The untamed beauty of the Himalayas immediately captures our collective imagination with visions of serenity, natural splendour and mysticism. But these mountains also dictate the lives of those who live by its laws—the resilient hill dwellers, or paharis, who work and lives are shaped by their surroundings.
In the Shadow of the Devi: Kumaon details the legacy of a land, a people and a craft deeply interwined with its environment. Manju Kak looks at this enigmatic land of Kumaon through the prism of woodcraft, unique in its aesthetic in this part of India, documenting the styles, influences and techniques used by the craftsmen of Uttrakhand, as well as Kumaoni artisans’ worldview and beliefs. In addition, this book is an important document of the life of paharis, as it also discusses communities, forest policy and the status of women, analyzing and unraveling facets of hill life that made the claim for statehood so unique.
The book is beautifully complemented with photographs by award-winning Kumaoni photographer Anup Sah and Vaibhav Kaul, among others. It also interest in the region. It adds to the existing knowledge on Uttrakhand, emblematic of other Indian hill states, though its focus is on Kumaon, the land that lies in the shadow of the majestic mountain Nanda Devi.
Manju Kak is a writer, critic, scholar and artist, who, for two decades, through word, image, research or curatorial theme, has been intensly exploring some unique aspects of Himalayan life. It let to her make the documentary. They Who Walked Mountains (2002). She has edited the book Nicholas Roerich : A Quest & Legacy (2011) and curated an enthnographic exhibition titled Kashmiri Pandits, A Vintage Album: The Making of Modern India (2013). As a Painter, her last show was Ranikhet State of Mind (2016).
Her PhD is in the History of Art from the National Museum, New Delhi. A few of her art works are in private and public collections in India and Hong Kong. Her short stories have won acclaim. They include First Light in Colonelpura (1992), Requiem for an Unsung Revolutionary (1995) and Just One Life and Other Stories (2015).
This book started as a personal journey, a 'search for a narrative' of the Kumaon Hills where I grew up, spending eleven years at a missionary boarding school, St. Mary's Convent, popularly known as Ramnee. Walking was a way of life then-we walked up and down, to dormitories, to playgrounds, to laboratories, to the bathrooms placed in one long corridor at one end of the school estate. There were compulsory Saturday walks at 5pm-nature walks to government grounds for the Junior and Middle Sets, while the Senior Set were escorted by our well-loved German art teacher, Sister Dominica, impeccably groomed in her white or black habit (as the season permitted), and black bejeweled net gloves, the only article of vanity she allowed herself, energetically blowing her whistle to get her 'Ramnee Caterpillar'to trudge down Tallital towards the Naini Flats.
Later in life, walking other footpaths, or khranchas, that crisscross the Kumaon hills, I began to look for clues to more intimately define the landscape I once thought I had known, and my search for a narrative began. I quickly realised that although I had, in a sense, walked these hills I did not know them well at all! For the real pahad wasn't located in the confines of our pristine, anglicised school life guided by German missionaries, but in the one outside our fenced domain, in the life of the ubiquitous kali topi, kali jacket, umbrella-held-tightly-under-the-arm-pahari whom we'd encountered on our 'outings' but whose voices we seldom heard.
The lives of the pahari school staff, too, were a general oblivion-such were the times. Little did we know of their real names, and called them Rosy dhoban, Marie ayah or Tommy bearer. They were sturdy, hardworking school staff who dwelt in the staff lodgings at the fringe of Ramnee Park. We imagined they lacked 'our' sense of sophistication, and merited little discussion or scrutiny. How misinformed we were, for their rich world of myths, jagars, religious rituals and customs rooted in a deep reverence for nature, escaped our understanding. In part, it was this sense of ignorance and neglect from the empowered political and social classes that percolated down to spur ordinary hill-folk to agitate, to seek entitlement and recognition that a style of governance inherited from colonial times had deprived them of The result was a demand for self-rule that escalated in the 1990s.
But when I began my own journey, the new state of Uttarakhand had not yet come into being, and I was fortunate to witness its birth through bus rides, padyatras, village stays, and conversations with activists. This book is a result of years of piecing together the story of what would, on 9 November 2000, become the 27th state of the Republic of India-Uttarakhand. It is the story of a land, a people and a craft, all who flourish under the shadow of the majestic Nanda Devi range.
The Devi Myth
If one were to point to a defining motif for the Kumaon hills, located in the state of Uttarakhand in India, it would quite easily be the Nanda Devi peak. The mountain range to which it belongs plays a central role in the imagination and folklore of the Kumaoni people. When journeying deeper into the hills, the breathtaking view of these snow-capped peaks is stunning. As one goes higher into the valleys of Uttarakhand, this range becomes dazzlingly clear. Covering nearly 120 sq km, the Nanda Devi basin is a natural field of snow, and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.
At 7,816 m, the Nanda Devi is the highest mountain on the Indian side of the central Himalayan ranges. While the tallest, Mount Everest, lies across the border in Nepal and is perhaps better known, it is Nanda Devi that has shaped hill culture and mythology with its matchless imprint. Not only does the range dominate the geographical landscape, it is also personified as a goddess who demands fairs, festivals, and has folklore sung about her. The Hill folk regard Nanda as one of the many avatars or incarnations of the Hindu goddess Parvati, Shiva's consort. She is the presiding deity of these hills and the Creator of Nature's bounty. Myths and legends about her are sung in every home, and in every village here. It is difficult to escape the grandeur of this mountain range steeped in the tales of goddess Nanda's girlhood,just as it is difficult to escape the significance of these tales to the Shiva - Parvati common legend. 2 For no less a reason is the region often referred to as 'the land that lies under the shadow of the Devi'.
The Devi, or feminine force, is incarnated only in a woman. She takes on many forms as and when needed, such as Chandika, the nyaydeen or dispenser of justice, Saraswati, the presiding deity of knowledge and learning, Durga, the invincible, and so on. But in these mountains it is her incarnation as Nanda Devi, 'the pleased one' or 'river of joy', that is revered. Her abode sits atop the mountain range that bears her name, and the surrounding peaks are her vassals and tend to her needs. While her spouse, the Hindu god Shiva's trident is Mount Trishul, there are also Nanda Khat, Nanda Bhanar, Nanda Kot, and Nanda Ghunti-sister peaks named after the different needs of the Devi-goddess-signifYing a cot, a store, a fortress, and a veil, respectively, all for her use. In modern times, over a hundred thousand people undertake the Raj Jat or Raj Rath Yatra in memory of the goddess, arduously trekking right up to the mountain's base. This unique pilgrimage or Yatra is undertaken after a cycle of 12 years-the latest being in 2014—and starts from the village of Nauti at Kama Prayag in the neighbouring Garhwal hills.
The unique Yatra marks Nanda Devi's return to her spouse, Shiva's icy abode on the pristine Mount Kailash, which lies in Tibet, further north from her father's home, her maiti, in her native village of Nauti, Garhwal hills.
Great significance is attached to the four- horned ram, said to have been born for this pilgrimage.
It leads the way for pilgrims from Nauti village, accompanied by a decorative silver palanquin bearing a golden idol of the Devi that is escorted by the priests of the village. They proceed through the high snowfields ofRoopkund to the rocky heights of the famous bugyalor meadow of the valley of Hemkunt. The Roopkund lake, at a height of 5,029 m, lies in the lap of the Trishul massif, and is referred to as the 'mystery lake' because of the unexplained human skeletons and bones of horses strewn around it. Some believe these to be the remains of the Sikh general of Kashmir, Zorawar Singh's army, which perished here en route a mission to Tibet in the year 1841. Ultimately, the pilgrimage reaches the mountain's base where the shrine of anda Devi lies, and from where the ram is let free and wanders off. Here, they give the goddess a ceremonial send-off to Shiva's abode in the higher reaches of Mount Kailash in Tibet, part of the Hindu sacred geography where the mythical peak of Meru, the abode of gods, is located.
This Great Pilgrimage is said to have started over 300 years ago during the reign of the 17th- century Kumaoni ruler Baz Bahadur Chand, a contemporary of the Mughal ruler Jehangir. It continues to affirm the faith of thousands of devotees who undertake this perilous journey even today.
The documented history of the state of Uttarakhand goes back a few millennia. This ancient land has been alluded to in both mythology and literature. The great antiquity of human habitation in the region is established by the discoveries of pre-historic dwellings, such as the rock shelters in Lakhudiyar in eastern Kumaon where pictographs and petroglyphs reveal the cultural life of the early inhabitants, and in the various Stone Age implements found in Kurnaon's Almora and Nainital districts in eastern Uttarakhand.
Ancient literary and religious sources suggest that the name Kumaon comes from the word Kurmanchal; 'Kurma' being the Hindu god Vishnu's incarnation as a celestial tortoise, who heaved a sinking world out of the churning oceans and emerged bearing it upon his back. Quite a feat, then, even for a god! Kurmanchal, or the tortoise's back, finds mention as early as in the Skanda Purana.' which refers to Lord Vishnu's tortoise incarnation at Champawat in Kali valley, reminding us of the antiquity of the land. Another view is that the founder of Kumaon's ancient capital city of Champawat, Raja Som Chandra, was a 'Kachawa' Rajput from Rajasthan. A kachawa in Hindi means a tortoise or kurmi, a word that when corrupted came to be 'Kumaon'. The Hindu epic Ramayana refers to the region as Uttarakoshal.There are references to Uttarakhand in other ancient Hindu Puranic literature as Kedarkhand, Manakhand and Himavat; it is said that the sage Ved Vyas composed his upa-Purana in Uttarakhand. In the epic Mahabharata, Kumaon was included in the kingdom of Uttarakuru. Other sages called it Uttarakhand.The Hindu epics and Puranas mention the original inhabitants of the Himalayas as the Kulind, Kirata, Kilind, and Kinnar tribes. Later texts also refer to other tribes, such as the Khasas and the Dards.
Historical sources suggest that Buddhist monks were the first to trek and explore these hills- travellers in search of either the mystic Shambhala or an elusive 'land of the pure'. The Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang, or Xuan Tsang, who visited India between 633 and 643 CE, is said to have travelled extensively, covering about 16,000 km. Such travellers must have encountered these migrant tribes, such as the Shakas, Khasas, Maagas, Kinners, and the Huns, who had settled in these parts. Later, the most famous Hindu revivalist pilgrim sage to visit these parts was Shankaracharya from Kerala.
The name Uttarakhand was resurrected by environmentalists and others who fought for the region's statehood in the 1980s and 1990s before the movement was hijacked by politicians. On 9 November 2000, the state of Uttaranchal came into being as the 27th state of India with its capital at Dehradun, under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, then in power in India. Later the name was changed to Uttarakhand by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance in 2006. The present administrative set-up of Uttarakhand is inherited from the state it was carved out from, the parent state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). There are 13 districts in all: seven districts under the Garhwal division-Chamoli, Pauri Garhwal, Dehradun, Rudraprayag, Tehri Garhwal, Haridwar, and Uttarkashi; and six districts that come under the Kumaon division-Alrnora, Bageshwar, Champawat, Nainital, Pithoragarh, and Udham Singh Nagar.
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