India, passion project, Photography, Responsible Travel, Uttarakhand
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Sarmoli, Uttarakhand: A Himalayan Village Where Locals Run Marathons and Their Own Instagram Channel!

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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).

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

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Taking a break on our hike near Sarmoli Uttarakhand.

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.

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

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Life or something like it, in Sarmoli Uttarakhand.

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.

Also read: What the Village Folk of Kumaon Taught Me About Life

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Sarmoli Uttarakhand: Farming potatoes.

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.

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

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My outdoor “office” in Sarmoli Uttarakhand <3
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The village gathers under the deodar tree to discuss the festival logistics in Sarmoli Uttarakhand.

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.

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Cooking pasta in a handi on an open fire!
Sarmoli uttarakhand, sarmoli homestay, homestay in munsiyari
A homestay in Munsiyari: Can’t get tired of that view of the mountains.
himal kalasutra festival
Day 1 of the yoga workshop in Sarmoli Uttarakhand!

Instagram: @VoicesofMunsiari

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 shivyanath@gmail.com if you’d like to contribute.

Also read: How I Connect Meaningfully With Locals as I Travel the World

Himalayan villages
A glimpse of everyday life in Sarmoli Uttarakhand.

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.

Our little project is now featured on Times of IndiaConde Nast Traveller, Homegrown, The Better India and Business Insider!

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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57 Comments

  1. OMG!! It’s so good to you posting again. I have missed you. Second I have to tell you how much I loved this. I loved this. It’s so beautiful and awesome. Thanks for sharing. The pictures are absolutely beautiful!

  2. Avinash K Singh says

    This is sweet! Giving voice to the people with the power of blogging. Loved every bit of it :). Hope to visit this place and meet the people their someday.

  3. This is brilliant! I love Malika’s idea of sharing the best of modern life with the villagers, while preserving what’s good in their own lives. And I love your pictures too!

      • Whatever is required by you guys. I can write, photograph, cut wood and make a fire, if any of of that is relevant 🙂

        I ask because I’m planning to spend 2-3 months in Uttarakhand starting July. I had no particular place in mind, but Sarmoli looks wonderful. The fact that they are trying to take their traditions along into modernity makes me feel like I’ll have a lot to learn from them!

        • You can head there anyway, stay in a homestay (and hence support their work), and see what else you could get involved in!

        • Sachin says

          My two cents here. Don’t start in July, either start after the rainy season ends, or complete the 3 months before July. It gets really bad, and you don’t want to ruin your experience, do you?

  4. What a delightfully immersive glimpse into a hidden utopia. Love that you’ve found (and shared) this peaceful haven with us. Thank you and Namaste.

  5. This just reminded me of my time at Pushpa di’s house this January. Beautifully written. 🙂 How about getting someone to build a website, too and make it an online store to sell their best work?

  6. fronamsdiary says

    I’m shocked myself but couldn’t be more happy that this village is paving way for the others. Love how everybody comes together and organises events and activities like the marathon. The people are full of talents and very skilful and I love how you made the point about the youngsters travelling to the city in search of work but they shouldn’t have to leave out of desperation or boredom.

    Still in the plannings but I think I’m gonna be travelling to Goa- India in April but it will be end of April/beginning of May. I would love to be a part of this.

    • That’s awesome; we are hoping to do the photography+Instagram workshop in the 1st/2nd week of May. If you plan to visit Sarmoli around the same time, join us!

      • fronamsdiary says

        I’ll try my best but if i cannot make it, i can always visit Sarmoli some other time.

  7. Sandeep says

    Lovely story . Just two corrections — Munsiyari is not a district, it falls under Pithoragarh; and the tree in one of the pictures does not look like peepal

    • Wasn’t sure how to portray tehsil, so just went with district.
      And thanks for pointing out the peepal error – that was a deodar, silly me.

  8. Prachi says

    Posts like these when I feel I have so much to see and experience in my own country and the list is ever growing! Great initiative Shivya!

  9. swatisinha09 says

    Inspiring Shivya. Needless to say, beautifully written article. I am more in awe of the villagers of Sarmoli and hopefully am able to visit them soon.

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  11. Bree on the Brink says

    Shivya,this little village tucked in the Himalayas is a hidden gem. So wonderful to hear abt d crowd sourcing that you are helping with. I too wil share the news with as many ppl as possible

  12. satyam kumar says

    great job indeed…truly empowering the people standing in last line in the lap of haven..would like to come for sure to them.

  13. Amazing information!! I am from Uttarakhand and I feel proud after reading this blog. Thanks for sharing this peaceful haven with us.

  14. Thanks for the post Shivya! The story of Pushpa is really inspiring and you have written it well. Though I haven’t been to Uttrakhand (will make it there one day) but do have some understanding of the challenges people face in hilly areas through my backpacking trip to Himachal, Sikkim and few others. Not to say that the photos are looking great as usual. How long did you stay in Sarmoli? Also, have you been to Kausani?

  15. I can see that you are putting a lot of efforts into your blog. Keep posting the good work. Some really helpful information in there. Nice to see your site.

  16. Beautiful and serene village. You have captured superb photographs with a nice write up. I just love the mountains and keep reading posts related to Himalayas and mountains on many blogs. Would love to visit and stay in this place for few days :). Taking an inspiration from top travel bloggers from India like you, I have created my own website to share my travel experiences.It is just a small beginning related to my passion in travel & trekking.

  17. Sachin says

    I loved the post.
    One little correction I would like to suggest is that Sarmoli is in the district Pithoragarh. (Munsiyari isn’t a district.)

  18. Such a wonderful place. I love this post and would like to thank you Shivya. I would like to visit this place.

  19. This is great ! Giving voice to the incredible yet explored people of this Himalayan valley .. with the power of words… Loved every line of it 🙂

  20. This is sweet! Giving voice to the people with the power of blogging. Loved every bit of it :). Hope to visit this place and meet the people their someday.

  21. Priya says

    Beautiful article written…being a kumaoni girl I could feel it strongly.. women of Kumaon is a symbol of struggle and stregth which is utmost required for survival.. they cherish their hard work but at the same they are oppressed by male by biassed society..throughout her life she fights with odd circustances and become a winner at end

  22. Dear Shivya,

    Its a lovely story. And loved the fact that you are so deep into travel. Its not just visiting places, but interacting with the Folks, knowing their culture. I wish I could also join you sometime. 🙂

  23. Sid says

    How far was this school ? How many children in this village? Just wanted to know

  24. Beautiful article written, glad to read this article. The “PASTA” you made in handi in an open fire looks very delicious.Moreover, the pictures are very stunning. I wish to be there in my next trip!
    Thanks.

  25. Anand says

    Hi , I was discussing marathons with a friend, over coffee , who mentioned this village. I’ve been wanting to run in some great location in each state and union territory.
    I was pleasantly surprised to see your link. Will definitely visit the place. Great article and details. Will plan for May. Thanks a ton

  26. I really love this place and i really article too thanks for sharing your experience keep posting.

  27. Woahoo!! I live in Uttarakhand itself, even I haven’t observed Munsiyari so closely. No wonder you are India’s top blogger.

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