“Try this, it’s a specialty” Sonam Dorje told me. When the owner of Kunzum Cafe and Guest House in Tabo slides a plate of Rosti (potato patty, topped with omelette) in front of you, don’t say no. Travelling through the tiny village in the heart of Spiti, I had mistakenly assumed the item for a local dish until Sonam told me it was actually a Swedish delicacy he had picked up on one of his trips to Europe. His cozy wooden cafe, full of books on the Trans Himalayas was the most popular in Tabo, just like his guest house. A few monks from the Tabo monastery (the oldest functioning one in India and the Himalayas) dined and joined the conversation as Sonam sat down to chat with me. The discussion proceeded from snide comments on the habits of Israeli travellers to the local economy of Tabo. Before long, we were sampling the local dessert ‘Tsampa’ (the region’s staple food made of barley) chocolate balls while Sonam regaled us with tales about life in Spiti and their impressive–even innovative–efforts to create employment in the village via tourism. Below is an account of this conversation and all the insights that followed as I made my way through the beautiful villages of Spiti.
Spiti is a different kind of beautiful. It’s neither lush green nor snowy white. Dipped in shades of greys and browns, the place is a rocky paradise. Its cold and desolate mountains can seem harsh, but its people are warm and welcoming. “Julley”, they would greet me, whenever I passed by, asking me where I was from and what had got me to this far away place. I never had an answer. I guess I was just curious to know how life blossomed in such a rigid environment that was cut away from the rest of the world. Gurgling rivers, barren mountains, treacherous roads, patches of green only in and around villages that at times had a population of less than 30, yet I met people who not only happily sustained themselves with meager resources, but discussed politics and demonetization with as much fervor as anyone in a city would. They knew all about us, but we knew nothing about them.
The 10 days in the valley took me across mountains to some of the highest points in the world and the most beautiful villages I had ever seen. From the world’s highest post office and polling station in Hikkim to the highest village in the world connected by a motorable road, Komic, to spectacular monasteries and dwindling bridges. While my mornings were occupied with driving from village to village, I spent the crimson sunsets talking to people, trying to understand their way of life and work. My first stop was Village Kalpa, that offered an amazing view of Mt. Kailash. Situated a little above Reckong Peo, the headquarter of Kinnaur district, this is one of the few villages that has successfully developed an infrastructure for sustainable rural tourism. The villagers here have managed to earn a few extra bucks by opening up homestays, budget hotels and eateries that serve the weary traveller quite well. Kalpa despite being a popular stayover point for those travelling from Shimla to Spiti, has managed to maintain its cleanliness. Full of tourists, but still clean, green and unexploited. I made similar observations in Village Tabo, especially after my interaction with Sonam in his cafe. Just like in village Kalpa, most villagers have opened up little hotels, homestays and eateries. Some have become local tour guides and drivers. Though nobody seemed to know the exact statistics, but I was told that tourism has generated a lot of employment in the village, which a few years ago was mostly dependent on peas and barley agriculture. Tabo attracts a lot of tourists because of the Tabo monastery. It made me really happy to see that no big commercial players have entered Tabo and commodified or exploited the village.
Rural Tourism in India is slowly evolving and developing to suit two purposes - giving tourists an offbeat, local and a nostalgic experience and strengthening their own economy by generating employment and earning revenue through the tourism industry. Rural destinations in India are slowly opening up to offer experiences in terms of their culture, heritage, natural landscape and traditions, to satisfy the growing demand of offbeat, immersive and culturally rich travel experiences of tourists. Holding on to older ways of life and thinking is important to its character, which is combined with the scenic values and recreational opportunities of the countryside that attracts tourists from urban areas. Rural Tourism comprises of Agri-Tourism, Green Tourism/ Eco- Tourism Gastronomics and vineyard experiences, Cultural Tourism (sports, handicrafts and art forms, history and heritage), adventure and wildlife tourism; all of which are abundantly found in rural areas of India. These experiences are offered through the tourist’s involvement in community activities, home-stays, volunteer programs, interaction with locals etc. that provide people a taste of the old world life that they seldom miss in today’s fast, cut-throat world. Tourists these days, especially the urban youth, has moved beyond conventional tourism and is looking to experience something new in their travels. Spiti’s booming tourism industry is testament to this fact.
The Ministry of Tourism in India has a rural tourism scheme for the ‘development of infrastructure in rural areas.’ The Endogenous Tourism Project - Rural Tourism Scheme (ETP-RTS) is a collaborative effort between the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India (MoT) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiated in 2003 and being implemented currently at 36 sites across the country. However it has only 172 designated rural tourism sites, when in reality there are much more. Himachal Pradesh is one state in India that has been propagating rural tourism very well. It is an integral part of rural development, especially in the villages in Lahaul and Spiti. However, it is a known fact that if rural tourism accelerates development, it may also lead to exploitation of these destinations by tourists and excessive commercialization. This has been the case in many villages, especially in Maharashtra, Goa and down south where commercial hotel chains have started lobbying, leading to commodification of local cultures, exploitation of natural resources, and manipulation of communities to suit the need of the tourist. Spiti however seems to have blazed a trail in rural tourism. Is it because the place has just started to figure on a traveller’s list or is it because of lack of resources ( water and electricity) and accessibility that has prevented commercial players to step in, or is it how responsible the authorities have been and how well the local community has rallied the cause, that Spiti continues to thrive in all its charm and naturalness? Nobody knows for sure.
In Spiti, the one organization that can be credited to develop sustainable rural tourism and employment opportunities for the villagers is Ecosphere. Ecosphere is a social enterprise that works on the sustainable development of Spiti Valley, by focusing on economic empowerment, environmental conservation and community development. It is a collaborative effort between the local community of Spiti and professionals from diverse backgrounds. In a world where climate change affects many mountain communities across the world, Ecosphere has been able to initiate many activities that make the villagers financially secure. One such is the cultivation of the local berry, seabuckthorn, that I saw on the menu of almost every eatery I visited. It is an indigenous wild berry rich in vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, which could be marketed as a magic recipe for good health that the Spitians have capitalized on. Founder of Ecosphere, Ishita Khanna in an interview with rediff said “Locals who were unaware of the potential of seabuckthorn, were not growing it. We initiated a project to set up a processing unit to make juice, jam, tea and fruit drink concentrate. This project has increased income, especially for women. We have been able to educate the community on the value of preserving this wonderful berry.’’
Another place where I witnessed the effort of Ecosphere’s efforts bearing fruit was a tiny, unfrequented village called Demul. It took quite some convincing for my driver to agree to take us there. He had been to Spiti 23 times before and had never heard of Demul. I was told about Demul by a local woman who we had given a lift earlier. She gauged my interest in rural tourism and told me about the local handicraft making scene there.
Village Demul, situated across mountains is the remotest and perhaps the windiest village in Spiti. With a population of only 279 people, it is also the most unique. When winter comes and the people here are unable to work on farms because of the heavy snowfall, they take to producing handicrafts such as ‘Lingze’, ( a mini shawl of sorts worn during festivities), sheep wool shawls, yak fur ropes, carpets etc. This not only provides them some sort of income during the winters but also keeps them busy. Mr. Takpa who works for Ecosphere, an NGO in Spiti that focuses on various projects in the village ( skill development being one of them) took me to a little mud house situated up slope and made me a cup of piping hot tea. He said “earlier people in Demul were into gambling during winters which caused loss to a lot of people. We initiated the process of training women in making these handicrafts and now they are able to sustain themselves better.” I ran my fingers through a green Lingze. Its fabric was rough but warm and seemed ideal for the weather conditions here. I asked them about the sales and learned that these handicrafts were not sold in the markets, but were made on orders which usually come from neighbouring villages.
I looked around the tiny house I was in. The windows gave me spectacular views of the village, nuzzled at the forefront of the staggering trans Himalayas. The interiors were rustic, with cozy mattresses at each corner. Towards the left was a little kitchen from where the aroma of warm chicken Thupka tingled my taste buds. From the outside, most houses in Spiti are white, with red and black borders at the top. Tapka told me that the black absorbs the ‘bad omen’ and keeps it from entering the house, the red keeps the ‘bad vibes’ away and the white is for ‘abundance of peace’. The discussion then proceeded to the economy of Demul. There were 45 houses in the hamlet, divided in two groups of 23 and 22 which lent out one of the rooms in their houses to travellers as homestays every alternate year for a decent tariff. These homestays were where the travellers could experience the local lifestyle, eat the most authentic food and live like a Spitian. This system has been successful for many years and avoids the possibility of slightly bigger and richer households to monopolize the homestay business. Mr. Tapka and a bunch of his teammates from Ecosphere oversee this and Demul has successfully made money to sustain themselves in the winters as well by doing so.
When I left Demul that evening, it was another crimson sunset, and the strong winds made it hard for me to stand still but I looked at the village from a distance. I had a smile on my face but an unsettling feeling inside that I was unable to understand. As we drove back to Kaza, the main town area of Spiti, I saw a clear blue stream flow down through the mountains and make its way into the muddy Spiti River, a tributary of the Sutlej; losing all traces of its lovely colour. Though it was quite a fascinating site, it explained my fears. I took it as a metaphor.
I have travelled quite extensively through India and this was the first time I was seeing such empowered communities in such forsaken lands. The clear blue stream was Spiti to me–beautiful, non-commercialized and natural while the brown murky river was what eventually became of every tourist trap. Perhaps like so many others before them, Spiti will become prey to the unruly tourist gaze or perhaps it will continue to thrive in all its naturalness, opting for clean, pristine, and resources over a bang for a buck. Perhaps our own definition of beauty may change over time. For now, Spiti remains a positive example of development through rural tourism.
To volunteer with Ecosphere and check out their activities, visit their website.
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