* The migration story is best captured in a proverb that the locals often use: Pahad ka paani aur pahad ki jawani pahad mein nahi rukti (the water and youth of the mountains never stay in the mountains)
* The homestay programme gives travellers like me a glimpse into high-altitude village life
When the scorching summer heat begins beating down on us, we start looking at colder places for respite. We can’t stop raving about the perks of being in the mountains — the wooden lodges, clean air, blue skies, birdsong, pleasant weather, fresh food and so on.
Highlands may look stunning from a distance but once you remove your rose-tinted glasses, a grim reality stares back at you.
Around 3.3 million people — more than a third of Uttarakhand’s population — have migrated from its rural areas since the formation of the state in 2000. Agriculture and tourism are not enough to sustain households, so the cities are where the people of the state move in search of jobs. The result: Ghost villages with zero to 10 inhabitants. According to a report by its migration commission, Uttarakhand had 1,700 ghost villages by 2018. These included places occupied by less than 1,000 residents. And in 4,000 villages the flow of people moving out is a constant.
The migration story is best captured in a proverb that the locals often use: Pahad ka paani aur pahad ki jawani pahad mein nahi rukti (the water and youth of the mountains never stay in the mountains).
Is there a way to stop this trend?
I found the clues hidden in the villages of Munsiyari, a hill station situated in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand.
Three decades ago, a woman named Malika Virdi, an intrepid mountaineer and social activist, left Delhi to settle in the village of Sarmoli. She not only fought for the rights of the women of Sarmoli but also trained them for alternative sources of income. The year 2004 saw her launch the Himalayan Ark Homestay programme, under which the people of Sarmoli opened their homes to tourists. From simple mountain folks, these women became Munsiyari’s women of mettle. Now they grow their own food, knit clothes and run homestays.
The homestay programme gives travellers like me a glimpse into high-altitude village life. Here, you can slow down, detox your lungs, watch colourful butterflies and birds, and go on scenic hikes to sacred forest ponds through oak- and rhododendron-lined trails. You can sleep in rustic village rooms and wake up to the view of majestic snowy Himalayan peaks.
What I loved the most was the simple but delicious Kumaoni food. My host, Saraswati Thakuni and her granddaughter, Bhanu, cooked a lavish spread — madua ki roti (made with local finger millet), home-grown pahadi red rice, bhatt soup (made with Kumaoni black bean), timur ka saag (made with a medicinal Himalayan plant), bhang ki chutney (wild hemp condiment) and many more. To complete the rustic appeal, the food was cooked on a chulha (mud stove) and served in bell-metal thalis on the kitchen floor.
While relishing the hospitality at Sarmoli, I learnt that the homestay programme also contributes to the sustainable development of the region, which is highly vulnerable to climate change. Virdi, the programme founder, filled me in on the back story: “This women-led enterprise was founded in 2004, through village forest commons known as van panchayats. Before 2004, nature-based and community centred tourism was almost a non-extractive livelihood option.” The group was involved in the restoration of high-altitude lakes and forests, and communities. As a result, Sarmoli, under the guidance of van panchayat sarpanch Virdi, is now synonymous with ecotourism in Uttarakhand. The women have also brought down migration to the cities by involving villagers in their work. Before the pandemic, Sarmoli homestay owners were earning at least ₹1.5 lakh a year
And, it isn’t just the homestay programme that’s empowering women. Some 7km from Sarmoli, in the 100-year-old Darkot village, women have turned the local tradition of knitting and weaving into livelihood. This took off a few years ago when, under a government scheme, families here were given Angora rabbits to rear. Today, every woman in Darkot knits and sells her products through women-run cooperative set-ups such as Saras and Maati. Besides Darkot, there are about 12 villages in the region where over 50 women knit different kinds of clothing — from woollen capes to cardigans, shrugs to socks. These items — along with the name of the creator mentioned in the label — find their way to the local market and buyers in other parts of the country through other collectives.
That’s one way of keeping Munsiyari with us. For a closer association, there is always the rustic comfort of a Sarmoli home.
Archana Singh is a freelancer writer based in Delhi
Getting there When to go March to June or September to October. Stay Sarmoli Homestays; mobile: 94111 94041 and 99177 89950.
The tariff is 1,800 (exclusive of GST) per night.
When to go
March to June or September to October.
Sarmoli Homestays; mobile: 94111 94041 and 99177 89950. The tariff is 1,800 (exclusive of GST) per night.