Lying atop a light haystack in a bullock cart, gazing at the clouds, singing-‘Mein chalee, Mein chalee, dekho pyar ki galee….’, slipping down to sit in the cart-man’s seat, a flying tail lashed my face and nearly entered my open mouth. It singed my cheek, felt like a slap, but then someone splashed a glassful of water on my reddened face and everyone broke into guffaws.‘Tujhe pasand nahi karta’! (The bull doesn’t like you !) “As if I was gonna offer him a marriage proposal!” I retorted, and laughter resumed and went on as long as the litlu litlu cart wheedled away tingling with cowbells.
This piece of personal memory brings smiles and gurgling laughter whenever I happen to look at a bullock cart during village detours. Turmoil in Punjab for almost two decades halted all rural fun and a flight of youth took place, while turmoil in Jammu & Kashmir tore up income resources, and left little to finance any fancy dreams of urban or metro settlement. Going abroad was also lesser in comparison to Punjab whose ‘entire villages are aging’ and where the once robust countryside of lush gold of mustard flowers and wheat fields that flowed alongside roads and rugged paths shrank rapidly with fragmented landholdings and unsupervised grabbing by land sharks.Punjab youth’s growing infatuation with fairer lands and fairer maidens abroad and the commercialization of rural land had coined a slogan ‘ek kilaa vech, te munde nu bahar bhej’ (Sell one acre of land and send your son abroad). In comparison stringent land laws have saved J&K and rural tourism has larger-than-life potential in Kashmir.
Unlike Punjab, Kashmir still retains its rural flavor, its weather adds to the unspoilt caresses of its emerald grasses and undulating slopes. Its upper reaches, and some of its lower ones, still hold a bountiful in luxuriant topography unmatched by any in the sub-continent or the world, wherein lies exquisite scenic beauty and delicate scents. Visionaries with their eye on niche Rural Tourism – for those who seek places lesser known, need to study the successful tracks carved by other countries with similar weather and scenic strengths and indigenously adapt for a self sustaining and robust rural tourism that not only allows a rare glimpse into pastoral life but also has potential to retain and sustain the virgin and pristine beauty of the region.Carin Jodha Fischer, a German national working in Gogaldara village near Tangmarg and the entire Khag region for last seven years, on the lines of rural tourism says, “Initiative in this direction may not find favor with the traditional tourist infrastructure of houseboat owners, hotels, resorts and urban-stays that is the mainstay of most tourist host cities, but rural tourism holds a huge potential of alternative income in the non-agricultural sector for rural dwellers. Joint Director J&K Tourism Mohammed Hussain too is intensely keen to start this hereby untapped natural attraction for increased tourism through the rural tract with this niche tourism circuit.
Government Input:Director, J and K Tourism, Talat Parvez, claims that the state tourism department is avidly looking to develop rural tourism,- “towards this end, 50 villages are identified as rural tourism villages under the programme. Three rural tourism circuits have also been identified and sanctioned by the Centre for development. In addition, a plan for conservation of both urban and rural heritage sites has been formulated. Moreover, pilgrimage destinations like shrines, temples and monasteries, often located in rural areas, are being developed to boost pilgrim tourism to these localities. New rural tourism destinations include Gurez and Bangus Valley and a few others are currently being considered for future tourism development, including the Khag area in the Beerwah Constituency of Budgam District in Central Kashmir.Interestingly, some rural tourism projects were given the green signal even during the years of militancy under the Government of India project for promotion of Rural Tourism. Despite the lumbering situation at the time, turning worse in 2010 with stone-pelters, these projects in J&K displayed remarkable success wherein all work had been expeditiously completed in sanctioned time. Seven out of eight -sanctioned ‘rural tourism’ projects by the union ministry were adjudged ‘successful’ and only one took the blame for being average. No other state fared better than this northern mountainous beauty, save for the aspect of attracting tourists to it.To safeguard rural areas emerging as targets for animal attacks, the government has undertaken an unusual drive of applying the most dreaded hot chilli ‘ghost pepper’ or ‘bhoot jholokia’ – the oil of which is smeared to fences to ward off wild animals, thus reducing the man-animal conflict and injury which could have been a big deterrent for rural tourism projects. A security man commented, ‘Wish this oil could be applied to concertina wires to negate cross border militant infiltration too’.Jobs and economic upliftment of villagers:• Rural Tourism promises plentiful jobs for rural youth as builders, painters, masons, artisans, carpenters, guides, cooks, porters, hosts, providers, trainers, horse owners, gillies (angling experts), adventure-sports assistants, photographers, artists and others. Simple villagers, who cannot afford opportunities for their progeny, would be thrilled about having a profitable stake in such community or cooperative ventures of a particular rural tourism circuit and would readily pool in for a build up as well as infrastructural needs of the project, with government help.• Instead of building new structures incongruous with the surroundings, existing rural homes could be given additional incentives to add more rooms or dorms to accommodate tourists. Rural home-stays could boost income of families, which could include all meals, including packed lunches, bonfires, barbecues thrown in for outdoors, as part of the package.• This could translate into a business opportunity for the locals and even for the likes of nomads, gujjars, bakarwals etc. to present the rarity of their culture as a means of earning for the prosperity of their clans, just as houseboat, lodges and hotels owners are doing.• Entire ‘cluster infrastructure’ could be built with the replication of original architectural design to every new additional structure including community centers useful for get-togethers, experts’ training workshops besides exhibition of lost and existing performing arts. This could conserve existing architectural practices and revive lost cultures allowing a peep to a visitor into the rich cultural heritage of the region especially performing arts – not hampered by language barriers like dances- Rouf that graces all festive occasions, Hafiza Naghma of weddings, Bhand Jashan, Bacha Nagma during harvest season, where a boy dresses as a girl, Wanwun –song session during weddings or an adaptation of Bhand Pather –traditional folk theater of Kashmir.• Revival of lost and prevalent handicrafts could benefit with a sales outlet in the base camp of each niche tourist circuit.• It would invigorate the pride of villagers in their holdings and deter flight of local youth to cities and other regions.• The situation could turn ideal as a natural and sustainable way for rural and urban economic exchange.• Villages will retain their distinct architecture and their exciting indigenous innovations.• Community or clan’s fascinating rituals, traditions and culture unique to the locals could become part of the tourism itinerary. Look at the habitation of gujjars in Yousmarg, log and mud huts with grass growing on their roofs. Some of them are so structurally imbued in natural groves so as to use the slope to carve a home in such a way that a dwelling hardly causes any disruption in the slope’s angle. Houses ensconced in greens are as innovative just as a rich tapestry of landscapes naturally born. A home stay in these could enrich a tourist, besides providing income to the families.• ‘Native ways’ of doing certain peculiar activities can be showcased as workable models without formal knowledge of sciences, using mere common sense to secure themselves from vagaries of nature, prying animals and others. This could serve as a platform for display of native building techniques of nomads or gujjars or paharis, such as creating weird angles for sturdy logs, their fittings so meticulous, to bear heavy snow weights while occupants move away for green pastures in the plains to tide over the Chillia Kalan or 40 day harsh winter, could be real eye openers.Jammu & Kashmir wears varied caps-
Jammu & Kashmir has the rare distinction to wear varied caps, given the wide spectrum of weather, terrain, topography, wind, snow, water, mountains, heritage, handicrafts of this beauteous state that could become individual, collective or combined focuses of Rural Tourism. While many of these activities are already being promoted by state tourism department, dovetailing these with rural tourism could enhance their charm manifold. Some examples:• Kashmir countryside has tales & stories, legends & history, varied shrines built from multi influences including, Buddhist, Hindu, Greek, Persian and Mughal besides melas, festivities and celebrations of rituals, that could allow an entire HERITAGE focus to rural tourism.• Adventure, sports, backpacking, trekking, camping, hiking, mountaineering, mountain biking and of course horse riding, rock climbing, paragliding, hay stack rides, could be slotted into DRY adventure sports, while white river rafting, parasailing, canoeing, kayaking, water skiing and water ball, (in upper lakes), speed boat tours in silent waters surrounded by lofty cliffs and many innovations could be included in WATER adventure sports.• Skiing, snowshoeing, sledging, snow scooters, snow mobiles and snowman-making or snow sculptor competitions for added fun in the itinerary of WINTER sports.• ANGLING or FISHING has already formed it own rural tourism circuits, which could be enhanced by including rural stays such as in lodges or rural home stays.• Bird watching, wild life watch, village walks, village stays, flora, fauna, medicinal plants could come under NATURE or ECO -rural tourism.• Traditional Kashmiri architecture, built of environmentally friendly materials, including brick, mud, wood, stone or a combination of all these used by Kashmiris, Gujjars, Bakarwals and nomadic communities could be promoted as ‘Rural Architecture’ tourism. On similar lines could be ‘Pilgrim’ Circuit, ‘Border-Areas Rural Tourism along the LoC and added flavors could be ‘Rural Cuisine’ fests etc.·Apart from this ‘Cluster Handicrafts’–focusing on areas where clusters of skilled handicrafts are prepared in villages as suggested by Director Tourism Mr Parvez could develop into another circuit. Tourists would be delighted to know about unique and exquisite handicrafts like ‘Khatamband’ or the nail-less interlocking woodwork for ceilings and walls, or ‘Panjrakari’ –the netted lattice work for windows or addition to doors. Rural Mela Tourismlike Rajasthan’s famed Pushkar mela or ‘Start to Finish’ Tourism for products like papier mache tour. Strawberry, apple, walnut, cherry, and other fruit orchards could have ‘As-much-as-you-can-Eat’ rural tours.·Some of these tours could so easily translate into additional export avenues from the region’ is the contention of expert planners. These could be single or multi-day tours with provisions for rural stays.
Blueprint on setting up a base camp:• Local labor could build similar architectural pattern congruous to the area.• Eco–friendly septic tanks or easy disposal means besides stringent check on disposal & litter.• Approach road to main hub.• Medical station at base station for emergencies.• Rural gift shops could be a big hit with tourists who love to take a piece of the place for posterity. Gift items related to ‘particular’ tours on every base station could be the answer, which could boost up huge job potential and income resources. Example ‘Fishing Tour’ could have trout fish look-alike key-rings, trout shaped penholder, or trout fish shaped car hangings, wild flowers or mini-fish glass paper weights, T-shirts, caps, etc. Architectural or Heritage tours may have miniature gujjar houses as gift items, winter sports having miniature papier mache skis or sledges. While traditional wicker, copperware, wood carvings and other handicrafts from the entire state could be also be promoted.• Temporary, modular or prefabricated collapsible toilets & shower cubicles with Timer fittings.• Tutoring and monitoring locals on hospitality, sanitation and home stay provisions.• Soft loans to villagers to add living quarters to existing structures in a planned fashion• Recce on all tours for focus points, like the ideal place to camp.• First aid training /and teaching simple English language skills.• Allowing only small batches of tourists to ensure quality services, assistance and long term benefits of good publicity by word of mouth.• Employing village youth for security needs.