Tucked away in the Valley of the River Aglar, just a few kilometres beyond the hill station of Mussoorie, Devalsari’s natural and cultural endowments make it a destination that is truly divine. Well, so are most other villages in the Himalayas. Even though Devalsari is like any other hill village, surrounded by pristine forest and organic farms, what is unique about this village is the leadership that the young man, Arun Gaur, has provided in developing a unique ecotourism model that could well emerge as the one that Uttarakhand has groped in the dark to discover, since its inception.
I spent the last few days chasing butterflies during the second Devalsari Titli Utsav (Butterfly Festival). Can you imagine a little hamlet tucked away in the Jaunpur Himalaya, miles away from a highway, emerge as a global butterfly, bird and moth-watching destination? This is exactly what the village has achieved, all on the back of local entrepreneurship. Even the chief guide at the festival this year was a local lad from village Moldhar, Keshar Singh. Arun and his band of young women and men from the surrounding villages received hand holding from scientist couple Sanjay and Anchal Sondhi, to develop their own ecotourism and research centre. Once done, they began to organise seasonal festivals on the themes of Birds, Butterflies and Moths. With over 50 delegates from different parts of the world at this year's Butterfly Festival, Devalsari seems well on its way to becoming the ecotourism hotspot that it deserves to become. What is most significant is that each delegate was sensitive about not consuming packaged water and food. For them, this was educative leisure, not the crass consumerist DJ blaring tourism that we have come to encourage at our hill stations.
While most government sponsored ecotourism projects have focused on mega fauna like tigers and elephants, Devalsari has successfully leveraged the little critters we usually take for granted, to develop a business model that will not only bolster the local economy but also offer a ray of hope to the over 3,500 villages of Uttarakhand on the brink of abandonment.
Devalsari, besides being home to the sacred Deodar trees, is also home to the Himalayan Oak (Baanj) and Rhododendron (Buransh). The sacred forest of Devalsari lies on the edge of the village Bangseel, 80 kilometres from Dehradun, a three hours’ drive via Mussoorie and Thatyur. To arrive at Bangseel, while driving from Mussoorie, take the Dhanaulti Road and drive 15 kilometres to Suwakholi. Here, you take a left turn to Magra and Rautu ki Beli, and then towards Thatyur.
The moment you arrive at Bangseel, you are ready to take the trails through the Wood of the Gods. A vista of the most pristine Deodar forest takes your breath away. The landscape here is blessed, since it is rare to find Deodar at a low altitude of 1700 metres. The Devlasari Ecotourism and Research Centre (DERC) is the hub of all activity on festival days. A simple eco-lodge equipped with all amenities, it affords a magnificent panoramic view of the Deodar forests around.
Butterfly specialties at Devalsari include the Siren, Brown Argus, Jewel Fivering, Lepcha Bushbrown, Stately Nawab, Western Courtier, Fawn Hairstreak and the Albocerulean among many others. Among the mammals, the forests of Devalsari are home to the Himalayan Water Shrew, Giant Red Flying Squirrel, Barking Deer, Leopard, Wild Pig, Goral, Black Bear and Otters at the larger streams and rivers. The birds that can be spotted here include the Chukor Partridge, Striated Laughing Thrush, Spot-winged Grosbeak, Black-faced Warbler, Whiskered Yuhina, Golden Bush Robin, Mrs Gould's Sunbird, Fire-tailed Sunbird and the Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, among many others.
The DERC promotes alternative livelihoods and conservation at Devalsari. Organisations like Titli Turst and Been There Doon That support it. The main objective is to promote village-linked livelihoods while conserving the area’s natural resources and retaining its unique traditions and culture.
A visit to the DERC begins with a glass of locally sourced juice of the Buransh or Rhododendron. One can source brochures of local flora and fauna and take off on the trails on one's own. Otherwise, you could hire local guides, trained to identify different species. The forests of Devalsari, with stately deodars brushing against each other in the breeze are a sight to behold. There is plenty to experience in terms of culture and heritage too. The vernacular Koti-Banal style homes of nearby Odarsu and Moldhar have achingly beautiful balustrades with cusped arches, urging you to spend time there, gazing at the valleys below. The Kuneshwar Mahadev, a local variant of Shiva and his temple in the forest are an awe-inspiring sight.
Devalsari is a unique example of what a few determined souls can achieve through sheer perseverance and vision. Such initiatives, if replicated, by experts in the field (not the bureaucracy), could easily turn around the state's tourism economy that, at the moment is completely dependent on the Char Dham pilgrimage, severely testing the carrying capacity of our fragile mountains.
(The writer is an anthropologist, author, traveler & activist who also runs a public walking group called Been There, Doon That?)