According to Christopher Isherwood, who was the chief proponent of the Vedanta philosophy in the West and credited with popularizing the Vedanta movement in the US from the 1940s through the 1980s, in his tribute to Sri Ramakrishna unequivocally declared that the Ramakrishna Movement is a phenomenon.
In his best-selling book “Ramakrishna and His Disciples”, which he completed after visiting the ancestral villages of Kamarpukur, Joyrambati, the Dakshineswar Kali temple, and other places associated with Sri Ramakrishna, he begins with an introduction thus –
“This is the story of a phenomenon. I will begin by calling him simply that, rather than ‘holy man’, ‘Mystic’, ‘saint’ or ‘avatar’; all emotive words with mixed associations which may attract some readers, repel others”.
According to Isherwood, a phenomenon is often something extraordinary and mysterious. Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother Sarada Devi were both extraordinary and mysterious; most of all to those who were best fitted to understand them. A phenomenon is always a fact, an object of experience. That is how he approached the Ramakrishna movement.
In one of his moving accounts on his journey from Kolkata to the ancestral village of Kamarpukur and Joyrambati, Isherwood was overwhelmed by the simplicity of rural Bengal and he states – “If you leave Kolkata airport early one morning on a West-bound flight, you will be able to have supper that night at Rome.
If instead, you take a car to Kamarpukur, Sri Ramakrishna’s birthplace, you will easily arrive in time for lunch. In the first case, you will have traveled well over four thousand miles; in the second, about seventy. Yet in one sense the shorter journey can be said to be the longest because it takes you backward in time.
In spite of the backwardness of the villages of Kamarpukur and Joyrambati, devotees and pilgrim tourists from the Western world as also domestic pilgrims have continued to flock to this part of rural Bengal, braving potholed roads, lack of electricity, lack of sanitized drinking water, telecommunications and other bottlenecks in tourist infrastructure.
The tourist circuit of Gar-Mandaran-Kamarpukur-Joyrambati has changed little in appearance during the last hundred years and according to Isherwood – “if Kamarpukur has changed more than its neighbors, it is in having become an international center of pilgrimage with a modern temple dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna.
That is to say, it is less concerned with the possibilities of its future than with the great event of its past”.
The houses of these village hamlets are predominantly built of mud the roofs are made of thatch. The rural hutments are more often than not barren with just a single cot and a bunch of sleeping mats. The kitchen floors are still rubbed with cow dung as they used to be a century back.
The village roads, although narrow, meanders through in a zigzag manner with sewerage gutters on either side. Except for the areas surrounding the Math & Mission at Kamarpukur and Joyrambati, power supply or electricity haven’t yet penetrated into the interiors of the villages.
The well or the village pond still serves as the primary source of drinking water and these rain-fed ponds or reservoirs also doubles up as places for bathing and washing clothes.
Most Western visitors are truly charmed by the sight of rice-growing agricultural lands and the century’s old system of plowing through Ox and Water Buffaloes.
However, with India positioning itself on the world stage, the winds of change are there for all to see. Due largely to the pioneering charitable-philanthropic activities of the Ramakrishna Math & Mission, public education, state-of-the-art healthcare system, emancipation of women, etc…are now a reality. And the slogans of democracy to are being heard in these minuscule villages.
The Gar Mandaran-Kamarpukur-Joyrambati Tourist circuit offers all the simplicity of an Indian village along with the lofty ideals of Sri Ramakrishna’s philosophy of “Harmony of World Religions” and “Service to Mankind”.
Today stress, frustration, and emptiness. Grief, loneliness, and despair have become global phenomena. Those of us who have experienced any one of these know what a devastating effect it can have upon our lives. At such times our entire being sends out an SOS. Then we ask, “What Went Wrong?’ “Why me?’
Sri Ramakrishna believed that to find contentment, we must go to its source. – the Atman, the blissful self. His entire life was a living example of how one could attain the highest spiritual bliss or “Nirvana”.
This circuit is at once the birthplace of Sri Ramakrishna and his holy consort Sri Sarada Devi and blends splendidly with the fascinating undisturbed, unpolluted and untainted rural bliss, which is the trademark feature of this tourist circuit. The circuit has the authenticity of rural India and an ocean of spiritual bliss that still attracts the crème de la crème of the world.
In the light of the above observations, it is only logical that an Integrated Tourism Circuit is developed for the new age traveler to undertake the journey of spiritual discovery from the place from where modern India’s spiritual regeneration or the great Indian Spiritual Rennaissance began.
A revolutionary change is sweeping the world of tourism. A new breed of travelers who are better educated with more disposable income and living a high standard of life is compelling the tourism industry to constantly re-invent itself with more and more innovative tourism products. One such product is the “Sustainable Rural Tourism”, which is what this particular tourism project envisions.
Imagine the following scenario –
You get up from your bed, step on the rubber slippers. Perhaps, the next thing you do is to sip a cup of hot coffee; watch television, and prepare yourself for a fixed routine. Your day starts by standing in a long queue for a bus, which tears the crowded traffic moving under the smog umbrella. Till the sun sets under the polluted horizon, you call it a day.
The birds chirp around your thatched mud hut at the village of Kamarpukur / Joyrambati and the tooling of the temple bells wakes you up. The cattle stray beside your mud hut with bells tied to their necks. You start your day with meditation and stretch your body with yoga asanas, which are followed by a specially cooked Vedic breakfast.
You spend the entire day visiting verdant farmlands with farmers plowing their fields with Ox and Water Buffaloes or visiting rural artisans organizing their artifacts. As time passes on, you take a fishing rod to fish from a local pond. By the time it is evening, you watch the clear sky bidding goodbye to the day and you immerse yourself in contemplation of the divine at the temple of Sri Ramakrishna.
This is the dream, which every urban tourist aspires for, but they limit themselves to work and their squalor. However, to cater to the discerning needs of today’s jaded travelers, both the Central Government and the State Governments have undertaken a number of steps for the promotion of Sustainable Rural Tourism and developing Integrated Tourism Circuits.
Apart from meeting the aesthetic needs of the new breed of tourists, the introduction of Sustainable Rural Tourism in the Gar Mandaran-Kamarpukur-Joyrambati circuit will offer immense benefits to the rural populace as well, which are enumerated below –
Presently the rural economy of Gar Mandaran-Kamarpukur-Joyrambati is in tatters. It needs urgent attention and through tourism, the local economy can be made robust and dynamic given the fact that tourism is known for its multiplier effect. The unemployment rate in this part of West Bengal is alarming, which is inclusive of the educated unemployed.
It has to be borne in mind that tourism being a service-oriented industry, human labor remains the basic need. None of the technological progress achieved thus far has succeeded in rendering the human factor less indispensable in the tourism sector and the Gar Mandaran-Kamarpukur-Joyrambati circuit can make its employment scenario a lot better.
The large hinterland surrounding the Gar Mandaran-Kamarpukur-Joyrambati circuit is a rich source of handloom and handicraft products. But due to the non-availability of a ready market, this indigenous craft industry is dying a slow death. Through Sustainable Rural Tourism these indigenous craftsmen can hope to sell their exotic products to the tourists and gain sizeable profits without the involvement of the middleman.
Introducing tourism calls for developing the infrastructure and the benefits of infrastructure investments justified primarily for tourism like transportation, accommodation, water supply, sewerage, and other public utilities may be widely shared by the local entrepreneurs.
Overall, if an Integrated Tourism Project is successfully implemented, it will serve as a model for other similar circuits to be developed in the state of West Bengal in the form of a “Demonstrative Effect”.
This circuit is replete with historical temples and monuments, a majority of which are connected with the life and times of Sri Ramakrishna.
The great Swami Vivekananda, founder of the Ramakrishna Math & Mission had dedicated his life to bringing about a synthesis between the East and the West, which is what is going to occur with the introduction of tourism in the Gar Mandaran-Kamarpukur-Joyrambati circuit.
One can also foresee a lot of superstitious ideas and beliefs crumbling and prejudices being broken through the phenomenon of tourism.
The proposed Integrated Tourism Circuit plan should be developed in such a manner that the cultural expressions of the circuit and heritage are presented in all its manifestations, including support to arts and crafts.
It has been observed that the local population is often the unwilling host for tourism development schemes as the local communities are excluded from them. All too frequently they are only employed for menial work while the major share of employment goes to the outsider.
The proposed Integrated Tourism Circuit project should make it a policy priority to recruit local guides as they more often than not become delightful raconteurs of local legend and folk tales along with local history.
When it comes to the promotion of indigenously produced crafts, craftsmen through the tourism markets are able to keep their traditional skills alive. It is often argued by the purists that tourism is causing a decline in art and craft. It is important to note that the skill is not being compromised.
It is the product that is adapting to contemporary market forces. The proposed tourism project will encourage local art and crafts and will ensure that the art and crafts of the region have a spontaneity and dynamism of their own. In living cultures, their survival has to be ensured by enhancing the craftsmen’s ability to be contemporary.
Another important aspect is that tradition is also something that is continuously being created, which amounts to the “Invention of Tradition”. The proposed tourism plan should ensure that the cultural assets are well preserved but at the same time, the creation of tradition is also very important.
One wrong step is the commercialization of traditional culture instead of creativity, which is exactly what the proposed tourism plan has to watch out for.
Even a decade back, tourist art was not considered to be authentic art. But how does one define authenticity? Old things are authentic and new things are not? It has to be admitted that the culture created by human beings is all authentic. But most people do not think so, and tourist art is considered to be of a low class, which is meant for selling to the tourist.
The bottom line is that it is important to carry on the preservation of tradition, but on the other hand, the creativity of tradition is also important, which is what the proposed tourism project will ensure.
Environmental & Conservation Benefits
An Integrated Tourism Development Plan or Holistic Tourism Plan has to include in its scope of implementation detailed land-use plans designating sensitive areas and buffer zones, infrastructure development, public amenities, and community facilities, long-term conservation, and management plan, landscape, and environmental protection, etc…
The creation of a substantial database will provide a sound basis for the communication methodology for tourists and more importantly as a tool for education and local awareness.
Entrusting environmental and conservation issues to the appropriate central / state departments like the Ministry of Environment & Forest, Ministry of Culture, etc….will ensure that regulatory measures and mechanisms are implemented at the ground level. Upon their assessment, the type and scale of tourism development, which is compatible with the environment should be adhered to.
A state-of-the-art Management Information System (MIS) too will become a necessity when it comes to monitoring the project impact.
Presentation of monuments and environmental sites to visitors is an essential component of all conservation programs. The proposed tourism plan should ensure that the information pertaining to the concerned historical /environmental sites of the circuit is so interpreted that they are easily understood by the visitors.
It is a fact that the monuments and natural sites have limitations and often the needs of conservation and the needs of tourists come into conflict. To avoid such pitfalls and reconciling the demands of the two and thereby creating a balance will be the topmost priority of the proposed tourism plan.