Culture & People
Culture and people are very closely associated with each other. The term ‘culture’ refers to the complex collection of knowledge, folklore, language, rules, rituals, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, and customs that link and give a common identity to a particular group of people at a specific point in time.
All social units develop a culture. Thus it is the inhabitants of a specific region that collectively contribute to form that extraordinary cornucopia of life we call culture.
In case of Uttarakhand, the Land of Gods, natural diversity and the element of the Himalaya’s unparalleled beauty and sanctity add a new dimension to the word ‘culture’. The people of the state are as diverse as the landscape. Uttarakhand is blessed with a whole multiplicity of culture greatly influenced and inspired by its geo-social factors. The ancient cultural traditions of Uttarakhand are deep rooted primarily in religion. Music, dance and arts are a manifest for the firm religious bonds of the people with the awe-inspiring Himalayas.
“In those lovely valleys there is still the romance and poetry of life: each tree has its god, each bush its spirit” – So wrote the 19th century British anthropologist and surveyor Charles A. Sherring, describing a fair part of Uttarakhand, in his great research ‘Western Tibet and British Borderland’.
All the local traditions of the state are determinedly attached to nature and its bounty. No legends or myths are complete without nature, seasons or the Himalayas being integral part of them. The people spare no opportunity to celebrate this bountiful natural, social and religious diversity.
Collective celebrations become the order of the day – the many fairs and festivals bear testimony to this. These fairs have now become remarkable stages for all sort of uncluttered social, cultural and economic exchange. Visitors from far and wide are drawn to these events in multitudes.
The state offers journey-options to both – the religious and the spiritual.
There are a number of religious events attached to River Ganga - the holiest of all the rivers. Daily aartis performed every evening at the banks of the Mother-River in Haridwar and Rishikesh present a memorable sight to behold when the star studded sky seems to be reflecting the serene waters of the river upon the surface of which float countless diyas offered to the goddess. The Kumbh Mela that is held every twelve years witnesses some of the largest gatherings of devotees to be seen anywhere in the whole world.
Overwhelming natural panoramas accompany the pilgrims taking part in the Nanda Devi Raj Jaat and Kailash Mansarovar Yatras. The shrines of Hemkund Sahib and Nanakmatta Sahib are visited by thousands of Sikh devotees while a symbol of national integration - the Dargaah at Piran Kaliyar Sharif, holds a significant religious rank for Muslims and people from other faiths alike.
Several indigenous tribes and communities flourish in this state today maintaining their distinct cultural heritage and traditions. The several fairs and festivals celebrated by the tribes such as Bhotias (Shaukas), Tharus, Buxas and Jaunsaris are opprtunies for the locals and the visitors to witness these events as opportunities to keep the traditional modes of life and art alive apart from providing them the recognition they so strongly deserve.
Legends, myths and anecdotes galore in the state of Uttarakhand which has in turn been bestowed by the richest, holy rivers and the most esteemed mountains. Series of legends and tales are intricately woven around the sacred shrines, temples and rivers by simple hearted, god-fearing people that simultaneously reflect the socio- cultural diversity of the state.
The Uttaranchal of today brims with the lively hum of life with people from various communities and religions contributing to make it into a wonderful profusion of the festival called life. The original natives of the land of Uttarakhand belong to different tribes having their distinct and plentiful culture. Major tribes of Uttaranchal include Bhotias (or Shaukas), Rangs, Tharus, Buxas, Jaunsaris, Rajis (or Banrawats) apart from indigenous groups like Mahigeers and Vangujjars.
The Bhotia is a generic name that includes the Shaukas of Munsyari (Pithoragarh), Rangs of Dharchula(Pithoragarh), Tolchhas and Marchhas of Niti and Mana valleys (Chamoli) and Jads of harsil (uttarkashi). Most of these semi-nomadic pastoral groups are however brought under one anthropological term – Shauka.
The Tharus were once the largest scheduled tribes in the erstwhile state of U.P. and are now concentrated in the Khatima and Sitarganj tehsils of Udham Singh Nagar district. They claim their ancestry from Kirata. Some researchers regard them as descendants are the Rajputs, while some others trace their origin from the Mongols of Central Asia. Their language is heavily influenced by Hindi and Nepali.
The joint family system is very inherent here. The Biradari Panchayat is the political organization of the Tharus. The Tharus also believe in 36 deities, as well as in witchcraft, sorcery and sacrifices. They offer sacrifices to all their deities except Jagannathi Devta, whi is offered milk only. They are an agricultural community who are also fishing experts. Women do not eat the fish touched by men and so the men and women fish separately.
The Buxas are from Mongoloid stock and claim rajput origin. Closely resembling in their habits and customs to Tharus, they are said to be the original inhabitants of the Terai belt and live in Udham Singh Nagar, Dehradun and Pauri Garhwal. They are the followers of Lord Rama and Krishna and worship Hindu deities.
The term ‘Jaunsar’ represents a number of tribal groups namely the Khasas, artisan classes Koltas and baigis who inhabit the Jaunsar area of the Dehradun district.
Rajis, Mahigeers and Vangujjars are other socio-tribal groups whose distinct lifestyles add more colours to the vibrant tribal life of Uttarakhand.
The development of the Garhwal school of painting as a branch of the Pahari school of art is believed to have started in the 17th century and reached its zenith in the latter half of the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries. The chief pioneer behind this growth was the eminent Garhwali painter, poet and historian Mola Ram.
In the 17th century, the Mughal Prince Suleman Shikoh had taken refuge in Garhwal. He was accompanied by a few artists well versed in the Mughal style of miniature paintings. When he returned he left behind Shamdas and Haridas, who had already mastered the new painting techniques. These two were the ancestors of Mola Ram.
The Pahari Painting is inspired by the battles between good and evil. It has covered vast subjects like Indian life; its history, culture and traditions, with a touch of divinity. There is a lot of subtle spiritual content in the art, literature and mythology that has survived for generations in the Indian sub-continent. The Pahari Kalam style of painting was developed in the Kumaon area and was practiced in some of the Himalayan regions.
Aipan or Alpana is a popular Kumaoni art form done on walls, paper and pieces of cloth. This decorative art includes drawings of various geometric and other figures representing gods, goddesses and objects of nature. The pichhauras or dupattas are also decorated in this way. These ritual designs and patterns are an expression of a women’s artistic taste.
Barboond, Patta, Rangwali etc. are some more forms of local ritual paintings to be done on specific occasions.
Besides these some spots like Lakhudiyar, Falseema, Kasardevi in Kumaon and Dungri in garhwal have traces of ancient rock paintings and engravings.
Typically a fair meant a gathering of people to display or trade produce or other goods, to parade or display animals and often to enjoy dance and music. It is normally of the essence of a fair that it is temporary; some last only an afternoon while others may last as long as a few weeks.
The fair is an ancient tradition, and many communities have long had dedicated fairgrounds; others hold them in a variety of public places, including streets and town squares, or even in large private gardens. Fairs are often held in conjunction with a significant event, such as the anniversary of a local historical event, a seasonal event such as harvest time, or with a holiday or a festival or some auspicious occasion such as Makar Sankranti or Nandashtami or Vaisakhi etc.
Uttarakhand is rich in culture and heritage. Fairs (called Mela in Hindi) are clebrated with fervour and zeal. They are an integral part of the social and cultural life of Uttarakhand. Here one can see the cultural diversity of this state. It is at these fairs that the traditional art forms that are on the verge of extinction resurface, so that they can be recognized and supported.
People from all communities participate in these Melas and one can see the camaraderie among the masses, reflected in the collective pleasure experienced by one and all.
Kumbh Mela at Haridwar
The episode of Samudra Manthan (churning of the mythological ocean, the Ksheer Sagar) is mentioned in various ancient Indian scriptures (eg. - Srimad Bhagavat, Vishnu Purana, Mahabharata and the Ramayana) which narrates how after the Gods lost their potency, the thought of churning the Ksheer Sagar to obtain Amrit (the nectar of immortality) the occurred them.
An annual pilgrimage is taken up by the followers of Lord Shiva in North India during the rainy months of Shravan (i.e. July and August) to fetch holy waters of River Ganga from several places including Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri.
The Jaunsari tribals of Uttarakhand celebrate a week long Bissu Fair marking the happiness and propersity coupled with the harvesting season. This fair is held in the Chakrata Block of Dehradun District.
The Magh Mela is held annually, other than the years of Kumbh and Ardh Kumbh and is rightfully called the annual mini Kumbh Mela. The auspicious Magh Mela is so called as it falls in the month of Magh (January - February) in accordance with the Hindu calendar.
Nanda Devi Raj Jaat
The Nanda Raj Jat offers an unparalleled and complete experience to the travelers with interest in local cultural and religious traditions of Uttarakhand as well as to those who are decent trekking enthusiasts. Its sanctity for locals is equal to Kumbh and it is one of the most lively and colourful festivals in the region.
Kangdali Festival is a celebrated by the Rung (Shauka) tribals of the Chaundas valley in Dharchula of the Pithoragarh District. It is held every twelve years between the months of August and October. It was last held in 2011. The festival coincides with the blossoming of the Kangdali plant, which flowers once every twelve years.
The Uttarayani Fair is generally held in the second week of January every year on the holy occasion of Makar Sankranti. It is celebrated at a number of places in Uttarakhand including Bageshwar, Ranibagh and Hanseshwar though the biggest of them historically has been the Bageshwar Fair.
Nanda Devi is the chief patronizing Goddess of Uttarakhand and several shrines are devoted to her all across the central Himalayas. Nanda Devi Fair is one of the most popular festivals in Uttarakhand and attracts people from near and far.
On the Annapurna range, the temple of Shri Purnagiri organises the Purnagiri Mela in Uttarakhand on Navratri. These ranges offer exceptional scenic beauty. The temple is situated at a distance of 20 kilometer from Tanakpur, on the right bank of the river Kali in the district of Champawat.
Syalde Bikhauti Mela
The Syalde - Bikhauti Mela is held in a small town of Dwarahat in Kumaon. Dwarahat is at a distance of about about 64 kms from the town of Ranikhet (28 kms from Almora). This archaeologically and traditionally important town is famous for the illustrious Dronagiri temple.
All forms of folk music and dance date back to no particular phase in time – they are passed on from generations to generations. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted by mouth, as music of the peasants, and as music with unknown composers. Same can be said of the songs that accompany these forms. From the beginning of human history, the biggest wars that human race had to wage were against the very elements of nature, whose essential disposition was to put the human endurance to demanding tests.
The same principle can be applied to Uttarakhand. Living was a very difficult business in old times. Life under the rugged climatic conditions was unimaginably difficult in those days, although in certain parts it still remains the same, if not worse.
The simple and hardworking people took refuge in the consoling lap of music which more often than not was accompanied by song and dance. They realized that after every hardship that nature posed in front of them, it always opened up its chest of generosity too.
Folk music, folk song, and Folk dance are comparatively recent expressions. They actually are extensions of the term folklore, which abound in both Garhwal and Kumaon. Of course the exceptional beauty of the Himalayan landscapes rendered equally exceptional color to the folklore.
Thus there are folk songs for every occasion and reason – there are devotional songs to invoke the local deities, auspicious songs to celebrate occasions like marriages, religious songs praising the gods, heroic songs narrating in length the heroic deeds of kings in the battles, ghost songs addressing the elements beyond logical human comprehension, seasonal songs, songs teaching morality and last but not the least, songs about romance, passion and the inevitable separations.
The song-form Nyauli of Kumaon finds its equivalent in Khuded and Jhumeilas of Garhwal. These are love songs interspersed with tones of separation. Then there are other forms as Phag, Bair, Baramasa, Saiddhali, Pavada, Hurkiya Baul and Pandav Songs to name a few.
Customarily most of the folk songs were accompanied by dancing. The dances can be broadly classified into occupational, seasonal, martial, devotional and ritualistic dances. The prominent folk dances are the Bhotia Dance, Chamfuli and Chholia. The Bhotia Dance, Dandala, Chamfuli, Dhusaka and Dhurang are the group folk dances of the Bhotias and are quite similar to the Garba dance of Gujarat. The dance forms are greatly influenced by mythology, religion and social events. Chamfuli is a popular dance form of the Garhwal region. In this dance, men and women dance to the rhythm - separately and together in pairs with vivid facial expressions. The Chholia dance is performed exclusively by the boys and men at marriage processions. A few of them dress up as soldiers and enact the scenes of fierce duels. After this dance, the bride is carried away by her lover. This dance is a war dance and has existed for more than 2000 years.
The Pandava dance performed during Dussehra and Deepawali is enacted by narrating the story of the Mahabharata along with dance and music. The Badra Nati dance is performed by men and women wearing colourful costumes, during religious festivals and on other social occasions. On the occasion of the bride’s first visit to her parent’s home after marriage, the Tharu dance is performed to welcome the newly-married couple. The Chanchari dance is a dance related to the Garhwal and Almora region. The Jhoda dance of Kumaon is staged spectacularly on a full moon night by young men and women, specially during the colourful season of the festival of Holi.
The Hurkiya baul is a community dance, prevalent in Kumaon, and is still part of rural life during the sowing season. Owing to lack of manual labour in the rugged hills, people customarily work together. It is common that all the families of a village do the sowing in all the fields collectively one by one. A singer sings tales of bravery from local history, accompanied by the beats of the traditional instrument Hurka, while the women work together with their laboring hands following an almost dance-like movement. Most of the stories narrated in Hurkiya Baul are about the brave Chand kings of Champawat of a bygone era.
Last Updated: February 10, 2014