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The Long Road

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All species in an ecosystem behave as ‘keystone species’! Ecological balance, the dependence of species on one another in order to sustain life on the planet, was the central theme of discussion in a talk by Dr. Surya Prakash, held in one of the most remote villages in Uttrakhand. Owing to the busy lifestyle of people in Kolti, the talk was scheduled for evening. This gave us enough time to greet our friends in the immediate wild.

Mornings break early during summers. As the sun oozed its mystical golden rays over a green mountainous landscape, two young birders were ready to venture out deep into the forests with a man, who has been working on wildlife conservation since the last four decades.  Our birding account had opened already as we filled our bellies with a light breakfast at the famous ‘char-dukan’ in Mussoorie. The Blue whistling thrush, Oriental Turtle Dove, Grey hooded Warbler, Russet’s Sparrow, House Sparrow, Black-lored Tit, and the Oriental Honey Buzzard were already on the move!

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A cemented road soon abandoned us, as we descended down into the forest. Perhaps the birds here were already aware of our presence; hence they did not display themselves in the open! The lesser world of wings then captured our perception. Ranging from the Indian Tortoise Shell to the Painted Lady, from the Grass yellow to the Chocolate Pansy, all of them could be seen gliding delightfully in a slope laden with wild daisy flowers. Atop flowers, on the ground, on leaves and on all possible places they sat, as if they wanted to be clicked! After a couple of clicks on the shutter a gradual walk started on steep slopes full of gravel and dry needle leaves of the Chir! Already the slopes were hard on the injured knee of Dr. Prakash and the slippery dry leaves added to the woes!

Soon some clouds condensed the daylight, which obstructed good camera shots! Some Black Bulbuls and a folk of Slaty headed Parakeets flew across the beautiful scene, further romanticizing it! Great barbets too joined the party. Grey tree pies and, Long – tailed Minivets and Black Drongos too didn’t feel uninvited. With cool breezes blowing and our tiredness lured us into taking a short break and feasting on some Bananas…

The forest now divulged a denser shade. The vegetation changed from the tall Pine and Chir trees to ripe ‘Kafal’ and Rhododendron trees. To our dismay, the Kafal trees were not yet ripe. One could have sat by the fresh water stream, with feet in the flowing waters and munching on handful of this seasonal fruit, all day long watching birds! Nonetheless, alongside the stream there was a lot of bird activity. Spotted Forktails, Rufous Bellied Woodpeckers, Black headed Jays and hunting parties of Fire capped and green backed Tits could be seen everywhere.  Butterflies were on the move too. The Blue Admiral and the endemic specie of the Black- Vein Caphusa were the highlights. Just then a beautiful call was heard, in no time Dr. Prakash identified it as a call of an Oriole! But could one find Orioles in such a setting?

Spending some time at the flowing stream was the next thing on the agenda. Butterflies, Cicadas and birds were all clicked and identified, but the ‘Oriole kind-of-call’ remained a mystery! Just then a black and reddish bird was spotted flying across. A Maroon Oriole to our delight! Its territorial call and behavior was really a pleasure to watch, for the very first time.

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Soon we were on our way to the village, walking very softly and prudently on a short stretch where the Himalayan Monal was spotted the last summer. Lest! Every day is not a Sunday. Having arrived to the village now it was time for Lunch, which was prepared with the help of Shubra and Swati (Working in the village as Volunteers to teach the English language to children).  Lunch, small chats and imbibing the village went on till Dusk, when some showers fell from the skies above. No time was wasted in preparing and savouring Coffee!

In the evening, when the village ‘Pradhan’ returned to the village, the wildlife Talk was underway. Not many Kolti dwellers participated in the talk, owing to the day’s hard work and subsequent desire to doze off. In the talk Dr. Prakash highlighted the importance for conserving wildlife and the vital link (interdependence) between species. Examples of Vultures and increased wildlife – human encounters made their way into the talk. Also, there was a mention about threats to wildlife from hunting and poaching activities.

Through the talk the call of a Nightjar persisted in the background. Early morning it was identified to be the Savvana Nightjar. With early morning sightings of the Blue throated Barbet, Eurasian Cuckoo, Upland Pipit, Black Francolin and some Stonechats we left the village.

A pony was arranged for Dr. Prakash as the knee injury had worsened. In such an unforgiving terrain it is indeed very difficult for one to go birding. There are two routes through the jungle to the village. One is 5.5 km long with steep slopes and other 7.2 km of gradual slope.

We would like to express our heartiest gratitude to Dr. Prakash for walking down to the village and giving a wonderful talk ,in spite of his knee injury!


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The Picture

In the dawn of new era, cities are constantly facing problems with rapid growth. Both, in population and in economy. On the other hand, the rural areas are left behind in this race. Owing to which, rural youth is lured into migrating to cities in search for better opportunities. But this only increases the problem. The already strained cities cannot afford to take in new individuals. Moreover, the people migrating leave behind valuable resources that can be put to better use. Talking about living standards, the incoming people struggle to lead a peaceful life. Ownership of new property is out of the question. Hence, renting is the only feasible option! Here we ask – Why can the rural population not stay at home and try to improve the living standards there?

Such problems can be looked after in an initiative that not only provides income security but also helps in improving livelihood in rural areas. The first step is to understand the reasons for this rift between the Rural and Urban. The rural has always been looked down upon by the ‘advancing’ urban sector. Moreover, owing to industrialization, many villages in the outskirts of cities have been converted into huge production units, which have their own drawbacks: ranging from environmental issues to health and housing. But the worst and the most basic drawback is what we call ‘Home-alienation’. The whole corporate and social scenario has so evolved that being independent and free is considered a taboo. The rural population, which used to depend on agriculture, has thus alienated from a free, self –sustaining and independent life style to a system of specialized labor. The pace of infrastructural development thus left the rural areas far behind in such a way that many of these areas lack basic state supplies like roads, electricity etc. Thus, one of the prime objectives of Hidden Treasures is to decrease this existing gap and thereby curb exodus of rural population to cities. Moreover, to make the rural population feel ‘wanted at home’. Being a holistic approach, Hidden Treasures also tries to send a message in society which asks one to break free from the calibrated money- brick – cement and iron lifestyles and lead a life closer to their essential nature.

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The very first initiative taken by the company is called “Life in Kolti”. Kolti, being a small village 5km from Mussoorie, is one of those where roads haven’t reached yet. Life in Kolti is a travel program which makes one understand the daily challenges faced by the people of Kolti to sustain themselves. As one walks through the cart-tracks between the hilly forests, one feels the hardships involved in transporting village produce to Mussoorie daily. Moreover, induced activities like birding, reveal to one the beautiful world of nature, which has been long forgotten in the cities. The cultural program during night, gives one raw cultural experience as no special artists perform on stage. Rather, the village people gather themselves at the chaupal and begin to sing and dance on the beats of ‘Dhol’ and ‘Damau’. Regional food adds to this beautiful life experience.

Now, mentioning the other side of this program. As many as 12 people are given work under this program. These people cook, collect wood, maintain the campsite, and also initiate cultural proceedings. Thus the travel program should initially be instrumental in securing the income in the village. Gradually, to make the village self-reliant, activities like agriculture should be encouraged, this would add to the income security. Thus, a part of the problem is solved!

At the same time it is also necessary to match the rural knowledge systems with the ever progressing urban knowledge systems. Thus, as a first step, a small public library has been opened in the village. This should enable the village to widen its horizons in terms of knowledge. Moreover, this knowledge can then be reproduced in regional languages, thereby saving the dying language communities.

Once the project starts generating income and solving problems of basic necessities, Hidden Treasures plans to move out of the village, giving the village full control of the project, thus completing the task of empowerment.

And for the people with free traveler spirit, this program should not only be a simple and deep raw cultural experience but also an opportunity to be a part of a beautiful process of change. Kolti is a place for anyone lost in the city existence to find themselves again in the heavenly, almost spiritual surroundings.

As mentioned earlier, Hidden Treasures, is a holistic approach towards rural empowerment, it is therefore not feasible to mention all the minute details of the program. But the things that should be noted are: ‘Life in Kolti’ is a Cultural- eco Travel concept, where the daily functioning of the village is not intruded in any manner, be it the ecology, the resources or the lifestyle. The camping site is developed above the village and is lighted using solar lamps. No food is wasted, nor is the area polluted with plastic or any other substances. Any waste produced is carried back and dumped in proper dustbins at Mussoorie.