In Nainital district but still far enough from the madding crowd of the popular lake and tourist spot lies a sleepy little village called Gunialekh in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon hills. A small neat hamlet of around 500 families, the village had nothing unique to offer visitors until recently barring a few local houses, vast green fields, trees of all shapes and sizes, a variety of flora and fauna and some non threatening wildlife.
It was only in 2021 that the first rays of the sun in this otherwise rural and somnolent setting fell on Aarish, a new 4 acre homestay set up with a 180 degree view of the Nanda devi range and a smattering of lights in a deep valley before you that allows visitors like you and me to visit this village and indulge in the luxury of doing absolutely nothing.
If you ask Dev Verma, the owner and gentle force behind Aarish, what you can do once you reach his place, his answer comes pat: “nothing”. Doing nothing with you will be Dash, the male bhutia at the property, and doing an awful lot of damage to anything she can lay her paws on is Snowy, a mongrel who is teething like there’s no tomorrow (those wary of dogs, not to worry. The staff is trained to keep them away from guests too).
If lazing, reading, listening to music and soaking in the view is not your thing, there are a few invigorating walks around the place that will introduce you to many little facts about the village and its inhabitants. On one of these walks, I learned that almost all the locals have a cactus plant placed on their roof to repel the wrath of nature, including preventing lightning from falling on their homes. I spot them easily after that. We walk through many neat terraced fields - wheat, peas, potatoes, lemons and several fruit trees - all in various stages of ripening. We also come across a “naula”, a naturally occurring water aquifer with a stone lined tank which stores cool, clean water from nearby springs and streams. It looks like a mini temple and is treated as such by locals as drinkable water remains a critical life source in these parts.
A delightful walk, easily accomplished even by the tardiest member of our small group, on our second day takes one up to a quaint temple of no deity, a charming and tidily constructed stone structure, surrounded by white daisies atop a hill with a panoramic view of the surrounding valleys. Dev tells us that on a clear winter morning, a view of the crystal white peaks of the Panchachuli range is quite common from the spot. A small havan kund with trishuls that appear to be guarding the entrance are the only real indication that this a place of worship. A locked iron gate prevents human entry.
These temples that one finds scattered all over the hills are a delight to me for two reasons : one the almost always vantage position that offers spectacular 360 degree views and two, the almost assured absence of any priests exhorting you to pray and donate. What makes these walks worthwhile for guests is that they are almost always conducted by Dev whose quiet presence and knowledge of the region offers you valuable nuggets of information and observances that one may never have known or may otherwise have escaped one’s attention. A walk within the property allows you to take stock of everything planted - right from vegetables, herbs to strawberries. Recent baazgaon residents Ashish and Kriti have been pulled in to replicate their permaculture farming expertise to ensure that Aarish is soon self-sustaining and bountiful in this aspect.
Dev, a tea planter’s son and his wife Deepika, both of whom grew up in the North East’s lush tea gardens, have added little touches from their childhood environs in every corner you look. In the dining area, three fishing baskets double up as overhead lights that fall directly on the delicious fare - more on this later for those big on food ! - on the table. In the common living room shared by guests, the centerpiece above the fireplace is a large hat, worn by tea pickers to save themselves from the scorching afternoon sun. On a side table, a beautiful miniature black rhino catches my eye; a perfect replica that makes one thankful it’s just that. On a drive out of the property, Dev points out herbal tea bushes and cultivation all around. The apple never falls far from the tree I think to myself.
Where Aarish differs from most similar homestays in and around is in what the four young boys, mostly locally trained, manage to produce on the dining table on a daily basis. From local Kumaoni meals to thukpa, momos, pizza, idlis and vadas, homemade samosas and a wide range of desserts - the chocolate mousse is sublime - the team manages to consistently replicate an episode of the MasterChef kind of fare at every meal. I highly recommend scrambled eggs with freshly baked bread for breakfast, often served outdoors on a bench facing the valley. Producing a good scrambled egg I have long held is an art and Bhaskar does it to perfection. Crispy herbed potato wedges produced by the Aarish kitchen would put McDonald’s and Co. to shame. Unsweetened fresh rhododendron juice on offer daily in season makes one feel like a picture of health.
Let me end by explaining what makes Aarish even more unusual. Once you enter the property, you are home. Rooms are comfy with an eclectic section of coffee table books that tell you more about the state and its inhabitants. The spacious bathrooms lure one to bathe far longer than required. There are no extra charges for anything guests may ask for - be it a bonfire or even a mug of beer, giving it a non-commercial touch that most similar establishments fail to provide. But above it all, to say that people - and dogs! - make a place would be an understatement here. Aarish without the presence of its six permanent inhabitants (the four staffers and 2 dogs) and two itinerant ones (the owners) would simply fail to be the same. Dev and Deepika are essential to help you perfect the art of doing nothing.