India is the land of my birth but as Mark Twain said in 1897
This is indeed India! The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendour and rags, of palaces and hovels, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers, and elephants and peacocks… a hundred nations and hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race…
Growing up in that ancient land it imbued me with a sense of the great diversity and antiquity of this wonderful sub continent. From the traveller’s point of view it might as well be a whole continent because of the choice of terrain, heritage, culture, languages, wildlife, music and art let alone the ancient science, maths, early engineering, organic medicine and great religions that have originated there. For me the year is incomplete unless I return to India. I have arrived by sea on two occasions within the last decade but usually by air and the gentle greeting of Namaskar at the Indian airport and the smell of the dust and the noise of the hubbub…well that is Indian. Follow that with an efficient chauffeured ride into town where one is greeted with warmth and efficiency at a luxury hotel. Swiftly follow that welcome with a hot shower in a comfortable bathroom and the nimbu pani (fresh lemon and water) of a hovering waiter and the contemplation of a splendid curry lunch…and I am home or at least in my second home…beloved Bharat.
In the last fifteen years India’s tourism has progressed significantly with the rapid increase of infrastructure modernization and the move to build luxury and comfortably westernized hotels. Domestic air travel took off with the advent of low cost airlines and these days Indian cities and towns are easily reached whereas in my childhood a journey could take days with overnight stops at dak (post office) bungalows that owed their origins to the colonial administrators long gone who had to make long and wearying visits around this great empire and needed somewhere safe to rest and indeed work from when not in their Calcutta office or branch. (In those days Calcutta as it then was the capital of India...now Kolkata).
Whereas for decades Delhi’s IGI Airport was totally underwhelming, since 2010 the new build Indira Gandhi Airport at Terminal 3 and the Domestic Airport are excellent and comparable to other new airports in the world; the other big cities have also invested in modern international airports. Personally I just love arriving at a place like Jodhpur where the airport is excellent but ‘dinky’ and though there is lively civilian traffic it stands as a bastion of the Indian Air Force to protect the nation’s borders. Swooping in as the sun sets and one looks down on this fine city of Jodhpur with the great sand coloured palace of Umaid Bhavan and further away the mighty Mehrangarh Fort on its rocky outcrop with the desert glowing gold in the late rays of the sunshine and perhaps a flight of pigeons wheeling beneath the aircraft is just so special, and the fact that it is just a five minute drive to one’s hotel makes it even better.
I am heartened that India has amongst her entrepreneurs a number of pioneering resort and hotel owners who are determined only to build or restore or provide eco-sensitive facilities and live alongside tribal people and wildlife or in the case of vast cities not contribute significantly to that city’s pollution.
In Rajasthan too the various princely houses have converted palaces to heritage hotels or home stays and strive to make conservation part of their ethos and are succeeding admirably. The desert has its own challenges but I love Rajasthan and am never happier than waking up for the sunrise and hearing the peacock’s call, or indeed anywhere watching the sunset over a holy river like the Ganga (the Ganges) or the Narmada. Timeless and with just the sounds of village life around one or a pilgrim’s tinkling bell and simple aarti offerings on the water, India casts her spell.
Small tourist organizations are becoming very popular with western travellers; I can think of Village Ways a firm that takes people walking through the foothills of the Kumaon and Gharwal and gives them hospitality in village homes as a Walking Tour. They are spreading their wings I believe to other countries as well and have been rewarded with a Responsible Tourism Award at World Travel Market in London.
India definitely needs better regulated wildlife tourism. Personally I think that no tourism at all would be a disaster and an open invitation for poachers to operate in the tiger reserves. Tourism should be doing a lot more for local communities, and it is also the local communities that will suffer the most if all tourism is stopped. Their only other source of livelihood is a single annual crop and forest produce. It is the fact that villagers and tribal people are allowed to enter the forests and take wood for fuel and also to graze their cattle that encroaches on the prey species and of course ultimately the tiger. To restrict tourism to each park’s ‘buffer zones’ would not really work successfully as the big cats - leopards as well - inhabit the ‘core’ area of the forests or jungles and even now tourists are never allowed in the majority of those core areas. The buffer zones are not short-term options for tourism and, in most cases, are not an option at all
Tiger Tourism is essential to safeguards the tigers of India; without vigilant tourism the poachers might succeed in their grisly corrupt and greedy aspiration to rid India of tigers. These beautiful animals are breathtaking to see and watch and I value them hugely. When I was a child of 8 I was lucky enough to play with a tiger cub in Kolkata Zoo…until his claws grew too sharp and big for my size. Raja he was in name and in nature – truly King of the Forest!
Gir Forest in Gujarat is the last bastion of the Asiatic Lion in India and I was fortunate to see lions earlier this year when I visited Gujarat for the first time. It is a well run park and we were able to see these wonderful creatures on three occasions. It was truly wonderful to be up early in the morning before sunrise and in the cold morning air smell the sweet pungent fragrance of the jasmine in the forest, hear the peacocks and see the sun rise on the horizon….and then see a lion walking towards us. Magical. He ambled by and looked back at us, rather as the tiger we had seen at Bandipur in Karnataka had done a few weeks earlier. In the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat we walked close to thousands of Demoiselle Cranes that migrate from the Siberian Steppes annually and fly over the Himalayas to Rajasthan and Gujarat, and we saw the Wild Ass of Kutch – a shy and beautifully marked creature – all these experiences are so memorable and rewarding.
Be it mountains, rural countryside, great ‘holy’ rivers, beaches, jungles, soaring Hindu temples, magnificent Islamic mosques, Buddhist stupas, deserted great relics of Hindu empires and Mughal cities, the wonderful Taj Mahal, the Bishnoi People welcoming you to their modest village or the wetlands providing winter homes for millions of migratory birdlife - Go, visit India and you will be made welcome, but keep your heart open and somehow, someone, somewhere will provide you with a special experience which will remain with you forever. Believe me India has the capacity to enter your heart.