Sounds of footsteps echoed heavily in the darkness as Ritam Nandy made his way through a long, dingy corridor all alone. He was cold, nervous, confused and excited, but most of all, he felt undeniably curious to explore the hidden stories of the Andaman Cellular Jail–a colonial prison used by the British to exile political prisoners. He walked past the cells feeling the isolation prisoners once felt inside the tiny, thick-walled rooms. He shuddered as he touched the walls, imagining the suffering that this space had witnessed.
The heavy air made Ritam uncomfortable, yet he was unable to escape - very much like the hundreds and thousands of inmates whose fates were concealed here. His thoughts held him captive, pushing him towards the execution chamber where he could still smell the stench of dead bodies. Yet, he was glad that he found himself lurking in the dark corners of Andaman’s cellular Jail rather than the depths of its mesmerizing waters.
This dark detour from a clear, turquoise ocean, long white sand beaches and lush rain-fed hills was one he did not regret. It had made him realise that he had taken his own right to freedom as an individual in independent India, for granted. A realisation no history lesson had ever given him. Herein lies the beauty of ‘Dark Tourism’. Ironically, it can often be enlightening.
The Shades Of Dark Tourism
The traits of a typical traveler seem obvious. A curious mind, a ‘wandering’ eye, a palate for the unknown and (to varying degrees) a sense of adventure. Yet somehow, the experiences most end up having, feel predictable. Geographies change and huge budget differences might make it appear like very different holidays. But almost all of us leave our usual routines behind for bluer skies, cleaner air, calming silence and the ability to feel inconsequential in the lap of nature.
However adventures and realizations make their way in at the most unexpected places. Spaces of conflict, spaces abandoned because of a supposed haunting, spaces having undergone suffering and spaces that hold the power to evoke a sense of loss and despair – these are the spaces of Dark tourism – a form of tourism involving travel to places historically associated with tragedy, disaster and death.
Coined by John Lennon and Malcolm Folley in 2000, Dark Tourism, also known as grief tourism may not be the desired form of travel for most, but it is slowly gaining popularity in the world. Visiting sites of the Auschwitz concentration camps, touring the holocaust museum or stopping by Chernobyl where the catastrophic nuclear accident took place represent the historical lens of some, while gazing up the world trade centre to recall the fresh horror of 9/11 are just some examples of dark tourism across the world.
India’s unglorious past too is almost at par with its treasured gems. It has had a long list of rulers, battles and a diversity that is often fought upon rather than celebrated. Thus there exist many dark places of interest – be it the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar, the Kuldhara village in Rajasthan, the haunted Savoy Hotel in Mussoorie or the ‘Remember Bhopal’ Museum in Madhya Pradesh.
But in a country where religion and caste are politicized, conversation about conflict feels taboo and the concept of sustainable tourism is still alien, how healthy is it to promote dark tourism in India? Are we really ready to toe the thin line between understanding history and exploiting the dead?
Being A Dark Tourist In India
With a 10% annual growth and 330 million outbound tourists, India’s tourism industry is constantly evolving. Though these figures may be hard to quantify in the Indian market, a TOI report does suggest that , “Dark tourism has been one of the reasons for a 10% year-on-year growth in Indian travellers to offbeat European destinations.”
Karan Anand, Head of Relationships, Cox & Kings in an interview with The Hindu stated that “ There is a growing demand for creepy characters, unpleasant history and mysterious places. Some people find it thrilling and entertaining, while others are keen to know the truth behind these stories. This trend that started quite some time ago has picked up over the last four or five years. It is most attractive to people between the ages of 35-50.”
But for most travellers, the idea of visiting these places goes beyond just the thrill. Though Yashvardhan, a student on a family vacation to Rajasthan admits feeling ‘thrilled’ to go to the haunted Kuldhara village, he says that that feeling was replaced by a sudden sadness when he saw the abandoned village. “Homes were lost. Lives were changed overnight. It was overwhelming,” he narrates.
Priyanka Prakash, a media professional too confesses that visiting Jallianwala Bagh as a mere tourist had a deep impact on her.“The redesigning of the bagh has been done in a manner such that the entire incident has been chalked out for the tourist. Though today, the bagh almost seems like a hangout place, the tragedy continues to lurk in the air. The bullet marks on the wall are a constant reminder of the darkest days in Indian history. A man standing nearby the well reminded me of how women, men and children jumped into the well to avoid getting shot but instead died of suffocation. What I learned in school was probably not even half of what visiting the place actually taught me. It’s places like these that remind us of the long struggle that our country has been through. And it’s places like these that ensure our history doesn’t fade over time.”
When Payal Mohta, a writer visited the Museum she found herself particularly drawn to the slick plasma T.V screens which held recordings of individuals from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh narrating the stories of fanatic violence, massacre and parables of love and kindness they witnessed during Partition. She found it impossible to remain a distant listener, unknowingly experiencing their grief.
Talking about the importance of institutions like the Partition Museum she says, “I think in the modern world everything can be manipulated through power. Be it political dissent, privacy or humanitarian injustice. The only way to get to the truth is through human stories. Physical boundaries, nationalities and political pragmatism dissolved to show the unfathomable pain of two nations which seemed to unite them rather than divide them. We need to talk about that.”
Normalizing The Conversation Around Conflict
We also need to talk about the things that make us uncomfortable. The conversation around conflict is usually a fragmented one – stigmatized, politicized or blissfully ignored. Perhaps the most organic way to not just initiate conversations but also normalize them could be through responsible tourism. The Conflictorium at Ahmedabad that has exhibits ranging from the Gallery of Disputes, the conflict of gender, the oppression in Gujarat and more achieves precisely that. By encouraging visitors to touch, feel and experience the exhibits, engaging them in a unique conversation, it sheds light on the prevalent social and political oppositions while also letting one ponder over their own internal struggles.
Are Indian Tourists Ready?
Though, the term itself is quite new to Indians and the industry disguises itself under the banner of ‘social’ or ‘historical’ tourism, Dark tourism is certainly ready for Indian tourists.
It will give us a true, uncorrupted, first-hand insight into the history and the socio-economic landscape. It holds the potential to initiate discussion and dialogue, promote fraternity and make us sensitive to death and loss. It will also help us examine the idea of identity and culture in a micro and a macro perspective. But are Indians really ready to do this as tourists, more importantly as open-minded citizens of a secular democracy?
The answer leans more towards the negative. Several people have rightly pointed out how dark tourism, especially in places that have recently witnessed a tragedy, could encourage voyeuristic characteristics, further leading to cultural commodification and exploitation of local communities. Moreover, most tourists do not understand responsibility. Recently, Indian visitors came under criticism for taking selfies in front of a painting depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on its 98th anniversary. Unfortunately, this does not come as a surprise. Scribbling on fort walls, frolicking around while leaving trails of trash behind them, or making insensitive, derogatory jokes is almost second nature to most Indian tourists.
Another debatable trend that can be observed is that of capitalistic gains and minting money in such macabre sites. Examples of this could be the Leopold Cafe where the rates dramatically increased after the 26/11 attacks and the number of people visiting Leopold just to see the gunshots went up.
The Politics & Aesthetics Of Tourism In India
Another bitter example of this is the Bhopal memorial that the Madhya Pradesh government wanted to build on the site of the contaminated Union Carbide factory.
However, the survivors came out in protest questioning the moral right of the government to build a memorial at the site, as they felt that government had been complicit in the injustice meted out to them over the years. But these survivors are now collecting, archiving and exhibiting memories, artefacts and oral histories of the experience of the communities affected by the aftermath of the world’s worst industrial disaster.
The Remember Bhopal Museum was inaugurated in 2014 and it rightly reflects the gut-wrenching tragedy, the after-effects of which can still be felt in the beautiful city of lakes, which is what most people visit while there.
These thoughts resonate well with Vaishnavi Suresh, a photographer and an ardent traveller who worked with an NGO closely associated to the making of the Remember Bhopal Museum. She says that our idea of tourism has always been associated with aesthetics – separated from the very idea of politics. Stating a poignant example, she talks about Jammu and Kashmir. Most people visit the state for its beautiful valleys and breathtaking nature – however, they almost ignore the conflict and the separationist sentiment that lurks in the air – that unfortunately has become very hard to separate from the character of the state. Our idea of tourism needs to expand from mere aesthetics to socio-political and cultural sensibilities of the space and the local communities there. Responsible Dark Tourism attempts to do that.
A Ray Of Hope - The Scope Of Dark Tourism In The Country
In one word, the potential is immense. Not only could it enlighten tourists, but it could also bring in foreign exchange which, if regulated properly, can be used for creating funds for the survivors and those affected. But perhaps its biggest potential lies in using it as a tool to educate the irresponsible so that the industry’s desired effect is not counter productive.
This could be done through proper check-points and monitors at every step of the way, but the bitter truth remains that given our socio-economic status, despite tourism is a booming industry, it is hardly a priority for most states.
Moreover, people do not wish to intellectualize or take tourism so seriously. This is exactly what we need to change before anything else. If practiced well, travel and tourism, especially dark tourism holds valuable lessons for everyone.
For Indian tourists, it may be a new and dark space to navigate, but there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel provided our navigators show us the way.
Feature Image Courtesy : DNA India
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