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A thinker’s paradise

A thinker’s paradise
The beautiful village of Rakkar, just 10 km away from Dharamsala, the residence of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, ticks all the boxes. Not only are there several direct flights daily to Dharamsala from New Delhi (lasting 90 mins), the peaceful village of Rakkar is an ideal getaway for digital nomads, entrepreneurs and travellers alike. Both Dharamsala and the nearby town of McLeodGanj, which hosts admirers of the Dalai Lama and followers of Buddhism from all over the world throughout the year, are also a stone’s throw away. 8 km off the beaten track, set amidst the backdrop of the snow capped Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, Rakkar has a hackspace or studio located amidst natural surroundings of gurgling river streams, thick woods and lush terraced fields.

Rakkar is situated near Sidhbari town. Sidhbari, meaning ‘the valley of sages, is a scenic village and bazaar on the outskirts of Lower Dharamshala along the feet of the Dhauladhar mountain range in Himachal Pradesh. It derives its name from a sage, Baba Sidh. It is believed by the locals that the dhuni (lit piece of wood), has been burning here for centuries and has never been extinguished even once. Hence the vibhuti (ash), is said to have the sacred blessings of the Sidh Baba. According to ancient scriptures, Sidhbari has been home to numerous saints or Siddhas (those who are enlightened).

The Dhauladhar range towers up to a height of 4500m within a few kilometres of Sidhbari, which offers travellers a peaceful environment surrounded by fields and woods, away from the commercial traffic of Dharamshala. The various hamlets and villages around the main Bazaar offer stunning views of the Kangra Valley and the snow–capped Dhauladhar mountains. More and more visitors are choosing to stay here, including many foreigners and social activists working with NGOs.

Sidhbari lies 5 km east of Dharamshala town, which is the administrative headquarters of Kangra district on the state highway to Palampur. Walking is the best way to get around Sidhbari and nearby places of interest if you don’t mind the steep hilly paths. Once you are outside the bazaar, one does not encounter much motorised traffic. A rented bike from Sidhbari can also be a convenient option on the sloping terrain. Located just uphill from the Bazaar, Sidhbari’s village is a collection of smart bungalows, with beautiful gardens, many of which are new constructions built by ex–Army officers who have settled here.

The place is surrounded by picturesque hamlets on all sides inhabited by the semi–nomadic Gaddi shepherds who graze their goats on the upper reaches of these mountains. Agriculture on the terraced fields is the main economic activity of the local people, with an increasing number of families eagerly opening up their homes to tourists who would like to experience the simple, natural ways of village life. The small town of Sidhbari is also popular in peak season due to many local attractions.

Located on one side of the Manuni Nallah gorge near Sidhbari, Fatehpur is an upcoming Tibetan colony in Lower Dharamshala. The Norbulingka Institute for Tibetan Culture is located here and attracts a steady stream of visitors interested in learning more about Tibet.

Khanyara is a bustling village upstream of the Manuni Nallah, famous for its slate mines. The black slate tiles extracted from the adjacent mountains are known for their lustre and durability and is popular in the local architecture as a roofing and flooring surface. During the peak slate demand in the 1980’s, Khanyara became India’s richest panchayat from slate exports. While demand has fallen with the convenience of artificial materials, the mines remain active and one can watch the tiles manually chipped with precision.

But foremost among the villages around Sidhbari is the picture–postcard village of Rakkar, a quiet hamlet that is a 15–minute walk further upwards from Sidhbari. Tucked between the mountains and a river, and about a 30–minute bus ride from Dharamshala, Rakkar is a historical settlement of the nomadic Gaddi shepherds who migrated here across the Dhauladhar Mountains from Chamba, in search of better herding opportunities over 100 years ago. 

For hundreds of years, herders have taken their sheep to the high mountain passes for fresh pastures and to escape the heat of summer. You can see their trails carved across fields and up steep mountains crisscrossing the area. Goats and sheep forage along the road. A river rushes below, and like so many places, it is a community in flux. Rakkar is an agricultural hamlet and the indigenous shepherd community is a population of only 1500 people. Though still largely untouched by the invasion of modern life and relatively self–sustainable in terms of food – because many people grow their own crops and have their own land – dropping farm yields, limited sources of income and rising living costs are forcing the locals to abandon their traditional way of living and embrace the world of real estate, tourism, consumerism and concrete. 

The traditional Gaddi wedding songs are less common now, replaced by the popular Punjabi DJs who blast fusion music from around the world; the sheep and goat herds have dropped from thousands to in some cases just 50; while infrastructure improves, farmland disappears; the Rakkar main road is being widened in anticipation of the new neighbours constructing a large house and hotel. Local youth, like so many worldwide, seek to leave their traditional professions and safety of their families for the perceived opportunities and excitement that exist in India’s cities. But outsiders, both foreigners and Indians, enchanted by the beauty of the mountains, come here to build mountain escapes and settle in the fresh air and quietude they long for in the city. Even so, most of the original mud brick houses in the village still stand today and it is a unique opportunity to experience the lifestyle in a traditional Gaddi village before it soon disappears with the onset of modernity.  

With online platforms like Airbnb connecting people, it is just a matter of time until Rakkar finds its place on the tourist map. Once regarded as a backwards village, Rakkar is now a hub for hackers and alternate lifestyle enthusiasts who prefer to stay in student hostels or homestays as opposed to hotels, and it is a great example of environmental conservation and rural development efforts, thanks to the work of NGOs who operate out of here. 

Rakkar would be the ideal choice–  a workspace, a homestay in the hills for wanderers and thinkers, so you can participate in local lives and explore the unique Himachali flora and fauna. 

Waking up to the sight of the snowy Dhauladhar range right outside your window, a game of soccer with the village kids and then off to work by the fresh stream flowing nearby, a place with all the amenities of a city, yet surrounded by the stunning mountainscape, with all home comforts and wifi in the hills, these tech boys were all set to live out their dream. They realised villagers have beautiful homes they could open up for guests and on the other hand, there were tourists who were longing for offbeat experiences. 

Connecting the dots, they started Ghoomakad. Ghoomakad has handpicked a few dozen families in Rakkar, who invite guests into their homes. Local people share traditional knowledge with travellers when they stay over about how local herbs and plants can be useful in everyday life, and simple, natural ways of living. Local people have found a new confidence after interacting with guests from all over the world. Both sides have something to gain. While city slickers have their eyes opened to a completely different lifestyle and philosophy of existence, the villagers look forward to their children learning from various people from far–off lands and enjoy the exposure it gives them. It has also brought prosperity for the villagers, who depend on agriculture, animal husbandry, and daily wage labour jobs.

Ghoomakad is completely ‘green’ in its operations. They are in a formal collaboration with local NGOs like Jagori and Nishtha with respect to eco–tourism. They have solar heating and make their own compost. For traveller sensitisation, Ghoomakad educates them in the conservation of the Himalayan ecology and sustainable development, organic farming and waste management. They involve guests in the traditional ways of house building and cultivation which is beneficial in many ways for the terrain of Himachal. People in Himachal, living in the extreme conditions, have been forced to be environment–conscious. For example, they have created Kuhls or irrigation canals which divert glacial melt from the glacier–fed streams straight to their fields for irrigation.

There have been many such instances where people from metros have come in as travellers and then decided to stay back in Rakkar. 

Regular buses to Dharamshala (9km) are available from Sidhbari bazaar (15min walk).Volunteers at the hackbase are invited to help in imparting guidance and technical knowledge to schoolchildren and college children, improving or adding to the tech space in any way, or providing support to existing projects started by the hackbase community. There is a myriad of locally available resources and skill sets that can be accessed in and around the hackerspace. Rakkar is also home to 5 organisations with which one can interact and volunteer at. 

Mindgrep and Hillhacks were set up by techies who are out here to make a difference through knowledge sharing and innovative collaboration in fields of technology, art and life. Jagori Grameen works for women empowerment, organic farming and food distribution. Nishta is an NGO which focuses on healthcare, education and waste management. Dharamsala Animal Rescue cares for strays and local village animals and sterilises and provides free rabies shots for all the animals in the area. 

Both visitors and nerds can participate in a variety of activities here – from Hack Events,  Digital cartography, personalization technology, Web and Mobile development, Local empowerment through skill training and knowledge sharing (for kids, college students, or anyone willing to learn), Carpentry, Digital archiving of local events; Waste recycling experiments, Support to rural entrepreneurs, Filmmaking, Eco–tourism and sustainable development, Mud housing and ecological architecture, excursions in the mountains, Chess, music, tea brewing, drinking and last but not least, a lack of self and society.

Dharamshala and its suburbs is a hub of many adventure sports and activities like mountain climbing, trekking, motor biking, paragliding, rock climbing, flying fox and night camping. The village of Triund is 9 kilometres above McLeodganj and is the most popular trekking route not only with the locals but also among trekkers who come here. On the way to Triund, one can see small settlements of one of the world’s remotest civilisations and unfamiliar fauna and flora that still lie protected by the range of huge mountains. 

Rakkar is a beautiful mix of people from around the world and India but also a local community that is changing quickly.  As conscious tourists, we must decide how our intrusion impacts their life and culture. It is always a fine balancing act between trying to help them while preserving their way of life. What is undeniable however, is the enduring magic of the tall mountain peaks that beckon all that visit this little 

Shangri–La, to peer upwards and inwards, into nature and the divine, leaving us contemplative and humbled – calling all the dreamers still in hope of a beautiful, unclaimed world of good waiting on the other side. 
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