Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Slice of Serenity

The early morning view outside Desia Cottage
Odisha’s Koraput is blessed with the best of Mother Nature’s bounty. In a small village of this southern district, tribals are not just ensuring that their green heritage is conserved but also redefining the concept of sustainable community-based tourism through a tour initiative called Desia

Tucked in the foothills of Eastern Ghats, Desia is a slice of serenity. Surrounded by lush forests, waterfalls and a river, it is located in Bantalabiri village near Macchkund, one of the most remote corners of Koraput district. The hospitality offered by local tribals, though, makes the long journey worthwhile. They not only maintain the Desia cottage, but also conduct nature walks, cook up delicious tribal food and work as expert guides. 

The Desia Cottage in Bantalabari Village
Desia is today counted among the very few successful community tourism projects in Odisha, often frequented by travelers from European countries. The brain behind the tourism model is Puri-based Yugabrat Kar, founder a social organisation Barefoot, and owner of a tour company, Heritage Tours. 

The objective of Desia, Kar says, is to highlight the rich cultural heritage and flora and fauna of the region among travelers who believe in responsible travel and at the same time inspire local youths to preserve their heritage and environment. The project that was started two years back, has been providing a sustainable source of income to villagers who are also traditional paddy cultivators. Paddy, though, has not been giving them good returns of late due to changing weather pattern and procurement issues.

Tribal musicians from Bantalbari village
The villagers are offering tour packages to visitors who want to get an essence of the tribal lifestyle and soak in the local culture. The packages include stay in Desia cottage, local sightseeing, trekking, visit to tribal haats and authentic tribal cuisine. The village is located close to Macchkund river, the famous 574 ft-high Duduma Waterfall and Onkadeli market, where the primitive Bonda tribals arrive every Thursday to sell or barter vegetables and non-timber forest products.

The Duduma Waterfall
Desia cottage has been aesthetically designed like a tribal house with a little modification, offering a perfect blend of ethnic living with basic modern comforts. It was constructed by people of Bantalbiri village under guidance of artist, Bidyut Roy from West Bengal, who himself lives in an ethnic house at a Santhal tribal village, says Kar. Made up with clay, the two-room cottage is painted with colourful tribal paintings and decorated with Dokra and Terracotta tribal handicrafts. “Designing has deliberately been kept minimal to appeal to all kinds of travelers who are seeking a break from the fast and polluted city life,” says Kar, adding that organic vegetables, fruits and legumes are grown within the campus by villagers in charge of the tourism project. “Only meat and rice are procured from local market while the vegetables used in Desia kitchen are grown within our campus,” says Paana, a woman of Bantalbiri, who works as a cook in Desia.

A porch that opens up to sights of mustard fields and hills
“During our trips to Koraput, we used to camp at Government Inspection Bunglow in Koraput town. One day, watchman of the Inspection Bunglow took us to his village Bantalbiri where we camped with a group of foreign tourists in a small school house. We were touched by the warmth of the villagers and the village became a regular camping place for us. I spoke to the villagers about the community tourism concept and they offered us a land adjacent to the village at a very nominal price to set upDesia,” recalls Kar, who was instrumental in opening a ‘Model Beach’ and ‘Green Rider Rickshaw’ project in Puri four years back. He had received the National Tourism Award-2013 for Model Beach concept under Best Responsible Tourism Initiative category.

After the Desia cottage was ready, five girls and three boys of Bantalbiri village underwent hospitality and business training under the Government sponsored ‘Hunar Se Rozgar’ at Puri. Currently, six men and as many women run every aspect of Desia, except for marketing which is being done by Kar. The project also offers indirect employment to around a 100 other villagers, which includes folk artistes to vegetable farmers. While a majority of the profit share from the project is shared between villagers, some amount is kept for maintenance of the cottage. A Desia Tourism Society has been formed with village heads, elected representatives and Government officials as members, who oversee functioning of the project. 

In future, Kar wants to start a pre-school up to primary level designed on the lines of Awake and Shine School by Rtd General Singh in Kalimpong for children in Bantalbiri and provide skill development training to women of the village in jewellery and pickle making. In fact, construction of the pre-school has already started within Desia campus.

An edited version of this story was published by The New Indian Express.

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