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Footprints of Living Buddhism

Travel slow to the Indian Himalayan terrain

June Mukherjee, 28-7-2022

One of the astounding buildings in the old Porvoo is the pink town hall. Located in the he

The Asian Footprints takes you to tiny places from Sonada to Toribari up in the Indian Himalayan terrain, midway between Darjeeling, famous for its tea and toy train, and the nearest airport Bagdogra. Life here is slow, but for sure the memories are vivid.

Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Sustainable destinations are based on the Buddhist philosophy of the conservation of pure water, pure soil, and pure air. In each and every destination a responsible traveller should confirm that is kept intact through the traditions in the communities, especially in remote regions.

There was a three-day long low-pitched but high-voltage deliberation with the Buddhist monks, scholars, academicians, artists, tour operators, hoteliers, homestay owners, and other stakeholders from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. The Asian Footprints experienced it first-hand how all of them are working with the vision of sustainable destinations beyond borders, about Living Buddhism & Sustainable Destinations, organised by the Association for Conservation & Tourism (ACT) with the support of the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC). A team of 50+ thinkers took a bus trip from Siliguri, the business capital in the north of West Bengal, to a small place called Sonada.

Before entering into the journey of Sonada, it would be unfair if we don’t mention Ewam India Buddhist Monastery in Toribari adjacent to the Bengal Safari of Siliguri. Not only the monks and nuns welcomed us, but we saw some of the sweetest and youngest monks out there who were visibly happy to show how beautifully they are learning the chanting including playing some of the most difficult musical instruments. The time spent sitting inside the Gumpha was only generating energy for the team and everyone was on the same page that we want to stay for some more time. Such is the power of meditation and dedication.

On way to Sonada, very soon, the hustle and bustle of the busy Siliguri city became a past affair and the hilly greenery appeared on both sides of the windows making everyone sitting in the bus happy. The excitement of the sudden view of the toy train (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – DHR) running parallelly to the bus or the small T&T (Tea & Toilet) break in the breathtaking terrain kept the team at ease.

While Toribari is a 30 min car drive from Siliguri town, Sonada is about 17 km from the popular town of Darjeeling. It is quite comfortable for international visitors to reach Bagdogra via Kolkata airport and take a car ride to the destination. Depending on the budget, the ride can be shared as well. A scenic train journey from Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri or Siliguri and then a shared jeep or car can reduce the overall carbon offset too. There is a variety of accommodations, but homestays are strongly recommended.

With an altitude of 6143 ft, winter in Sonada can be chilly, but the summers are cool and moderate making it an ideal time to visit the nearby places. There are several tea estates located in Sonada valley. Locals go to Balason River for fishing and trout fishes are found in abundance there. Sonada was one of the first places where Tibetan refugees settled after being exiled from Tibet. Sonada is actually one of the best places to start trekking to Tiger Hill. The nearby Chatakpur eco-village is popular among tourists for the panoramic view of snow-capped Kanchenjunga Mountain. A stroll in the quiet village terrain is a must to soak in nature.

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Even if your onward destination is Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong, Ghoom, Mirik or down to Dooars, a trip to Darjeeling mall is a must as one would never miss visiting the legendary Glenary’s and the Keventers; and now another jewel in the crown of the queen of the hills is the newly opened Café House Darjeeling. It is Experience Darjeeling to say in one word.

It was interesting to note that the locals understand the core philosophy of Buddhism is a simple life, and the true joy of experiencing slow travel and capturing the moments deep into the heart, and they observe it is missing in maximum tourists who don’t pay much attention to their suggestions. When The Asian Footprints was speaking to the local homestay owners, one of them Sajeb Dorje told us, “We try to tell people we will click one or two pictures for you, but now you enjoy the beauty. Still, they ignore us and most of the time the main purpose of travelling takes the backseat while giving way to selfie tourism."

After the day’s cultural interaction with the Sonada Himalayan Homestay Association pleasantly found to be equally represented by men and women, the community lunch and dinner were served adjacent to the main Monastery. We were allotted our respective homestays in small groups of two to four. The old Tibetan settlement, the monastery life, everything seemed so intertwined with the lives of the locals, that after a few hours, you feel like one of them if you intend to. This author was lucky to be clubbed with a young urban Baul lady from Bolpur, Shantiniketan (West Bengal, India) who shares a similar philosophy of blissful journey. A good, bad or ugly travel buddy makes all the difference, we all know that. Hence the journey became blissful.

The idea of a raw homestay experience in the middle of the mountains of India got changed with modern picturesque cottages in the extreme interiors of the terrain with all the basic modern facilities you can expect for a peaceful stay. The simple yet delicious breakfast served in the morning at each homestay can only be compared with home-cooked meals with a lot of warmth in it. The communities here depend on tourism with the core principle that ‘Guest is God’. It is just that, these mountain people find their solace in the form of Lord Buddha and He lives in their hearts. If one can ask any local about any such jargon, no one will be able to answer, but they are living in a Buddhist hotspot just like many other South East Asian countries.
While the group was moving slowly down the steep hilly terrain to the local small tea shops or to the monastery to attend the chanting sessions, the side-line discussions were continuing on lighter notes redefining Living Buddhism and Sustainable Destinations. We are sharing a few notable comments with our readers.

“Other than business, education or medical purposes, we majorly travel to enjoy and use the knowledge for good. We must use the same knowledge to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. As far as Buddhist monasteries are concerned, they should be the centre of knowledge and not only of rituals,” said venerable monk Dr. Dhammapiya, Secretary General of the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC).

In continuation, Dr Mohit Sharma, Assistant Professor of Dr. Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University, Bihar, India commented, “When we are visiting a destination, we are entering a new place and as responsible global citizens, we do have a responsibility not to exploit the place and leave minimum exploitation footprints and take away only beautiful memories. It does not happen in a day and comes from a naturalised habit through the practice of a conscious responsible decision.”

Kumar Anubhav, the founder of NotOnMap said, "It is important how we tell the story of our travel to others. The focus of our travel story sharing is to inform and educate others about the unknown so that the listener feels tempted to explore it in an equally responsible way when his or her time comes".

A bunch of young activists, Vishal Gurung, Nilima Tamang, Merwyn Coutinho and Ittisha Sarah highlighted that in any tourism destination, waste management is as big a problem. Food waste is a concern that bothers not-for-profit organisations that work closely with needy people and it shifts the focus from the environment to ethics. When there are people working day and night to give a better life to the people with an alternative livelihood circling tourism, abuse and misuse of resources by the tourists remain a constant threat to the cause. There are popular festivals where narratives must be changed by bringing the community’s sustainability into focus and not only the commercial gain in the limelight. Today’s youth have an important role to play in bringing about the desired changes in their approach.

The Convenor of the Association for Conservation & Tourism (ACT) that organised this five-day summit on Living Buddhism & Sustainable Destinations, Raj Basu, who is one of the leading sustainable and responsible tourism campaigners of South Asia for decades working for rural tourism and skill development of the community-based tourism, summed up by saying that “Sustainability and being responsible traveller is no more a choice for us. We should take it as a religion. When we travel, we should consider the place as holy as our own home and act accordingly. If we are not careful enough now, we will have nothing to answer to our future generation.”

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