays in the mind, when you come away, bidding adieu to the hills.