The Gobar Ganeshes travel to Rajasthan and Kerala and discover what tourists miss or never notice.
No water supply in your house today? Well come to Rajasthan. Why? Come and see how well this desert has done with so little water. They call it Maru pradesh or Marusthali (land of death), but the way they have used water, it is anything but that. And that’s how it’s been for centuries.
All the forts here have their own water systems. There have been times in the 15th and 16th centuries when the rulers of Udaipur and Jaisalmer have withstood decade-long sieges by Mughal armies, with shortages of food but never of water. The intricate network of structures to store the seepage from surrounding hills and the scanty seasonal rains took very good care of that.
The forts that were built on hill-tops collected rainwater, while those in the plains were built near a river so its water could be harnessed for domestic and defence needs. Then there were talabs, kunds, bavdis (stepwells) and wells to take care of the water needs of one and all.
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At its peak it could harvesting three billion litres of water! There were 84 water bodies within the fort (only 22 exist today) 30,000 people lived in here in the past at any given time, along with their elephants, horses and cattle. The water bodies could take care of all of them for four years without rain. Super water management here. Upstream water bodies for drinking purposes and downstream for bathing. Cattle were not allowed to graze in catchment areas. Human waste from latrines was carried away by scavengers or flushed out from buildings with a gravity waste disposal system. The night soil was used as manure for trees and plants that grew in abundance. Said Sangram Singh, a tea stall inside the fort, "Rules of sanitation was a way of life for our ancestors. After all, they could not take the risk of water contamination, which would have meant the death of all the people." Jacuzzis, bathtubs and WCs in the desert anyone?
We found that Rajasthani food has been influenced by the war-like lifestyle of its inhabitants and the limited availability of ingredients and water. Food is cooked that can last for several days and be eaten without heating. In Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner, cooks use, instead of water, milk, buttermilk and clarified butter.
But the plant that signifies drought is the “ker”. It is the food of survival. It is also found in Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq and Pakistan. Children are also fond of the ripe ker fruit called dhalu. The protein and mineral contents of the fruits are almost same as those of banana, grape, guava and the mango. Many vaids prescribe ker fruits for cardiac trouble. To take advantage of these benefits we need to conserve the plant, fast disappearing today from many parts of the Thar.
Meet the bishnois, who for centuries have militantly conserved their animals and plants. Chasing away gun-toting tourists and poachers is a matter of life and death for them.
Thanks to them, film star Salman Khan did not get away with the shooting of the blackbuck. It is said that in 1730, many Bishnois died fighting their then local king, who tried to cut trees.
While in Kerala, we saw a lot of so-called “eco-lodges”. There was a resort designed with ethnic materials using local craftsmen, local materials and indigenous techniques used by the early inhabitants. The tribal people were extensively involved with the construction and now with the maintenance. We were pleased to see that apart from solar energy, gobar gas was used instead of electricity. So no noisy generators and no fumes and air pollution. Panditayen was happy that the food was served on demand from the organic farm. She doesn’t understand why we put so many pesticides and fertilisers in the first place. Food was much tastier when she was small, she says. But what fascinated us most were the tourist tree houses in the rainforests of the Western Ghats. Room with a view, hundreds of feet up amongst in rainforest canopy — with an attached bath!
I so badly wanted to stay in these modern machaans , but Panditayen put her foot down as it was too expensive and we headed for the famed backwaters of Kerela. Now, the backwaters are a network of lakes, canals and estuaries and deltas of forty-four rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea. They are a self supporting ecosystem teeming with aquatic life. The canals also connect the villages together and are still used for local transport. Imagine a 900 km labyrinthine network of a navigable waterworld.
It’s a leisurely cruise and the thatched houseboat has all modern comforts. Our guide told us that innovation was done on the traditional kettuvallom boats plying in the backwaters of Kerala, converting them into houseboats made from local materials and skill. The idea was to offer tourists a non invasive and unique experience in a natural surrounding, while benefiting the local economy and reviving the age-old craft of boat building.
Before leaving, we ate rice that was cooked in a natural hot spring and served to us on a banana leaf. I also took a bath along with temple elephants in a brook nearby. That as better than any shower bath I have taken! A local woman said that it had curative powers, though I don’t know about that and thought that such medicinal springs existed only in Europe. We found that Kerala has many ecotourism projects. The Periyar Tiger Trail project includes 23 former poachers, who previously made a living by trading forest goods illegally! This is a joint collaboration between the Kerala forest department and the ex-vanaya-bark collectors ecodevelopment committee.
The former ex-cinnamon bark poachers turned tourist guides' intimate knowledge about plants and animals, and their survival instincts make them ideal guides for ecotourism activities. Besides taking small groups of tourists on foot into the forest, they also assist forest guards in patrolling. The intelligence network of the park authorities has improved tremendously. The guide told us that Periyar Sanctuary has a total area of 777 square km.
Most of this land is pristine. In fact, this is one of the rare places where the increasing number of lodges, hotels, shops and eating places in are not considered a threat to the sanctuary. Forest Guards are always on the prowl: hunting, fishing or other damage to the Sanctuary is strictly not allowed.
Tourists may not dramatically improve the habitat and lives of people they visit, the least they can do is to try and not be a burden and bear responsibility for their actions. Why feel self-congratualtory and hide behind a facade of ‘green’ or ‘eco’ label: All tourism should be “eco” and “sustainable”. Right no?