On a trail of the border villages of India

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Architecture graduate Niharika Arora loves traveling to remote border villages to document their cultures, cuisines and ways of life. The solo traveler has so far visited Kashmir, Leh, Kargil and Kutch and plans to cover all of India. borders. She talks to Travel + Leisure India & South Asia to reveal the inspiration behind his travels. By Ismat Tahseen

Niharika Arora is an architect, but likes to draw plans of another kind. The traveler at heart traces places on a map that you may have heard of but never planned to visit. Panoramic photo border areas where she soaks up the strangeness and calm, and returns to recount her experience. Four villages away, this 27-year-old Delhi resident, who goes by the name The Iffy Explorer, says she has just started.

Straddling two worlds

In the village of Turtuk.

They say the best views come when you step out of your comfort zone, and that’s exactly the case with Arora. She leaves her glass-and-concrete Delhi office to embark on a light, no-frills journey every odd month. “Sometimes I only stay at home for a week before leaving. I guess I’m going home just to repack and edit my videos,” she laughs.

Of the latter, there are many as this blogger has lived in villages of Leh and Kargil in Ladakh, and remote hamlets in Kutch, Gujarat. His mantra is clear: “I start with a map, select the location, then find out all I can about it. Often, plotting the route becomes a difficult task because a tourist place is well served by marked roads and paths. But these are border villages, where there may not be a clearly marked route on the map. So I talk to the locals and I ask, ‘Kahaan khatam raha raha hai road?’ (‘Where does this road end?’) or ‘Aakhri gaon kaunsa hai?’ (“what is the last village?”) I just carry a backpack with the essentials and I leave. And once I’m there, it’s like I’ve traveled to a whole other place and time. It’s so different; it’s like I live in two worlds,” she says.

Heat in rustic places

Meet the Baltics
Meet the Baltis

Among Arora’s travels, her last trip to Kashmir is the one she will never forget. She remembers: “I covered three border districts – Kupwara, Bandipora and Baramulla, which have come a long way as the army has carried out Sadbhavana programs (an initiative undertaken by the Indian army in Jammu and Kashmir to meet the aspirations of people affected by terrorism) . They even have arts and crafts centers to help them get back on their feet. You might think these places are not safe, but in fact these places are very [safe]. It’s just that people don’t know much [the places].”

Nadabet
At Nadabet, the Indo-Pakistani border in Gujarat.

Arora describes her stay in Keran’s village, Kupwara, as her most hospitable to date. “It’s orchard land with an abundance of nuts, apples and more. It’s pretty as a postcard! she said, adding, “The wooden houses, about 50 to 70 in a village, surrounded by green meadows, are located by the Kishanganga River. Modern decor has no place here. In each house a woolen carpet is thrown on the floor, food is cooked on a Choolah (foyer) and everyone sits down for meals. In these villages, they have pahadi, not Kashmiri cuisine. It was surprisingly similar to Punjabi food! For example, you will be served delicious makki di roti (corn flour flatbread). People are so simple and loving. I was welcomed with open arms everywhere. The older generation sit down to make traditional dishes pherans at home because you get incredible wool quality here. You can just sit with them and listen to their stories for hours.

Courage in a beautiful country

collective taxi
Find your way in a shared taxi.

The dawn was as picturesque as it could be. She describes, “Every morning I woke up at 5 a.m. knocking on the door to catch the sunrise. I think that’s something I can never do justice to in words. The houses are located close to cornfields and when the sun lit up the sky it cast a beautiful golden glow all around. The breakfast consisted of noon chai and traditional roastfollowed by a quiet day.

This is just one of his experiences. Arora tells anecdotes from other trips. She says, “When I was in Drass, Kargil, I realized how difficult it can be to survive extreme weather conditions. It’s the second coldest inhabited place in the world and things are sparse. But residents have come up with clever solutions for their daily lives, like taking the heat from their stoves directly into their water tanks, so they don’t need a geyser. Another time, in the village of Madhapur, Kutch, I met the most inspiring women. Years ago, the ladies here helped rebuild the Bhuj airstrip in 72 hours (it was bombed in 1971 during the Indo-Pakistani war). Some of these women are alive and touching 90. They are brave, upright and speak with such dignity and strength. It is such bravery and such strength that I wanted the people of the continent to know. »

Documenting India’s Border Villages

Documenting the Wai Singers
Documenting the Wai Singers

The inspiration behind Arora’s journey to the border villages comes from her own family. My grandparents are from Lahore and I grew up listening to their stories. I then decided to visit these places one day borders. We don’t know how people live here as there is little access and awareness to them. I felt I had to bring out their stories so I created a series called #whatsattheborder in November 2021 to share insight into their lives. After all, what is a border? There is a fence dividing countries, yes. But there are also people who live there. They have a unique culture that traditional travelers may never experience. I hope I can change that. My goal is to cover all border villages in India, then cross the border explore countries that share borders with India.

At Drass
At Drass

Does she find her solo travels safe, being alone there? She reveals, “I wear basics like pepper spray and stuff, but so far I’ve found myself completely safe. And where am I alone? There are loving families everywhere I go!

Overcome fear

Chushul Village in Leh
Chushul Village in Leh

Arora shares motivational words with those who want to be there. She says: “When I moved away from architecture to devote myself entirely to travel, I asked myself: what is your main fear when you are about to do something? What is it related to? Is it emotional? Or childhood trauma or something from your past? Can the negative elements be eliminated so that nothing holds you back? Finally, how can you improve your future if you decide to do something now. [Answering these] helped get started.

Related: This Pakistani traveler visits every destination on the country’s banknotes!

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