Architecture graduate Niharika Arora loves heading to far-flung border villages to document their cultures, cuisines and ways of life. The solo traveller has been to Kashmir, Leh, Kargil, and Kutch so far, and plans to cover all of India’s borders. She talks to Travel + Leisure India & South Asia to reveal the inspiration behind her journeys. By Ismat Tahseen
Niharika Arora is an architect, but loves sketching out plans of another kind. The traveller-at-heart charts out places on a map you may have heard of, but never planned to visit. Picture scenic border areas where she soaks in the quaintness and quiet, and returns to relate her experience. Four villages down, this 27-year-old Delhi resident—who goes by the name The Iffy Explorer—says she has just begun.
Straddled in two worlds
It’s said that the best views are visible when you get out of your comfort zone, and that’s exactly the case with Arora. She leaves her glass-and-concrete Delhi office behind to embark on a lean, no-frills trip every odd month. “Sometimes, I am home for just a week before heading out again. I guess I go home just to repack and edit my videos,” she laughs.
Of the latter, there are plenty as this blogger has lived in villages in Leh and Kargil in Ladakh, and far-off hamlets in Kutch, Gujarat. Her mantra is clear: “I begin with a map, select the place and then find out whatever I can about it. Often, chalking up the route becomes a task because a touristy place is well-connected with marked roads and paths. But these are border villages, where there may be no road marked clearly on the map. So, then I talk to locals and ask, ‘Road kahaan khatam raha raha hai?’ (‘where does this road end?’) or ‘Aakhri gaon kaunsa hai?’ (‘which is the last village?’) I just carry a backpack with essentials and set off. And once I am there, it’s like I have travelled to another place and time altogether. It’s so different; it’s like I live in two worlds,” she says.
Warmth in rustic places
Among Arora’s travels, her last trip to Kashmir is one she will never forget. She recalls, “I covered three border districts – Kupwara, Bandipora and Baramulla, which have come a long way as the Army has conducted Sadbhavana programmes (an initiative undertaken by Indian Army in Jammu & Kashmir to address aspirations of people affected by terrorism). They even have art and craft centres to help them get back on their feet. You might think that these places are unsafe, but in fact, these places are very much [safe]. It’s just that people do not know much about [the places].”
Arora describes her stay in Keran village, Kupwara as her most hospitable to date. “It is orchard land with an abundance of walnuts, apples and more. It’s post-card pretty!” she says, adding, “Wooden houses, about 50-70 in a village, surrounded by green meadows, are set by the Kishanganga river. Modern décor doesn’t find a place here. In every house, a wool carpet is thrown across the floor, the food is cooked on a choolah (hearthstone) and everyone sits around for meals. In these villages, they have pahadi, and not Kashmiri cuisine. It was surprisingly similar to Punjabi food! For instance, you’ll be served delicious makki di roti (maize flour flatbread). The people are so simple and loving. I was welcomed with open arms everywhere. The older generation sit down to make traditional pherans at home as you get an amazing quality of wool here. You can just sit with them and listen to their stories for hours.”
Bravery in a beautiful land
Daybreak was as scenic as it gets. She describes, “every morning I woke up at 5 am to a knock at the door to catch the sunrise. I think this was something I can never do justice to in words. The houses are located close to corn fields and when the sun lit up the sky, it cast a beautiful golden glow all around.” Breakfast was made of noon chai and traditional roti, followed by an unhurried day.
This is only one of her experiences. Arora narrates anecdotes from other trips. She says, “When I was at Drass, Kargil, I realised how tough surviving extreme weather conditions can be. This is the world’s second-coldest inhabited place and things are sparse. But the locals have come up with nifty solutions for their day-to-day lives, like taking heat from their stoves right to their water tanks, so they don’t need a geyser. Another time, in Madhapur village, Kutch, I met the most inspiring women. Years ago, the ladies here had helped rebuild the Bhuj airstrip in 72 hours (it was bombed in 1971 during the Indo-Pak war). Some of these women are alive and touching 90. They are brave, straight-backed and speak with such dignity and strength. It is bravery and strength like this that I wanted people in the mainland to know about.”
Documenting the border villages of India
The inspiration behind Arora’s journey to the border villages comes from her own family.”My grandparents are from Lahore and I have grown up listening to their stories. I had decided then to one day visit these places at the borders. We don’t know how people here live as there is little access and awareness to them. I felt I must bring out their stories and so I created a series called #whatsattheborder back in November 2021 to share a peek into their lives. After all, what is a border? There’s a fence that divided countries, yes. But there are also people living in that place. They have a unique culture that mainstream travellers may never know of. I hope I can change that. My goal is to cover all the border villages in India and then cross the border to explore countries that share borders with India.”
Does she find her solo trips safe, being out there alone? She reveals, “I carry basics like a pepper spray and other things, but so far, I have found myself completely safe. And where am I alone? There are loving families everywhere I go!”
Arora shares motivational words to those who want to be out there. She says, “When I moved away from architecture towards full-time travel, I asked myself: What’s your base fear while you set out to do something? What is it related to— is it emotional? Or a childhood trauma or something from your past? Can the negative elements be eliminated, so nothing holds you back? Lastly, how better can you make your future if you decide to do something now. [Answering these] helped to make the start.”