Residents walk through Sarmoli village, against the backdrop of the snow-clad ranges of Pithoragarh. Munsiyari is located at 2,200 metres above sea level, and is a popular trekking base for tourists. (Photo: Malika Virdi)

Boarding the Himalayan Ark

Getting to this village is a hike in itself. You are always hiking. Visiting the local market means a kilometre long walk through oak-, pine- and rhododendron-lined rocky lanes; potato shopping at the nearby farm involves a scenic jungle trail; little streams greet you on every path, as do red, orange and yellow leaves—raw nature in all its beauty, in the mountains.

This is Sarmoli, a tiny village at an altitude of 8,000ft, set against the backdrop of five snow-capped Himalayan peaks (‘Panchachuli’) in the Munsiyari region of Uttarakhand.

Fifty-five-year-old Hirma Sumtiyal’s spare-room-turned-homestay was my week-long residence in the hamlet. Time spent in the kitchen made me fall in love with the culinary brilliance of Kumaoni Pahadi cuisine—novel tempering ingredients like jambu (a herb with rosy flowers), timur (peppercorns) and thoya (a black, cumin-like spice), largely unknown outside the Himalayan region, add a distinctive flavour to everyday lentil dishes and vegetable curries.

The diet includes a whole lot of whole grains (finger millet rotis and red rice are staples). The produce is mostly organic and sourced locally; delicious and nutritious.

I doubt I’d have discovered these morsels of information had I stayed in a hotel. The increasing appeal of homestays can be partly attributed to their relatively cheaper tariffs (ranging from Rs800 to Rs2,000 per night). But here, importantly, tourists can uniquely experience high-altitude village life and learn about local folklore and lifestyle.

Hirma Sumtiyal, a homestay owner who is part of the Himalayan Ark, with her morning chai. (Photo: Samarth Bansal)

A Unique Model

Hirma Aunty’s place is one of 14 family homes that form the Himalayan Ark, a 19-year-old, all-women-run collective linking livelihood with ecological conservation—a textbook model of ecotourism. 2019 was an incredible year for the Ark. Across all its member homes, there were 2,000 occupancies, 700 visitors from all over India and abroad, and a turnover of Rs50 lakh—all pumped into the local economy.

But there is much more going on: the existence of this company— yes, the Ark is a business—nudged me to reflect on the broader societal changes unveiling invisible games of power. The challenges bring forth the core question anyone dealing with community-led projects has to confront in this current age of capitalism: Can a group of people prioritising the collective good, while equitably contributing to individual welfare, compete with the market economy’s lucrative incentives that give primacy to the individual good?

It’s as much about politics as economics. So the first step involves rephrasing the vocabulary used in traditional tourism. ‘Homestay families are not “hosts”, they are “owners”; the customer is not “king”, they are a “guest”; the place of stay is not a “destination”, it’s the family’s “home”,’ says 62-year-old Malika Virdi, who established the Ark and leads the team managing daily operations.

Homemade regional cuisine is a big draw for visitors to a homestay. From top to bottom: a handful of ragi or finger millet; a plateful of poori and aloo ke gutke made from potatoes fried with local spices jimbhu and taimur, and bhang ki chutney, made from hemp seeds; Chandra di, a homestay owner, prepares a mix of rice and soybean to make a Pahadi dish called patyud.  (Photos: Samarth Bansal)

‘Look at the power equation between the homestay owner and their guests,’ Virdi said. ‘The visitors are richer than the families. So the families can bow under pressure, making it hard for them to be friends and build warm relationships. What matters is respect. We need to reinforce the idea that homestay families are owners and visitors are guests.’

Virdi previously worked in Delhi and Rajasthan as a women’s rights activist before making Munsiyari home in 1992, following her husband’s posting in the town as part of the National Tree Growers’ Cooperative Federation. The shift was not easy—she was an outsider who had no clue about farming and seasons, norms and customs, communities and politics.

‘It took me five to ten years to re-establish myself,’ Virdi said in an interview at her Sarmoli residence—among the most beautiful Himalayan houses I have seen—which also serves as the Ark’s office. In the mid-1990s, Virdi and a group of women formed the autonomous women’s collective Maati Sangathan to protest against rampant alcoholism and domestic violence in the area. She was twice elected the sarpanch of the Sarmoli–Jainti Van Panchayat, the democratically elected body that frames rules and regulations on how the community will manage the forest commons (land or resources belonging to the community). Around 15% of Uttarakhand’s forests are van panchayats.

The homestay programme launched when 13 families signed up under the Himalayan Ark collective in 2004. On the surface, it is simple aggregator economics: the homeowners keep 80% of the revenue, while the remaining 20% goes to management, who takes care of marketing, manages bookings and payments, and advises the rural families on how to improve their hospitality service.

But dig a little deeper and that’s where the similarity between the Ark and other aggregators ends. The Ark’s business is designed around preserving forest commons. Every family contributes 2% of their revenue towards a ‘sanrakshan kosh’, a fund for the van panchayats’ conservation efforts. Another 3% of earnings is deposited as a savings instrument, meant to be released in the future as and when homestay upgrades are needed or when loans are required by the collective’s members in times of crisis.

Irises bloom bright in Sarmoli village. Irises in the Himalayas are the focus of many a photo by visitors and residents alike. (Photo: E Theophilus)

Deepak Pachai, a 20-year-old arts student who goes by DK, joined Virdi ten months ago as a fellow. He emphasised the centrality of forests in his community’s livelihood: they provide firewood for cooking, grass for cattle and, most crucially, water.

‘We are hakdaars [claimants] of this forest. Our life is dependent on it. So we have to work for it. Our daily life will become tough if the forests deteriorate,’ DK said, as we hiked through the forest.

Community conservation involves contributing labour to work in the forest—as guards, to plant trees, to build broken walls—roughly once every two months. Sometimes the work is paid; sometimes it takes the form of shramdaan (voluntary labour by an individual as a contribution to community welfare).

Founder Malika Virdi moved to Uttarakhand to live closer to the land. She began this initiative to help empower local women. (Photo: E Theophilus)

In this way, membership with the Ark is a commitment to thinking beyond individual interests and giving precedence to the community. There are more rules: attending meetings (once a month or two), contributing money and labour for forest conservation, and living by the locally famous ‘sukh-dukh’ formula.

‘Paise ko sukha maante ho, to dukh me bhi khadé ho (If you consider money to be happiness, then also stand in sorrow),’ says Virdi.

It’s Complicated: The Highs and Lows

‘Many find it hard to abide by our rules,’ Hirma Aunty told me. ‘They just want to run the homestay, but that’s not allowed.’ She explains that families help each other in setting up and running the homestays. If she is not around for some reason, other Ark families step in to take care of the guests—they come together to tackle each other’s problems.

I wondered about the occupancy rate at my host family’s place. The numbers in the guest register were underwhelming: the room had been booked for only around 60 days in the previous year. May witnessed the most tourist traffic, while the monsoon months of July to September had no visitors. Hirma Aunty had no complaints, though—they are happy with the way things are, she said.

‘We don’t want 100% occupancy,’ Virdi says. ‘We have limiting factors. Balance is needed because you must think of yourself as part of nature. We don’t want our daily life interrupted and resources to be exhausted with a large inflow of tourists.’ However, she does acknowledge that there is space to expand.

Visitors to Munsiyari pose against the mountains. Sarmoli village is a popular base for trekkers who visit the area. (Photo: Malika Virdi)

There could be one more reason why Hirma Aunty’s homestay had lower numbers: the practice of rotating turns’.

Consider this. The next time I visit Sarmoli, I will not have the option of staying at Hirma Aunty’s home. Virdi will allocate one of the homes based on whose turn it is, a decision rooted in multiple factors, including the family’s need (which accounts for other income sources) and contribution to the community. Who gets to host a guest does not affect the Ark’s bottom line—the company will make the same amount irrespective of where the guest stays—but the idea here is to promote collaboration, not competition. Collective decision-making for the larger communal good.

This means individual families giving up on potential income—an idea that my hosts, at least, were on board with. However, not everyone is—the most apparent challenge to this model is the possibility that leaving the collective and going solo in the market can reap more financial rewards.

And there are families that have left. At its peak in 2010, when Virdi finished her first term as the van panchayat’s sarpanch, the Ark had 25 families on board. Membership is now down to about half this number, at 14 members.

Chandra Thukani, a long-standing aide and friend of Virdi’s, ventured out on her own. She joined the collective in 2014 and left in January 2021 to start Vedica Homestay, investing in two new rustic wooden rooms.

Thukani’s daughter-in-law Usha Thukani, the primary manager of the homestay, says, ‘With the Ark, if a guest landed up at our house, we first needed to get permission from Malika Di. But a guest’s mood can change in that duration. Now, I don’t need to ask anyone.’

Usha, who joined the family four years after their Ark homestay opened, has exposure to the internet and the drive to run her own business, and says they are getting more business now. The family no longer lacks the knowledge and experience to run a homestay, promote it online and get bookings on their own.

One family formerly associated with the Ark who didn’t want to be identified said that the collective decision-making for rotating turns, which Virdi believes is the model’s strength, does not work.

‘Those who are closer to Malika, those who work with her in Maati Sangathan, they get more bookings,’ the family commented. ‘Yes, everything is transparent, but people don’t say anything. Forexample, Didi asks us in meetings if everyone is okay with how turnare allocated, and no one says anything. There is total silence. But after leaving, people start complaining.’ The families added that they still love and respect Virdi and appreciate the work she has done.

Roughly 32 lakh people have migrated away from Uttarakhand since the state was formed in 2000, turning 3,000 villages into ‘ghost villages’. Homestay projects like Himalayan Ark aim to revitalize local populations by means of ‘non-extractive’ livelihoods. (Photos:  Samarth Bansal (top and bottom), Himalayan Ark (middle))

Commons and Collectives

Virdi feels that all this is par for the course. ‘Collectives are the hardest to make work. Democratic impulse and a sense of justice are deeply ingrained in human beings. And yet, people don’t raise their voices. They can’t exit the feudal mindset. So yes, there is a power dynamic, but it’s partly the fault of our people who don’t try and challenge what they don’t approve of and don’t see where it leads us,’ she says, while acknowledging her privileges that introduce the unintended hierarchy in this set-up.

According to Virdi, it’s not that ‘weak people’ who can’t be on their own join collectives. ‘Someone’s kid studied computer science, so they can establish an independent online presence, but they are still with us. As I tell everyone: if you are in a hurry, go alone; if you are in it for the long haul, go together.’

The idea of commons—largely abstract for those who grew up in cities and a term that appears mostly in discussions around issues like climate crisis—is the lived reality of Sarmoli residents. They have to deal with the potential consequences of ignoring them every day.

Sarmoli in the winter is classic Himalayas, all snow and icy peaks. (Photo: Malika Virdi)

For me, a resident of Landour, this offered a different way of looking at mountain life. This lifestyle is a choice: you are deeply aware of your ecological footprint, where your waste is going, and where your water and food come from.

It’s a choice because not everyone in the village wants to live that way. Some don’t see the value of forests anymore, as all kinds of goods are readily available in the local market, and many are migrating to larger towns and cities to fulfil other kinds of aspirations. The village itself has multiple examples of urban influence: kids hooked on smartphone games, those who prefer Maggi to the home-made kukla noodles (a local delicacy I loved), and reconstructed houses that would be better suited to a city.

A basket of walnuts, which grow in the cold temperate zone of the valley, in Munsiyari (Photo: E Theophilus)

Against the backdrop of these conflicting ideas in this tiny village, the memory that stayed with me was my first interaction with Hirma Aunty, when she told me why she was part of the programme and the collective: ‘We don’t seek money. We seek love and respect. Money is like dirt on the hand; if you earn today, it will go away tomorrow. But not everyone gets love.’

She is right—not everyone gets love. But I certainly did.

To learn more about this initiative, or to plan your stay, visit They are also on Instagram
and Facebook as himalayanark and Himalayan Ark, respectively.

Samarth Bansal

Samarth Bansal is an independent journalist based in Landour.

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