Explore Rural India and Meet Inspiring Storytellers – Without Leaving Home!

explore rural india

A few months ago, I embarked on an unexpected journey to explore rural India.

I walked precariously on a centuries-old hanging wooden bridge (only 5 remain to this day!) that connect the most remote villages of Ladakh’s Zanskar Valley. Witnessed the intimate love stories of four generations of women in a remote Uttarakhand village. Joined the ancient tradition of worshipping wild tigers in rural Maharashtra. Walked several kilometers in Kerala’s Wayanad district with a 63-year-old “walking library” who delivers books to those who love to read but have no access. Learnt how the tribal culture in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills is helping preserve local biodiversity. And tried lost ancient superfoods with a 70+ year old Himachali couple…

All without stepping out!

Also read: How to Indulge Your Wanderlust at Home During the Pandemic

Can we really explore rural India without leaving home?

A rare sight in Goa. Explore rural India – from the comfort and safety of home.

Exactly a year ago, I was pacing up and down my terrace in Dehradun, feeling deeply concerned about how India’s tourism industry – especially community based tourism in India – was going to survive the pandemic-induced lockdown. I longingly recalled many heartwarming moments I had shared with homestay hosts, guides, dhaba owners, craftspeople, natural medicine practitioners, musicians, local environmentalists and others over the past decade, on my quest to explore India beyond the beaten path.

Even though my income as a travel writer had dropped to zero, I had the privilege to dip into my savings and pivot into new digital opportunities, while sheltering at home. On the other hand, despite growing access to smartphones and the internet, the lack of digital skills and tailored opportunities in rural areas in India held people back.

This context sparked the idea of Voices of Rural India.

Read on Journeys: Organic, Compassionate and Sustainable: The Himalayan Village That Time Forgot

Voices of Rural India: Leveraging community based tourism in India to upgrade digital storytelling skills among rural communities

In August 2020, I joined hands with Malika Virdi, sarpanch of the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat in Uttarakhand, and Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, to launch a not-for-profit digital initiative: Voices of Rural India.

We’ve been working towards revolutionizing digital storytelling in India by bringing stories from rural storytellers across the country – from Spiti to Kerala – in their own voices.

In the short-term, Voices of Rural India is creating a revenue stream for remote communities through digital journalism. In the long run, it aims to develop digital storytelling skills at the grassroots level, along with becoming a repository of local culture and knowledge, documented in local voices.

For the rest of us stuck at home, this is a chance to explore remote corners of India virtually, through the words, photos and videos of the very people we travel to meet. Personally, it has grown my post-covid bucket list to include some inspiring, amazing villages in India!

Our team has grown to include Namrata Shah, a travel buff who quit the corporate world to explore new avenues, and many passionate volunteers to support us with editing, publishing, social media, SEO, creating training materials, managing our whatsapp group and more.

If you’d like to volunteer with Voices of Rural India, please see current opportunities here.

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

A successor of @VoicesofMunsiari: India’s first Instagram channel to be run entirely by a village community

Remember the Himalayan village where locals run marathons and their own Instagram channel?

Back in 2016, when I spent a month in Sarmoli, I was surprised to discover that this remote village in Uttarakhand comes together every summer to go birdwatching, practice yoga and run high altitude marathons! That’s when the idea of @voicesofmunsiari came about – an Instagram channel that would be run collectively by the village folk, sharing their everyday lives with the outside world. In subsequent years, we organized a smartphone collection drive through my blog, as well as a photography and Instagram workshop in Sarmoli village.  

@voicesofmunsiari, which was purely driven by the passion of local creators, convinced us of the untapped talent and the need to create more digital storytelling opportunities.

When it gradually became obvious that rural tourism is unlikely to recover in the foreseeable future, Voices of Rural India was born – more ambitious in scope, with funding from the Digital Empowerment Foundation to pay storytellers directly in their bank account for every story published.

Now, as the second wave rages across the country, this time not even sparing remote places in India, the threat to lives and livelihoods feels even more real than before, compelling us to continue our mission with renewed fervor.

Also read: Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable: Travel Companies Changing the Way We Experience India

Missing rural tourism in India? Experience village life in India, virtually

Rural life in India – currently out of bounds. Photo: Spiti Ecosphere.

Voices of Rural India is currently working with rural communities in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya and Gujarat, through on-ground community-based tourism organisations: Global Himalayan Expedition, Spiti Ecosphere, Himalayan Ecotourism, Kabani, Himalayan Ark, Grassroutes Journeys and Cherish Expeditions – all glowing examples of rural tourism in India.

The storytellers are typically guides, homestay hosts, people involved in tourism, and youth and women from the community – and through our intensive storytelling process, we hope they can come to proudly own their heritage, traditions, culture, food and connection with nature.

Also read: Responsible Travel Tips for Authentic, Meaningful Experiences on the Road

Old village houses in India. Photo: Himalayan Ecotourism
  • The Walking Library: In the hilly Mothakkara village in Kerala’s Wayanad district, a 63-year-old woman walks several kilometers every day for those who love to read but have no easy access to books.
  • The Forbidden Forests of Meghalaya: A social worker from Meghalaya’s Chiringmagre village shares how ancient traditions and tribal culture help preserve a patch of pristine biodiversity in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills.
  • Why the People of Spiti Eat Stones: One of the few remaining amchis of Spiti Valley sheds light on the challenges of his practice and the miracle stones still used as a treatment.

Over 40 stories so far, the themes on Voices of Rural India span everything from the age-old traditions, to the architecture of old village houses in India, to women empowerment in rural India, to lost Himalayan superfoods, to the challenges of conservation and development in rural India, to how Indian village life has changed over the decades.

In recent months, we’ve partnered with ThePrint and Outlook Traveller’s Responsible Tourism initiative, so you can also read selected stories by VoRI storytellers on these websites!

We’re humbled to see Voices of Rural India featured on The Times of India, The Hindu, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveller, FirstPost, Outlook Traveller, YourStory, Homegrown and other publications. And immensely grateful for all your support.

Stay home, stay safe and continue to explore rural India… virtually.

Have you met inspiring storytellers on your travels in rural India?

PS: Hope you and your loved ones around the world are safe and well. If you’re battling India’s second wave, I’ve found Twitter to be immensely helpful in supporting people looking for oxygen, beds, plasma etc. If your appeal needs amplification, please tag / DM me on Twitter @shivya.

If you’d like to support India’s second wave battle, please consider contributing to verified organizations in India in their selfless relief work here and here.

Stay safe, stay sane, and know that we’ll get through this.

Subscribe to my new storytelling project, “Journeys” – exclusive stories delivered to your inbox once a week: India | International

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Also read:

I Love Spiti: A Campaign to Save Spiti Valley from Single Use Plastic

Awe-Inspiring Uttarakhand Homestays: Tune Out of Life and Tune Into the Mountains

How an Entire Village Transformed from Poaching Birds to Protecting Them

Get Paid To Travel

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  1. Thank you very much for these touching and interesting stories and information about rural India:) Best regards

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Amazed by the diversity of stories myself, thanks for reading and supporting this initiative Martina!

  2. I’m currently perched in Naini village in the Kumaon region, working with hill women and a producer company that is helping them establish sustainable livelihoods. What you’re doing seems both vibrant and important at the same time.. It’s high time the livelihood and accessibility situations of the Himalayas came to the forefront of awareness!

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Totally agree, Ria. And sounds like you’re involved with some amazing work. Would you like to explore partnering with us at Voices of Rural India and bringing on board the women you’ve been working with to tell their stories? Details for potential partner orgs here: https://www.voicesofruralindia.org/partner/

      1. Absolutely! However the organization I’m working with is not tourism based but a producer company. They are connected with a network of over 2000 women in Kumaon, providing sustainability through SHGs, production, homestay opportunities, etc.

        If this is a kind of company VoRI would be interested in partnering with, I shall pitch the opportunity across at the soonest.

        1. Shivya Nath says:

          Please do. We’re slowly expanding beyond just tourism-oriented orgs 🙂

  3. Good luck with this wonderful enterprise and may everyone stay safe during these trying times

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks Mallee, and you, stay safe and well!

  4. Shivya, you are just such an amazing inspiration. From the desperation of not being able to continue as a global traveler, caused by the Corona Virus, you had to reinvent your passion. And now you have found a great purpose to support your country with your experienced voice as a cofounder of “Voices of Rural India”. You have my greatest admiration. I already signed up as a follower of this foundation. Thank you Shivya.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thank you so much for your support and encouragement as always, Cornelia. Hope you’ve been safe and well in these trying times.

  5. There is a greater interest in the remote regions, especially the Himalayas because of the pandemic. I guess a lot of people have realized the pitfalls of living in claustrophobic cities. Even watching pictures of these pristine places is uplifting. Thanks for sharing these, Shivya.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Indeed – which makes it all the more important to highlight the voices of the people who grew up in these landscapes!

  6. You are an inspirational pioneer Shivya! Amazing work and admirable collaboration. Storytelling is an art of the soul and that creates meaning and community. I will definitely subscribe to this initiative! May your work only grow and grow.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      You’re too kind, Thia. Thanks for your support and encouragement. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading the incredible stories we’ve published so far!

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks Anupam, hope you’ll be as fascinated by the stories so far as I am!

  7. An Amazing and out of the box idea Shivya. Go ahead, I am all eyes to it. Ready for any support.

  8. Thank you for sharing your very interesting article. Digital journalism for remote and off-the beaten path communities is a clever idea. I don’t expect to travel everywhere; therefore, digital journalism is a great alternative.

  9. You are an inspirational pioneer Shivya! Amazing work and admirable collaboration. Storytelling is an art of the soul and that creates meaning and community. I will definitely subscribe to this initiative! May your work only grow and grow.

  10. I’m now working remotely with many Indians colleagues. It hit me that I knew next to nothing about this huge country. Thanks for this amazing initiative Shivya, I’ll get to learn a little bit more about their fascinating culture and land.

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