Generous portions of rich food, sprawling houses, folk arts, skill games and animal rides… There’s never a dull moment at Chokhi Dhani Village

I’ve met my match. Ironically, it’s a turbaned waiter. After the many food reviews I’ve written, perhaps it’s poetic justice. First, he perches a turban on my head. “But it doesn’t go with Prada,” I bleat. He shrugs, points and laughs: “Jhansi Rani.” My friend falls off her cushion in a fit of happy giggles. Till they call her Phoolan Devi.

Next comes Death By Halwa. As we push away our plates with satisfied sighs, thoroughly satiated with ghee and sugar, the Turbinator approaches with big grin and bigger bowl of halwa. Dessert? “Oh no,” we smile politely. “We’re too full.” “Just taste…” he says, pleadingly, and before we realise what’s happening, he’s jammed a spoon of halwa in my friend’s mouth. It stops her giggling for a while, so I’m delighted. Till he starts moving towards me, spoon aloft and face set with determination.

Never a dull moment at the newly opened Chokhi Dhani Village.

We drive there as soon as we hear it’s open, curious to see what the Chennai version of the village will be like. After all, this is the chain’s first property in South India. Our car approaches the grand fort at an appropriately theatrical moment. The sky’s darkening and lanterns gently light up the patterned walls. A drum beat begins. Then we hear voices raised in song. Walking towards the group of musicians, we are waylaid by a determined little boy with a toothy grin who insists we join him as he dances. This turns out to be the theme for the evening. Later, we watch a young Rajasthani dancer with a serious expression work her way through an itinerary that includes balancing pots, balancing on steel tumbler and — as a grand finale — dancing on shards of broken glass. Once her act is done, on cue, she jumps off the stage, and pulls our hands, asking us to join her. Then there’s the red-robed magician equipped with an inexplicable number of katoris and pet birds, who pulls us up every few minutes for help with his tricks.

Spread over 14 acres, Choki Dhani is undoubtedly a theme park: fairly sterile, except for its allocated platforms for ‘folk arts’, ‘skill games’ and ‘animal rides’. Presumably everything a ‘good’ Indian village experience should offer. Nevertheless, they do try to keep things from turning too Disney. There’s an earnestness to the architecture that’s admittedly endearing. Sprawling villages houses interspersed with statues of cattle, deer and the occasional inexplicable crocodile, snaking his way down the main street.

We stumble upon a maze, and plunge in despite our guide’s ‘it’s very Bhool Bhulaiyaa in there’ warning. I last about five minutes before I suggest we cheat, clamber up the wall and climb out. However, my friend’s less enthusiastic about my Parkour ambitions, especially since she’s in heels. She charges around equipped with her cell phone light (and I suspect GPS) to free us. Shaken by the experience, we decide nothing but dal-baati-churma can set us right. Fortunately, the restaurant looms ahead. A massive space broken into one main hall and sic big rooms, this seats about 2,000 people. The service is fantastic, in that trademark Indian way. “Eat, eat, eat,” the waiters murmur, as they spoon more and more food onto our plates. Steaming bowls of dal, with freshly-fried baati and a pile of crumbly churma. Ladles of steaming kadi followed by a string of side dishes. Blobs of soft butter, followed by hot phulkas. And then, the crowning glory, a generous helping of steaming moong-dal kichadi, topped with a pool of golden ghee and pile of snowy sugar.

Waddling out, we manage to walk for about five minutes before collapsing on a conveniently placed chaarpai. Of course, every chaarpai here comes with entertainment. In this case, it’s a rope walker, who scurries up a pole, and then coolly bounces up and down waving various paraphernalia. Thankfully, he doesn’t ask us to join him. Especially after that meal.

(Choki Dhani is open from 4.30 p.m. every day. From next week, it will also feature a village bazaar, games and animal rides — from elephants to bullock carts. Entry is Rs. 500 per head, and includes food (vegetarian). It is located on Chennai Bangalore Highway (NH4), Kevlur Road, next to the back gate of Rajalakshmi Engineering College, Thandalam. For details, call 6713-6764 / 6713-6766)

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