In the Nainital district, but still quite far from the wild crowds of the popular lake and tourist spot, is a sleepy little village called Gunialekh in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand. A neat little hamlet of around 500 families, the village had nothing unique to offer visitors until recently except for a few local houses, vast green fields, trees of all shapes and sizes, of varied flora and fauna and non-threatening fauna.
It wasn’t until 2021 that the first rays of sunshine in this otherwise sleepy rural setting fell on Aarish, a new 4-acre homestay set up with 180-degree views of the Nanda devi range. and a handful of lights in a deep valley before you that allows visitors like you and me to visit this village and afford the luxury of doing nothing.
If you ask Dev Verma, the owner and the gentle force behind Aarish, what you can do once you reach his place, his answer is simple: “nothing”. Doing nothing with you will be Dash, the property’s male bhutia, and doing massive damage to anything she can lay her paws on is Snowy, a mongrel who teethes like there’s no tomorrow (those who are wary of dogs, don’t Staff are also trained to keep them away from guests).
If lazing around, reading, listening to music and soaking up the views isn’t your thing, there are some invigorating walks around the place that will introduce you to many little things about the village and its people . During one of these walks, I learned that almost all the inhabitants placed a cactus plant on their roof to ward off the wrath of nature, in particular by preventing lightning from falling on their houses. I spot them easily after that. We pass 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 natural aquifer with a stone-lined reservoir that stores fresh, clean water from nearby springs and streams. It looks like a mini temple and is treated as such by the locals because drinking water remains an essential source of life in these areas.
A delightful walk, easily accomplished even by the newest member of our small group, on day two will take you to a quaint deityless temple, a charming, well-built stone structure surrounded by white daisies on top of 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 seem to guard the entrance is the only real indication that this is a place of worship. A locked iron gate prevents human entry.
These temples found scattered on the hills delight me for two reasons: one the almost always advantageous position which offers spectacular 360 degree views and the other the almost assured absence of any priest urging you to pray. and make a donation. What makes these walks interesting for guests is that they are almost always led by Dev whose quiet presence and knowledge of the area gives you valuable information and insights that one may not have never known or that have escaped his notice. A walk through the property allows you to take stock of everything that has been planted – from vegetables, herbs to strawberries. Recent residents of the baazgaon, Ashish and Kriti, were brought in to replicate their permaculture expertise to ensure that Aarish is soon self-reliant and abundant in this aspect.
Dev, the son of a tea planter and his wife Deepika, who both grew up in the lush tea gardens of the North East, have added little touches of their childhood surroundings to every corner you look. In the dining room, three peach baskets also double as ceiling lights that fall directly on the delicious food – we’ll talk about that later for the big foodies! – on the table. In the communal living room shared by guests, the centerpiece above the fireplace is a large hat, worn by tea pickers to shield themselves from the scorching afternoon sun. On a side table, a beautiful miniature black rhino catches my eye; a perfect replica that makes you grateful it’s just that. As they exit the property, Dev points out the herbal tea bushes and the culture all around. The apple never falls far from the tree, I tell myself.
Where Aarish differs from most similar homestays in and around is in what the four mostly locally trained young boys manage to produce on the dining table daily. From local Kumaoni dishes 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 genre at every meal. Highly recommend the scrambled eggs with fresh bread for breakfast, often served outside on a bench facing the valley. Producing a good scrambled egg that I have wanted for a long time is an art and Bhaskar does it perfectly. Crispy herbed potato wedges produced by the Aarish kitchen would put McDonald’s and Co to shame. Fresh unsweetened rhododendron juice offered daily in season makes it sound healthy.
Let me end by explaining what makes Aarish even more unusual. Once you enter the property, you are at home. Rooms are cozy with an eclectic section of coffee table books that tell you more about the state and its people. The spacious bathrooms encourage bathing for much longer than necessary. There’s no extra charge for anything guests may request – be it a bonfire or even a mug of beer, giving it a non-commercial touch that most similar establishments don’t provide. But above all, say that people – and dogs! – making a place would be an understatement here. Aarish without the presence of its six permanent inhabitants (the four staff members and 2 dogs) and two traveling ones (the owners) would simply not be the same. Dev and Deepika are indispensable in helping you perfect the art of doing nothing.