It’s a cold winter morning in Gaidhar in Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh. Mira Devi, 34, is waiting on a slope, dressed in a pink salwar and woollen chequered kurta, her shoes still muddy after a morning spent working in the field nearby. She is getting ready to lead a group to Chhoie waterfall, about 3km uphill from her home.
She begins walking, slow and calm, as the five tourists pant excitedly behind her. Mira, who has led groups ranging from two to 30, has picked up her knitting and continues to work on a sweater as she hikes. She keeps up a conversation with the group, patiently answering questions such as “Aap itna kaise chal lete ho (how do you walk so much)?" , as well as queries about her life in the mountains. She lends a hand to those struggling to climb the trickier bits.
She changes the subject towards the end of the ascent. “Yeh humare devta ke naam se rakha hai, natural waterfall hai, par yahan iss ped ke paas humare devta rehte hain (This has been named after our deity, it’s a natural waterfall but our god resides near this tree),” she explains, pointing to a tree as she tells the group about the local customs and belief systems.
In a place like Kullu, a woman trekking guide is something of a revolution. Mira is one of only seven-eight women guides in the valley, a popular tourist destination. Pehle toh auraton ko zyada padhate bhi nahi the, ghar se nikalne bhi nahi dete the, ab jaise aur ladkiyan kaam karein, things are changing (earlier, women wouldn't be sent to school or allowed out of the house),” says Mira.
Dicky Dolma, now in her early 40s, agrees. Dolma was only 19 when she climbed Mount Everest in 1993—the youngest woman to do so at the time, a record she held for 10 years. Currently a senior instructor at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports in Manali, Dolma, who comes from Palchan village near Manali in Kullu district, believes adventure and mountaineering have become acceptable professions for women and have allowed them to be financially independent.
“Humare jaane se pehle—us time bhejte nahi the auraton ko zyada (Earlier, women would not be allowed). There would be restrictions from families first and then in-laws after marriage. So when we were selected, there were women from all over India but only two of us from Himachal,” says Dolma. She is referring to the 1993 Indo-Nepal Women's Everest Expedition led by Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to summit Mount Everest in 1984. “When we returned after summiting, the welcome we got from the people of Manali was so grand, they were so proud. It opened up the minds of people and parents, that perhaps this is something to encourage (women to do as well) and be proud of.”
Change has come slowly to this conservative society. In Kullu, women are still forced to live within the confines of orthodox belief systems—they generally marry early, few work outside the home, and most of them tend to be limited by religious and sociocultural taboos in the treks they can or cannot undertake. Most of them wake up at 5am in summer and 7am in winter, feeding the cows, taking care of the children and household chores, and working in the fields before they set off on work, returning to prepare dinner for the family.
Over the last decade or so, though, training programmes have helped opened up the expanse of adventure sports and trekking to them. In 2000, says Ankit Sood, a friend of Dolma’s, co-founder of Sunshine Himalayan Adventures and an ecotourism planner with the state tourism department, they would be hard-pressed to find women guides. Sood, who has been running training programmes for tourism and guiding with the women of Tirthan Valley for the past decade and a half, used to be with an organisation called Biodiversity Tourism and Community Development at the time. They would organise trips and camps for children and women-only groups—but women guides were rare.
Since women like Dolma broke the barrier, he says, it has become easier to convince families and women to become more involved in trekking and guiding. Still, the challenges remain—even interaction with strangers remains a problem particularly if it involves a group of both men and women.
Mira, a notable exception, trained with Sunshine Himalayan Adventures near her village in 2017, learning about communication, body language, first aid and basic trekking skills. Today,home-stays and hotels refer guests to her, and she says guests too spread the word. It helps that the treks she leads are usually in the area where she lives.
“Women guides definitely add the security and safety aspects, especially for women travellers," says Sood. "Then, as a trekking company for us, it’s a great symbol of women empowerment. For an orthodox place, girls setting foot in the wilderness is a huge step forward. There are so many treks here where girls are banned from going, some places because devtas (deities) don’t allow women.” As residents of these very mountains, they would go out into the wilderness to collect firewood, graze cattle or do other work, but there were limits to where they could go and how.
Today, trekking, and the income it enables, has opened up their own hills to them. “Now, women are not only going, but are also making money through this kind of tourism. It makes people view them differently,” adds Sood.
Take the example of 38-year-old Bhuwneshwari Thakur in Barua, near Manali. A few years ago, when a French woman came to the hill station as a solo traveller, she was keen to go on treks, but only with a woman guide. “I was surprised, even a foreigner wanted a woman guide, and Indian women have far more restrictions and insecurities, that meant there is a space for women guides here,” says Thakur, a trained mountaineer who has co-founded the organisation Himalayan Women Adventures. They organise treks and stays for groups and travellers across age groups. She has led, and been on, expeditions across the Himalaya, such as Stok Kangri, Shitidhar and Ladakh peak. “I love being at one with nature. It gives me peace and joy, makes me feel free,” she says.
Such opportunities have enabled the women to taste financial freedom. Mira, a mother of two, makes ₹300 for an hour’s trek; not only does it allow her to feel independent, it allows her to contribute to household expenses. It has been rewarding, Mira says, to know that her husband, who drives a taxi, is not the only earning member in the family.
“When women commit to something, the world needs to realise that come what may, it will be done. We have incredible willpower and strength,” says Radha Devi, 48, who summited Everest in the same year as Dolma and works as an instructor at the same institute. Particularly Himachali women, she says, adding that she sometimes quickly cleans the house when she gets a lunch break in the middle of a workday. For in districts like Kullu, where help or support is not forthcoming or easily available, women manage household chores almost entirely by themselves.
“When we were young, we would walk a total of 18km just to get to and from school. But to train in the institute, only women from outside would attend. I would wonder, if people from the city can come and do this, why can’t we?” says Radha.
Once she completed her training and was selected to climb Everest, she recalls her trainer was nearly in tears—budgets for women climbers were being cut. “Once we were successful, things changed. Now women train with men three times a year and we make an extra effort to encourage women, because we know their challenges are bigger.”
Mira is about to finish the hike, and the sweater she has been knitting is coming along well. She thanks the tourists, a smile on her face, hands still busy with her knitting needles. She stops only for the payment.
As one of the few women guides in the valley who also leads men and women, she is a remarkable example of the change in perceptions, opportunities and local attitudes in the valley.
“During peak season between March and October, we sometimes climb three-four times a day,” she says. “Women are capable of doing everything—and sometimes everything together. When the world allows it, we can be far ahead of men,” says Mira. As the sun begins to set, she picks up her knitting needles, takes her day’s earnings, and goes home to prepare dinner for the family.