East Himalaya

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Mast Pahari

Devdayal Bhatt runs a small tea shop between Almora and Kasauni. The land from the road to the river belongs to him. More than tea, he loves to treat people with glasses of cold water, which he instantly brings from a water source above his shop. He proudly tells his visitors, drink as much as you want, no where you will get to drink water from source, we still do not use anything to do with electricity. The river water moves our wheels, which helps to move the crushing stones to give our flour. We grow and eat all organic vegetables and pulses, the river water makes everything grow giant size. He takes out a big size onion and said that this also grew in this land here. He proudly said that you can take some of our potatoes; Delhi can never have access to these tasty stuffs. This attitude that our people in the Himalaya comes from being a part of the sustainable society with their food, clothing and shelter, which they receive from the forests, rivers and air around them, supported by a road access and tourism. 

Travelling in the area of Kumaon and Garhwal Himalaya, for a long time, I did not know how to name this attitude, till I went for a meeting at the Wildrift Camp at Mukteswar and saw the organizers of the camp wearing the T-Shirt with ‘Mast Pahari’ printed on them, yes this is the best term, MAST PAHARI. Tourism has started taking a front seat in the entire area with every possible turning, village, river bank or hilltop developing innovative tourism infrastructure like basic camping to luxury camping, old houses or estate homes being converted into heritage tourist bungalows, modern hotel building to resorts, every pine, plum and peach grove added with some tourism accommodation. Most of the regular livelihoods have been complimented with tourism and has stopped several youths from migrating to the so called developed cities in India.
Swami Vivekananda, after his return from America, spent a long time in Almora, where he planned the Ramakrishna Mission. He strongly believed that all the so called privileged people of this country, those who have achieved a more confirmed future compared to their counterparts in remote villages, will be called traitors if they did not serve the millions back in villages, based on whom the confirmed future has been achieved. Tourism in true sense has showed a way. I remember Subrata da, as a bright young urban youth, who could confirm his future in any city of the world, decided to start the first of its kind of camping in Kumaon Himalaya in a then very remote place called Munshiyari. Today, we find so many such youths, who are creating a new future across villages in the Uttaranchal Himalaya, where they feel that the villages they work with are part of their own. They go beyond tourism to create social and environmental development in their area of work.

The Governments at the states or centre still fail to recognize such efforts. Instead of appreciating these initiatives, they threaten them with half hearted Government Tourists Lodges, where being Governments, they occupy the prime locations. When the Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Park management are handing over the tourism infrastructure to the private players against a confirmation of enhancing the conservation process, look at KNVN clinging on to locations like the lodge at Binsar Sanctuary, which would have not only brought great revenue to the organization, but also supported the conservation initiative if planned properly and handed over to professional hands. Sorry, this is an example as I was discussing Uttaranchal, but the same stands for all the states in India, including the India Tourism initiatives with ITDC etc.

The time has come to question, that when we have such strong tools like tourism working at micro levels, do we really need these mega projects of Hydro-electric power project dams in our rivers, where we are killing the common livelihoods by killing our river systems, which has supported millions and created civilizations. A tourist likes the luxury of lanterns, then the common electric lights. S/He is more influenced by the local village markets than the urban malls, the local organic food which is preferred over canned and packed food and above all it is the unspoilt landscape which will bring the tourists back over and over again, making the destination another home. Can we deprive the thousands of people, who have lived through generations along the rivers, through this imperialistic policy to finish their livelihood and culture by building dams?
Nainital is the most popular destination in the area. During my school excursion, when I had visited Nainital then, much of it has changed, except the candle shop, which now calls itself ‘The Pahari Store’, a must visit, if you are in the lake. In those days, I could with lot of hardship visit Bhimtal, but recently I was amazed to visit Naukuchia Taal. It is believed that it is only Arjun from Mahabharata, who could see all the nine corners through his enlightened vision. Partha, my friend, who is one of the few Asians to have participated in the White Water Olympics (Slalom Kayaking) had put me on to The Lake Resort for my hospitality at Naukuchia Taal. The Resort’s undisturbed forest contributed to the health of the lake to some extent, but the best part was the bird life and the deer population in the camping campus was extraordinary. 

The MAST PAHARI people, the fruit orchards and holy landscape of Kumaon (Devbhumi) with all the legends makes Kumaon a must visit in the Indian Himalaya.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Own a House in Nagaland

I had posted a tree house photograph on Facebook during my stay in Pangti, Nagaland,  https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152841307263332&set=a.10152676788458332.1073741837.732133331&type=1&theater and there were more than a hundred ‘like’ to the post, probably because of the fact that I had mentioned that you can now own this house with a kitchen with dining cum sitting in the ground floor. These images are from Pangti Village. The Lotha community in Nagaland had built this village more than 600 years ago and as they settled down, they practiced different agricultural patterns. To protect their crops they build field houses, where they live temporary to look after their house. The pattern of the house depends on the wild animal visiting the field. 
The common visitors to this village were elephants, tigers, wild boar, snakes, insects, birds and many other known and unknown beings. Unknown, because many of the people are believed to have seen the pygmy people, who prayed by the special fire stone or Monkhumuv nchu. The Tiger Stone or Mhorhu Etsiphen which is there is meant for measuring the tiger after killing. The largest number of visitors to this Pangti village and some adjoining areas are the AMUR FALCONS, probably the largest single species animal migration known to the world. The number highlight has happened after the Doyung Reservoir was created.

In the meanwhile, because of the reservoir, the rivers became less dynamic and the immediate effect was the huge reduction in fish numbers. The fishermen union President, Zanthunga Shitiri said that our fishing nets now leave the waters and are spread in the trees to arrest the visitors, the Amur Falcons, in as many numbers possible... sometimes so much that our fishermen cannot carry them. At the same time, the ‘slash and burn’ method of clearing for zoom cultivation is fast reducing the canopies in and around Pangti. Lijon Ngullie, a local but enlightened farmer remarked that the low rainfall and the loss of forest after the reservoir had been made, our crops too have reduced and our people have to match the increasing fees of children at school and the growing prices with growing consumer wishes do not have any matching livelihood. And, hence the Amur Falcons.

This was an SOS from our very close friends Ramki and Bano, that Asit and I decided to visit the village. As we heard the Pangti Village Chairman, Vice Chairman Ronchamo Shitini, Vice Secretary S.Wabamo Kikon, we could not believe our ears. Last year with the involvement of the big and International NGOs, Government and several other well meaning individuals, the hunting of Amur Falcons were banned in Pangti, posters were put up and awareness programs were run. Also, promises were made to find out means of alternative income. With the return of the Amur Falcons, the villagers still wait for the promises to be fulfilled. The Chairman clearly said that this year it will be impossible to stop the hunting, we could not fulfil any of the promises which we made on behalf of the several organizations and individuals. The posters will reflect the thought process of the villagers.
The Amur Falcon season is not far away. If everything remains as usual, come October 2014 and they start arriving and lives in and around the Pangti village upto the end of November. All responsible tourists, travellers, nature lovers, photographers and tourism associations, the time has come to respond to the call. Adopt one of the field houses in the agricultural land and compensate the income of the family, earned through killing of the visitors, ‘the AMUR FALCONS’. Come and live a month or two with the Naga Village life, or invite your friends and relatives for a week or more, before you end at the Hornbill Festival between 1st to 7th of December, 2014.
For details, please write to northeast@helptourism.com or call 9831031980.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Shivalok, Devbhumi Uttarakhand

Uttarakhand is safe to visit, to give this message to the world, the Adventure Tour Operators’ Association (ATOAI) inaugurated their 11th Annual Convention at Shivpuri, about 20 kms River Ganga upstream along the road. This is supposed to be a niche association at the National level in India, considering the others that of tour operators, travel agents and hoteliers. This was the first time that a National level tourism industry association in India could come out of the four walls of hotels and the wrappings of suits and ties, completely in the outdoors, where their stake lies to organize their National convention. Congrats, and when you call Incredible India, it itself means adventure. Several acts of responsibility and discussions were the main show of the first day.
The venue of the convention at day time (above) and in the evening (below)
Shivalok, the home of our great Lord Shiva. Devbhumi, the land of the Gods. This is Uttarakhand, detached from Uttar Pradesh about 16 years ago. Being close to Delhi, there are many International visitors who come to this land and so does a lot of domestic tourist and the largest number is that of the pilgrims. Hence, this is also the face of India. About three decades ago, I had an opportunity to work over here, particularly at Shivpuri, at Rafting Camp. This was the only camp then which was started by Avinash Kohli, who could be recognized as the first organizer of white water rafting as a tourism activity in India. I had very little interaction with him, but I can certainly say that all those who are engaged with white water tourism activities in this country today owe him a salute.
That was a time, a Swamiji or Sadhu (person who has left his house and family to pray for the good of this world), lived beside the camp. Shivpuri, was the samsan ghat (place for burning of dead human bodies near river) of the local people and people were afraid to visit after dark. Khushi, the cook and Vikram, the caretaker of the camp was often gone when there were no tourists. I often shared the landscape with Swamiji. We had sanitary toilets in the camp, but Swamiji woke up in the very early hours, it used to be almost dark to go to the river bank and finish his toilet and bath by the river. While he sat for toilet in the outdoors, he often drew a line around him on the sand with a stick, chanting a mantra, and while he sat for downloading, not even a ant or snake or any living being could enter the boundary line (rekha) which he had drawn. Haridwar and beyond, we never thought of any non-vegetarian food, in our camp even onion or garlic was not used in cooking, as this was supposed to inauspicious near the River Ganga. Any liquor or alcoholic drink was strict no-no. There were tourists and pilgrims then too, and the available infrastructure then would fall short in the seasons.
My granny (mother’s mother) often told me this story in the childhood, when Swami Bhola Giri used to live in Haridwar, his disciples often referred to his age being 100 plus, yet strong in service of the people and meditating. Once a half mad or crazy lady was going around Haridwar and often called Swami Bhola Giri with names and beat him also in such a way as if he was much younger to her. When Swami Bhola Giri’s disciples asked him, why he did not object to her acts, he said “she is a few hundred years older to me, it is her yogic powers which has kept her look young, she has achieved the power of wish death of her body, and there are many such Siddhi sannyasis and sannyasins (enlightened men and women) who live deep in the Himalaya and sometimes come to localities.
I often thought that some of the Garhwali dialects often sounded like Nepali and there were many similar words in use. Even the dance in the evening yesterday at the ATOAI convention was very similar to Nepali folk. This is when a local delegate, who ran angling and trekking groups confirmed that this area was once ruled by the Nepal king and hence many traditions in the Garhwal Himalaya matched with the people living in the Nepal Himalaya. Pilgrims still come from remote villages of India and Nepal to Rishikesh and still today prefer to walk to the Char Dham (four holy places). Here, at the convention, we were discussing better roads, 02 phase entry flights (Delhi to Dehradun/Rishikesh and then fixed wing sorties to more deep in the Himalaya) mainly for tourists who did not have enough time and could effort the luxury. The local raft operators complained about the increase in licence fees from 5000Rs to 25000Rs and the step motherly attitude of the forest department towards them.
As I walked along the banks of River Ganga at Shivpuri, I still saw several birds and smaller animals, inspite of the back to back camps on both sides of the rivers. They all served the best of the food at par with Delhi. While drinking a cup of tea at a local shop, I overheard many interesting discussions in connection to the upcoming elections. One local person was complaining about the quality of education at the local village schools. Most of the time the teachers would not be there, and this I knew was a common problem across the Indian Himalaya. He also talked about an extraordinary solution, all the Government jobs should go to only youths who have passed out of Government schools and that all the Government service holders should put their sons and daughters in Government schools. Also, another local person was discussing about rafting licences, about 92 local outfits with trained guides had their application for licence pending. He suggested that if the Government was sincerely interested about local ownership and empowerment through tourism, they must see the capability and quality of the local outfits and give them the licence free of cost. These local outfits should also be then given the responsibility of emergency rescue on the river and conservation of nature in the local area. Another person discussed that the forest Department should put most of the fees collected from the camps for capacity building of the local youth, waste management and health facilities at the local level.
It was nice to see that some of the ATOAI active members had adopted a local Government Health Centre, some supported the waste management program, most of them trained and engaged local youths to a great extend and most of them had a major stake in the region as per their operation strength. They were able to contribute meaningfully during the last flood devastation during monsoons. And finally this convention, supported by the local Government to project a fresh face of this country through Uttarakhand.