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!
Can we really explore rural India without leaving 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.
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.
A successor of @VoicesofMunsiari: India’s first Instagram channel to be run entirely by a village community
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.
Missing rural tourism in India? Experience village life in India, virtually
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.
Popular stories on Voices of Rural India
- 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.
- How One Man’s Conviction Put Jibhi Valley on the World Tourism Map: An ex-army man’s inspiring and amusing journey of grit, passion and dedication to introduce Jibhi Valley to tourism.
- How Love Has Changed Over Four Generations: A brave, young woman, who married for love two decades ago, writes about pride and prejudice, and love, in the mountains near Munsiari.
- What Can Two Imaginative Minds Create With Wild Grass and a Thorny Tree? A teacher from Maharashtra’s Purushwadi village visually documents the craftsmenship of two brothers, who use wild grass, a thorny tree and their imagination to create sustainable vessels, vases, ornaments and more.
- One Ladakhi Girl’s Journey from Darkness to Light: A young girl from Sumda Chenmo, a remote village in Ladakh’s Markha region, shares her journey from growing up in a village without electricity to solar-electrifying 50+ such villages.
- 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.
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.
Stay safe, stay sane, and know that we’ll get through this.