Colossal snow covered Panchachuli pierce through the spotless azure sky, a string of five peaks where the five Pandavas said to have attained the moksha, loom large on our heads. Dumbstruck we were with its sheer beauty and splendor, equally matched by the dense, verdant forest of banj (oak), buransh (rhododendron), utis, pangar and kafal, under which a thick carpet of lush-green grass was spread everywhere, a Blue Magpie with dark blue feathers and yellow beak, flew from the flowering pangar tree into the valley. Cheerful Kamala Pande, 52, came to the kutcha road, about 100 m up from her homestay at Talla (Upper) Sarmoli village, just 2 km from Munsiary, in Pithoragarh district, Uttarakhand. Munsiari means “place with snow” in local language, at a height of 2200 m above sea level, is indeed a pristine slice of living for the troubled souls.
She welcomed us in her home that became our home unlike the cliche. With long, French windows, comfortable bed, bamboo chairs, a side table having books and a slab with tea pots and sink, the room really felt like our own living room with solar emergency lanterns. We were there for just a couple of days, but many stay here for days and weeks and during the stay, they just not see the area, but explore local culture, enjoy traditional Kumaoni cousin and share the works of their hosts and other villagers. This is a unique and responsible tourism entwined with conservation that is basically a livelihood initiative in Munsiary, Uttarakhand, that is a learning experience for both visitors and villagers, “As visitors come here not as tourists, but as travellers who learn from our culture and tradition, we also get to know their way of life,” reasons Malika Virdi, 52.
Virdi, originally from Punjab, born and brought up in Delhi and an M.Phil. in social works, came to this remote corner of Kumaon hills in 1992 along with her husband, E. Theophilus, on a project and was, “Awestruck with the grandeur and beauty of the area and simplicity of the hill people, that we decided to make it our permanent abode,” she tells. However, it was not easy as she had to take the villagers in confidence and made her as one of their own, toiling like hill women as a farmer, working in fields and forests, cutting grass and fetching wood and fodder. Her relentless toiling and hard work ultimately paid off and she was elected the Sarpanch in 2003, of the Sarmoli Van Panchayat. During her tenure, she just not made the forest of this van panchayat really dense and useful for the villagers, she linked forest conservation work to tourism for the sustainable livelihood of the villagers, “In 2004, we established Maati Sangathan (MS)that is not an NGO and planned to turn our homes as homestays,” tells Pande.”
As MS doesn’t have any external funding, it raised internal loans where every member contributes five per cent of their earning to a revolving fund from which loans are given on nominal interests to its members for reconstruction and converting existing rooms into guest rooms with internal redesigning. And, one per cent of this amount goes into forest conservation every month, visible by the health of dense mixed forestry all around.
The idea of responsible tourism practiced through 15 home-stays, involving 25 households in three villages: Sarmoli, Shekhdhura and Nanasem, is bearing fruits as it is providing them regular incomes as Rekha Rautela, having one home-stay in the upper reaches of Sarmoli village earned Rs. 160,000 last year, while Pande earned Rs. 120,000 and Beena Nitwal, another woman owner, coughed up a cool Rs. 115,000. Many MS members also work as nature, wildlife, trekking and birding guides as, “There are 326 bird species or 1/4th of total bird species found in the country, in this valley.” Informs K. Ramnarayan or Ram, 32, member, MS who also runs Himal Prakriti, a nature club to conserve region’s wildlife. Ram is a birding expert who takes visitors on bird watching trips. Pushpa Sumtayal is a trekking guide, while Rautela is a nature guide. These activities that the visitors undertake here make it a cultural exchange activity, “The home-stay program 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 it is connected to conservation” reasons Virdi. This cultural exchange results into guests planting potatoes, digging a pond, fixing solar lanterns, clearing cow-dung, taking care of goats, or trying their hands into knitting.
But, both the idea and ideal of responsible tourism goes hand in hand here as every woman has to sign a pledge to become a member of the MS. “We take the oath that we wouldn’t disturb the natural surroundings and will not sell or serve liquor,” says Basanti Rawat, member MS who runs a homestay in Shekhdhura village.
Many visitors want to experience hill farming, go on treks like to the short trek to Khalia Danda, a hilltop at 3474 m, or to Chhipa Kedar or to the long treks to Milam Glacier or Nanda Devi Base Camp.
Village and eco-tourism has become the latest fad where visitors are exposed to the culture of the area but here no show is held for them, “We don’t sell our culture on a platter for them, but they are more than welcome to participate in any cultural and religious function if it is being held in the village during their stay,” says Virdi. Anyway, as many guests stay for days and weeks, they love to get their hands spoil in village farming and be a part of village folk dance and song troupe. Still, they are more than thankful to carry a taste of Kumaoni society and nature back with them, “It was truly a place for the nourishment of our souls and we wish to nourish it again and again,” wrote Shomona Khanna from Delhi who stayed with Kamala Pande in June 22015 for 11 days, in the visitors’ register. Another guest from the USA who stayed with Saraswati Thakuni in May 2015 for 13 days, then went to 43 days long trek to Milam Glacier writes, ‘Kind, warm family and great local cuisine, with amazing beauty and amazing people, what else you need?”
Besides individual travelers, groups such as Engineers Without Borders come here on exchanges bases and one Polish woman engineer stayed with the community for four months and she with a few villagers, helped map the water sources within the village forest and the supply to each village home. Similarly, a work to understand the habitat of wild pheasants paved its way for has given visitors an opportunity to participate in a biology conservation project, by putting their skill sets to good use. This project eventually became instrumental in collecting baseline data that led to a plan for protection of pheasant habitat.
And, when the guests go back, they write blogs and tell others about their unique experience, “That’s our source of publicity as we never advertise,” claims Ram. The impact is visible as 262 people stayed in these homes for 1500 nights during 2014-15, yielding a revenue of Rs. 120 to 150 thousands to these 25 households in three villages.
27 children, pupils of Jangle School, a school without a building, any infrastructure, any syllabus and any class, makes this world in Munsiary a whole, new world. The school it has its principal and students, “We meet any time before or after our formal school and anyone can join it with three conditions—we’ll clean our villages, if we leave our villages for jobs, we’ll come back and if we go out for travel, we’ll tell stories from it,” informs Priya Rautela, 14, Principal, Jangle School. Such informal learning process prepare just not 27 this school, but adults also get to learn many things from them, “Last week, Champa Tolia, a Class V student, informed us about a different kind of mushroom that is highly tasty and nutritious, tells Virdi.
The flattening sun-rays had turned the sparkling white snow-cap of Panchachuli into pale yellow that became crimson red in no time. Soon, twilight yielded into pitch darkness that was pierced by fireflies in the valley, but the heavens gave a tough competition as a tapestry of stars formed a display of sheer majesty in the sky the center canopy of stars—Orion, Virgo, Pegasus & Hydra had formed the heavenly alpana up there. We enjoyed the earthy meal of dark, brown manduva chapatti, gahat daal, lingoda saag and jhingora kheer; a true Kumaoni cuisine and called it a day.
Until a few years ago, Munsiary was an obscure, one stop, one dhaba, one guest house town, only for ardent trekkers and nature lovers, now there are 25 to 50 hotels, resorts and guest houses and the town is witnessing a tourist upsurge, but Virdi, who is for responsible tourism, has joined hands with a few hoteliers to form Munsiary Union of Sustainable Tourism, “Five of these hotels and resorts have joined us to promote the kind of tourism where tourists leaves nothing but his footprints behind and takes nothing but memories with him,” informs Virdi.
May be that’s a way forward.