A Riverside Retreat

The Sarai at Toria

The Sarai at Toria

, Madhya Pradesh
, India

Sarai at Toria is a small experiential hotel built with a great balance of detail, design and ecological perspective where the cottages seem to merge naturally with the forest cover behind and the high grass in front. The beautifully designed mud cottages are fashioned on local village houses with the aim to inspire villagers to see the advantages of local architecture. Set in 11 acres of stunning land features, Sarai offers many dining choices like breakfast by the river, lunch under the spreading Ficus tree and dinner by candle light under a star-lit sky. The open stone, wood and tile-canopied pavilion overlooking the river doubles as a lounge and dining space. Affording different views with strategically placed hammocks, day beds and benches, nature lovers will find plenty to do.

Our Rating: Premium
Property Type: Boutique


Sarai at Toria is located on the western bank of the Ken river and is close to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Khajuraho and the Panna National Park. Khajuraho (30 minutes from Sarai at Toria) is home to several Hindu and Jain temples and were built when the Chandela dynasty ruled this region. The temples are adorned with intricately adorned statues that reflect the ideals of Hinduism and are a major attraction. The deciduous forest of Panna National Park is spread just over 540 square kilometres, home to a diverse wildlife, and the Madla entrance is just about 2 km from Sarai at Toria. It is an ideal getaway for Ajaygarh and Kalinjar as well.


Traditional mud cottage constructions are inspired by local architecture with thick mud walls and roofs made of tin and grass. Inside, the rooms are large, high, well-lit and cool while the attached bathrooms almost as large as the room itself have smooth mineral oxide-finished floors. Solid, uncomplicated furniture with extra-comfortable mattress and warm-as-a-glove duvet, furnishings of Indian fabrics, all requisite amenities in place, make inviting living spaces. While the sit-out that allows you to bask in the late winter sun or watch the fire flies at night will be your favourite place to curl up with a book or just snooze.

Four independent classic cottages stand to one side with spacious well-appointed rooms designed in a way that precludes the need for energy heating and cooling. High ceilings and thick mud walls keep them cool in the warmer months and warm at colder times. While outside temperatures may change by 10-15 degrees, inside the difference will only be one or two degrees throughout. The rest of the four cottages have upstairs mezzanine spaces connected in pairs with a machan, of which two overlook the flowering grass and river in front while the other two overlook the forest behind. The staircase leads to a child’s bed and make it ideal for an extended family or friends travelling together. There is space to accommodate an extra bed on the ground floor and smaller cots for younger children can be provided.


All meals and drinks are served in pavilion, home recipes that are Raghu’s favourites, breads, croissants and pastries freshly baked in the well equipped kitchen. The cuisine is a combination of regional local with Continental and plenty of salads from home grown ingredients.


Besides safaris into the Panna National park and a visit to the World Heritage Site of the temples of Khajuraho, there is a carefully explored list of excursions that ensure interesting visits. A walk from Rajgarh, an imposing castle a short drive from Sarai to Taparian village through lovely farms and plantation of Ber (Zizyphus mauritiana) a fruit indigenous to India and Malaysia nicknamed as the ‘poor man’s apple’ and trips to the Ajaygarh fort. The grassland, forest and riverine habitats attract a great variety of birds. Stroll around the property, along the river-side or walk down hedge-lined paths through agricultural fields to nearby Toria village. Birders will be delighted by the diversity wherever they go. There is much to explore in this region while on a 2-3 nights visit, excursions may be accompanied by naturalist guides trained by Raghu and Joanna.

Perfect For
the history buff with Khajuraho, Ajaygarh and Kalinjar accessible from here. The Panna National Park is perfect for the wildlife lover. It is ideal for families, especially to introduce children to nature with large open spaces and opportunities to chase butterflies and spot various birds.

Operational status

Sarai is closed from mid-April to the end of September.

Why we love this place

The Sarai at Toria is not designed as a hotel but it is not a homestay in the usual meaning of that term, rather it takes many of the best features of both. In creating the Sarai at Toria extra effort has been made to keep it as environmentally and culturally appropriate as possible. This permeates not only through the style of the interiors, the use of building materials, the solar power and exterior architectural design, but also through to the service and food.

About your host

The inspired couple behind Sarai at Toria are Dr. Raghu Chundawat, one of the world’s leading tiger biologists and his wife Joanna Van Gruisen, wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist.

Dr. Raghu Chundawat is a conservation biologist who specialised in large carnivores. He did his PhD on the ecology of the snow leopard and its prey species in Ladakh and conducted a unique ten-year study on the ecology of the tiger in Panna Tiger Reserve, a dry forest of Madhya Pradesh. He was a member of the teaching faculty of the Wildlife Institute of India for many years and later Conservation Director of the Snow Leopard Trust. He is author of an acclaimed book: ‘The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers – ten years of research in Panna Tiger Reserve’. The BBC Natural History documentary ‘Tigers of the Emerald Forest’ is on the tigers and his work in Panna.

Joanna Van Gruisen was born in the UK but has lived and worked in the subcontinent for nearly 40 years. She is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She has made and worked on films covering various wild topics from Sri Lanka to Nepal, Assam, J&K and Rajasthan. Her films and photographs have won international awards and she has contributed wildlife photographs and articles on conservation issues to many national and international publications.

Responsible/Sustainable Tourism

In 2008 Raghu and Joanna decided to return to Madhya Pradesh to continue work with the communities around the Panna Tiger Reserve. They designed and built Sarai at Toria to enable them to do so. Since both are from environmental backgrounds, their aim was to create a property with as low a carbon footprint as possible. They minimised cement and steel, preferring local materials of mud, stone, wood and grass, creating supremely elegant and comfortable spaces without the excess often associated with ‘luxury’. Located in the beautiful countryside, they created the communal areas as an open pavilion thus doing away with isolating closed air-conditioned rooms. For years the Sarai was entirely off the grid with power being generated by a 10kw solar power unit and now are upgraded and part of Madhya Pradesh’s net-metering system.

Both Joanna and Raghu have lived and worked in this region for nearly 20 years. After competing a 10-year study on the ecology of the tiger in the Panna Tiger Reserve, both were keen to expand the project into conservation activities with the surrounding communities; and provide an economic base to live in the area as well as eventually fund the various projects they envisioned. Opening in 2010 with four rooms, they expanded to eight rooms and intend to remain this size so as to give guests a personalized experience and keep a lighter footprint.

From the beginning, they eschewed the plastic bottle and installed the four-stage, state of the art, RO system in view to reassure guests on the quality of the drinking water. Menus are designed as far as possible on the availability of organic and local produce, buying vegetables daily from surrounding markets and growing their own salads and herbs. Breads, biscuits, croissants and cakes are baked in house and organic flour sourced locally is used.

The staff is from the local community, so along with providing guests a wonderful service, they share their knowledge of the surrounding area and customs. This benefits the local economy and helps bring development to an agricultural area that has few employment opportunities. The Sarai also engages with its neighbouring village and supports the local school there; and are initiating a larger scale project on environmental education in ten schools situated in the tiger habitats that surround the Panna Tiger Reserve.

Our Recommendation

Enjoy a boat ride along the river Ken

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Our Accommodation Ratings

Opulent: Exceptional, unashamedly the best of sheer luxury. (£££££)

Luxury: Outstanding levels of 5* comfort, hospitality and facilities. (££££)

Premium: Excellent levels of comfort and hospitality and a wide range of facilities. (£££)

Mid-Range: Good levels of comfort and hospitality, with a reasonable range of facilities. (££)

Simple: Clean and simple, no frills. Often in areas of natural beauty or near wildlife reserves. (£)