Toursim potential of J&K’s Sub-Tropical Rim

Ajay Khajuria
Summers are usually the time for tourists to rush to Jammu and Kashmir, and to hill stations in other Himalayan states, to escape the scorching heat of the Indian plains. However, the season for millions of international tourists to visit India is mainly the Winters, i.e. the period between October and March, when the climate across most parts of the country is quite pleasant, being neither too cold, nor hot or humid. The primary attraction for them is India’s rich Architectural and Cultural Heritage spread across its vast and varied landscape, with Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur and Varanasi topping the list of the most visited tourist places in the country. This offers a window of opportunity to compete for a share in the international tourism market for the narrow sub-tropical belt running along the southern rim of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which too has a delightful climate during October-November/February-March and hosts some places of significant cultural and architectural heritage,.
The historic town of Basohli, which lends its name to the world famous Basholi School of Miniature Paintings, dating back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, is one such potential location. First brought to prominence by the Archeological Survey of India in 1921 when some paintings of this School were acquired by the Central Museum, Lahore, Basholi Paintings are presently prized possessions of Museums across continents, like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (USA) and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They also adorn the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the National Museum in New Delhi besides several Museums/Art Galleries in other States of the country. Sizable collections of Basohli paintings are also preserved at the Amar Mahal and the Dogra Art Museum in Jammu.
Art lovers from across the world can be attracted to Basholi if the requisite tourist amenities are provided and an effective marketing strategy is adopted. Conservation of the remnants of the once grand Basholi Fort and the Ancient Mahadev Temple located in the town can further enhance its potential to attract tourists interested in cultural heritage. Additionally, tourism potential also lies in leveraging the town’s locational advantage of overlooking the scenic Ranjit Sagar Lake which, with numerous peninsular projections and backwaters formed by semi submerged foothills of the Shivaliks, and enjoying the backdrop of snow-clad mountain ranges, resembles the celebrated ‘Lochs’ of Scotland, visited by millions of tourists from across the World.
Operationalising the tourist amenities created over a decade ago by the Tourism Department at Basholi, including the strategically located Tourist Bungalow with a commanding view of the Lake; the Art Center for showcasing the indigenous paintings and enabling tourist – artist interaction; walkways with scenic views of the Lake; etc. can provide an instant impetus to the efforts to place Basholi on the tourist’s itinerary. Further, establishment of an International Institute of Miniature Paintings at Basohli, besides serving to promote and sustain this priceless art form, will be instrumental in inviting Global attention to its origins. The imaginative decoration of the J&K Tourism stall with Basohli paintings which earned it the “Best Decoration Award” from the Secretary Tourism, Government of India at the Travel Mart held recently in Mumbai, indicates the potential for positioning Basohli as a frontline tourism destination in the country, if the requisite marketing initiatives are taken.
Another potential international heritage tourism destination in this belt is the Mubarak Mandi Palace Complex located in the heart of Jammu – The City of Temples. Having been built by different rulers over time with some of the buildings dating back to the early eighteenth century the huge complex, depicting a palace-fortress topography, represents Jammu’s historical and cultural identity. Numerous profusely decorated palatial buildings planned around courtyards which reveal excellent craftsmanship and display a unique blend of European and Regional architectural styles, with improvised garden pavilions towards the Tawi river side, are a treat for any visitor.
Amongst the many palaces, the standing portion of the five storeys Gole Ghar which, with its predominantly western architectural style, rounded portions and a variety of arches in different architectural styles, is, perhaps, the most dominating and resembles the Coliseum of Rome. Its grandeur, even in its ruinous form, leaves a lasting impression on the beholder. Other extraordinary palatial buildings include the magnificent Durbar Hall, the Marble Hall, the Sheesh Mahal and the lavishly decorated Rani Charak’s Mahal with fascinating views of the Tawi valley from its windows and terraces, which can match the views from any heritage hotel in the country.
The efforts to promote it as a tourism attraction, initiated by the Tourism Department in 2006-07 with funds accessed under the ‘Major Destination Development Scheme’ along with creation of the Mubarak Mandi Jammu Heritage Society for supervising the work and managing the complex, have finally received a stimulus with the recent grant of approval to the Master Plan for its ‘Conservation and Adaptive Reuse as a Heritage and Cultural Tourism Destination’. The museum galleries, art and craft center, interpretation center, ethnic food courts, and other attractions like laser / sound and light shows, etc., proposed as per plan, are likely to position it as a vibrant tourist attraction. With sufficient accommodation and other tourist amenities already existing in Jammu city, proper marketing of the revitalised complex, in conjugation with other heritage sites in the city and the scenic 18 hole golf course at Sidhra, can strengthen and enrich the city’s appeal for international tourists. It will also help in extending the stay in Jammu of a sizable percentage of tourists/pilgrims visiting Vaishnodevi ji and boost, substantially, the city’s economy.
The historic town of Akhnoor, located on the right bank of Chenab, 26 km from Jammu is the third destination in the sub-tropical belt with the potential for attracting international tourists. Excavations at Ambaran in Akhnoor by the Archeological Survey of India have revealed remains of a 2000 years old Buddhist monastic complex with a Saririka Stupa and a reliquary dating back to the Kushan period. The unique discovery of three caskets of bronze, silver and gold of 1st century B. C. with relics of Lord Buddha is of great significance and interest. Other artifacts excavated include the well known ‘Akhnoor Buddhist Terracotta Heads’, a star attraction of the classical art of India preserved in different museums within and outside the country. Excavated during the period 1990 to 2001, Ambaran attracted the attention of civilization and culture enthusiasts across the world when His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited the site in November 2011. Creation of requisite amenities for tourists, including a site museum cum interpretation center, can position Akhnoor as a unique destination on the International Buddhist circuit.
Another significant site in Akhnoor is the majestic eighteenth century Manda Fort, built by earlier Dogra rulers and dominating the town’s skyline. Excavation of Terracotta items from different parts of the Fort by the Archeological Survey of India have also established it as the northernmost site of the 5000 thousand years old Indus Valley Civilization. The Jia Pota Ghat, just below the Fort on the banks of the Chenab, is famous as the site where, in 1822, under the shade of a Jia Pota Tree, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab coronated Maharaja Gulab Singh, the founder of the Dogra Dynasty that eventually carved out the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. From the Ghat, an over 600 meter long beautiful walkway built by the Tourism Department extends along the river bank, offering scenic views and various possibilities for recreation. Historical accounts and folklore also relate some other historical sites, temples and shrines like the Pandav Gufa, in Akhnoor to the Mahabharata, the Mughals, the Sohni-Mahiwal legend and to being a port of trade with Rome and Greece – for deodar wood and walnut peel. The Fort area, therefore, is another tourist attraction with immense potential in Akhnoor, provided the government offices located therein are shifted to make way for tourist amenities including facilities like multimedia shows based on its glorious history.
Given the current emphasis of the Government on promoting tourism to Jammu and Kashmir, focused creation of requisite tourist amenities by the UT Administration, backed by marketing of these locations both within and outside the country, and inclusion of these locations in its ‘Incredible India’ campaign by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India can bring, along with tourists, new employment opportunities and ‘achhay din’ for the local inhabitants.
(The author is a retired KAS officer and a former Director Tourism, Jammu)