This essay is about a spatiality—of the pastoral—which is fast disappearing from our lives. The pastoral is an unregulated space, which, unlike the city, is made to appear closer to nature. I say “made to” because both the city and the pastoral are ideated by humans. While the city supposedly looks to civilisation, to progress and development, to work and economics, pastoral looks to nature, to slowness and pause, leisure and retreat. But both the urban and the pastoral can sometimes coexist in a city. My home town, Hazaribagh in Jharkhand, is sufficiently urban: we have Zomato and Swiggy, a cineplex, mutistoried malls that sell branded clothes, good-looking cars, and unless you are in the old town, some neat and wide roads. Yet there are places conducive to pastoralisation too. They include Hazaribagh’s hills, forests, rivers, waterfalls, and its multiple lakes and reservoirs.
By “pastoralisation”, I mean a process by which we bring wilderness and civilisation into an unquantifiable, intellectual, and felt relationship. Separate from the pastoral patches of nomadic herdsmen, this larger ecological space exists prior to nature’s commodification into a tourist destination or the stringent confinements ensured by conservation politics. Even in Delhi, where nature is mostly regulated, we find spillages of the Aravallis or some arms of the ridge forests protruding outside their designated zones. As long as nature is allowed to grow out of its limits, it is possible for the city of stimuli and the pastoral of repose to exist simultaneously on the same plane. This possibility is important.
There is a waterfall in Hazaribagh, earlier called Tiger Pool. Today, people call it Chameli Jharna. It has other names too. But there are neither tigers nor chameli blossoms anywhere near this waterfall. The waterfall was created by bulldozers that extract stones for the many crushers nearby.
Earlier, Tiger Pool was a sequence of rapids where water would tumble down disjointedly from rocks and boulders. Then the river was dammed and the dry land leased for mining. But in the monsoon, the water returns, flows over the dam, reaches the mine, and falls into the pit in a sharp drop. And like the water, we too return to Tiger Fall each year from monsoon to winter. Evenings at Chameli Jharna mean people walking around, friends celebrating birthdays, some making Instagram reels, some strolling down into the mine to chat with bulldozer operators.
This is not a tourist spot, not yet at least. But somehow we have co-opted a full-blown mine into the vocabulary of “natural beauty” and turned it into a pastoral.
Elsewhere in Hazaribagh, another abandoned mine with water collected in its pit has been pastoralised. Youngsters in their creative fits have christened the place “Galwan Valley”. During the COVID-19 lockdown, when middle-class professionals returned from metropolises to work from home in Hazaribagh, these industrial and post-industrial places emerged as sites of retreat into “nature”. You could not go to Parvati Valley, so you sought places in your backyard and invested them with different meaning. The point is not that these places were pastoralised but that people went to such dystopian landscapes to look for nature. It tells us how very precious uncommercialised and unregulated nature has become.
We pastoralise because as natural beings we cannot help but build affective connections with what we call nature. While there is no single definition for nature, we generally understand it as something that is located outside the city, something clean and unspoilt, and sparsely populated. Hills, oceans, rivers, waterfalls, forests, lakes, deep valleys, mountains and escarpments, groves of trees, orchards or gardens seem to constitute our idea of nature. We seek this nature out even in the city, in its recesses, venturing out on “nature walks” once in a while.
In recent times, tourism, with its network of hospitality, travel and recreational facilities, feeds into our desire to be close to nature. However, it does not account for that desire. If it were merely tourism, we would not be scoffing at all the “undesirable” effects it has. We travel as tourists, but we covertly wish to avoid tourists. When we go to Mussoorie or Manali in the Himalayas, or when I go to Hazaribagh or Netarhat in the plateau, I frame my photographs in a way that crops other humans out. Just me and this hill behind. Just me and this river. Just me and this waterfall. It is through these creative and conscious attempts that we create the myth of nature at tourist places, and in this myth, nature is “pristine” and we its solitary visitors. But hidden behind this myth are uncomfortable questions: do we travel to “nature” or to “tourist destinations”, or have both come to mean the same? Also, do we travel to consume or do we travel to dwell?
It is quite useless to seek nature at tourist destinations because we end up seeing more tourists than nature. They are commercial places meant to source money, and in this scheme, nature is a sellable object. At Ranchi’s Hundru Fall, one can zipline over the Subarnarekha river, while tourists jostle for their share of the river below, looking for the precious “natural” in the deluge of human encroachment. Dehradun’s Sahastradhara is no better. Intrepid nature-seekers walk higher and higher, and by the time they reach a place where it is only the river and them, they realise they are no longer at Sahastradhara! We start for the many Hundru Falls and Sahastradharas as humans but end up entering them as tourists. Our multiple identities as poet, artist, lover, and thinker are lost at the tourist spot.
What has gone missing is thought and the richness of our selves. Where have the artists gone amidst the same photographs taken from the same viewpoints and “selfie corners”? Where is the space to walk and the time to look if we are busy avoiding the crowd? Since when did Kurkure become an accepted part of a river’s existence? Why are there grotesque, concrete statues of birds and animals at the entry gates of lakes, waterfalls, and sanctuaries? Where did the real birds and animals go? And why does nature look so uniformly imprisoned, with the same cement bridges painted to look like wood, the same wooden bridges at all waterfalls, and the same gazebos that do not change from Chhattisgarh to Karnataka?
There is a reason why “natural place” and “tourist place” are two distinct terms. The first is what we consider untouched. The second is anything but untouched—it is both a political location and an enterprise which involves administrative sanctions, subsidies, advertising, and construction tenders. What we consider “wilderness” or “real nature” is usually the jungles in sanctuaries and reserved forests. Even these are touched, less by tourists but quite adequately by the forest staff. Here, nature is so tightly monitored that you need permission to enter it. “Are you a wildlife biologist? Why do you want to go into the forest?” Because I want to. “We cannot issue permits without a legitimate reason. There are dangerous animals inside, no roads. It’s for your own safety.” Their reasoning is correct. It is indeed for the visitor’s own safety.
“Look, we recently made a fine tourist spot right outside the forest, a nice waterfall with all the conveniences. A viewpoint too. Why not go there?” The human wants to yell. That’s where I used to go until a year ago, before you turned it into something I don’t even recognise now! The human does not want to be a wildlife biologist or anthropologist or tourist. He wants to remain a human who is not separate from nature. An absurd thought in the 21st century but a thought, nonetheless.
Tourism is an industry, the pastoral a space. Formulaic urbanisation has shrunk the pastoral because every inch of land has to be “used”. Even gentry-class gardens have had to shift to terraces and balconies. One hardly sees jackals or mynas. Villages now come under municipalities. We need facilities, we need better connectivity, we need weatherproof housing. So the urban intensifies and nature retreats into corners. I walk in Delhi’s Chhatarpur and peep through slits between farmhouse gates to watch nature which is not mine. Ponds are the new tourist attractions with ticket booths. Elsewhere, a lone hill becomes a “destination”. Neither the pond nor the hill asked for tickets—the secretariat did. Imagine if a person—a poor person—sneaks in for some peace and is caught. His trespassing is a crime. The guard scoffs: “You want to be with nature? Go back to work. This place is not for you.” Bluntly put, nature is not for the poor. And, just like that, in the name of protecting nature, we turn humans into criminals.
And so, one looks for the “free” pastoral in the shrinking countryside or the beleaguered city, where it appears in abandoned mines or ruins. Golden mustard fields in villages. Flowering amaltas trees along Delhi roads. Or an unnamed stream. Made special by one human alone, the pastoral eludes uniformity and survives. As an intermediary space, it fosters sympathetic connections between human and nature, while sheltering the latter from consumption and control.
Mihir Vatsa is a researcher at IIT Delhi and the author of Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau.
- Both the urban and the pastoral can sometimes coexist in a city.
- Even in Delhi, where nature is mostly regulated, we find spillages of the Aravallis or some arms of the ridge forests protruding outside their designated zones.
- In recent times, tourism, with its network of hospitality, travel and recreational facilities, feeds into our desire to be close to nature. However, it does not account for that desire.
- Tourism is an industry, the pastoral a space.
- One looks for the “free” pastoral in the shrinking countryside or the beleaguered city, where it appears in spaces not yet taken over by tourism or expanding infrastructure.