If you’d ask me why I love travelling, I would say it’s because I am crazy about the stories. Travelling allows us to be exposed to stories all the time. Eventually, when we look back at the colorful mosaic of our journeys, the story is what holds all the pieces together. It is the glue.
A story is a medium of communication and engagement with the local culture. It makes you listen. It reminds you that what you see are real people with real voices. In other words, they’re not just objects on the other side of our camera lens.
Sometimes it seems that recalling stories (or listening to them) is a little bit like browsing a huge photo album. You just scan them, page after page, mechanically.
But there’s the BANG factor…
There’s always an Image lying in the massive pile that clicks those buttons and forces us to stop. It’s almost irresistible. It gets straight to the heart.
Hearing stories is just the same. Sometimes, very rarely though, you get to hear a story that clicks those buttons.
But that is exactly the kind of story I heard when I was at Jana waterfalls in the KuluValley in Himachal Pradesh.
So, here’s the story of successful entrepreneurship in the dense forest of the Himalayas.
A Poor Himachali Farmer Who Had Cracked the System (Big Time)
When I first came to see what all the fuss about Jana waterfalls was about, I was disappointed. I just couldn’t figure out why this place attracts so many people when there are many more impressive waterfalls in the Himalayas…
I was wandering around a few Dhabas (local restaurants) near the waterfall trying to understand, looking all over to find out what else was there. When I realized that there’s nothing more, I finally sat down to have lunch in the Dhabaright next to the waterfall pool.
Man, the food was damn good!
That was a relief. I didn’t come all the way just for anything.
I got a lead. The first piece of the incredible story of the Jana waterfall puzzle was revealed in my mouse. It was a local festival made of forest herbs that had been picked up in the woods and put on my plate.
When I was having a chat a few days later with Mani Ram, the guy who owns the Dhabha, I asked him how he was able to prompt this place to become such a successful tourist attraction. He mentioned the food tweak.
Other people mentioned Mani Ram’s persistence as the main reason for the success of the Jana waterfalls as a tourist attraction.
So here’s how a Himachali Farmer Succeeded Where the Sharpest Folks in the Industry Sometimes can’t…
Twelve years ago, Mani Ram was a farmer. Like many other Kullu farmers, he had a little apple orchard and small pasture fields for his cows.
But then he decided to change the course of his life.
He managed to pull off what the sharpest folks in the tourism industry are all craving to do, and that is to create a new tourist attraction. It took him 12 years to bring approximately 120,000 annually to Jana waterfalls. He anticipates that next year the number will rise to 150,000 tourists.
You can imagine that Mani Ram never graduated from Harvard Business School, he never worked a single day in a travel agency company to learn some tricks, and he had not even a single rupee in his pocket for an initial investment.
If he would have come to the bank to get a loan for opening a restaurant in a place where bears and leopards are the only potential customers, I assume that he would have been kicked out the door.
He didn’t even have the time to work full time on his ‘Jana waterfalls’ because he was so occupied in his daily war to survive. All the people in his village thought Mani Ram was crazy to pursue his vision.
What Was in Jana Waterfalls Before You Started the Whole Journey?
“Twelve years ago, Jana waterfalls was just a spot where local farmers from Jana (the nearby village) came with their herds to rest. It was all jungle.”
The jungle is a general term used all over India to describe uncultivated land. In this case, it’s a dense pine forest that is very typical to the lower parts of the Himalayas.
“It was also a place for people to stop the on the old road from Naggar, the ancient capital of the Kullu district, to the famous Bijli Mahadev temple,” he continued.
Okay… how, then, does a farmer who is working so hard to make his living decide to open a ‘start-up’ in a place where there is simply nothing there?
“See,” he said “from time to time I used to see some foreign tourists trekking on this route going to visit Bijli Mahadev temple, which is 24 km away and above Kullu City. Although I wasn’t able to speak with them because I don’t speak English, it was obvious that some tourists do come here.”
“One day a group of five Western people had stopped by the waterfall pool. They had been trekking from Bijli Mahadev. We had a bit of a talk. Suddenly one of them told me: ‘You know, Mani Bhai( brother,) if there was a small Dhaba for the passers and goers it could have been nice’.”
I didn’t take it seriously at the moment he mentioned it. The genius of his suggestion struck me later on.
It wasn’t an easy decision. We had absolutely no time to commit to such a project. You know, we were very poor. We were ‘Ketibadi’.
Ketibadi means “farmers” in Hindi. But it means much more. About 80 percent of the population resides in rural areas, and they rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods. Household food insecurity and poor nutrition are basic problems in these areas where about half of the children under five years of age are malnourished.
Most of the rural households have little or no access to primary health care, education, safe drinking water, and sanitation.
“Working in the fields leaves you almost no room for new initiatives that are not directly concerned with survival,” he continued.
In the beginning, I opened just a small hut and my wife made food for those who came in. She’s a great cook!
What did your friends in the village think about the fact you were opening a Dhabha?
He smiled.”They thought I had gone crazy!”
“But I kind of connected the dots.”
The dots? I asked
“That my wife is a great cook; that there some people coming here and we can rest every day in the same spot- near the Jana waterfalls – thus we can earn some extra rupees while we’re there.”
Were you thinking then that the Jana waterfalls would become such a big tourist attraction in Kullu?
“NOT! We were focusing on one thing and one thing only- feeding the few who came with all the heart. Serving the best food we could. And still, this is what we do.”
The Power of Words-Tweak
“In the beginning, we were just serving the best food, which was natural for us since it was the only food knew how to make. It’s a traditional food, and most of its ingredients are being been grown here in this area. The herbs we’re using are being picked up from the woods above us.
But then we realized that what was obvious for us was an attraction for them. And it was all summed up in one phrase – Local food.
Once we’re aware of that, the number of visitors rose dramatically.
“As you have noticed, the waterfall is not the center of attention here. It is the local food that we make. But ‘Jana waterfalls’ is a far better title that will bring people to this place. Still, sitting and have lunch right next to the waterfall is a great experience like it has been for many years, even before the locals had have come here.
Mani Ram may not have been to business school, but he sure can add the numbers and accurately analyze every single component in his business.
He knows exactly how many have visited the place each year. He knows the annual growth curve. He can tell you also how long they stay on average. And, he knows what should be done to get more tourists to come.
“It’s all about the road conditions,” he says. If the government would have invested money in the roads, then more private cars could have got here easily. Before the elections, they keep on promising, but afterward, nothing happened. It’s all up to us.”
Now in Jana waterfalls, there are a few more Dhabas, some local fabric stalls, and taxi services to and from Jana from the nearby village of Naggar. There are even rock-climbing attractions for those who what to challenge themselves.
“The big change,” Mani Ram says, “had happened 4-5 years ago. The numbers jumped from 40,000 tourists a year to 100,000 the next year.
The word about our local food is widely spread now. People are integrating the Jana waterfalls to their vacation holidays in Kullu Valley and Manali way before they even come to the region.
And what is the secret to this success?
Whatever you do- do it with all your heart! (And of course, God must help you a little bit…)
What about the future? Where do you see this place taking off?
Here, he points his finger toward a beautiful meadow just next to the water stream.“I want to build a camping site for the trekkers. With a nice campfire in the center of it. What do you say, ha?!” he asked me.
Frankly, this guy knows ten times better than me what is the best thing to do. So the only possible answer I could have said was – “For sure!” It is looking amazing, though.
And do you know how many trekkers are coming here? That was a rhetorical question because after 45 minutes of conversation with Mani Ram I had already figured out that there isn’t a single piece of data he doesn’t know about.
“1000 a year,” he said. “But next year there’ll be more.”
So now you know the story of Jana waterfalls. You know that when you get there, you’ll get a super local Himachali dish made with love.
And you will also know that that there’s always a story out there!