Fifty-one days. 17,000 kilometres. 28 states. 6 union territories. Innumerable stops throughout rural India. One car and a 10-year-old companion. The numbers in Dr Mitra Das’s travel diary are undoubtedly impressive but it’s the effort, thorough planning and determination underlining the journey that is more laudable. A true hodophile, the Kerala-born Dr Mitra believes in travelling with a purpose – which, in her case, was to tour the depths of rural India, highlight places that have fallen off the map, and discover the country through a new prism. And that’s exactly what she achieved when she embarked on this life-altering trip in March this year, driving across the length and breadth of the country in her trusted Maruti S-Cross with her fifth-grader son for company.
Supported by Incredible India and the Ministry of Tourism, Dr Mitra’s expedition, titled ‘Oru Desi Drive’, is probably a rare instance of a woman attempting to crisscross the nation with a young child. “Strangely, I was never too fond of travelling or long-distance driving,” laughs Dr Mitra, a 41-year-old professor in the Government Ayurveda College in Kerala. “I would travel for work during which I’d go around the city with my friends but never took it too seriously.”
It was a solo trip to Bhutan in May 2019 that changed her perspective. Itching for a break, Dr Mitra ended up going alone to the Himalayan kingdom when her plans to fly to Europe got scuttled. The sojourn was a game changer as she felt overwhelmed, not just by the stunning landscape but also the region’s art and culture scene. The trip planted a seed in her mind to attempt something similar in her own country. What came over the next few months was a mini ‘Discovery of India’. “I went to Rajasthan, Nagaland, Manipur, Delhi, and Amritsar and in each state, I tried to embed myself into the local flavours,” she says.
Coronavirus struck in 2020 but the desire to take up a more impactful journey lingered. With transport being suspended, the only choice was to drive on her own. Initially, she roped in some friends who were enthused about a road trip but when they dropped out due to various reasons, Dr Mitra decided to go ahead on her own.
After the COVID restrictions eased, she wasted no time in driving from her hometown Kochi to Hampi, exploring the entire stretch over a period of six days. The next destination was the Nilgiris, essentially to meet and interact with the tribal group, the Todas. This time, she took her son along. “I was surprised by how well he adjusted. Even when I went around the village meeting locals, he kept himself engaged,” she says.
An eight-day Karnataka trip covering Coorg, Belur, Belawadi and Melukote followed.
“The more I drove, the more I enjoyed it. Based on these trips, I calculated how much I would need to drive if I went on an all-India tour. I figured it would cover almost 20,000 kilometers.”
Hampi proved to be a pilot run for Dr Mitra, who spent early-2021 planning her pan-India tour meticulously. Spending hours on research, seeking information from travel groups, and selecting locations and activities that caught her attention, she drew up a detailed roadmap. The plan was to drive up the eastern coast, reach the northeast, and cover the states in that region, then head up north to the Himalayas and later drive down via the Western coast – all within 100 days. The objective: visit at least one village per state and discover its glorious arts, crafts and culture, thus promoting tourism that explores rural India.
Equipping herself for the long journey was no easy task! From attending a workshop to learn the basics of car mechanism (changing flat tyres, carrying the right equipment, and so on) to packing weather-appropriate gear, some food and medicines to last three months, Dr Mitra left no stone unturned. What bolstered her attempt was the support she received from Incredible India and the Ministry of Tourism that allowed her to use the logo and spread the word. Soon, Dr Mitra was set for the adventure with her little son in tow.
The first stop was Kanyakumari, situated at the southernmost tip of India, from where she went to a place called Pattamadai in Tirunelveli. “This village had a 400-year-old Muslim community that wove rare mats on a floor loom using locally-grown grass. The mats were gorgeous, priced at nearly Rs 12,000, but what made them more special was that while they were woven by poor Muslim weavers, they were patronised by the Brahmin community of Tamil Nadu during their most pious ceremonies,” she says.
Every stop thereafter threw up similar stories of wonder and charm of rural India. Discovering Roman ruins in a village seven kilometres from Pondicherry, admiring the Scroll paintings at Cheriyal, 60kms from Hyderabad, the dancing dolls of Kondapalli in Vijaywada, the famous Ratnam pens in Rajahmundry, and meeting Bond tribals in Koraput, Orissa… her journey into the rural heart and soul of the country was not just a discovery of its captivating syncretic culture but an exploration of its geographical, artistic, culinary and historical diversity.
The journey then resumed towards the north, taking them to Sonamarg in Kashmir and Zo Jila Pass in Ladakh, but that’s when the second wave of COVID-19 struck hard. “We knew we couldn’t go deep inside the villages. So, I decided to drive back to Kerala via Jammu, Uttarakhand, Dehradun, Jaipur, Ujjain, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Goa.”
The pandemic may have put a lid on her travels for now but Dr Mitra can’t wait to hit the roads again. “I will resume my journey with a trip to Gujarat first,” she says. With every nook and corner of India providing a veritable treasure trove for the discerning traveller, Dr Mitra says it’s time to shine the spotlight on lesser-known areas. “It is tough to pick any one destination but I was spellbound by the beauty of Sonamarg and Zo Jila, the warmth of the locals in Assam and Chhattisgarh’s raw and rustic locales.”
The many memories and unforgettable experiences she garnered are now being compiled into a book that she hopes will prove to be the perfect guide to a rural traveller, but if there is one lesson that stands out from her experience it is that most people have very little knowledge or appreciation about the wealth in rural India. “Rural tourism has so much potential but often even authorities don’t have knowledge about these destinations,” she laments.
Perhaps the answers and the solution lie in the choices that we as tourists make. Maybe it’s time for intrepid roadies and rovers to take a leaf out of Dr Mitra’s book and learn to look inwards when planning their next holiday. Incredible India has a lot to offer – all they need is a will to look beyond the shiny city lights and take the road less travelled.