Munsiyari, Mahila Power in the Mountains

Munsiyari, Mahila Power in the Mountains

Kamala Pandey may appear petite, and even frail, but like all hill women, she is a formidable powerhouse. Saree draped neatly around her slender frame with nary a crease and a smile that seldom leaves her face, Kamala spins like a top, attending to the myriad chores that crowd her typical day. By 7 am, the courtyard has been swept, the kitchen garden tended, the family’s clothes hand-washed and neatly hung out to dry where the torrential rains of the afternoon cannot get them, the family members fed and seen off to their respective destinations for the day. Your breakfast — piping hot paranthas with aloo-subzi, curd and tea is already served and a substantial lunch of a different menu is neatly packed in takeaway containers and delivered to your room.

Now begins Kamala’s work day — at the Mahila Sangathan where she checks inventories, tidies up accounts for the day on the laptop and discusses preparations for the birding festival. Again she reappears in the evening to tend her kitchen garden which takes up quite a bit of effort. Yet, your dinner is ready by 7.30 pm and brought up to your room, which overlooks a stunning valley.  Most of the food served in her homestay is made of locally grown organic produce and the menu is seldom repeated.

Kamala and more than 20 other women like her in village Sarmoli are part of a homestay programme that started 15 years ago. Sarmoli is a gem tucked away 2 km up a kaccha road from Munisyari town in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand.  The village, which has 200 households, is stunningly beautiful, watched over by the perpetually snow-shrouded Panchchuli peaks which line up in a grand arc and dazzle you when the clouds lift off.  

It is not easy to get to Munisyari. More than 600 km from Delhi, it is a good 17-hour drive split over two days with a halt in Almora or Binsar en route. 

For all its gorgeous location at 9,000 plus feet, and spectacular views, Munsiyari may never have been discovered by travellers, had it not been for the homestay programme which offers a welcoming retreat to weary travellers.  After all, just 15 years ago, even if one undertook the arduous drive, there was no place to stay anywhere within a hundred kilometre radius. Munisyari is now on the global travellers’ map. They come from as far away as The Netherlands and Norway for their tranquil Himalayan getaways.

Sarmoli gets its clientele through the word of mouth. For about six months in a year, the homestays remain fully booked, bringing in a steady stream of revenue to the households. Even those households, which have not opted for the homestay programme, have benefited from the demand for guides, porters and taxis generated by the visitors. The enterprise has transformed not only the village, but has empowered the women here and made them confident and independent. In fact, in many households, the women have become the primary breadwinners, something that has elevated their status in this conservative community.

But the women are not sitting on their laurels. They have come together to form a women’s cooperative. There is also a showroom where they sell hand-woven woollen shawls, stoles and sweaters as well as organic local produce grown in their own fields. The shawls and stoles are woven during the winter months when Sarmoli is blanketed in snow and visitor traffic is thin.

The women of Munsiyari have received much support and encouragement from Malika Virdi, a city woman who has made Sarmoli her home for the past two decades. Malika does not take credit for this transformation, but says the women of Sarmoli are innovative and industrious. But then, Malika went on to become their sarpanch, a post she held for seven years during which much of this transformation took place. Malika now coordinates the homestay programme through her organisation called Himalayan Ark. Co-ordination, she says, is necessary in order to ensure all 25 homestays get their fair share of the clientele.

It has not been easy for Kamala, Bina, Basanthi and other women of the village to set up the homestay. Most of them have had to invest heavily to expand their modest village homes to accommodate visitors from the city who might want a modicum of privacy and some basic comforts like attached bathrooms, flush toilets, running hot water and spotless white sheets. The women have learnt to deal with the idiosyncrasies’ of city folks who, at times, can be unreasonably demanding. At Rs 1,500 per person per day, all meals included, the women of Sarmoli offer an unforgettable experience in a stunning location. In the process, they have empowered themselves as well. Clearly, a win-win situation.

Published in The Tribune on