Culture, India, Offbeat, Reflections, Uttarakhand
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What the Village Folk of Kumaon Taught Me About Life.

itmenaan estate, itmenaan lodges, almora uttarakhand

Some precious lessons while hiking through remote Uttarakhand villages and living with the Kumaoni people.

In the lower Himalayas of Uttarakhand, I hiked many kilometers through dreamy villages, terraced valleys, deodar forests, secret rhododendron trails and swaying yellow mustard fields. The journey that gave me a peek into the soul of rural Kumaon, and through it, my own.

I met Kumaoni people who live hours away from the nearest road. Women who wake up at 4 am to chop wood and carry it on their heads across daunting terrain. Men who have confronted leopards on a lonely journey home. Elders and kids who can hop, skip and climb down a steep mountain face while I precariously slide one foot in front of the other.

I’m not an avid hiker, but in their warmth, innocence and stories, I found conviction and some precious life lessons:

A stranger is a friend until proven otherwise

kumaon himalayas, uttarakhand villages, kumaoni people
Kumaoni people: Sarita bai and her friends from Navgaon village.

I laugh when I think of how nervous I initially was, to find myself alone in Kumaon, amidst strangers again. Ever since the mugging incident in Costa Rica, I found my faith in the world shaken up (Read: Epic Memories from Central America).

But on my first ten kilometer hike through Navgaon, Chachu aka Uday Singh took it upon himself to show me his village. Walking along the narrow pathways, we were stopped by Sarita Bai, who scurried out of the kitchen to meet me, her face covered in black smoke and a wide smile. We talked as though we were long lost friends, she made me promise that I would stay with her the next time, and asked me to take her photo lest I should forget my promise.

Days later, in the villages of Thikalna, Ganghet and the countless others we crossed, I strangely felt like a friend coming home. Not a visitor just passing by. It’s a feeling I’m trying to carry with me wherever I go.

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

Solitude is a way of life

uttarakhand villages, navgaon, kumaon uttarakhand
Kumaoni people: A local woman works on her farm near her secluded house.

On my journey, whenever I paused on the summit of a hill to catch my breath, I could spot a solitary house in the distance. Surrounded by nothing but farms and pine trees. A kilometer from the next house and many from the nearest road. I asked Lalit, my guide from one such village near Almora, the question that always struck me. Why do people in the mountains choose to live so secluded? His vague answers didn’t quell my curiosity.

But on my last day in the village of Chalnichhina, by the flames of a dying fire, Lalit, now a friend, asked me why I chose to travel all alone. I found my answer in his curiosity – solitude. We might be different and incomprehensible to each other. But our ways of life are driven by the same inexplicable love for solitude.

Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

For better or for worse, Kumaoni people are in it together

kumaoni people, kumaon culture, uttarakhand villages
Kumaoni people: Community cooking in the outdoors – the women take turns to stir the daal.

Last month, a visiting doctor in Chalnichhina received a call at 1:30 am from a troubled villager living across the mountain. His friend had collapsed on their way home and desperately needed medical attention. The doctor rushed to the scene, and recommended that the man be taken to a hospital immediately. So the entire village woke up from their sleep, built a makeshift stretcher and carried the man five kilometers through the mountains in the dead of the night. It turned out to be a paralytic attack, and thanks to timely care, the man recovered completely.

Community trumps all else in these parts, for better and for worse. The entire village stands together, whether to dance across mountains for a wedding or to oppose inter-caste relationships. It is hardly a surprise then that atleast six different families from Navgaon village invited me for the same wedding in April. Because it’s everyone’s business, and that is probably a comforting a feeling in this remote, often forgotten Himalayan region.

Also read: Discovering Life in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand

The ‘village grapevine’ trumps technology!

itmenaan lodges village walk, kumaon himalayas
Hiking through ancient deodar forests in Kumaon, slower than the village grapevine!

Functional cellphone network was so hard to find in these parts that I couldn’t check the results of the cricket world cup. While strolling through Ganghet village, two young kids playing cricket demonstrated to me every miss and six in the finals. Followed by expert commentary by the village elders at the local dhaba. It was definitely more fun than scrolling through Twitter!

Often, I would ask questions of Kumaoni people in one village and have them answered in another. Word sure travelled faster than I could. After just three days of being in the region, I went to a shop in the Chalnichhina market. The shopkeeper greeted me with: You’re the girl from Dehradun, 27, traveling by yourself… the village grapevine made me question the power of technology

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in Rural India

The mountains maybe like drugs. The more you experience them, the more you crave them

itmenaan estate, itmenaan lodges, almora uttarakhand
Lunch in the wilderness at Itmenaan Estate.

Maybe you already know this feeling. That familiar tug at your heart the moment you think of the snow-capped peaks lurking behind the mist. The slate-roofed homes hiding deep in the valley. It is why I keep going back to Kumaon, hoping to peel away another layer each time.

But hearing heartbreaking stories of mountain dwellers who sold their land, moved to the plains and fell upon bad times, made me realize the difficult odds faced by the Kumaoni people. Despite how hard the life of people here might be, many of them said that given a choice, they’d rather stay. When unseasonal rains started lashing the region, threatening to destroy the crops that fill their homes and tummies, a village elder spoke wistfully. “Baarish toh dharti ka shingar hai,” he said. The rains are the Earth’s makeup.

Also read: An Eco-Friendly Homestay in Bhimtal and Other Hidden Treasures

Travel Tips: Hiking in the Kumaon Himalayas and Meeting Kumaoni People

One way we can support Kumaoni people to keep their traditional way of life is through responsible travel. That means lowering our carbon footprint as we explore the region by using public transport. And contributing back to rural communities by choosing to stay in local homestays and eat local.

How to reach the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand

Infrequent flights now operate to Kumaon’s Pantnagar airport from Delhi. A more convenient way to get there is to take the shatabdi train from Delhi / Dehradun to Haldwani / Kathgodam. From Haldwani, it’s possible to share a taxi with locals heading home. Private taxis are available at the train station too.

Uttarakhand homestays to live with Kumaoni people

  • Itmenaan Lodges Village Walks: I hiked through the remote villages of Kumaon (as detailed in this post) with Itmenaan Lodges near Almora. They’ve refurbished traditional Kumaoni houses with urban comforts as convenient sleepover bases on overnight village hikes.
  • Sarmoli Homestays: In the further reaches of Kumaon, in the Munsiyari district, the community-based Sarmoli homestays are raising the benchmark. In the majestic backdrop of the Panchachuli range, explore these hillscapes with female high-altitude and birding guides – a rarity in rural India.
  • See other responsible travel companies in India that offer incredible, offbeat and meaningful experiences.

Are you tempted to spend time with the Kumaoni people of Uttarakhand?

*Note: I was invited to hike in rural Kumaon by Itmenaan Lodges. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always mine.

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40 Comments

  1. Just looking at the photographs fills me with peace. I love your writing. There’s something magical about it. 🙂 Not Kumaon, but the mountains have definitely cast a spell on me.

    • Thanks Ankita! Feels like I did some justice in bringing out the magical beauty of Kumaon. Hope you get to visit soon and experience for yourself the inexplicable spell of Kumaon!

  2. Hey, you were so close to coming to my village, Chatola near Sitla Estate of Vikram Mehra.
    Next time you are in this area, it will be great to have you stay at my small place which I call as Plumrose Homestay. And if we happen to meet there, I will love to share a lot many stories of your interest and writing about the local village folks, the ghost houses and also about a ever-loving but mysterious character called, Grundy Sahib.
    Do write to me about your travel plans and I will make all the arrangements.
    Till then, happy traveling and keep the posts coming in.
    Regards
    Sanjeev

    • I’ve been to Sitla on a walk before, but didn’t know about your Homestay. Wow, those stories are so tempting to plan a trip for 🙂 I’ll be in touch when I’m in the region again!

  3. Pramod Sharma says

    Beautiful pics and vivid descriptions. I like you and I would like to interact with you.

    Pramod.

  4. I’m sitting in the wilderness of Kumaon as I read this. It’s really an idyllic paradise. Can’t wait to explore it all. Your description is vivid and enchanting as always. 😀 Cheers

    • Thanks Shubham! Hope you fall in love with it as much as I have. Glad you’re on the road again 🙂

  5. Seems perfect and unreal! It’s probably a great place to think, which is very enticing to my over-wired brain right now. So beautiful, enjoy!

    – Ariana

    • It was close to perfect and unreal 🙂 It’s where I go to recharge my batteries, lends itself to soul searching too. Hope you visit soon Ariana!

  6. Sabina says

    Love your blog. Vivid writing. Love the hills too.

  7. Hi!
    whether it kumaon, garwhal or himachal, the village folks in these places are quite simple. Their demands are quite basic. While we are quite detached from nature with our artificial cocoon and modern amenities, village people are not! I remember attending Prasoon Joshi’s session in JLF 2014 (he is Garwali too!) where he reasoned why these people are simple…lack of Greed and money! When exposed to these two factors, they too will change in no time was his observation!

    Also, because they live in such difficult terrain, dependence on community is way of life. They still retain basic human feature – social dependence & human interaction…..while we have moved on… social dependence via electronic interaction in form of FB/twitter/ whataspp…

  8. Wow! very nice post. These pics makes me happy. Thanks for the information -Parryyatra.com

  9. I have to tell you something Shivya… I have been a beach person always. But with your writing, I have just grown tremendously close to the Himalayas. I am off for my first Himalayan trek this month end and I really hope to be infected by the Himalayan bug very badly 🙂 Oh, BTW- great photos!

    • Wow, your comment really made my day, Deepika! I love beaches and deserts too, but the mountains hold a really special place for me. Hope you’ll make that bond on your trek; which part of the Himalayas are you off to?

      Glad you like the photos. Shot on the iPhone 6, all!

      • I am off to Har ki doon.. Valley of Gods 🙂 and iPhone is too good for the pics 🙂

  10. Beautifully written, Shivya! You are an inspiration for all us newbie travel bloggers. 🙂

    • Thanks Ankita! So glad to hear that 🙂 May our tribe grow, and inspiration to travel grow with it.

  11. The tranquility of the mountains iare a mdeicine toour cluttered minds.Never been to Kumaon but a weekend in Himachal last year was good eough to make me bo back to the valleys.

  12. Tanuja Mehra says

    I am also from Kumaon, I was born there my grandparents still live there and iI visit them time to time. I love the way u described it,you brought the memories back.. its exactly that way. 🙂
    After reading about it I’m feeling like going there… its always refreshing and fills me with new life and joy…

  13. Kumaon is one region that I have been longing to explore…Your post has just made the craving stronger. Loved reading about your experiences!

  14. Beautifully described, Would like to visit these villages. Very inspiring blog.

  15. Beautifully written, Shivya!
    I love your writing and the incredible photos you share. Makes me feel like visiting these places right away…..

  16. Nice write up and insights. People in the Himalayas are simple folks. You said it correctly that stranger is always a friend until proved otherwise. It is so true. This applies to large extent to people living not only in the hills but generally in Rural India.

  17. teasome says

    The answer is yes, they have 🙂 Thank you for this piece, I am too an admirer of Kumaon.

  18. Pallav says

    Amazing memoirs Shivya! I am sharing the link to your blog post. More people should read this stuff 🙂

  19. Janvi says

    I absolutely love this post! You have a rare gift that gives meaning to emotions–very effectively using words as the medium. As a reader, your words here are sheer poetry, taking me through your journey with great variations and beautiful syntax. You are an artist! I am curious about two things that you remain largely non-committal about, even as you have references all throughout. What is your view on tourism–does it help local populations? What is your view on drugs (natural and artificial, as they are often categorized)–how does it mingle with travel? Both of these seem to be intrinsic to travelers, but rarely expressed or realized fully. Would love to know what you think!

    — Janvi

  20. Govindan says

    Hi there! Reading this makes me want to visit this place this year. Last year was Ladakh, and hope this year will take me tom Kumaon. Have read so much about this place.. right from when i was a kid, devouring Jim Corbett ! glad to read about it here..keep up the good work..

  21. Anubhuti Ghildiyal says

    Nice work Shivya 🙂

    Well, about that seclusion query????? These are few justifications, which I gained in past, as I had the same dubiety @ that time. Firstly, villagers in past were allowed to build their shelters, only on the land they owned. Secondly, in a hilly area, a segregated construction is more adopted, because that accounts for any geophysical predicaments. And lastly, the migration notion; people have migrated to cities, so less population, less houses and more gapping.

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