It is difficult not to slip into superlatives and cliches when it comes to the subject of India; the words “colorful” and “contradiction” immediately come to mind. In the hands of Jamshyd Sethna, however, the complex country becomes quickly comprehensible and then entirely irresistible.
Having established Banyan Tours, a peerless on-the-ground fixer (or in PRIOR’s office the “Indian invisible hand”), Jamshyd and his team have introduced a legion of travelers over the past decades to the most beguiling and often difficult to crack countries. With a rich timbre and a wry sense of humor, he translates his profound knowledge and nuanced understanding of one of our favorite destinations—one that keeps us coming back to learn more.
Beyond the familiar postcard Rajasthan, Jamshyd’s wisdom extends to India’s other myriad of regions, particularly the Himalayan states. There, he has created one of the world’s most unique collections of hotel properties, Shakti. Working with local villages and communities, from the misty rhododendron-covered eastern mountains of Sikkim to Ladakh’s mythical moonscape, Shakti properties form a kind of string-of-pearls experience that amplify on spirituality, nature and the wisdom found in those majestic mountains.
David Prior: Start from the beginning for us, how did you come to start working in the travel industry in India?
It started with a game of bridge in 1977. I was playing with the management of a large blue-chip shipping firm and during a break, I was pulled aside and asked if I’d like to interview with them for a senior management trainee position the following week. I had recently returned to Bombay after a three year post-university stint on a Tea Plantation in Assam and had been out of a job for some months. I accepted with alacrity and it was suggested that I cut my hair and wear shoes for the interview. The interview went well and I was offered a choice of ship management, ship agency, freight or travel. I chose travel.
DP: For those who aren’t as familiar, could you tell us about the Parsi community in India, and specifically their contribution to Bombay?
Some Zoroastrians migrated to India from Persia in the 8th century after the fall of the Sassanian Empire to the Arabs. The British took over Bombay in 1661, and that’s when the Parsis began their move from Gujarat southwards to Bombay and were intimately connected with the history and development of the city. The city’s port, shipbuilding and cotton boom was largely fuelled by their entrepreneurs, newspaper magnates, industrialists, scientists, academics, doctors, writers, artists, musicians. The physical shape of Bombay was determined by Parsi community donations to build causeways, roads, hospitals and theatres. The Parsis are a much loved, albeit microscopic, community that has contributed immensely to every aspect of nation building.
DP: I know it’s completely impossible, but if anyone could know every corner of India, it would be you. What would you suggest as the unmissable region, and what would be your most underrated region?
Underrated: Sikkim. Unmissable: Varanasi.
DP: My introduction to India was by way of you. It changed my life profoundly. I know I’m not alone in saying that and at this stage it is probably a cliche. What is it about the country and culture that lends itself to that mercurial power?
India is an extraordinary snapshot of a seemingly anarchic and relatively uninterpreted culture that challenges and uplifts equally. A cacophony of sound, colour, tastes, tradition, wisdom, spirituality, mysticism and hospitality all merging into an experience for the traveller that at first and often overwhelms but invariably results in transformation.
DP: You’ve created something so extraordinary and unlike any hotel or accommodation in the world with Shakti, which I think of as a string of pearls throughout the Himalayas. What is it that draws you back to the mountains and its people, and why did you create this series of hotels after all your success with Banyan?
The mountains, like great art, literature and music, have this magical restorative quality for me and there has been this connection since I was a child in boarding school, especially with the beautiful Kanchenjunga. Many years later – ten years into Banyan Tours – I did two hikes in Kumaon and Uttarakhand with British friends. They were so badly organized and managed, and by people who were introduced to us as the best, that it spurred me into setting up Shakti as by then I had fallen in love again with the mysterious Nanda Devi and soon after we set up our village walks there, in Ladakh and in West Sikkim. Our staff are all locals. Hospitable to the core, gentle and fiercely loyal. The mountain regions in our part of the world aren’t renowned for cuisine so we trained locals – some with no kitchen experience at all – over the years and exposed them to chef friends/ teachers from culinary institutes and have made food a focus along with comfort.
Where will your next vacation be? Sicily and London
The thing you can’t travel without? Great headphones.
When and where was the last time you were in a truly wild place? A Spice Girls concert in 2001 with my young daughter at the O2 Arena in London. Wild and terrifying.
When were you happiest while traveling? My honeymoon in Scotland, where we stayed in charming bed and breakfasts and when I discovered my favorite whiskey, Lagavulin 16.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? A suite at The Bristol in Paris.
The place/trip that challenged you most? A ten-day 250km trek up the Johar Valley in Kumaon, India. An experience which inspired me to create Shakti Himalaya.
What is your room service indulgence? A pot of espresso in the morning.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? A bench at The Gateway of India, Bombay. It’s a long story.
What is your favorite market in the world? Marylebone High Street Farmer’s Market, London.
What are your showoff spots in your hometown? A cluster of small owner-driven restaurants I’ve frequented over the decades in Bombay.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? The Wild West.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year and why? A weekend in New Orleans. A week in Venice. A month in Iran. A year in London.
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been? Istanbul. I haven’t explored Iran either, outside of Tehran.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.