Monday 17 December 2018

Experiencing Bird(ing) Paradise in Sarmoli

The forest floor carpeted with rhododendron petals.
You've heard of the saying, 'You can't have your cake and eat it too'? Well, I realised if you are a Hindu that's totally possible. Now, before you think this is a religious statement, (of course I am a proud Hindu) let me hasten to explain why :-) In 2017, I had a unique wish for my birthday. I wanted to celebrate my birthday with the Nature fairies in a forest and wanted the birds to sing my birthday song:-) Well, while it may sound like fantasy to some, I knew that was totally possible. If this time-space reality has the ability to give birth to a desire, it also has the power to fulfill it! So the answer lay in my long pending trip to Sarmoli, which had been getting postponed for the last 3 years. The only hitch was that I also wanted to be with my favourite person that day- my husband who couldn't travel with me. So that is where being a Hindu came to my rescue. For us Hindus, we get to celebrate our birthday twice a year, one on the day as per the Gregorian calendar and another as per the Hindu lunar calendar (called 'tithi'). Both birthdays usually fall within a few days of each other.

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Curled up with a book in my home-stay

So I spent my Georgian calendar birthday with my husband and off I went the next day morning to Sarmoli, after a flight to Delhi, an overnight train to Kathgodam and a 10 hour road trip to this quaint village. Sarmoli is also home to the Himal Prakriti trust- an organization that works to conserve the forests in Munsiyari. I had been in touch with Malika Virdi, the woman behind the conservation initiatives and the community run homestays. I decided I wanted to also contribute in some way I can. So we decided that I would illustrate birds of the region. I was asked to illustrate the Laughing Thrushes that inhabit the Munsiyari area- totally eight of them. Here’s my work. They would be printed on brochures by Himal Prakriti for educational campaigns.
Chestnut crowned Laughing Thrush

Rufous chinned Laughing Thrush

Spotted Laughing Thrush

Streaked Laughing Thrush

Striated Laughing Thrush

Variegated Laughing Thrush

White throated Laughing Thrush

The very first morning I was woken up by the songs of so many birds. I went out and there was the son of my host, all of 10 years, confidently naming each and every bird that was singing. Barbets, Verditer Flycatcher, woodpeckers, warblers, etc. 

The realisation dawned on me that I was in bird paradise, and that my trip was going to be a beautiful bird-filled one! I would be woken up every morning at around 5.30 am by the birds and I would sit up on my bed, wide eyed, watching the sun infuse energy into everything around. Slowly the bird song would reach a crescendo giving the day a perfect start!Munsiyari, the hamlet in which the village Sarmoli lies,  is rich in bio-diversity and has around 350 species of birds and I was looking forward to seeing as many as I could.

Yellow Grosbeak- male and female

I was assigned a large desk next to a large picture window in Ram’s dream mountain house. Ram, originally from Chennai, has made Sarmoli his home since the last 24 years. One look at his wood and stone house, you would know that this is what weary urban office goers dream of. Well, I’m not a typical office goer, but I too dream to have a house like his, basking in the lap of the Panchachuli mountains.
My workdesk :-)
Now, this window where I sat each of the 10 days and sketched away, overlooked a magnificent walnut tree, amongst others and beyond it was the gorgeous snow peaked Panchachuli mountains! 
The Panchachuli mountains

Could I have asked for anything more! Now comes the best part! Ordinarily, one would have to walk around to spot birds. But sitting right where I was, I could get such splendid sighting of birds such as Whistling Thrush, Rufous Treepie, Red billed Blue Magpie, shy Partridges, etc. I carry only a small pocket sized camera, so these are ‘humble’ pictures but they will give you an idea of the beauty I experienced.
Yellow billed Blue magpies and Rufous Treepie

Chestnut crowned Laughing Thrush

Whistling Thrush

Khalij pheasant and a Turtle Dove
As in all mountain regions, the weather would be moody and each day was different. Sometimes, the sky would be aglow with purple, pink and gold, some days there would be cottony clouds floating through huge beams of sunlight. 
Different moods of the sky.

Can you spot the UFO landing?'s a sun beam :-)

Just before sunrise

I even experienced hailstorm, my first ever. Luckily, I was watching it from the cozy comfort of Ram’s home, or else I would have had a dent or two on my skull! But it was beautiful, to see lemon sized hail stones pelting down from the heavens above. As soon as the storm subsided, I went to pick up a few hailstones. How wonderful!
Hailstones on my palm. I was thrilled!
Hailstones everywhere!

So, on my Hindu calendar birthday, I went on this amazing trek-cum-birdwatching trip on the upper reaches of the Munsiari mountains, where I had only birds (hundreds of them), the snow capped Panchachuli mountains and the forest fairies for company. And just as I had wanted, I spent the whole day being enthralled by the beauty of the forest, reading a book, taking a nap on the flower strewn grass, and meditating, with the birds singing for me in chorus throughout:-) 

You may like my post on the Rhododendron trek
Taking in the beauty of the forest.

A received a red carpet welcome! 

Reading a book in the forest.

I was greeted with sights like these- of the forest floor carpeted with rhododendron flowers, golden sunlight streaming through the thousand shades of green and porcelain blue skies speckled with fluffy clouds. We even had a little party with me eating some delicious gobi-parathas and rajma which my host had packed for me while the birds snacked on insects and seeds around. :-) I cannot even begin listing the variety of birds I spotted, but I've drawn a few. 

My illustration of the birthday with birds :-)

To the left is the Yellow billed Blue Magpie, Rosefinch, Woodpecker, Verditer Flycatcher, and to the right are the Long tailed Minivet, Barbet, Warbler and the Black and Yellow Grosbeak. All the birds looked like they had been dipped in buckets of happy colours and sprinkled with some more for patterns :-) That's going to be one of my best memories forever. Thank you Universe!

Mesar Kund

While I am writing about Sarmoli, the community effort of the village people deserves a mention. What makes this village different from others is that the forests around the village are owned by the community as opposed to being owned by the Government or private individuals. I was completely floored by the pride and reverence that the people of Sarmoli have for their culture, mountains and forests. Each person of the village does voluntary 'Shram-daan', meaning offering service in the forests for any number of days in a year. One day while trekking up I saw a group of 7 children jumping into the Mesar kund, a pond in the forest. I thought they were having fun. But my guide pointed out that the children were cleaning up the pond- removing plastic bottles and bags strewn by thoughtless tourists. This concept of a community owned forest is the only kind outside of the North East of India. Here, I am basking in the warmth and love of the forests near Nag deo kund. :-) 
Kheela devi with the carpets she has woven
Our traditional self sustaining societies included weavers and Sarmoli is no different. There are weavers of shawls, sweaters and woollen mats and carpets in Sarmoli, but I could only meet Kheela devi who weaves beautiful woollen mats and carpets in traditional Kumaoni designs. These are sold through Maati Sangathan, a women's collective founded by Malika Virdi, about whom I will talk later. To give the mats an interesting spin, designs of birds found locally are also incorporated. I visited Kheela Devi's home, saw her at work and bought a colourful mat woven by her at the Maati office.
Bird motifs on mats

Yellow billed blue magpie on a mat

The first 5 days I spent in a home-stay which I have nothing to write about. The host, Pushpa Sumtyal, did not keep basic necessities like milk for tea and  I had only potatoes for 5 days! I was wondering if I should have skipped writing this, but I also need to give an honest review of my experience. So I requested a change of home-stay and the second one more than made up for the 1st five days. I would never forget my endearing, warm hosts, Saraswati Thakuni, her daughter-in-law and her grand daughter, Bhanu for making authentic Kumaoni dishes for me. I have dedicated an entire post about Kumaoni food and thanks to Bhanu I could sample as many as 16 dishes over a period of 5 days at her place.

                            You may also like my post on Himachali cuisine
Lip smacking Kumaoni dishes made by Bhanu Thakuni

I would surely recommend Sarmoli for a relaxed getaway in Nature’s lap. You may contact Malika Virdi at 9411194041 or Ram Narayan at 9411194042 for homestays.
Yellow billed blue magpies giving me a farewell.

The full moon soothing my soul

On the last evening of my stay there, I took a long walk around the village, my heart already heavy that I would be leaving next morning. On the path I saw some Yellow billed Blue Magpies gathered as if to give me a warm farewell and I looked up at the sky. There was the full moon in its glory beaming at me, assuring me that I will continue to have such beautiful experiences. 

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1 comment:

  1. Absolutely delightful expressions!!! Thanks Priya! ❤️🤗🙌


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