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In the Shadow of the Devi Kumaon...is a visually stunning look into the mystical hills & its history

Akash Bisht | Updated on: 19 June 2017, 16:44 IST

Once upon a time, India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said every rural family of the country should be like those in the Kumaon hills. That may not hold today, but still offers a glimpse into a region synonymous with the resilience of simple hill folk, visions of serenity, natural splendour and mysticism.

One of the two regions and administrations of Uttarakhand, Kumaon has been popular with tourists from the plains who crave snowy peaks, dense forests, beautiful hill stations and the sheer simplicity of those who reside here.

However, not much is known about Kumaon's legacy, its people, their crafts, traditions, folklore, songs, superstitions, people's movements, gods and demons, and particularly the women whose everyday life is a struggle.

It is in this context that Manju Kak's new book, In the Shadow of the Devi Kumaon: Of a Land, A People, A Craft, holds great significance. It brings out these facets which have till now eluded those who visit Kumaon – the land that lies in the shadow of the majestic Nanda Devi.

Manju Kak (manjukak.blogspot.in)

Such a long journey

Kak took nearly 15 years to finish her book and calls it a personal journey -- 'a search for narrative'. Despite spending 11 years at a missionary boarding school in the region, she realised, she knew little about the region and its people.

“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 encounter on our 'outings' but whose voice we seldom heard,” Kak writes in the preface.

It is this quest of knowledge that led Kak on this journey which has come out beautifully in the intricate details about the pahadis. Moreover, photographs by award-winning photographers – Anup Shah and Vaibhav Kaul – are a visual delight.

A lesson in history

Divided into several chapters, the book takes the readers through the history of Kumaon and how power changed hands amongst dynasties and rulers till India gained Independence.

The Kunindas were first to rule the region and later ceded power to the Katyuris who are remembered more for their artistic exploits than the military ones.

In fact, they even invited master artisans from the plains to build and adorn their stone temples with sculptures.

The prolific Chand dynasty, who were also famous for being art lovers, then took over. Their artistic sensibilities reflected in the woodcraft of that period. In fact, woodcraft is the central theme of the book and Kak looks at Kumaon through the prism of woodcraft and the uniqueness of its aesthetics. She has documented the styles, influences and techniques used by the craftsmen as well as their worldview and beliefs.

The book also explains, in great detail, the rigid caste structures of the region and traces their ancestry. It is in this context that the book discusses the town of Almora calling it the heartbeat of Kumaon.

While tracing a thousand years of the history of the town, Kak claims that woodcraft first took roots in Almora before spreading to other parts of the region.

The matter of spirits

But, the chapter that stands out the most is the one on jagars – the religious songs dedicated to the gods and deities which are known to induce a trance amongst listeners. Once a person attains this trance-like state, the pahadis believe him or her to be the recipient of devtas.

A family would normally organise a jagars when it lands in some misfortune. A jagar team comprises of a balladeer, drummer, a medium and the audience. Drums and thali (steel plate) are used by the musicians who sing the chorus allowing the balladeer to rest in between.

As the music intensifies, people feel that they are possessed by gods and other spirits and are then asked questions about what has led to the misfortune. People are known to lick burning coals, iron rods and consume huge quantities of food and drinks.

The manner in which jagars are conducted differs from region to region.

Women's lib

Another interesting chapter features the women's movement in the state, and particularly, the region. The author documents the prohibition movement of 1966 against the opening of liquor vends across the region. Men in the hills are prone to alcoholism which have forced the women to face economic and social hardships. “The most popular aphorism in Uttarakhand was: 'Surya ast aur pahaar mast' meaning – 'Tipplers get going in the hills when the sun goes down'.

Alcoholism still plagues the region and women's group resisting it can be seen working for the cause even today.

In fact, recently after the Supreme Court banned the sale of liquor on national highways, most of the liquor vends in the state were shut. Since then, efforts are being made to open them in other areas but women are resisting it leaving the government with no option but to look for other ways out – which include introducing mobile vans.

With superstition being the most binding force in the region, there is a special chapter on the gods and demons and the author highlights how in a region with a thousand villages there exists more than ten thousand temples.

If you want a visually stunning low-down on Kumaon, you cannot miss this book.

First published: 19 June 2017, 16:44 IST