On one of my Himalayan trips, I visited the home of Ashish Arora and his family. Actually an eco-friendly resort set amidst the backdrop of the Himalayas; but so open and passionate is Ashish and his family, that you really feel you’ve stepped into their home. There had to be a story behind it, because there always is one. So in the words of Ashish himself, read ahead and be inspired…
An interview with Ashish Arora, Co-founder of Sonapani “The Himalayan Village" (located in the state of Uttaranchal, India)
After travelling for almost 10 hours which included a 1½ hour train delay at the New Delhi Railway station, then a 5 hour train journey from Delhi to Lal Kuan – a station not too far from Kathgodam (located at the foothills). From here a 3 hour uphill journey by car driving through winding roads passing through Bhimtal, Bhowali, Ramgarh and Nathuakhan. On the way we also stopped for some garam chai served in small matkas and enjoying the first few glimpses of the mountains. We finally arrive at village Satoli from where our luggage is lugged upon mules, as we begin our half- hour walk to Sonapani, on a relatively flat terrain. By now I was totally exhausted, but as I walked through the little wooden gate which spelt SONAPANI on top, the panoramic view of the cascading peaks, pine forests as far as your eyes can see and the snow-capped majestic Himalayan peaks as the background, was a scene out of a painting and I could only watch in awe. With a deep breath, I said to myself, ‘Home Sweet Home’.
As I walked further into the resort, it truly felt I was entering a home. I was greeted by a family Ashish, Deepa, Vanya and Aranya. Sonapani, the Himalayan Village, is a dream come true project for Ashish Arora, and over my 4 day stay at his resort, I engaged in a conversation with him to hear from the man himself on how he brought his passion to life and draws people near and far, promising to offer them an experience of a lifetime. Here’s why…
What spurred the interest within you to start a place such as Sonapani?
As a young man, I had no clue of what I wanted to do. All I had was an idea to lead a life away from the rat race, something more meaningful, to make a true difference to people’s lives. Money was not my interest, all I wanted was to earn a decent living and to spend time with my loved ones. I wanted to strike a balance in life between a city life and life of tranquillity.
In what way is Sonapani a place different from the other eco-friendly resorts?
I run Sonapani on the ethics of care for the people who work here, the community, the guests and the environment. There is a big difference between the people who work in hotels and here. My team have a sense of belonging which is the main differentiator. The famous Indian statement of hospitality – Atithi dev bhavo (translated in English means Guests are next to God)- is not just a statement at Sonapani, but a reality. It is the guiding philosophy of the men who work here. It is our ultimate objective to treat our guests next to God; to host people with love and care but at the same time not to lose our self-respect in the process.
How has Sonapani contributed to the local people and environment?
Everyone working for Sonapani has worked here right from the start of construction. Hence, the sense of belonging is as deep as the foundations of the place here. Even the bricks are made with their own hands from the mud in the surrounding area.
There has been tremendous self-development for these people. They have learnt to speak in English, have the opportunity to meet people who come from all around the world, earn more than they used to before, can support their families in the villages. Their homes now have an LPG gas cylinder and hence, no more need to gather wood for the stove. This has had a direct impact on the life of the home-maker where she now has more time for herself and her family. In general, the standard of living has been raised.
Regarding the environment, all the trees here are safe-guarded against exploitation. It was a victim of denudation, but this has now been stopped.
What is your concept of the food served here at Sonapani?
The philosophy is sustainability. There is hardly any factory made or processed foods here, hence as I mentioned even the bricks are made by hand. We practice organic and responsible farming here. During season we either get the food from our own farm or from the farms of the villagers. We do not rely on outside help, since there is a chance of buying adulterated items. Even the bread is made at home using grains such as wheat, millet and buckwheat.
I had a childhood dream of the smell of freshly baked items rafting through the air, and this has stayed with me. I wanted to begin baking once I built my resort. An American baker named, Keith Goyden once visited and spent some time at Sonapani. He helped me make a wood-fired oven and so now today I make wood-fired pizzas, breads, cakes and biscuits. That’s another fortunate aspect about this place, I get to meet so many nice people who reach out to help me create more value out of Sonapani.
I’ve heard you briefly mentioning about a cafe you will be opening in Delhi. What’s this about?
[Ashish stares far into the mountains and smiles]: Whatever projects I’ve begun, have happened around a bonfire over a cup of coffee or soup. It began with meeting Sumit and Charu Jain who visited Sonapani as guests (they run the Advit foundation, a non-profit organisation working for environmental conservation and livelihood enhancement www.advit.org ). A few months later, I received an email from Charu mentioning that they have taken over a solar cafe in a renewable energy park in Gurgaon, Delhi and would like to restore this cafe on lines of sustainability and renewable energy. This concept immediately ignited by interest.
I began to contact some people I knew would share the same passion as me. So the team now consists of Rajesh (who runs the Banjara camps in Himachal), Keith (my American friend), Iona (a friend of Rajesh, whose dream is to start cafes in remote areas of the mountain and already has one operational in Sangla) and myself.
We aim to procure all things from small farmers and marginal producers (from Kumaon in Uttaranchal and Himachal where Rajesh is located). Other items procured will be organic or non-pesticide. We will use solar cookers as the method of cooking. There will be minimal processed food. In summary, the concept is slow food.
Do you have a favourite food or cuisine?
You may find this difficult to believe but I had no clue about the different cuisines that existed. I am a very dal, chawal, roti and subzi person (lentils, rice, whole-mealflat breads and vegetables). But once I began Sonapani, I used to walk into restaurants and request the owners to teach my boys. I was honest and humble about my ignorance for the various foods out there, and without a hint of embarrassment I would request them to teach us some of their speciality dishes and hence, we have Chinese, Thai, Italian etc. cooked for our guests on some days.
My favourite food is the Kumaoni cuisine. This cuisine is not appealing to the eye, but it is very healthy, lean and rich in protein.
To conclude, what would you like to say to people reading this conversation?
Be on your own, be an entrepreneur and be a value-creator. This way you can bring people happiness only because you are happy from within.
Email: Ashish Arora can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
On Facebook: Himalayan Village Sonapani
Ashish Arora is also on the board of directors for KILMORA – a brand promoted by Kumaon Grameen Udyog (KGU), a not-for-profit company based in the Kumaon Himalaya. Through the range of products we strive to give quality and a fair deal to both the customer and the rural producer. The products include hand-woven and hand knitted textiles; apricot skin care products; and organically grown culinary herbs, cereals and spices (excerpt from the website www.kilmora.in).