Nature's beauty in bounty has been gifted upon Himachal Pradesh that has earned the sobriquet of 'paradise on earth' for all seasons and all reasons. Endowed with immense natural beauty, salubrious ambience and tranquility the state has become the choicest destinations for the tourists to spend quality time close to nature.
Last year, Himachal has been commended as the "Best Tourisim Destination" and Shimla town the "Best Mountain Town" in the survey conducted by CNBC Awaaz.
The concept of ecoÂ tourism first came into existence in the early 1980s and since then it is a worldwide concept that is developing faster. It has in its ambit the environment, the wildlife and forest reserves other than the social connotations.
Exploring this, Himachal has also looked towards developing its vast potential of eco-tourism in its pure form that not only provides travel to natural areas that conserve the environment but also improves the wellbeing of local people.
The State Forest Department alone manages more than 400 forest bungalows located at vantage points across the length and breadth of the state. It also manages a 5,000-km-long network of bridle paths and inspection trails crisscrossing through the most beautiful forests of the state. This gives myriad opportunities to trek across mountain passes, to remote temples, crystal clear lakes and traditional villages. These facilities beckon the young and the old alike to come and enjoy the best of Himachal Pradesh in its splendour.
Another crucial link in eco-tourism is the local people, who help preserve the nature trails. The tribals in Himachal Pradesh are a major component of ecoÂ tourism. The entire areas of Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur near Ladakh and Tibet was once full of different tribal groups.
To encourage ecoÂ tourism, the state tourism department in 2008 had initiated home stay facilities to tourists and to supplement the availability of accommodation in the rural tourist destinations on the basis of Government of India "Incredible India Bed and Breakfast scheme".
The idea was to provide a clean and affordable place for foreigners and domestic tourists alike, including an opportunity for foreign tourists to stay with Himachali families to experience Himachali customs and traditions and relish authentic Indian/Himachali cuisine.
Besides, a dedicated wing the Eco-tourism Society, an autonomous and independent body has been set up by the state government with a main aim to preserve and protect natural, historical and cultural heritage of Himachal Pradesh. It provides opportunities to promote Community Based Eco-tourism (CBET) in Himachal Pradesh, particularly using latest approaches of participatory forestry management for sustainable development of forests, thereby generating revenue for the state.
Eco-society has been working to create destinations, lodges and tours.
Designated eco-tourist circuits are being set up that include, Shimla Forest circle with centre at Rohru, three Kullu forest Circles, one centre at Kullu, second centre at Shamshi, third centre at Sai Ropa, Rampur Forest Circle (non-tribal) centre at Anni, Rampur Forest Circle (Tribal) with centre at Kalpa, Dharamsala Forest Circle with centre at Palampur, Nahan Forest Circle with centre at Nahan. These eco circuits according to their natural resources and ambience are blessed with potential for picturesque places, horse riding, ornithology, wild life viewing, skiing, fishing, treks and trail hikes, river rafting, potential camp sites, religious tourism, mountain climbing and paragliding.
"To lure the dedicated tourists Himachal Tourism has extended six tourist circuits in the state keeping in mind their interest.
JOURNEY WITH THE BUDDHA (BUDDHIST CIRCUIT)
The circuit is planned as a two-week itinerary, which can be altered to time and interest. The two ends of the circuits - Shimla and Dharamshala -are undertaken by road. The circuit takes one to the monasteries in Shimla, the 19th century Buddha monastry at Rampur; monasteries and temples in Kinnaur district and Tabo in arid Spiti.
Tabo is the largest monastic complex in Spiti and has been declared a 'World Heritage Site' by UNESCO. The Dhankar gompa, a repository of Buddhist scriptures in the Bhoti script and Ki (Kye) monastery, houses valuable thangkas and offers a panoramic view of the area.
Lahaul has 29 Buddhist monasteries, Keylong has monasteries enroute the Rohtang Pass and Manali has four recently built monasteries.
McLeodganj in Dharamsala houses the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The impressive of Namgyal monastery houses larger than life images of the Buddha, Padmasambhava and Avalokteshwara.
CHURCHES AND CEMETERIES OF HIMACHAL PRADESH
To attract international visitors, tourism has evolved "The Churches and Christian Cemeteries of Himachal Pradesh" listing various churches in the itinerary. It also has graves and cemeteries where thousands of Europeans have been laid to rest.
The circuit includes more than a century old Christ Church, Shim la, built with neo-Gothic elements. This was the first 'proper' church in Shimla. The other churches include St Michael' Cathedral, Shimla (1886), St Crispin's Church, Mashobra, a small chapel in Jutogh cantonment. St Mary's Church Kotgarh, a small Roman Catholic Church in Subathu, Christ Church, Baptist Church at Kasauli and Sanawar, Roman Catholic Church, Dagshai, St Andrew Church, Chamba, St John's Church, St Francis' Church, St Andrew's Church, St Patrick's Church at Dalhousie, Church of St John in Dharamsala, Church of St John at Palampur.
The circuit also takes one to the oldest cemetery in Shimla, near Oak Over, where the burial ground was opened around 1828 and the first grave is dated 1829, Cart Road Cemetery where Major Samuel Boileau Goad was also buried. He was one of Shimla's most prominent residents and owned at least 33 of Shimla's most valuable properties, including Barne's Court,
'Kennedy House, the Park and Holly Lodge. Besides, there are cemeteries at Sanjauli, below St Bedes, Kanlog, Jutogh, Kotgarh and Subathu. The memorial in St James church, Kangra, memorial to Penelope Chetwode at Khanag, near Ani and a memorial at Nahan marking the spot where four British officers killed during the invasion by Gurkha in ninetheenth century.
LEGACY OF WARRIOR GURU
This circuit takes one to the places of tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh's sojourn after he came to the state of Sirmour on the invitation of its ruler Raja Maidni Prakash.
Paonta Sahib's large gurudwara, where the guru wrote the Dasam Granth and within the precincts are a number of significant spots associated with his stay. At the Sri Talab Asthan, the guru disbursed salaries. At Sri Dastar Asthan, he judged turban-tying competitions and at the Kavi Darbar Asthan, poetic symposia were held. At Paonta Sahib is a memorial to Kaalpi Rishi and a museum where the pens of the guru and weapons from those days are kept.
No pilgrimage to Paonta Sahib is regarded complete without a visit to the mazhaar, the tomb of Bhure Shah that has a commanding view of the area. Near Bhangani is gurudwara Tirgadi Sahib built at the spot where the guru had fired arrows to help the kin of the slain perform the last rites. In the vicinity, gurudwara Shergah Sahib commemorates the spot where the guru sliced off the head of a man-eating tiger with one blow of his sword.
At Rewalsar, 25 km from Mandi, is a place that is sacred to many faiths. With his enormous powers, Padmasambhava is regarded to have flown from here to Tibet to spread Buddhism and the sage Lomas (regarded by many to be Padmasambhava) is also said to have meditated here.
There is also a gurudwara at Rewalsar, which was built in 1930 under the patronage of Raja Joginder Sen of Mandi. Guru Gobind Singh had stayed here for a month in 1738 and held meeting with the hill Rulers - 'the Bai-Dhar Rajas' - to evolve a programme in his ongoing fight against Aurangzeb's tyranny.
Another important gurudwara is at Mallikaran, 35 km from Bhuntar (Kullu).
Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, visited the place.
THE HINDUSTAN TIBET ROAD
Romancing the adventure trail is a ten-day itinerary on the Hindustan Tibet Road that came into existence after British Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie (1848-1856) ordered work to begin on the road in June 1850. It connects Kalka and Shimla to the Tibet border.
The trail begins from Parwanoo to Shimla en route a visit to Kasauli. Visit Thanedhar and Kotgarh, Himachal's apple growing heartland. Drive or trek through Baggi-Khadrala. Sarahan, Sangla, Kalpa, drive beyond Kalpa towards Spiti or return to Shimla.
The circuit offers religious connotations that are handed down from generation to generation and find mention in the ageold texts and oral legends of Himachal Pradesh called 'Devbhoomi- the Land of the Gods'.
In its fold, the track includes several places of worship and the legend that surrounds many of them that are as ancient as the scriptures. Himachal is a repository of some 10,000 shrines and every village has its own deity who sees to the well being of his people.
The Jalandhara Peeth covers the area where the colossal body of the demon Jalandhara is said to have fallen when Gods finally killed him.
This flows into the southÂ western portion of the state, which has some of the more famous temples and centre of pilgrimage.
From the wide rivers of ancient Indian tradition, comes the story of the creation of 51 sacred ShaktiÂ peeths that signifies triumph of good over evil. With tales of yore, how the Gods and Goddesses defeated the demons and individual deities reside. These spots have emerged as scared places that are venerated and worshipped.
The route to visit the shaktipeeths evolved is Naina Devi-Chintpurni ji-Jwalamukhi ji-Bajreshwari Devi-Chamundaji. Naina Devi is near to Anandpur Sahib, Chintpurni is 105 km from Naina Devi, Jwala Devi ji is 34 km from Chintpurru, Bajreshwari Devi is 35 km from Jwalaji and Chamunda ji is 24 km from Kangra.
NEW PROJECTS ON THE ANVIL
Eyeing the possibility of taking tourism to new heights, the tourism department of Himachal Pradesh government also has plans to promote lesser-known destinations in the state. The first among the list is the Masroor rock cut Temple located in Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh. The state government is now planning to provide a facelift and promote Masroor Temples along with Pong Dam Lake.
About 1.31 crore tourists visited Himachal Pradesh can- last year. Of this, foreign tourists formed the major group and there is an increase of 10 to 15 % in tourist arrivals in the state every year.
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