A sunny morning, as we huffed and puffed our way up a steep hillside, our guide darted up like a squirrel on a tree. We hiked past troves of rhododendron to reach her office. A bunch of women sat there giggling, knitting and documenting accounts, but welcomed us like long-lost friends as soon as we set foot in the room. From sweaters and caps to rajma and locally-produced bhang, we ended up buying everything, without them having to convince us even once.
This scene was set in Sarmoli, a small village situated right above Munsyari that shares its borders with both Nepal and Tibet, and is framed by the mighty Panchachuli Range on one side and the Gori Ganga River on the other, making for postcard-perfect scenery.
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Sarmoli is a blend of some great culture and heritage, and is a perfect place to indulge in rural tourism. The only options for stay here include homestays run by women of the village, which gives you the opportunity to converse with locals, celebrate festivals with them, and relish the cuisine of Uttarakhand. Not just that, the women who run these homestays also double up as guides and will take you on hikes across some of the most breath-taking mountain terrains, and even teach you to weave with wool on traditional looms.
Tourism that made a difference
Our guide, Pushpa didi is one of these women of Sarmoli, who support their families by setting up homestays in the village, selling local produce, organizing marathons, and acting as hiking guides to their guests. All this, amidst their daily work of collecting firewood, cooking and taking care of their homes. But even as they juggle a multitude of roles, they never forget to smile; transferring the warmth of their hospitality to everyone they meet.
This present-day idyllic village is a result of the hard work of Malika Virdi, founder of Sarmoli Homestay, in her quest to empower the locals, especially the women of Sarmoli who have now formed a self-help group called ‘Maati Sangathan’. These efforts have helped women fight domestic violence, alcoholism, and become economically and socially independent.
For a long time now, Uttarakhand has been facing serious mass migration challenges, turning once flourishing villages to abandoned, ghost towns. Sarmoli would have faced the same fate, but thanks to Malika Virdi and the determination of women like Pushpa didi, there are now around 25 homestays in Sarmoli that offer travellers an authentic, slice-of-life experience, and a peek into Uttarakhand’s unique hill culture.
Of beautiful trails and glorious history
For travellers looking for things to do, Sarmoli houses the region’s popular Nanda Devi temple, dedicated to Goddess Nanda or Parvati, and is a sacred site for the devotees of Kumaon. It’s easy to reach, if you’re willing to embark on a swift, but gorgeous 3km trek from Munsyari town. Nanda Devi is also one of the oldest temples in Uttarakhand, and offers some striking views of the Panchachuli ranges.
The region is also home to the unique Mesar Kund (a pond in an old Oak forest), easily accessible through a well-marked, stone trail that takes you inside oak and Rhododendron forest, finally opening up to sparkling green meadows. You can lay down on the grass, gaze up at the sky, listen to the call of birds or watch butterflies fluttering past you. The forest pond is also the venue for the annual Mesar Forest Fair, held around the Budh Purnima in the month of May.
For those fascinated with history, Sarmoli has a very interesting Tribal Heritage Museum that preserves the culture of the local Bhotiya Tribe, thanks to the labour of Dr Sher Singh Pangtey, a Ph.D. on Bhotiya Tribes in Johar Valley. The museum is a treasure house of artefacts, ornaments, weapons, herbs, maps and local handicrafts, giving you a glimpse into the culture and traditions of the glorious Bhotiyas.
In the evening, when we came back from a long walk, we were amazed to see our host hard at work, preparing for a local festival. That too without breaking a single sweat, while we nursed our sore feet, unaccustomed to walking miles.
She cooked and shared her stories of how she got married, her dreams for her kids, and their dreams of building a beautiful house. We were treated to some delicious, local meal comprising of Bhang ki chutney, Bhat Ki Dal (a traditional lentil recipe of the region), Kumaoni Raita, Ghughut (flour-based sweetmeats), and topped all this off with a huge bowl of kheer.
How to Reach
Sarmoli is well connected via road to most important cities and towns of Uttarakhand. The nearest rail head is in Kathgodam, from where Sarmoli is a 10-hour drive away. One can also opt for a flight to Pithoragarh, from where you can drive 5 hours to reach the village.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.