Their ability to convert a tiny unknown village with little more than a church to its name, into a sought after tourist destination by creating leafy café studded promenades, cute (if sometimes gratuitous) museums and by disseminating ample literature on local history and culture as well as neat maps proposing quaint walking trails, reveals incredible marketing genius.
It was a hot Sunday afternoon in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Chomping on our salad leaves we watched with some surprise as multiple busloads of Asian and American tourists descended onto the tiny village square, lured surely by the guidebook images of romantic Provençal village life in this remote village where Nostradamus was born and where Van Gogh painted his famous ‘Starry Night’. It was a quaint little town no doubt, but the experience reminded me of that time in Evian-les-Bains when an excited climb to see the ‘source of Evian water’ brought me face-to-face, not with the (potentially magical) natural spring I had imagined, but with a faucet on a wall.
While appreciating the French ‘enthusiasm’ for their heritage from which even such remote tourist hot spots so effortlessly sprung, we discussed how the birthplaces of most iconic Indian cultural figures were largely unknown to us and to most Indians. Why were not the birthplaces of say, Tulsidas or Kalidas, notable tourist spots? Surely in a country like India, a few Stratfords-upon-Ganga were par for the course?
This is a common experience for Indians. Many of us have felt that tug on our heartstrings when looking at a 500 year old piece of crumbling wall in Europe that we paid 20 euros to see while knowing that in our own country, buildings that are thousands of years old, often lie in neglect and ruin. In most European cities, every building, street corner, tree, bench, well or gutter of even the most flimsy historical or cultural relevance is well-plaqued and sign-posted. Granted, France and other European countries do have their fair share of a grand heritage, but Indians would find it shocking to note that as per UNESCO’s listing, France has 38 cultural World Heritage sites, while India lags much further behind at 27.
As an Indian millennial, I find something not very right about the fact that I have seen more of Europe than my own country. Of late, many wonderful temples of the country (such as the Lingaraja temple in Orissa and the Akshardham temple in Delhi) have been brought to my notice through, ironically, PM Modi’s visits to these temples. Heretofore, I hadn’t heard of the grandeur of these temples either through the media, through the course of education or through friends and family whose vacationing tends to generally lead them outside the country. So consequently, more of us (at least of the urban belt) have probably seen the Roman aqueducts in Europe than the ancient ones in Hampi. Why is this the case? I think there’s three main reasons: infrastructure and maintenance, marketing and national pride.
Firstly, infrastructure and maintenance are of course, basic conditions for tourism to happen. As we know, they have been the thorn in the side of Indian tourism in recent decades but that’s being rapidly changed by the current government, so the future looks bright in this respect. A recent visit to the Qutub Minar was a real treat because of the meticulous maintenance and it left me hopeful of a brighter future for other such places of significance in India. For if the banks of the Seine in Paris can be declared a World Heritage site, there’s no reason why the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi should not be. Similarly, how is it that Dholavira in Gujarat, a site of Harappan ruins some 5,000 or more years old, is not yet a World Heritage site or even known to most Indians?
While infrastructure and maintenance plays a part, another important factor is marketing of culture and history, an area in which India could take some valuable lessons from France. Their ability to convert a tiny unknown village with little more than a church to its name, into a sought after tourist destination by creating leafy café studded promenades, cute (if sometimes gratuitous) museums and by disseminating ample literature on local history and culture as well as neat maps proposing quaint walking trails, reveals incredible marketing genius. In India on the other hand, cities like Rishikesh, Haridwar and Dharamshala to name a few, with history and culture seeping through the pores, are in a state of filth and chaos and positively hostile to visitors. The fact that visitors still throng here is a testament to the incomparable cultural and historical value of these places.
Further evidence of the French talent for marketing is their finesse in selling cheeses, tiny pots of jams and confectionary for a small fortune per piece, creating a luxury delicacy out of a dish made from duck’s insides (foie gras) as well as their cleverness in adding fizz to wine and creating an immensely lucrative global trademark (Champagne). It is not just the product that consumers pay for, but that intangible valuable good that the French have created, their brand value of sophistication, ‘the French touch’.
But let’s be realistic, we can’t compete with the French in sophistication. That’s their thing. Fortunately though, we have rightly pinpointed our thing: spirituality. ‘Incredible India’ is taking steps in the right direction in trying to highlight India on the world map, but we still have a long way to go, not only because we’re in the early days of this effort, but also because our country and its culture are so immense. In addition, while spirituality has been rightly identified as the theme of focus, it needs to be accompanied by the momentum of interest from Indians themselves. On a recent trip to Rishikesh, I saw more yoga schools run by and for foreigners than Indians who seemed to be more keen on river rafting and bungee jumping in this ancient city where the air seems to be bursting with spirituality. I felt the same twinge of embarrassment on noticing this that I had felt in my first yoga classes in Paris, listening to foreigners singing Sanskrit chants that I did not know myself. Foreigners often seem to be bigger champions of Indian spiritual traditions than Indians themselves.
This brings me to the final factor that is important for a successful promotion of India’s culture and history: national pride. The French have this in spades. As confessed to me by one cynical French friend, the French may declare that they hate France but they still think that all other countries are worse. In my personal interaction with the French, I was constantly amazed at how much ordinary folk knew about their history which forced me to shamefully note that most Indians would not similarly be able to recite the names of all the dynasties that have ruled their country. Any French worth her Camembert and Cabernet will be able to rattle off the names and origins of half a dozen French cheeses and wines. And let’s not forget the most obvious display of national pride despite which seeming hurdle, tourists throng to the country – the loyalty to the French language. This unwavering loyalty has paid massive economic dividends too not only directly through the demand for translation and language education services but often also indirectly through business coming to France only because a client prefers to transact its business in the French language.
In India, we’re not only suffering from decades of agenda-driven teaching of history in schools, but also a societal and cultural mindset of looking West for all things desirable. Thankfully this is slowly changing but more can be done if individual Indians take the time to study their ancient history and traditions and realise how much they have to be proud of. For instance, yoga and Ayurveda are profound sciences for enhancing human wellbeing – physical, mental and spiritual – but are not practiced by most Indians. Similarly the government can only do so much to promote village handicrafts and products but it is up to us citizens to value these hand-crafted and natural products as exclusive, like the French do with their ‘artisanal’ stamp on everything handmade – from bread and coffee to wine and pottery – ensuring that such products sell for a higher price than factory produce.
We can be aided by taking a leaf out of the French book of cultural pride but don’t even need to go to the extremes of French enthusiasm in seeing valuable heritage where merely a vestige exists. We have enough grandeur staring us right in the face. Ponds of water that the Pandavas used 5,000 years ago are still lying by waysides, gathering moss and indifference. Traditions from legend (often associated with temples) still carry on on this land and village folklore and art often date back millennia. Very little of such information and activity is documented in an organised way and made available widely. When Indians realise that there is more to look at within than without, we might really be able to restore our national glory and pride and help our spiritual light serve as a beacon for the world.
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