Wayanad: An inviting cool wind engulfs us as we reach the end of the Thamarassery Ghat road at Lakkidy welcoming us into the mesmerising charm of the hill district with its varied ethnic diversities and unique culture. A smooth ride of 4 km past Lakkidy through the NH 766 will take you to ‘En Ooru’ (My Village), the first tribal heritage hamlet and theme park of the state which nestles atop a hillock near the Veterinary University.
An attempt to showcase the ethnic culture of all major tribes of Wayanad under one umbrella, at ‘En Ooru’ a visitor could experience the culture, traditions, art, medicinal practices, music and architecture of major ethnic communities. The communities include Paniya, Kuruma, Kurichya, Adiya, Oorali, Kattunaikka and Oorali Kuruma.
We are well and truly in the tribal domain. The drivers (both premium and ordinary Jeeps) who take you to the hilltop and the guides at the entrance are tribal youths. One can choose either the vehicles provided by the society or trek uphill for 2km through the winding road from the main entrance to the entry point of the heritage village. Two of the three phases of the project, envisaged by the Department of Scheduled Tribes Development in association with the Department of Tourism, have been completed.
The project was opened to visitors on June 3, 2022. The state government has spent approximately Rs 10 crore for the project which came up on 25 acres of land.
The scenic beauty of the valley and the architectural grace of the village built in tune with nature are sure to help you leave the hustle and bustle of the city. Then there are daily music and dance performances of various tribal clans that are held at the 10 tribal huts. The Thudi (an ethnic percussion instrument) performance by a group of Paniya tribes’ men with rhythmic movement is the chief attraction of the centre.
Every day, groups of tribal artists from various settlements perform the unique art forms of their clans at the centre. An open-air theatre, tribal market, tribal cafeteria and exhibition hall await the visitors.
Owned, and operated by tribal communities
The uniqueness of the first tribal heritage village is that it is owned and operated by 26 tribal chieftains of tribal hamlets of the locale spread over Vythiri and Pozhuthana village panchayats. It is registered under the Charitable Societies Registration Act of 1980. The district collector is the de facto chairman advisory council and the sub-collector is the president of the society.
Tribal chieftain and secretary of the society Mani Meenchal said the ‘En Ooru’, in the short span of time, has proved its potential in serving the communities. Mani hoped the communities would benefit more from the heritage village in the future. “When a tourist enters ‘En Ooru’, more than a hundred families including the jeep drivers, the cleaning staff and owners of stalls inside the park, the tribal family that running the cafeteria and the tribal art and music performers from far-flung hamlets, get a share of his contributions,” he said. “More than 25 tribal artists representing various tribal clans perform at the centre every day,” he said.
To increase the footfalls, the society has many plans including the installation of a statue of the tribal chief Karinthandan, who discovered the Wayanad ghat route and sacrificed his life to protect his people, a children’s park with an ethnic theme, a garden and a ropeway to the centre. In the final phase, there would be a warehouse of finished handicrafts and a training centre for tribal youth to learn how to make handicraft items. To fine-tune their soft skills and train them in the hospitality industry, the help of trained professionals from tribal communities would be ensured, society leaders said.
A share of the tourism industry
At a time Wayanad has been receiving 12 lakh visitors per year (as per the District Tourism Promotion Council data) and growing, En Ooru ensures a share of this tourism industry reaches the tribal community. With 46 tribal staff and more than 100 direct beneficiaries, En Ooru has proved a ray of hope to tribal families in the district. Already 1.6 lakh visitors have visited the village. While the entry ticket costs Rs 50 for adults and Rs 20 for children, Rs 30 for the jeep service. A share of the money visitors spend here will go to the tribal communities, and when the third phase is completed, this is bound to go up.
Feast for eyes
From the village, we get a panoramic view of the beauty of Wayanad, with its surrounding grasslands, hillocks, peaks kissing clouds and the mountain mist that flows down to the valley. N Prasanth, now special secretary, of the Department of SC/ST Development, who conceived the project when he was Sub Collector at Mananthavadi in 2010, said the project was approved by the government and the first tranche of funds was also released within months.
Prasanth told Onmanorama that the project was an attempt to ensure a deserving share of the fruits of tourism go to the children of the soil, the tribals. “Owned and operated by tribal people, the project is intended to be a ‘super-market’ clubbed with a tribal-themed ‘Disney Land’ for visitors, without making the tribals themselves into a spectacle”, he added. “The core mantras of the project were ‘self-respect and dignity of the tribals, commercial viability and self-sustainability’,”, Mr Prasanth pointed out. In the next phase of the project, En Ooru would also impart skill enhancement training to tribal youth to fine-tune their ethnic talents in areas of archery, traditional medicinal practices, and making of artefacts, handicrafts and pottery. However, visitors pointed out that the project is yet to utilise the scenic beauty of the location in its entirety as only a small piece of the 25-acre land has been developed so far.
Lakshmi Nair, a visitor from Kozhikode, told Onmanorama that if the tribal department and the society go slow in developing the facility, private players would go on an overdrive tapping nature’s bounty and ‘En Ooru’ customers. “During the last year after the launch of ‘En Ooru’, more players in the tourism industry are focusing on the region with activity centres with giant swings, iron rope rides and trekking paths. Now tourists’ have more options to choose from. “Moreover, the service at the centre including the cafeteria, toilet facilities, leisure options for children and resting zones for peace-loving souls are not up to the standards,” she added.
At present, the village's hours are such that visitors cannot enjoy sunrise or sunset as the entry is only after 9 am. This many tourists should advance to a 6 am to 8 am time slot. Forget tourists from faraway places, those people living in Vythiri-Pozhuthana panchayats can't enjoy a night trip to the hills, many said. Tourists felt if there was nightlife facilities, it would result in a significant increase in revenue.