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Halftones

the motley musings of a maverick

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Tourism Industry in Sikkim: Boon or Bane?

Just three days in a place like Sikkim and that too in the rainy season didn’t quench even a speck of my thirst for the beauty I encountered. Surely another trip is due and next time I’ll stay for a longer duration. But my observations while travelling around the place and my word with a knowledgeable local man led me to a lot of pondering, which, it seems is going to culminate into another post in my blog.

I had been hearing and reading a lot about Sikkim off late; especially about the Kanchenjunga Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KLCDI) taken up by ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development), based in Nepal, and assisted by Indian institutions like the GBPIHED (Govind Ballav Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development). A large part of Sikkim (in fact, almost the whole of it) falls under the Kanchenjunga Landscape. So, when I got a chance to visit Sikkim (I was to accompany a family member) I took it.

Transboundary Ecosystem Management is a growing need of the world. During the present UN Decade for Biodiversity, focus has been largely placed on conservation of biodiversity through ‘ecosystems approach’. Sustainable development strategies, of any country, work

Continue reading “Tourism Industry in Sikkim: Boon or Bane?”

Waterfalls as potential alternative sources for hydro-electricity in Northeast India

It was during my college trip to Mawlynnong, a village at the Indo-Bangladesh border when I was exposed to the magnificence of another natural resource of Northeast India, besides the mighty Brahmaputra River, its tributaries, tropical forests, fossil fuel reserves and tea gardens.  And these were the waterfalls.

Even if I had my share of admiring the beauty of a few famous waterfalls in India, during my travels, I hadn’t had a view such as the one I am going to describe:

They were a bunch of waterfalls. You won’t believe the existence of the others, if you go closer to one for they existed miles apart, separated by the mighty walls of one hill from the others in a range but they existed nonetheless and this I could witness during my drive to Mawlynnong.  It’s unfortunate that I didn’t own a camera during those days.

During the first phase of my journey, until I reached the point where roads forked with one going towards Mawlynnong and other towards Dawki, my whole attention was riveted by these numerous waterfalls in the distant Khasi and Jaintia hill ranges. They were visible from the high altitudes of the Shillong to Dawki road towards southern Meghalaya and they appeared toy like miniatures of real waterfalls from the great distance. In short, such beauty was beyond my wildest imaginations and didn’t feel real, although I could faintly hear the force of the gushing waters.

Some of these waterfalls are already declared as tourist attractions by the Meghalaya Government Tourism Department but from what I noticed, there must be innumerable others which survive their naturalness far away from human habitations and which are not easily accessible.

Even if I do not support causing damage to such beauties by exposing their naturalness to the manipulation of technology for harnessing energy, yet they seem plausible alternative sources of energy in a place where rivers are seen as sole sources for hydro-electricity production.

When seen from the point of view of Physics, the more vertical the fall, the faster the conversion of potential energy (stored gravitational energy) into kinetic energy, which can thereby be used for spinning the turbines or any other similar mechanism for generating electricity. Therefore, it is granted that any source of water flowing from higher elevations than those flowing from angular or lower elevations where the potential energy (stored gravitational energy) has already been released as kinetic energy is a more suitable source for generating hydroelectricity in lesser time.

Water from waterfalls with accessible water course can be channelized and stored in reservoirs and can be manipulated using the same mechanism as that of dams built in river bodies to produce electricity. This ensures a continuous production of energy for industrial as well as domestic purposes and at the same time does not hold any of those fears that building dams in a river pose. For instance, there is no question of erosion of river banks, lack of sedimentation downstream and thereby flash floods. Moreover few people settle down near waterfalls, thereby expunging any threat of displacing settlers or of encountering land disputes between two contending parties, for hilly terrains can seldom be sought by people for permanent settlement.

Of course, there is this foremost problem to be solved: that of figuring out how to properly channelize the water or build reservoirs in hilly terrains; how to avoid/utilize gorges and ravines, which is much difficult than building dams over rivers. Nevertheless, it won’t be any feat for present day technology which is achieving unimaginable wonders across the world.

Government of India, having already used technology for harnessing energy from waterfalls like the Shivanasamudra and Jog falls, can venture out to these lesser known places with numerous potential energy sources for development instead of jostling for control over river water with unwilling indigenous people and wasting time. If it is not for political or strategic reasons and for developmental purpose of people, there are ample of alternative natural resources waiting to be used.

Note of regret: Since I didn’t have a camera with me while I was on the trip, I couldn’t collect photographs personally and hence the wiki links to the places.

Where Music Reigns: Dharamkot

Waking up to the scent of fresh mint and to a concerto grosso orchestrated by the warbles of the little birds, the mellow of a Spanish guitar drifting from a distance and the rhythmic fall of rain drops, is not an everyday happening. But in Dharamkot, a small village in Himachal Pradesh, it grew on me: the taste of mint and music. It’ll never get old though.

Being a bird of passage with no ends in view, I seldom travel with prior knowledge of a place and even less frequently well equipped to track places. Hence, I discovered Dharamkot quite fortuitously. On reaching MacLeodganj early in the morning, we decided to walk further up the hills, as the buses travel only up to MacLeodganj. From MacLeodganj one has to either walk up the hills or hire an auto or else a car. Apparently, the walk was too tempting for us to resist despite the needs of the body after a 13 hours night-long journey from Delhi. First blush of the morning, clear skies, fulsome oxygen, a free and empty road and a light breeze: all I could wish for. I heard my heart humming even when I was huffing halfway through my walk. Initially, it was only the road, deodar trees lining it and a bench set at the edge of the hilly track at every quarter of a kilometre. Not more than 3 kilometres away we reached a crossroads of around four roads diverging into different directions, with three of them heading into the same direction but at different elevations. The quandary was: which one to take now? For some advice my friend approached the shop at the corner, where a few passersby were enjoying their morning tea. A part of the conversation, of my friend with the elderly man who from his gestures looked like the owner of the shop, fell on my ears:

“Could you tell me where all of these roads lead to?”

“The road you see towards your left has again forked over there”. He points to another crossroads at a distance. My friend nods on seeing. We see it too.

“Now, those forked paths lead you to two places, the one on the right goes up to the village of Naddi and the one on the left takes you to the Tushita Meditation Centre.” He spoke of the Tushita Meditation Centre earnestly, yet with an enforced indifference, the look in his eyes implying we must have heard of it and came searching for it. Truth to be told, none of us had any idea of any meditation centre but only of a few monasteries downhill in MacLeodganj and Dharamshala. It was only later, over the days, that we were enlightened about the meditation centre and its popularity among the foreign tourist and among few westernized Indians. It’s not cynicism that makes me say this; rather it’s the surprise over mounting spiritual crisis among the people of this world. I better continue on this later.

The elderly man continued:

“The two roads downhill to your right head up to the village of Dharamkot and the road uphill to your right will lead you to Galu temple, from where you can trek towards Triund.

With the Sun now rising like the crowned princess in the throne primed by the hill ranges, all these words : Naddi, Triund, Galu temple, Dharamkot materialized like some sashaying phrases of fairy tales and we were again at a tight spot regarding which place to choose at the moment. Me and my sister, exhausted from remaining awake all night and then from the walk, strolled up a little, unable to resist the appeal of sitting on the two swings in a park like spot definitely meant for tired travellers and resting our legs for a while. In the meantime, my friend spoke to a cafe owner on the lowest downhill road and decided that we can find place with a host family in Dharamkot to stay for a few days. Finally, we made our trip downhill now, only to realize at a turn that it is all uphill and downhill from now: an arduous journey ahead.

Trails ran everywhere; now up, now down. We rotated our lead and followed the leader’s whims. On the way, I probably gasped a thousand times at the wonders: wherever we went, confetti of colours followed us: cosy café with abstract graffiti on their walls and locally designed upholstery, an array of handiwork shops, gems and trinkets on display, lively cute houses and a vibrant crowd of foreigners as well as locals.

After asking for directions to the next home stays (home stays were in abundance but most were filled) we ended up booking one without delay, on the slightest opportunity, for the next day. Yes, we had to return to MacLeodganj for the night with a heavy heart. The owner of the home-stay (henceforth Ashu) was considerate enough to let us leave our luggage (except our everyday bag) with him. Opportunely, the return journey proved less onerous. We slept in a hotel in MacLeodganj and woke up to a beautiful new day.

From that day onward the next few days passed in a whirlpool of marvellous experiences.


The Argus-eyed hills and the lively trees

It was as if I was sleeping in the arms of the hills. The whole of Dhauladhar range kept me mesmerized throughout the day with its myriad moods: before the rains, during the rains, after the rains; with the Sun appearing between the clouds and spreading its light on one hill while shadowing another unable to light all the hills at once, like a mother wedged between feeding all her babies at once and yet unable to. And yet, in all the moods, there was music. Yes, one can actually hear the music if one tries and it drifts from the hills: the Argus-eyed hills…

And from the pair of shepherd girls who sings a folk song while coming to gather the sheep in the late afternoon.

The hills do not sleep. I sense their eyes upon me when I choose to trek through lesser known ways. Suddenly from somewhere a couple of young yogis appear or else a tradesman with a donkey and we walk together for some time. At other times, I fall behind intentionally to listen to the trees sing…

The hills remain vigilant even during the depth of the night and when the wind blew over the thousands of dark green deodar trees, I hear them singing again. Are my senses supersensitive?

Dhauladhar ranges from Dharamkot
Dhauladhar ranges from Dharamkot
My hang-out on lazy days
My hang-out on lazy days
A view from the road to Triund
A view from the road to Triund

Mint Tea at Munna’s

The mornings always started with two things: Munna’s aromatic mint tea at his café  beside Ashu’s homestay and my wistful thoughts about learning painting from the painter from Madrid who was staying just above Munna’s café . By the way, the mint leaves were plucked from the roadside which grew abundantly along with other grasses and weeds.

Navin’s cafe

The next occurrence almost always: having breakfast at Navin’s ‘Evergreen café  ’. My favourite breakfast was one of their exotic sandwiches, a masala omelette and a glass of fruit juice or milkshake. Although there were many food joints, restaurants and café   but Navin’s was the best for us. There are two reasons behind this:

First: Navin is from Nepali lad from Darjeeling who had worked elsewhere before settling in Dharamkot with his own business. Navin and his wife own a small organic garden too, behind their house and they use the produce for preparing the dishes. While they prepare, anyone can meditate in the silence surrounding the place. I actually enjoy the slowness! The menu consisted items from Turkey and Afghanistan besides the usual Chinese, Continental and Indian and all of them were delicious. They serve local wine too.

Second: The café  was situated midst lush greenery on all sides and it was open except for the shed above our heads. The interiors were simple with soft lighting and the low bamboo walls were lined with flower saplings in paint boxes. Standing on an impression of a countrified sophistication, it usually appealed to many a new comer and once inside, they never chose other café . We came across a range of old and new faces, although the place never remain crowded at any hour of the day but not empty too. Foreigners loved the place. They would come with their musical instruments and soon burst into a scherzo; others would join in or just enjoy the show.

Every day is a festivity of the little arts and pleasures of life.

Foreigner’s Refuse

It appeared that Indians hardly prefer such altitudes for prolonged stays. And thus, most tourists were foreigners who came for two purposes: for a spiritual growth through practising Hindu, Tao and Buddhist philosophies and for trekking in the higher altitudes of the Himalayan ranges. I would like to bring in again about a former observation regarding the mounting spiritual crisis. Many wise people from the Western countries have sought refuse in eastern philosophy for understanding life in-depth but this is not same as seeking an escape in eastern philosophy from the traps the western knowledge system has produced over the course of time; rather the wise has often chosen the best of both. However, the swarm of foreigners wanting to learn Yoga without first understanding the Hindu philosophy in-depth or turning to Buddhist monks without first understanding their own wishes has left many spiritual values nothing more than a sale-able good in the market. I do not mean to criticize the well-meaning foreigners, for it is not their lack of genuineness but a lack of depth in Indians themselves which has led to such commercialization of religion.

It is a sorry sight to find many Indian youths running to Meditations centers one moment and listening to some pop song on the way to Triund, when the majestic hills leading to the snow-capped mountains were nothing but an abode of music and silence, which required no external music and where meditation could be sought better than in any other place. At least the foreigners always appreciate silence while amidst nature.

Dharamkot 6

Local life

The local people have rightfully appropriated their benefits from the tourism industry and most of them have turned some quarters of their houses for the ‘homestay’ experience for the tourists. The ones who owned farmlands in the hilly terrains were more fortunate as they could use their produce for entertaining their guests as well. Indians or foreigners who stayed for long terms usually ate with the host family and learnt about their culture.

Homestay business

Interior of a homestay
Interior of a homestay
A Room in a Homestay
A Room in a Homestay
Village homes turned to homestays
Village homes turned to homestays

Yet poverty ruled. Ashu told us that during the off-season, especially during the monsoons, with torrential rains closing down all the roads, they had to face crisis owing to unavailability of tourists as for some households the homestay business was the sole earning source. Most of the local people are originally from Haryana and farming and cattle rearing their only professions. The young men have taken up the responsibility of developing the tourism sector in the village by opening cafés, internet joints, bars, hotels, shops and by giving trekking and tour packages. The young women, however, had to remain inside their houses after finishing their secondary schooling and only few of them from relatively unorthodox backgrounds managed to turn up in colleges and universities and took up jobs.

I and my friend came to know about the extent of the crisis on another occasion. It was a dry day and we Continue reading “Where Music Reigns: Dharamkot”

A Unique Chapter in the Slow Movement: Shillong

If anyone wishes to realize ‘slowness’ of life without succumbing to a lethargy of spirit; if anyone wishes to move ahead without exhausting the zest for life, then I would suggest: live in Shillong.

Three years in Shillong wasn’t quite what I had in my mind when I was planning for my under-graduation. But it turned out to be the best destination after all. Perhaps not in some senses, like the syllabus, which was quite outdated compared to Delhi University’s reading materials, yet some places teach us the virtues of patience and non-violence and Shillong is undeniably one of those. Unlike the cities of Delhi and Kolkata, Shillong seldom has cases of road accidents or people dying in a stampede; of rapes and murders. Yes, ethnic clashes like those in other parts of India do raise its head from time to time but very infrequently.

I remember once a career counsellor , who came from Mumbai, letting us know the reason behind the backwardness of Shillong compared to the rest of the towns in India. She told “Look at Mumbai, there’s a train coming and another leaving the station every five minutes, pedestrians and passengers looking at their watches and rushing every other second. Life is fast in Mumbai, no time to look behind but here…?” she rolled her eyes and laughed.

Yes! One feels the slowness the instant one enters Shillong.

In the course of three years I changed a lot of places. At first I started out living in Moti Bagh, which like Laban, is a place occupied by many Assamese people. My college was also near an Assamese locality: Dhankheti. Hence, for around four months I missed the opportunity of living around people from a community other than my own, except when I was in college. Later I experienced living in a Bengali neighbourhood in Rinzha and finally I passed the last two years in Laitumukhrah, which thankfully allowed me a chance to observe and participate in the lives of the tribal people: especially the Khasi and Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya and the Naga Tangkhul tribe of Manipur.

The Assamese Naamghar at Dhankheti
The Assamese Naamghar at Dhankheti

The Tangkhuls mostly (at least all of those who I knew) were Christians. The hostel I stayed in was established by a few Tangkhul people and consequently there was a ritualistic mass prayer session every Saturday evening. It is through these mass prayers that I, a Hindu, came quite close to Christianity. The presence of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Shillong, with one of the largest churches in the world, very near to where I stayed was an added boon.

The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church
Doorway to the Catholic Church
Doorway to the Catholic Church

At college, I was surrounded by people from all the North-eastern States, although there were hardly one-two from Sikkim; Sikkim being closer to West Bengal than Meghalaya. As a result, my ears got attuned to hearing quite a few alien but wonderful languages; some languages which when softly spoken felt like chanting to the ears.

While relatively sophisticated in outlook compared to other places in Northeast, this place set priority to religiosity above all and the community hold could be felt even by a stranger living midst them for a prolonged period. In Shillong, people live their lives instead of spending their lives for want of another life.

Few days go without celebration in Shillong. Tribal festivals are always celebrated with much gaiety and outsiders are expected to take part, or else, the simplicity of the people can make them wary of the outsider’s scepticism. The more an outsider is easy with them; the more they take him/her as a part of their own community. It is this very fact that nobody is forced to change his/her way of thinking or acting and at the same time is expected to trust the merriment as a proof of solidarity of the community, which suggests that the tribes in these parts are more cosmopolitan, despite lacking the kind of individualism prevalent in the metropolitan cities.

I never had any reason to be wary of their ways and I was as free as the wild grass to roam around the roads alone while the sun was up. There are two reasons why no one dared venture out at night: firstly, while by the day the town appeared as sophisticated as wine, it is that very same wine which took away the senses of many men at night and they loitered on the streets along with the wandering souls of the dead. The Khasis being a matrilineal society where women took hold of the responsibility of earning as well, the men often found themselves quite free to splurge their evenings in liquor. Secondly, the people who by their way of living were still more villagers than city dwellers, preferred to go to bed by 8 pm at the most and the hill station was left to weep in its loneliness the whole night.

Its eerie silence and the whistling winds offered company to the restless souls abounding with questions, who kept the nights for themselves to reflect and contemplate.

A SUNDAY!

Sundays never can be as distinctive as they are in Shillong.

On Sundays, Shillong donned an entirely different look: lazier, merrier; as if the people basked in the freedom of having a day all for them. Such is never the effect of a Sunday in other cities in India. Maybe because the ratio of Christians to people from other religions is far higher in the far east (Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya) of India than it is in the rest of India and thus fetching a distinctively Christian ambience everywhere one looks.

Just imagine a group of young lasses strolling down the lanes towards the church, each of them dolled up in their best, with a Bible tucked up in their arms. The easiest way of making friends with a stranger is to go to the ‘Glen Eagle of the East’ on a Sunday and kick back a strayed football or share a picnic. Glen Eagle is world’s wettest and one of Asia’s largest natural golf courses. On Sundays, this golf course carpeted with unique local grass becomes the picnic spot for elderly people and the football ground for young boys. Even Police bazaar, which is always teeming with youngsters dressed in the latest fashion, is deprived of its crowd on Sundays because along with them the shopkeepers of the quaint shops and the hawkers too are engaged in prayers, picnics or feeding the grass carps in the Ward Lake. The more adventurous ones go straight off to the Orchid lake resort in Barapani or Umiam Lake where they enjoy kayaking, water skiing, water cycling or simply boating.

Police Bazar Centerpoint
Police Bazar Centerpoint
Glen Eagle of the East on a Sunday
Glen Eagle of the East on a Sunday

People, who are quite busy on other days, wait for a Sunday to rock Shillong. Shillong has produced many a legends in rock music, which are greatly recognized all over India. Bands like Soul mates, Revel Soul, Great Society and King Apple took birth in the rock music capital of India. Live concerts of world famous music bands like Scorpions, Micheal learns to Rock, Iron Maiden, Mr. Big (Eric Martin’s Band) take place in Shillong at least once a year and the aura hangs about in the air throughout the year. Young boys get together along with the strings and drums and make Sunday a real fun.

This merriment included special dinner dishes as well. But I came upon this information quite by chance:

One afternoon, as I and my friend walked back to our hostel she said pointing at a small dark spacious room by the roadside near the lane to our hostel building.

“Do you know they opened this place just to treat people with Jadoh?”

“Jadoh?” I asked inquisitively.

“Yes. Don’t you know about it yet?”

“No”

“It is rice cooked in beef blood.”

“What!” I was nauseated. Till then, I had no idea that even blood was used as a food in many places. And it was unimaginable for me to consider anything cooked with blood as food.

Still cringing at the thought, I said:

“Anything other similar item I should know of?”

“Yes, Mojo; it’s rice cooked in pork blood.”

“Waw!” I scorned in disgust again.

Like the advent of every new element in life contrary to the elements already present condemned with wariness, I condemned the idea of Jadoh and Mojo with my whole person; so much that I couldn’t even eat our Assamese dish- rice fried in alkali, appearing red in colour, without feeling sick. But just as we don’t know when such elements get ordained into our lives by sheer exposure to it, it didn’t take me more than a couple of months to adjust with the idea of eating such dishes. Although I never tasted them, I always suggest my friends to taste them, for I have seen the pleasure in the local people’s eyes when they had such special dishes and I knew that they must taste wonderfully good.

Thus, the merriment of a Sunday ended in a feast with Jadoh, Mojo and locally made liquors.

And the Sunday nights were lonelier.

I’ll never forget my solitary walks on the pavements of Shillong, getting soaked in the drizzle often on my way back to hostel from college; feeling the light familiar breeze, while studying on the terrace; the smiling faces of the taxi drivers who enjoy driving as much as the passengers enjoy riding and who are never in a rush to overtake other cars; the poverty ridden Khasi ladies, dressed in their traditional attire- Jainsem and selling kwai (areca nuts) by the roadside who loved to gossip and laugh as if they had no sense of misery…and of course, the aroma of the Chinese and local dishes prepared in the cosy small restaurants. I’ll bet Shillongites have the finest sense of fashion and design.

Every place has its pros and cons. But in a slow and steady growth, cons have better chances of tailing off. Already a major tourist attraction and a center-point for North-east India, at least Shillong has a chance of balanced and holistic growth if the right steps are taken.

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