Shamans chanted hypnotically by night, in the ominous backdrop of rainy grey skies, to calm the spirit of the animals that were to be sacrificed the following day. Women manned large bamboo structures, brewing apong — a mildly potent homemade rice brew served up in hollow bamboo stems — for the entire community. The village of Darka and the densely forested hills surrounding it, echoed with the mesmerizing singing of men and women dressed all in white.
I was deep in the interiors of rural northeast India, in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, celebrating the most important festival of the local Galo tribe — Mopin.
Despite having grown up in India, every part of the country is a different kind of enigma for me; each of India’s 29 states has its own unique culture, language, traditions and heritage. While some of it has fallen prey to mass tourism and rampant commercialization, the best part — the soul of the country if I may — is still very much intact on the countryside, where few travellers make it. Over years of exploring my own backyard as a 20-something female traveler, I have come to be grateful and proud of the work of local social enterprises, for driving community- and environment-oriented tourism in rural India, supporting the local people, helping preserve their culture, and at the cost of sounding cliché, offering travellers a chance to experience the ‘real’ India.
After all, traveling is not just about seeing pretty sights; it is about seeking the essence of a place and immersing yourself in it.
Kipepeo: Understanding the tribal way of life in northeast India
I found myself celebrating Mopin with the local community, in the otherwise neglected and often misunderstood northeastern region of India, thanks to a local organization called Kipepeo. With an aim to support the region economically and help outsiders understand their history and culture, Kipepeo’s founder Piran Elavia has traversed the length of the region to identify local communities keen to welcome travellers, and is helping equip them with homestay infrastructure and tourism training.
“In the state of Sikkim alone, we work with 20 homestays in 8 different villages, for 30% of which, homestays tourism has become the main source of income. Some of the more successful homestays have started motivating others in their village to join the program and that for us, is the biggest success.” says Piran.
With Kipepeo, my cohort of travellers and I found refuge in the traditional wooden home of an elderly Galo couple in Darka village; pigs and poultry crowded the level below, and in the large room under the thatched roof, sleeping, cooking and life revolved around a central open fire. By morning, we gathered around the fire for tea and conversation, and by night, we tucked into our sleeping bags, beside pillars decked with animal heads, thankful for the warmth of the dying coal.
We spent our days mingling with the tribal folk in their homes, drinking apong, watching cringing at animal sacrifices at the core of their festive culture, dancing to local tunes, and building new friendships in a world so far from ours, yet embedded in common roots.
Spiti Ecosphere: Carbon neutral travel in the Trans-Himalayas
After a spectacular and nerve-wrecking 14-hour journey through winding mountain roads in a 4WD, I arrived in one of the most breathtaking (literally too, at an altitude of over 4,000 meters) regions on earth — the Spiti valley, nestled in the Trans Himalayas of India. Here, amid stark, barren mountains and sleepy postcard villages, I volunteered with a social enterprise called Spiti Ecosphere, which allows travellers to explore and be awed by the region’s unique landscapes and heart-warming culture, while keeping their carbon footprint to a minimum.
The revenues generated from tourism have been reinvested to sustainably develop the region over years — including solar electricity installations in 9 villages, 400 passive solar houses, 80 greenhouses and 10 solar baths — all bare essentials in these high altitude villages that practically get cut off from the rest of India, with heavy snow blocking the roads and no airports to speak of. That also means that Spiti’s close-knit culture, challenging yet simple way of life and fascinating Tibet-influenced local traditions, remain intact to this day.
During my volunteer travel project with Spiti Ecosphere, I hiked and hitch-hiked to remote monasteries and nunneries, and spent my days in practical and profound conversations with nuns and monks who have dedicated their lives to studying and practicing Buddhist beliefs — the ground research for a “Monk for a Month” program offered by the organization to travellers who want to immerse themselves deeper in Buddhism and the mighty Himalayas. On challenging days, I drew inspiration from Ishita Khanna, the founder of Spiti Ecosphere, who spends six months every year in this remote part of the world, welcoming new travellers and implementing innovative ideas, the latest of which is a solar-powered rooftop café!
I often found myself amid unearthly landscapes, swapping life stories with locals under the Milky Way, dreamily immersing myself in a way of life that is almost unimaginable in the crowded tourism haunts of India. It was the first time in my life that I realized, judging a country by its cities is like judging a book by its cover — and it holds truer for India than perhaps anywhere else.
Kabani: Community tourism in India’s tropical south
My introduction to Kabani was nothing short of serendipity; I had planned to while away my time in the earthy bamboo house on stilts (Treasure Trove) set amid aromatic coffee plantations in Kerala’s hill country Wayanad, with local hosts-turned-friends, Sunil and Reena. When our conversation steered towards sustainability in travel, Sunil mentioned his friends who ran Kabani, an organization that develops community tourism in the farming and fishing villages of the region. Minutes into the conversation, we were traversing along rice paddies and banana plantations into Thrikkaipetta aka Bamboo Village — a farming village with bamboo artisans, that under the wing of Kabani, is now learning the ways of tourism, and adopting minimum waste generation and organic farming techniques.
“We set up village development funds in the villages we work with, in order to spread the benefits of tourism to the entire village, and not just the people who are directly involved in tourism. Participatory village committees decide how to use these funds: for example, to help villagers move from conventional farming methods to organic farming, or skills training, or entrepreneurial activities.” says Sumesh, the founder of Kabani.
While most visitors travel to the popular southern state of Kerala to luxuriate in yoga retreats and private houseboats, Kabani offers a chance to interact with the locals, partake of their warm hospitality and delightful local cuisine, appreciate centuries old heritage and traditions, and adopt the local way of life in a rustic yet comfortable way — all the while contributing towards the sustainable development of the region.
After all, travel has the power to change your perspective — not just on life, but also on how much you can impact the places you visit.
There is much negativity surrounding travel in India, crowding out the impact of niche tourism in rural India. But for those who are willing to travel with an open mind and shed the conventional image of the country in search of authentic travel experiences, there is much to discover, imbibe and learn from local communities, thanks to the travel opportunities created by tourism-oriented social enterprises.
Think about it: In which other country of the world can you journey from high altitude Trans-Himalayan villages to sleepy tropical backwaters, observing the culture, cuisine, landscape, language and life change every step of the way?
Written by Shivya Nath, a 20-something travel blogger from India, who quit her corporate job and gave up her home to live a nomadic life. She tries to experience the lives of the locals wherever she goes — even in her own country — and aims to inspire her readers to step out of their comfort zone too.