Sarmoli Uttarakhand – a special Himalayan village with an urban-rural summer festival, its own Instagram channel and unique community-based homestay in Munsiyari.
“I don’t mind the household work – cooking, cleaning, kids… but my soul is made for walking in these mountains.”
Binoculars dangling from her shoulder, sports shoes on her feet and a backpack slung over her traditional salwar kameez, Pushpa Sumtiyal walked uphill with the ease of a mountain woman as I huffed and puffed along. But unlike most mountain women in India, she makes part of her living from her love for walking – as a female high altitude hiking guide in Sarmoli Uttarakhand and owner of her homestay in Munsiyari (the district).
We began that morning by hitching a ride on an army jeep. And were now walking along the mountain ridges of Thamari Kund. We could’ve been eagles swooping over tiny villages dotting the deep valley below, layers of snow-capped mountains stretched out before us. By the time we left the blossoming rhododendron and old teak forests, and made tea on a quiet hill, we were deep in conversation about the state of the mountains and our own lives. Much like long lost friends.
To tell you the truth, I couldn’t believe such a place exists in India.
I was soaking up spring in New York after an adventurous month in the Ecuadorian Andes, and plotting my return to India. My heart craved the Himalayas and the warmth of its village folk. I felt ready to finally make the 11-hour journey from Kathgodam to a community-run homestay in Munsiyari. Having heard about Malika Virdi, an avid mountaineer, and her work in setting up the Sarmoli Uttarakhand village homestays, I called her to see if I could linger a while in those mountains.
That’s when she first told me about their annual summer ritual – the weeklong Himal Kalasutra festival where the locals of Sarmoli come together to run a marathon with an altitude gain of 8000 feet over 20km (gulp!) and go birdwatching. That year, 2016, would include a week of meditative yoga and an introductory digital workshop by Wikipedia. The festival was geared towards the locals, but travellers like me were welcome to join.
Now, I’ve spent my fair share of time in little Kumaoni villages and witnessed the hardships borne by locals. Collecting firewood, walking long distances to go to school or the nearest health center, social issues. Where is there time to train for a marathon, or look for endemic birds, or wrap their head around Wikipedia?
My time in Sarmoli toppled my notion of India’s rural-urban divide. In the last few years, I had made my peace with the idea that most traditional ways of life in rural Indian communities will die out with the younger generations. And we can’t begrudge them that, for each of us seek “modern” comforts and easier lives, and it’s only fair that they should too.
But Malika – and Theo and Ram – who now call Sarmoli home, have a simple philosophy. Share valuable ideas of the urban world with the locals – the importance of fitness, flavors from international cuisines, and slowly, the online world. At the same time, encourage them to keep the wisdom of the traditional world – preserve their mountain spring water sources, be proud of their language, retain their innate hospitality towards outsiders. It’s okay if the youngsters in the village want to move away for work, but they shouldn’t have to leave out of desperation or boredom.
And I witnessed that philosophy in action everyday.
I sat in on meetings of the Sarmoli’s Maati sangathan (women self help group). They discussed everything from the summer festival logistics, to helping more village women set up a homestay in Munsiyari, to their personal marathon goals (the routes they were to run are everyday work routes in these parts). I joined them to experiment with planting tomatoes, brinjals and bhang seeds in an innovative new polyhouse. I followed them to the local magistrate’s office to revolt against a state trekking initiative that threatened their spring water sources. And saw them achieve success in getting the trekking group to camp at an alternate location and promise to carry their non-disposable waste back. I heard (and witnessed) heartbreaking stories of domestic violence faced by women from the region, and how the sangathan has been instrumental in supporting and empowering them to start new lives.
But even as they dealt with serious issues personally and as a group, juggling the hats of homestay hosts, entrepreneurs, guides, activists and homemakers, there was never a day without laughter, playful teasing and gratitude for the lighter moments.
When the summer festivities began, I was amazed to see half the village in tadasana (tree pose) during the yoga workshop! I joined them to cook pasta with wild oregano over an open fire and bade goodbye to a massive turnout of runners on marathon day.
The coolest mountain village in India? I think so.
When I heard of the Wikipedia workshop, I had a crazy dream of leveraging Instagram to encourage the locals of Sarmoli to share their stories directly with the world. Turned out, it wasn’t so crazy after all. With a basic Instagram tutorial, followed by photography tips from a fellow traveller, the locals now run their own Instagram channel – @VoicesofMunsiari – documenting their lives, mountains, seasons and stories in their own voices.
I expected the interest to die away gradually, but the account has not only grown in reach and engagement, it has also grown in storytelling and photography – despite access to only basic smartphones and English. One of their photos was even featured on Huffington Post India!
So it’s time to take it to the next level.
Upgrading your smartphone?
When we began, only a handful of locals had (basic) smartphones to take pictures and use the Instagram app. In 2017, thanks to you all, we crowdsourced 10 smartphones with good quality cameras. It got more locals on board this community channel and enabled them to share snippets of their lives in Sarmoli too.
If you, your family or friends have a spare phone or plan to upgrade to a new one, consider contributing it to this initiative? In return, mountain love on your Instagram feed is a promise. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to contribute.
Photography + Instagram Workshop in Sarmoli, Uttarakhand
Based on the response from you awesome folk, we conducted a 4 day Photography + Instagram workshop in Sarmoli in May 2017. Surprisingly, many of the locals who chose to attend were mothers of the young adults who’ve been running @voicesofmunsiari for a while!
The crazy dream now is to organize a small photo exhibition, and use the funds to support on-going programs in the village. Hopefully, it turns out to be a not-so-crazy dream after all.
Support community-based tourism: Homestay in Munsiyari
If you’re travelling towards Munsiyari, I highly recommend staying away from the overgrown, soulless market town. In further reaches of the Munsiyari district, including the village of Sarmoli, are a cluster of community-tourism based homestays.
Run by local women, these are real Uttarakhand village homestays that offer a taste of rural life. The money directly supports and empowers female entrepreneurs. And indirectly supports the environmental causes they advocate for. You can read more about these homestays and book them via munsiari.com.
Any cool ideas on how we can further leverage the photography and Instagram potential of Sarmoli, Uttarakhand?
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I’m the founder of this award-winning travel blog about offbeat and sustainable travel, and author of the bestselling travel memoir, The Shooting Star.
In 2011, I quit my full-time job, and gradually gave up my home, sold most of my possessions, stored some in the boot of a friend’s car and embraced a nomadic life.
Connect with me on Instagram to hear more about my adventures and personal journey.