'Pot-Pilgrims' and Gods of Himalayan Things

With tourism to Parvati Valley on the rise, local communities struggle to cope with the pressures of the new consumerist society.

Parbati valley

The devta puja at Tosh (left), tourists from Europe and Israel flock to the valley (right). Credit: Sumit Mahar

The village square is bustling with activity. Women are seated along the stone wall boundary of the exquisitely wood carved temple. In the centre is a huddle of local men, and emerging from it is a golden umbrella, under it a wooden bust of the local devta or deity, sitting on a palanquin resting on the shoulders of two men. As the sounds of drum beats and gigantic shehnais fill the air, the palanquins dolled up in fineries, sway gently from side to side. Two more palanquins join in and together head to the sacred forest. The deities, whose receptacles these palanquins are, belong to three adjacent villages in Kullu’s quaint Parvati Valley – Tosh, Barsheini and Tahuk. The congregation of gods has been organised in Tosh, tucked away at almost the end of the valley, to seek blessings, and appease the gods who might have been angered or disappointed by the wrongdoings of the community. When tragedy befalls a family or the entire village, the devtas are called upon, to guide the collective conscience of the community.

Parbati valley

Cold drinks being ferried into the village. Credit: Sumit Mahar

People felt the need for the devta puja because the village priest’s house had been gutted down to ashes by a raging fire two days earlier. There was no response when the probe began, until some women revealed that a domestic fight between the son and daughter-in-law of the house had turned violent. There was an exchange about how their society had been ‘polluted by the tourists’ which led to this violent expression of angst. As the trio of gods walk around the village, labourers from Bihar and Nepal manoeuvre through the by-lanes of Tosh, ferrying bottles of mineral water and fizzy sodas for the innumerable guesthouses and eateries catering to the tourists. They trek up with filled bottles and down with empty ones and plastic crates. The rounds go on for more than an hour – the devtas around the village, the bottle crates up and down. The devtas make their pronouncements through a human, an oracle known as a Gur, “Endless greed will only spell more doom for us”.

Till about five years ago, tourism was not so rampant in Tosh village. The foreign, and increasingly Indian, tourists who visit Parvati valley, usually stopped 20 kms ahead at Kasol, known as the “hippies” town. Visitors from Israel and Europe came backpacking here for the spectacular views in the valley, hideaways like the ‘kheer-ganga‘ sulphur springs and most importantly the marijuana or charas (hash). The nature of tourism however, has seen a shift in the last five years. Now elite and even middle class Indian youth, from Chandigarh and Delhi throng the valley. Also referred to as ‘pot-pilgrims’, these tourists make a beeline for the best known ‘stuff’ found mostly in villages.

In the peak of the tourist season, mostly summers, some of the rich and the restless ride on their Bullet bikes and SUVs till the outskirts of Tosh, making the village entrance look like a parking lot of a rock concert. The road upto Barsheini (just a few kilometres before Tosh) was constructed about 15 years ago by the National Hydro Power Corporation for the 800 MW Parvati Hydropower Project, the dam for which is in Barsheini village on the Parvati, a glacial river and tributary of the Beas. Around five years ago, this road was extended to Tosh and there has been no looking back since. “On a weekend, we have close to 500 tourists in the village”, says Jairam, the Pradhan of Tosh village who also runs his own cafe and rest house. Once the tourist inflow increased, the number of guesthouses went up as well. Existing homes were extended, renovated and those who had the capital, constructed hotels and guesthouses.

The house that was burnt down. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Several women in the village expressed their displeasure with the ‘noise’ because of the rave parties which have become frequent occurrences. Jairam, as the panchayat head, has been trying to enforce a ban on these parties but has only succeeded partially. “I don’t entertain these in my premise and not even in the main village. But it is hard to stop people because of the high demand and the money involved,” he says. With close to a hundred families, earlier Tosh had guesthouse signboards at every corner, but now, every other house in the village periphery is a hotel or a cafe or both. Colourful signs in English and Hebrew advertise merrily, the facilities offered along with food items like pizza and hummus.

It is not just the local people who are riding the tourism wave in the valley. Anita, who is from Almora, and her husband, who is from Uttar Pradesh and has a diploma in hotel management, travel up every season to Kalga (opposite Tosh) to earn a livelihood. They run a lodge that they have leased out for the season for Rs 1 lakh. The property belongs to Gyan Chand from Barsheini. “Stoners (pot smokers) get hungry and tend to eat more so the money is made on the food. Accommodation is fairly cheap and tourists come and stay on for long periods – few weeks or sometimes months”. She is very categorically dismissive and disapproving of the ‘stoners’. She complains, “I fail to understand why young ‘Indian’ boys and girls are wasting their talents here. Look at us, how hard we have to work to survive, coming all the way and living in this village despite our education”.

There are others like Anita, from various parts of the state and outside, who take properties on lease to run the hotels. “The locals don’t know how to do business,” she says, referring to the low rates they are “satisfied” with. Gyan Chand, who has leased out his newly constructed to the couple says, “We are not entrepreneurs, so its easier to just lease out the ‘homestay’ to the plains people. Our local economy is mostly based on subsistence agriculture and livestock rearing combined with horticulture (apple) for cash. Only recently has tourism become a major component.”

Parbati valley

The dam site of Barsheini village. Credit: Sumit Mahar

When asked about what he felt about the tourist influx, his key concern was the changing attitudes of the local youth. “The cannabis plant is common across the Himalayan region. It grows in the wild, is sometimes cultivated. Its seed, leaves, oil and fibre – every part has been used since time immemorial, as food, medicine and handicrafts. We would have bhang chutney or chai in the morning and work in the fields, or labour with the cattle all day, but there were hardly any cases of ‘abuse’. Now the youth are addicted – and not just to hash. There are children in the village who want their Coke and Sprite everyday”. The commoditisation of marijuana through tourism has unleashed a new set of dynamics. While local communities seem partisan, they are struggling hard to cope with the pressures of the new consumerist society. “Cash is now a necessity for education and health, what choice do we have?” says Gyan Chand.

The ecological crisis that has been unleashed by tourism is perhaps the most starkly visible impact. Proliferation of concrete structures and piles of garbage, especially plastic, are the most  obvious signs of the tourist deluge. The new found cash has also meant more vehicles. People bought cars to run as taxis for the tourists, only adding to the crowds. Never ending traffic jams on the Chandigarh-Manali highway are now commonplace in tourist seasons. There are no signs of the government attempting to control or regulate tourism in any way yet, as this is a major source of revenue for the state.

With more than a crore of tourists visiting Himachal Pradesh each year, tourism contributes to close to 7% of the state GDP. As per the directorate of tourism, Himachal Pradesh, Kullu District alone had 36 lakh tourists visiting in 2016, of whom 35 lakhs were domestic; this was 24 lakhs in 2010, of whom 23 were domestic. So there is a clear rise in the number of tourists – with the number of domestic tourists increasing and a marginal decline in foreign tourists. It is this massive scale of this tourism that raised the hackles of the National Green Tribunal which has passed orders to regulate tourism around Manali and Rohtang pass, by restricting vehicles and tourist lodges.

Parbati valley

Trash outside a guest house at Tosh. Credit: Sumit Mahar

In 2008, in order to “take tourism to the rural and interior areas of the state” and de-congest tourist concentration in urban areas like Manali, the Department of Tourism came up with a Homestay Scheme. The policy provides various tax and other exemptions to locals who extend their homes to register home-stay facilities for tourists. While the number of actual registered home-stays are not very large, there seems to be a rush to build in the last few years. And though the policy provides exemptions for only upto three rooms, people have gone ahead and constructed huge guest houses. The homestay policy has no restrictions on the kind of construction materials used or the architecture style. As far as the Parvati Valley is concerned, the entire focus of the local administration has been on curbing the cultivation of marijuana and seizing drugs from users or traffickers under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985. Little attention has been paid to create a regulatory mechanism to control tourism.

As the devtas of the neighbouring Tahuk and Barsheni villages are being seen off, Kali Devi, a ward panch of Tosh shares reassuringly, “Tahuk has no bottled water or cold drinks and there are restrictions on tourists there because people do not want to upset the devta”. Within a few months of the diety congregation at Tosh, the Malana village, known for the ‘Malana cream’ (hash), in a village meeting was ordered by the local Jamlu devta to close down of all guest houses and restaurants to “protect the local culture and tradition” from outsiders. Malana village is known for its strong traditional parliamentary structure in which the diety plays a critical role. While the non-democratic nature of the devta culture may be questioned, it needs to be recognised as an assertion of local autonomy and community exercising control in the face of an emerging crisis which everyone else seems to have turned a blind eye to.

Manshi Asher and Sumit Mahar are members of Himdhara, an environmental research and action collective, Himachal Pradesh.