Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Homestay at Sarmoli Village Kumaon

Path to my room
 Homestay in Sarmoli Village

Sarmoli village is a secret waiting to be shared. It is situated a km from Munsiyari in northern Kumaon, four hours from Pithoragarh. It has a backdrop of the snowy Panchachuli range, a couple of lakes a short trek above , and its very own stream and waterfall. Also it has about 15 warm farming families waiting to look after you and share their lives with you. This is a holiday with a difference.
I travelled on the overnight train from old Delhi station to Kathgodam. A thin, greyhaired lady crawled into the berth next to me, spread out her bedding, and proceeded to chat. First bit of advice... dont get off at Kathgodam, get off at Haldwani whichis just 8 km before Kathgodam. There you will get your choice of transport. A shared taxi is best and Bablu is a man who can be trusted to give you a fair ride to Almora for RS 300/. Pamela Chatterjee is a gem who has  lived on her own for years in a village near Kausani. She knows everyone worth knowing in Kumaon and is fiercely independent.
After a fiery start with Bablu versus the fare, she bundled us into a taxi and appropriated the front seat as a birthright. The senior bank official, also a regular of Bablu's front seat quietly got into the middle at the back with his knees tucked up near his chin. I had a window seat at the back and enjoyed the views of lakes  at Bhimthal and the pine forests as we twisted and turned upwards. After a quick stop for mungdal pakoras and tea we reached Almora. Incase you want to do a non stop trip to Munsiyari it would be an 11 hour journey. I decided to break journey at Almora and stayed at the well appointed KMVN. The shady walks up to the Almora cantt above the rest house are rewarding with a view of the beautiful Officers Mess on the edge of the hill. The market had an old lady's dhaba with immaculately kept "chula" and clean fresh dal, chana, rice and vegetable and a superbly made bhang, mint and coriander chutney.

Almora Dhaba

Reaching Munsiyari I followed the instructions of the friendly voice of Malika Virdi over the telephone. On the Madkot road out of Munsiyari, just after the Women's cooperative Bazaar is a broad dirt road turning left up the hill. It winds upwards for a kilometre and the taxi bounced up past wild roses in full bloom and crisscrossed the stream with its numerious small waterfalls.  We came to a huge old deodar, the himalayan cedar, spreading its branches  over the steps leading up to the houses. It was the landmark of the village. And my host, Saraswati  Thakuni  awaited at the top of the steps to lead me home.
Saraswati di aka Amma's granddaughters were there to greet me. Bhavana the eldest , a college going student managed all the cooking for the guests and her family. There was Guddi the middle granddaughter and Soni , younger than her , followed by a grandson and the apple of her eye Pawan, the youngest. All of them go to the school and college in Munsiyari,  the youngest two leaving at 6.30 in the morning. It is a long walk for them. I met her daughter-in-law the long suffering Bhavani only in the evening. She does most of the work on the farm, looking after the fields, the fodder and firewood. Amma looked after her beloved buffaloes, cow, goat and Chulbuli the new 4 day old kid of said goat. And she looked after the homestay guests. I had a room of my own, they had built in addition to the old house, with large, wiremeshed, glass windows on three sides and a sloping wooden ceiling. It was well appointed with white lace curtains, white clean linen and heavy quilts, white turkish towels. I was  surprised! I had expected  village standards! The room has an attached bathroom with running cold water coming from the stream, and a western style toilet..  I knew the former sarpanch and local guardian angel ,Malika Virdi had something to do with all this. Besides these ammenities the rest was all the Thakuni family's efforts to make me comfortable. Alarge kettle of boiling water awaited me for a bath, lots of strong milky tea and a hot meal of freshly plucked and cooked saag greens of three different varieties, dal, rice, chapatis all made on the wood fire in the spacious clay floored kitchen. A carpet mat with a low wooden stool to rest my plate on, near the fire was my choice of dining space. 
Morning found me looking for the view of the elusive Panchachuli range. Due to the many forest fires this May they were veiled in smoke. A heavy breakfast of parathas and sabzi with pickle and milk or chaaz was followed by a packed lunch which left me free to go and explore the stream and waterfall.  I watched as the women worked every minute of the day. After a day or two of exploring the lake which is a nice hour long trek up the hill, and photographing and sketching houses and people in thevillage , I visited Malika Virdi in her beautiful home. She is the brain and strength behind  the improvement in the life of the village women. She left the city 20 yrs ago and along with her husband Theo and her baby son bought some land and built a house in Sarmoli. They had decided to become farmers. Then she joined hands with the village women to improve their lot. Now their Maati Sangathan is a self help group which has done wonders for the women and their families. They look after their village, their forest and hills, fight against domestic violence and alchoholism, encourage education and economic and financial self sufficiency and  improve agricultural practices. With Malika's ideas and help the women started homestays in their houses. They are busy from daybreak to nightfall, looking after their fields, cattle, and homes and it is impossible for the majority to leave the house and land to earn a living outside. What better way to earn some extra moeny than to open their homes to visitors?
One room in the house, and if they could afford it, a new room was built and  kept aside for tourists. Most of the houses have had an attached bathroom made with a western style toilet. The linen and arrangements inside the rooms reflect Malika's tastes. Meals are taken with the family, if preferred, in the kitchen , near the fire on which it is cooked, or in the room. Saraswati di, found cooking on the wood fire more economical than her gas which was only used for tea. Getting a cylinder to the town and back up the hill after long waits had proved erksome. But a hot roti slowly pufffing up  against the mud fireplace... nothing could compare to that! Only in the evening did we have time to sit around the fire and eat and chat.
One of the many vegetable patches.
I woke up at 5 to Amma lighting the outside fire for my hot water, the children getting ready for school, Bhavna getting their tiffins done, Bhavani mucking out the cowshed and taking the manure out to the field, the baby goat calliing to be taken out of its basket, the cheeky magpies hopping about the field outside the window and the thrush singing its long complicated sweet song. Wrapped up in the warm colourful blankets I looked out at huge pink roses in full bloom and a tangled vegetable patch where the radishes and mustard had been left to grow for seeds. Later I found out that the blankets had been woven from scratch... off the sheepsback almost, fleeced, carded, spun in to wool and then dyed with vegetable dyes by Amma, and then given to the weaver who owned a loom. One blanket every winter. The baskets which were used to carry manure, endless loads of fodder and firewood from way up the mountain,  and barley, razma, lentins and vegetables were all made by the family.Amma even collected every bit of plastic string, and rope to weave them together and make tethers for the cattle.
The most wonderful thing about village folk is that they dont produce any kind of waste.Everything is needed. Nothing is thrown away. Everything is recylced. I watched vegetable peelings and left over food being added to the tin  over the fire, cooking the hot meal of grain and flour given to the cattle twice a day. City folk bring plastic bottles and bags. Each is carefully washed and reused to send milk to relatives and cover ripe fruit  on the tree.  Now the women are making the plastice bags into Plarn and crocheting with them. We city folk, are expert in  generating waste, buying things that are prepackaged in non biodegradable material. I  learnt a valuable lesson from these women. Produce as little waste as possible. Learn to want less. Buy sensibly, look at what you are buying and consuming to see if it is packaged in stuff that you have to ask someone esle to take away and dispose of. Carry your own bags to shop in. Wrap things in newspaper. Recycle.
My days in Sarmoli drifted by in a haze... well, besides the smoke haze that is! Sounds of birdsong vied with the voices of children and women calling across the hill sides where voices carry great distances. I helped the women with some "shramdaan", digging a new pond to be connected to an older fish pond. Other days I went to the Maati sangathan "office", two rented rooms , one for frying snacks and with a  loom for rugs and woollen fabric and a store of wool to card and clean,  and the other for knitting and spinning, accounts and chatter and lunch. I shared a few of my crochet skills and learnt how to card and clean wool. My attempts at spinning were a miserable failure but fun none the less. There was so much to learn and help with and all this accompanied by laughter and talk, getting to know about the lives  of the village families.
One day , with another family from Delhi who were also staying in the village, I visited the heritage village of Dharkot. It was a major stop over for caravans plying the silk route. Quaint old wooden houses were scattered over the hillside, some of them with families busy weaving on handlooms and keeping angora rabbits. They are skilled in making fine pashmina and angora shawls, caps, and pullovers. This is their main livelihood. Many tourists stop over  to buy gifts to take back. Dharkot is now a heritage village with all necessary amenities available. There are a few other villages that one can go and visit while at Sarmoli. 
Once a month the Sangathan has their meeting , starting with song and sharing of stories of visitors like myself and also what the group has been doing during the month.  The last item on the agenda was the monthly "haat" or market when all extra produce was put in the middle of the group and bought by whoever needed it. A wonderful opportunity to buy fresh greens, or paneer or some jam or jellies. 
After sharing my lunch and chatting well into the afternon I would walk back in the setting sun, up the winding road to the big deodar tree, flanked on either side by wild rose bushes in full bloom, their heady perfume wafting by, crossing  a little rustic bridge  over a burbling stream, through the courtyards of clay plastered houses with their contingent of furry guard dogs , and lowing cattle and a cheery greeting by the inhabitant. Back to a hot cup of  tea at the ready that Guddi or Saraswati di would make for me and we would chat and share our day's experience. It was a privilege to share their news, the little baby goat had grown stronger and thrown aside her basket which acted as  a cage, sadly the buffalo calf was ill and would not survive, the neighbours cattle had attacked the barley, one of the girls was distraught dreading the news of her Class Ten results... every little detail stands imprinted in my mind, months after my  homestay with these beautiful people.  I have never come across women who worked so hard and were so cheerful about it.

Dharkot house
Path up to Sarmoli
loom at Dharkot
Making a new fishpond!
Chulbuli having a rest in my room!
my foster family, the Thakunis
Trek to the kund above Sarmoli
The drive back from Munsiyari was along the Kali river and we were glad we decided to take this route instead. It is one of stuning views of the GoriGanga and then the Kali rivers, the difference of colour of both rivers very apparent where they flow into each other. We had a stroke of thrilling good luck on the way through the Askot Sanctuary: a musk deer suddenly bounded along in front of our jeep and then sprinted up the hillside in seconds  and disappeared from view! A rare sighting indeed!
The map to Sarmoli can be found on the Kumaon Mandal Tourism site. Malika Virdi who looks after the homestays(Times Now has done an article on her work) no is +919411194041 . Bablu or Dinesh the taxi driver from Haldwani needs a call to tell him to wait for you for the morning train. His no is 09412037212. Kallu Taxi is resourceful to fix up a taxi for you back from Munsiyari to Khatgodam, direct if you want it or to Pithoragarh . His no is09568707139. Pthoragarh is a delightful place to stay on the way back, provided you get accomodation in the KMVN guest house, perched above the city on a hill with wonderful views. Permission can be got to stay in the Forest rest house too, closeby.On the way to Munsiyari , I stayed at  the well appointed KMVN resorts, with great service, comfortable rooms and fresh food.
the Sarmoli homestays are ideal for families, where one or the other member is keen on trekking to the glaciers near Munsiyari or Son. The rest of the family can chill in Sarmoli and enjoy some unique village life, interacting with the villagers and the animals they keep and working on the land if desired.. There are homestays kept aside for women alone and all cater to children's needs.  A holiday with a difference!



  1. Dear Soap Witch.
    Sarmoli village is now enveloped in clouds and shrouded in all colours green. A traveler like you comes and sets standards for those to follow. Welcome to all the witches of the world.

    1. I am a witch in the making and I might just get on to my broom and zero in on your village one day-or night!

  2. Dear Elaine
    What a wonderfully written piece. You tug at the heartstrings.I have vicariously fallen in love with Sarmoli.

  3. Wow Tutu; I can visualize the wonderful time you must have had! Takes my memories back of my years with the Army while posted in Joshimath, Dharchula etc..

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