“Nothing, but nothing, can be worth this.” I freely cursed the House of Friese and all who sail in her as I staggered, numb-toed, up a 1-in-3 gradient, hamstrings playing a symphony of protest, having finally—and I do mean, finally—reached Munsiari. It was freezing cold, nine o’clock at night, we had eaten nothing but fruit and Krackjack biscuits since lunchtime, and every bone felt shaken, rattled and rolled from the fourteen-hour drive from Nainital. I was in no mood for anything except a long, hot jacuzzi in a five-star bathroom.
I followed the dark figures up the stone path to my ‘homestay’—a single room perched on the hillside beneath a glittery galaxy of stars, gobbled down the plate of rotis and lukewarm dal that my host family provided and curled into a foetal position under the heavy razai, willing sensation to return to my numb feet.
The following morning, I awoke to a 180-degree arc of spectacular white peaks. Tits and sparrows chattered on the bare branches of fruit trees just coming into bud outside my door. Lungs feast on the chilled air, eyes drink in the green. Perhaps it was worth it, after all.
My host family, Saraswati Thakuni, her daughter-in-law, Bhawani, and granddaughters, bustled around to make me comfortable. Our interactions were marked by linguistic incomprehension and bonhomie: Hindi, Kumaoni and English cooked up with a generous tadka of sign language. Outside my room was the cookhouse: a low-ceilinged, mud-brick construction that oozed smoke from every chink. Between the angithis and the chulhas, everyone here smells like they’ve been lapsang suchonged, and by Day Two, so did I.
After a solid breakfast of rotis and matar-paneer, our team of three strode off up the hillside after our guide. We were on our way to meet Malika Virdi, who has helped set up and organise the homestay programme in Munsiari, of which we were the latest beneficiaries.
We clambered through forest, thick layers of leaf litter crunching beneath our feet, sunlight dappling the pathway, across a wide, sunlit meadow of grass edged with thickets of mature bamboo, to the house. Built by Malika and her husband Theo nearly two decades back, it is a haven. Stone floors and wooden beams, books and photos, and wide picture windows framing the breathtaking views across the valley to the Panchchhuli range. We sat on cane chairs on the open stone patio and drank tea with Malika and her colleague, K. Ramnarayan (Ram).
Malika radiates good humour, good health and a life well lived. Her long, grey hair tied back in a plait, her light brown eyes sparkle with enthusiasm and conviction in more or less equal measure. You would need both, I guess—plus a generous helping of guts and determination—as a Punjabi Sikh woman from Delhi to become the sarpanch of Sarmoli-Jainti Van Panchayat, a position she held for seven years (and it would have been more, had not she fallen so foul of the Powers that Now Be).
The system of van panchayats is unique to Uttarakhand, an institution set up back in 1931 to give back to the people ownership and control over their village forest commons. As sarpanch, Malika helped to initiate a number of conservation projects, creating a nature trail with stone pathways, holding an annual Forest Mela and, perhaps most importantly, the development and conservation work of Mesar Kund, a sacred pond up in the forest above the village.
Spend an hour listening to Malika and Ram talk, and you will learn about community-inclusive sustainable development, village-level politics, women’s empowerment, beekeeping, composting, how to raise an orphaned jungle cat, how lammergeiers drop bones from a height to get at the marrow, which mushrooms come up after lightning storms, how much a yak costs (and where to get one, or a herd for that matter), changing climate patterns in the Himalaya, big dams, petty politics, the antibiotic properties of the caterpillar fungus and the joy of being alive. Malika’s home has given shelter to a sick golden eagle, orphaned chukar partridges, the aforementioned jungle cat, alongside its permanent residents of dogs, cats, chickens, geese, cows, goldfish, honeybees and the occasional human.
All good things seem to come in threes, and Malika, her husband Theo and their colleague Ram, run three intersecting enterprises: Prakriti Himal, an ecological research and advocacy organisation; Maati Sangathan, a women’s collective that operates across fifty villages in the Munsiari region; and the Family Homestay Programme, which is itself part of a wider initiative to promote low-impact, eco-tourism in this part of the Himalaya.
Malika explained the rationale behind the homestay programme, which now includes around fifteen households in Sarmoli village—where we stayed—and in several other villages in the surrounding area. “It’s pointless talking about conservation without talking about livelihoods; the two have to go hand in hand. When people see the benefits of something, they will support it and be a part of it. Tourism is a non-extractive way of earning more for the people of our community, and it encourages them to preserve and look after the forests and rivers, the wildlife and birds. The more beautiful our surroundings, the better it is for visitors.”
The homestay programme is a genuinely cooperative venture, run and managed by the women in whose houses guests stay. That is not to say that it is not ‘managed’—on the contrary, it seems to be a lot more (and better) managed than most other hotels, since guests are invited into peoples’ homes and lives, rather than just using the place as a place to eat and sleep, as they would in a hotel. No alcohol, for example, is allowed to be served or consumed in the home: this is not an example of random puritanism, but an acknowledgement of the reality of these women’s lives. Domestic violence is closely related to drinking here, as in so many places, and the Maati Sangathan women’s group is there to intervene in crisis situations as well as raise awareness. The group also functions as an outlet for selling their homemade products: knitted sweaters and shawls, of locally spun wool, angora and pashmina, durries and carpets made by the women, as well as lemon squash, marmalades, jams and fruit preserves, seeds and packets of what Malika assured us, with an evangelical gleam in her eye, is the best rajma in the world.
We visited the Maati office and sat happily chatting with the women, all knitting furiously, as they showed us their wares. Women seem to be the powerhouse and beating heart of this community. They trudge up and down the hillsides with their woven baskets of fodder or bundles of firewood strapped to their backs, pausing in their knitting only to weave a carpet, see to the children, farm their patches of land or cook and feed the family. Several of the women who are part of the homestay programme have large carpet looms in their homes, hewn from wood and strung with string, where they weave woollen carpets in rich patterns of red, blue and black, their fingers knotting and cutting the threads in a blur.
“The homestay programme is not just about visitors getting a taste of village life, it also transforms the women’s lives. It’s a genuine cultural exchange—and, of course, when the woman of the household is seen to be earning money, it changes her standing in the family,” explains Malika as she takes us around from house to house. Each of the women have a separate story; some have been supported by their husbands and families, others have had to fight for their independence, some have dedicated one room to the programme, others—like Rekha—have borrowed money from the homestay programme’s central reserve in order to build more rooms for guests. Others, like Pushpa, have also been trained in natural history and guiding. She posed, shyly, for us on her porch, her children wide-eyed and puzzled by the clicking camera.
In order to be a part of the homestay programme, each of the women has to sign a pledge. That they will help towards the upkeep of the natural surroundings and that they will not sell or serve liquor (for the reasons outlined above). There is a flat rate for all homestays, of Rs 500 per person per night, including all meals, and the allocation of houses to guests is centrally coordinated to ensure that everyone gets their fair share of bookings. In peak season—that is, May to June and October to November—this often means that all the rooms are full.
The next morning, we rendezvous with Ram, and Apalam and Kylie, the dogs. We feed the cows—grandmother, daughter and the latest calf, just ten days old, a delicate, big-eyed fawn-coloured beauty with a soft, warm nuzzling black nose. “This is to keep out the bears,” Ram explains as he hefts a huge branch of wood away from the cowshed door. Himalayan black bears are endemic to this area and the occasional well-fed cow is a tempting variety to their normal diet, especially in the winter when cold drives them down to the lower slopes.
Then we set off, up the stone pathway through the forest. The dogs gambol along and Ram strides ahead, binoculars swinging in front, ponytail swinging behind, knees like sprung steel. The pathway follows a gurgling stream up through the dense thickets of bamboo, oak and yew. The air is fresh and clear and the trees are full of birdsong. Ram points out a 200-year-old yew tree and tells us of others that are over a thousand years old, and possibly two, that can be found in this region. We spot woodpeckers and tits and long-tailed Himalayan magpies, spotted forktails and whistling thrushes and a serpent eagle riding the thermals high above us.
There’s something magical about living mountain streams. The others walk ahead, and I can’t resist tasting the crystal water. There’s a line quoted by the great Vietnamese monk and thinker, Thich Nhat Hanh—j’ai gôuté l’eau le plus délicieuse du monde (I have tasted the most delicious water in the world)—and the first mouthful is nothing short of a revelation. It tastes like nothing on earth. It tastes like the idea of water rather than water itself: two mouthfuls make me feel a step closer to immortal. Then my trainer slips, there’s a splash and I carry on up the path with one soggy foot.
We reach Mesar Kund and admire the work that the local community has put into digging and maintaining the new kund, but it is the old kund—the original one—that takes our breath away. Legend has it that Mesar, the spirit who lived there, fell in love with a village girl and lured her into his waters with a lotus. The furious villagers stormed into the forest to punish him and try to rescue her (not that she seemed to want rescuing particularly), but he—being a deity an’ all—hit back, cursing the community that they would never flourish. Each year since then, local people sacrifice a calf to appease this disgruntled shade: they wedge the animal in the fork of a tree and knock it on the head with a blunt axe (traditionally, no blood is supposed to
When Malika proposed the new kund, she met with fierce opposition from some people who felt that it would be inviting the wrath of Mesar. She, however, argued that clearly Mesar had a soft spot for women and that he might not mind so much: and sure enough, the women and children started, and did, the bulk of the work. So far, the grumpy spirit of the forest seems to be smiling. Recharged by the waterbody upstream, the little river flows almost all year round, like it used to.
The tradition of barter and exchange is strong in these parts. ‘Shramdaan’ (the donation of labour) is the oil that keeps the community machine running. In exchange for helping to dig the kund, or shoring up the sides of the stream with rocks, the children can take computing or English classes with Malika and Ram. When one helpful soul suggested that they use the funding they had received for the project to hire a JCB to do the work, Ram raised an amused eyebrow: “Where’s the fun in that?” he said.
The clouds roll in and by afternoon there’s a steady drizzle of rain. We make our way to Dr Sher Singh Pangtey’s Tribal Heritage Museum. Opened in 2004, the museum is a rustic Old Curiosity Shop, born of one man’s lifetime of dedicated enthusiasm and magpie mind. It’s hard to believe that Dr Pangtey is seventy-four years old. Short and genial, he showed us around his collection of artefacts, bouncing on his toes with enthusiasm and beaming over his John Lennon glasses. There are ancient wind-up gramophones, yak saddlebags, wooden bottles, spindles and old coins, bits of manuscript, hookah pipes, an alcohol distilling contraption, fossils and samples of local talc, mica and flint stones, as well as a couple of slightly moth-eaten models of Shauka villagers. Many of the exhibits are labelled ‘Don’t touch. Poisonous.’ That, Dr Pangtey explains, beaming, is to ‘scare the children’.
Until a few years back, Munsiari was a one-government-guesthouse, one-dhaba, one-bus town, a stopover for hardy trekkers on their way up to the high passes and glaciers—Milam, Kala Baland, Sungalpa, Yangjali and Namik—or up to the Nanda Devi basecamp. Now the town has many more options. As well as the homestay programme, there are guesthouses, hotels and a resort. The effects of the proposed hydroelectric power project along the Gori Ganga river are already being felt: new roads, offices and money and political interest have flowed in in its wake. JCBs scar the hillsides, and the land and its wildlife are embattled. Protests have been staged, political battles are being waged and here, as in so many places, the wilderness feels precious, and precarious. While the influx of tourists is welcomed by many, voices such as Malika’s are equally being heard, raising difficult and necessary questions to do with environmental impact, social justice and sustainability.
Munsiari has a rainy reputation, and we get a taste of it that day, as the clouds roll in. Then the car breaks down. We push it to the nearest garage. The mechanic sucks his teeth, shakes his head and extracts a length of dead rubber from the engine. By the time we get home, we are soaking. Dinner is subzi, roti and raw carrot for the seventh meal on the trot. The toilet in the bathroom has fallen off the wall, and the dull electric bulb is too dim to read by. I reek like a yak, but a bath is out of the question.
After a ghastly night, I awake to a blazing blue sky, the mountains clear and shining, a tortoiseshell butterfly on my doorstep and a breakfast of caraway-seed halwa. The car is fixed, the sun is in his heaven and the snow on the crest of Kalamuni pass (2,770m) is the icing on the cake. Gazing out across the forested slopes, you feel—you are—on top of the world. Munsiari is not for the faint-hearted tourist and if you’re looking for a relaxing luxury break, look elsewhere. Up here, you should expect dramatic highs and lows: it is the Himalaya, after all.
Outlook Traveller magazine, April 2011