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Cold deserts of Himachal emerge from under forgetful snow

IANS | March 21, 2021 11:15 AM

MANALI: The picturesque but cold deserts in Himachal Pradesh's Lahaul and Spiti Valleys, the land of the Buddha high in the Himalayas, have been emerging from under the forgetful snow, with locals at first-of-its-kind initiative showcasing traditions for over two months.

With only logistic support from the local authorities, they have been organising for the city slickers a unique 80-day community-based country's longest Snow Festival 2021 at different places.

It is a promotional drive to invite tourists to relish local cuisine, enjoy folk culture and sports like archery and experience home-stays.

Locals say the snow festival, which completed 67 days on March 21 with no government funding, will not only help conserving their traditional fairs and festivals, which normally blooms when a thick sheet of snow envelops in winters, but also preserving natural resources in an innovative manner -- through the artificial making of vertical ice mountains and stupas to recharge aquifers from longer duration.

Agriculture, which is facing the brunt of climate change, is the prime occupation as valleys flushing with single crop of vegetables, mainly the high-valued broccoli and lettuce, and is irrigated exclusively by snow and glacial melts in summer.

From the economic point of view, officials believe the locals want to throw open their doors to the tourists, offering a homely stay dotted across both the Lahaul and Spiti Valleys.

The zero budget Snow Festival that started on January 14 with the support of the locals is a promotional drive to invite tourists to relish local cuisine, enjoy folk culture and also help preserving the centuries old tribal culture and traditions that are on the verge of extinction amidst modernity, Lahaul-Spiti Deputy Commissioner Pankaj Rai told IANS over phone on Sunday.

The entire Lahaul-Spiti district is the land of unique festivals and fairs.

A traditional dance Shangjatar has been performed after 90 years, festival Raink jatar after 50 years and the Selu dance, which as almost forgotten, performed after decades, he said.

A three-day-long Tribal Food Festival that began at Sissu, close to north portal of the newly opened 9.2 km-long horseshoe-shaped single-tube Atal Tunnel, one of the strategically most important infrastructure projects beneath the majestic Rohtang Pass, from March 19 where traditional cuisines cooked by locals were served to tourists.

"A rare glimpse of Buddhist culture is being witnessed these days across hamlets in Lahaul amid the sounding of trumpets and drums, " Abhishek Pandey, a tourist from Mumbai, remarked, while sipping piping-hot salty chharma yak butter tea.

Donning a traditional ceremonial Buddhist scarf, his wife Divya added: "We are really impressed by the traditional welcome that is being given to every visitor here. Moreover, we enjoyed the food that was served in traditional utensils."

Suman Thakur, the panchayat head of Sissu, said the region has seen a sudden influx of tourists, especially in winter, for snow-based activities with the opening of the tunnel.

"This festival has provided locals an opportunity to showcase their culture, traditions and food to the outer world. Now we expect influx of tourists in winter too to enjoy snowy landscape and sports like skiing, " an optimist Thakur added.

Organisers said local festivals that are celebrated in winter have also been made part of the Snow Festival that was officially inaugurated on January 25.

Tribal Development Minister Ram Lal Markanda, who belongs to the Lahaul Valley, told IANS that the Snow Festival that started on an experimental basis has turned out to be the country's largest winter festival.

"Seeing the success in community participation experimentation, we are now going to add this festival in government's annual calendar that will certainly help promoting household tourism, which not only helps preserve rich heritage but also provides to people other means of livelihood, " he said.

According to him, the festival would not help strengthening weaving and artifact local cottage industry but also offer locals to offer their home-stays to the city dwellers.

"More than 400 home-stay units have been set up in Lahaul and over 275 in Spiti. The area is emerging as a hub for household and agro-tourism, " said Markanda.

"Such festivals not only generate self-employment for people living in villages but also de-congest urban areas, " he added.

The climatic conditions of the Lahaul and Spiti Valleys are harsh as much of the land falls under the inhospitable Himalayan terrain. But despite that, the hospitality sector is proving to be a draw.

He said the sale of local handicrafts, handlooms, organic fruits, dry fruits and medicinal plants would be an added attraction for the visitors.

Sculptures carved out of snow during the ongoing festival are an added attraction.

"These snow sculptures will help retaining the snow for longer duration that will further help recharging aquifers, " said Zile Bodh, a vegetable grower in Pattan village that receives negligible rainfall in short summer.

The traditional cash crops are grown in summer and cultivated in August-September. The farming is based on snow-fed 'kul' irrigation system -- channels to carry water from glacier to the fields.

The Buddhist-dominated district attracts globetrotters not only for nature-based activities but also to ancient monasteries like Tabo and Dhankar.

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