When a community of walkers hit the road in February 2013, the quiet town of Dehradun stood up and took notice. Been There Doon That, an initiative by heritage revivalist Lokesh Ohri, began educating people about their need to preserve heritage and save the environment. Ohri’s latest book Walking With Laata (Book World; Rs 499), with maps, instructions and trivia, is a lively encounter with the past, and its relevance to our future.
Excerpts from an interview with Ohri:
Why have you titled the book Walking With Laata?
‘Laata’ is a common word used in Garhwali, Kumaoni and Nepali languages for a thoughtful simpleton, who cannot fathom the guile of this world. Laata Bir figures prominently in local mythology as the brother of goddess Nanda Devi, and accompanies the goddess on her journeys. People who talk of walking in the jet and 6G-age would surely be considered dumb, and hence, the name. While designing the book, we thought of creating a character who would represent our walk leaders.
Do you think walking impacts the way one experiences the urbanscape?
Yes, definitely. I live in a hill town and only when I walk through it, do I realise where a ridge is, or where the slope is steep. Automobiles flatten the landscape for us. They also render a city faceless. The city is dehumanised. People who come for our heritage walks often marvel at little pieces of history — a plaque here, a memorial there — and exclaim that they have been driving to work, every day, past the same spot for decades and never noticed them. A walkable city keeps us close to our real selves and also bridges the class divide to an extent.
What has changed in the Valley over the years?
Towns and cities have grown, so have the problems. Most heritage homes and buildings are crumbling. Even in places where the government is pro-active in promoting tourism, they indulge in expensive makeovers rather than going into the core of the heritage values of the space. We are losing heritage and opting for ugly uniformity. Look at the box-like urban homes today — colours lack earthiness, materials are usually plastic and design has no character.
The elderly, as your book says, are the intangible heritage of the Valley.
The elderly have seen a world we can only dream of. Recently, I met an old, illiterate drummer in a Himalayan village, who showed me his fabulous collection of coins. He even had Fredrick Wilson’s one rupee, with Hursil proudly emblazoned on it. With every coin, a story followed. A few years ago, we were shooting a film in Chainsheel Bugyal, a high altitude alpine grassland, where I met a 75-year-old shepherd, walking effortlessly with a flock of over 200 sheep and five dogs. He had been walking almost 400 km over these ridges with thin oxygen, camping at night. Today’s climbers have a fancy term for it and it is called bivouacking.
What have been the challenges in conserving heritage?
At the heart of the problem lies public apathy. We don’t question people who vandalise heritage. We do not react when trees are felled. We do not protest when plastic paint and bathroom tiles are applied to temples or dargahs. Therefore, we get the government agencies we deserve.