Known as ‘Dev Bhumi’ or the ‘Abode of the Gods’ it is believed that Uttarakhand’s Prakriti‘ and ‘Sanskriti‘ drew the gods to have their abode here! Not only does Uttarakhand have abounding natural beauty, the state has a rich cultural heritage too which makes it a very interesting destination for tourism. It is a ideal for those who enjoy traveling off the beaten path. It has something to offer to those who travel for leisure or for passion – for tourists, adventurers, photographers, wild life enthusiasts, botanists, ecologists, ornithologists….not to mention peace and quiet for those who are looking to get away from the hectic pace of city life. Mountains, lakes, rivers, verdant valleys, forests and fresh air is more than what the doctor prescribed for a health recharge. In the context of modern day lifestyle, what Mahatma Gandhi had to say about Uttarakhand many decades ago seems almost prophetic! Gandhiji said “After having been three weeks in hills I am amazed why people need to go Europe in search of health.”
The people of this hilly state generically call themselves Paharis though based on which of the two main divisions they hail from, they also distinguish themselves by referring to themselves as either Garhwalis or Kumaonis. They are simple folk and are known to be warm, welcoming, courageous, meticulous and honest.
Religion is an important part of the day to day life here. Almost every home has a corner dedicated to deities they offer the prayers daily to. In spite of being worshippers of Lord Shiva and Shakti, the people of Uttarakhand have a rich tradition of folk deity worship, some of the important folk gods & goddesses being Naina Devi, Nanda Devi, Bholanath, Gwalla, Gangnath, Airy, Kail Bisht, Chaumu and Haru. Every peak, lake or mountain range is somehow connected with some myth or the name of a God or Goddess. Besides worshipping the usual gods and goddesses associated with Hinduism, the people of Uttarakhand also worship a host of other gods including Kul Devatas (family gods), Gram Devatas (village gods), Naga Devatas(snake gods), Bhumi Devatas (land gods) and Veers (the brave heroes).
Music is woven into every strand of daily life, so much so that every facet Life in Uttarakhand is synonymous with some kind of folk music. Primarily related to the various festivals, religious traditions, folk stories and simple life of the people of Uttarakhand, the songs are a true reflection of the cultural heritage and the way people live their lives in the Himalayas. The elaborate folk music and dance traditions bear testament to the rich Sanskriti of the state.
The food is tremendously wholesome to suit the high-energy necessities of cold mountainous regions. Black Soyabean or what is locally known as Bhatt, which is rich in iron is reinforced by preparing it in a special Iron Kadhai, Mandua (finger millet seeds) rich in Calcium which is used to make rotis is generally consumed during the cold and harsh winters. Some species of millets such as kauni (fox tail millet) and jhangora (barnyard millet) are used in place of rice for their medicinal benefits and because they are easy on the stomach. The liberal use of Ghee (clarified butter) and cooking on a charcoal fire as well as the use of local herbs and spices give the food of Uttarakhand its distinctive flavour.
Handmade copper utensils made by ‘tamtas’ or local coppersmiths, household items made from bamboo called Ringaal, woodwork and driftwoods, woollen crafts and decorative candles are some of the local handicrafts of the state
Fairs & Festivals
The renowned fairs and festivals are some of the major cultural attractions of the state of Uttarakhand. These fairs promote bonding between the residents of the hills as these provide an opportunity for friends and relatives to meet regularly. Apart from conducting an important social function, these fairs and festivals are instrumental in preserving the local folk art and culture as well as serving as important trading centers for the people to sell their craftworks and animals etc. Various traditions of folk songs and dances have been kept alive because of these fairs.
Apart from celebrating all the major Indian festivals, the daily lives of the women in Uttarakhand is ever busy with a never ending list of regional festivals. Most of them involve fasting and the prepration of special festive foods while performing traditional rituals.
Makar Sankranti – Ghugutia:
According to Hindu texts, the day of Uttarayani marks the day when the the sun stars moving North, which signals a change of season and the return of the migratory birds back to the hills. On Makar Sankranti people give Khichadi (a mixture of pulses and rice) in charity, take ceremonial dips in holy rivers, participate in the Uttarayani fairs and celebrate the festival of Ghughutia or Kale Kauva. During the festival of Kale Kauva (literal translation ‘black crow’) people make sweetmeats called Ghughut from sweetened flour (flour and gur or jaggery). The dough is shaped into different forms is deep fried in ghee. The most common shape resembles the Number 4 of the Devanagari script while shapes of drums, pomegranates, knives, swords are also common. These are strung together and worn as a necklace with an orange in the middle. Early in the morning children wear these necklaces and sing “Kale Kauva…” to attract crows and other birds and offer them portions of these necklaces, as a token of welcome for all the migratory birds coming back after their winter sojourn in the plains. The child who is able to feed the Ghughut to the crow first is considered lucky. The remaining food Is eaten by the children. The hill folk celebrate the festival to honour the crows, who despite the extreme cold months don’t migrate, but stay in the same place bearing the extreme climate along with them.
The festival of Basant Panchami celebrates the coming of the spring season. This festival also marks the beginning of holi baithaks.
Holi is one of the most important festivals of Kumaon as it signifies not only the victory of good over evil but also makes the end of winter and the start of the new sowing season which holds great significance for the agricultural community of the North. The uniqueness of the Kumaoni Holi lies in its being a musical affair, whichever may be its form, be it the Baithki Holi, the Khari Holi or the Mahila Holi.
Types of Holi Celebrated in Kumaon
The following are the various forms musical gatherings in which Holi songs are ceremonially sung which are viewed as the start of the Holi celebration. All of these celebrations in the form of musical gatherings start on the Basant Panchami Day.
Baithki Holi (Sitting Holi) is a form of musical gathering starting from the day of Basant Panchmi held all across Kumaon till the Dulhendi (or the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna). The Holiyars (the singers of Holi songs) begin their Baithaks from the premises of temples, though sittings are held in the local community centres and homes as well. The Baithaki Holi songs are based on Classical Music with heavy influence of Kumaoni folk music traditions.Different songs are sung based on the time, such as, during noon the songs based on Pilu, Bhimpalasi and Sarang ragas are sung while evening is reserved for the songs based on the ragas like Kalyan, Shyamkalyan and Yaman etc. Most of the songs are religious in nature and convey tales from the life of Lord Krishna.
Khadi Holi (Standing Holi) starts a little later than Baithaki Holi. It is mostly celebrated in the rural areas of Kumaon. The songs of the Khari Holi are sung by Tolis where men sporting traditional white nokdaar topi, churidar payjama and kurta, dance in groups to the tune of ethnic musical instruments like the Dhol and Hurka. They visit different homes and greet the members of that house and chant hymns praying for prosperity of the householder. Khadi Holi is filled with excitement and frolic as opposed to the more sombre nature of the Baithaki Holi.
These are gatherings similar to Baithaki but composed exclusively of women.
Local Kumaoni Rituals during Holi
Cheer Bandhan and Cheer Dahan: The Holika bonfire in Kumaun is known as Cheer, which is made in a ceremony known as Cheer Bandhan fifteen days before Dulhendi. The Cheer is basically a bonfire with a green Paiya tree branch in the middle. The Cheer of every village is rigorously guarded as the rival villages try to steal the each others Cheer. The Cheer is burnt on the night before Holi and is known as Cheer Dahan is symbolic of the victory of the pious Prahlad over his evil father’s plans.
Dulhendi known as Chharadi (from Chharad which means natural colours made from flower extracts, ash and water) is celebrated with Abeer and Gulal, in all possible colours. Coloured water is prepared using Tesu flowers, which are first gathered from the trees, dried in the sun, and then ground, and later mixed with water to produce orange-yellow coloured water.
The culmination of the holi celebrations takes place with throwing abeer, gulal in the air and reciting out aloud in unison a prayer in Kumaoni for a healthy and prosperous year ahead.
Phool Dei is celebrated on the first day of the month of Chaitra in mid March. During this festival young girls go to all the houses in the village with plates full of rice, jaggery, coconut, green leaves and flowers. They offer their good wishes for the prosperity of the household and are given blessings and presents (sweets, gur, money etc) in return.
Located in the beautiful Jatganga valley, Jageshwar, a complex of 12 temples houses one of the 12 Jyotirlingas of India. Two large fairs are held at Jageshwar, one at the occasion of Shivratri and the other in the month of Shravan (July-August). A dip in the Jat Ganga and in the Brahmakund near the temple complex is of great religious significance at these occasions.
The Hilljatra, which is celebrated in some parts of Pithoragarh district, is an essential festival of pastoralists and agriculturalists. FYI, Hill means mud and Jatra means Jaat. The Hilljatra is related to ‘ropai’ (plantation of paddy) and other farming and pastoral activities of the rainy season. The origins of this festival is in Nepal. Folklore has it that Kuru, a representative of a Chand King, participated in it and came back with four masks, two Buffaloes, a Nepalese plough and the idea of introducing the Hilljatra in the Sor Valley. There are three phases to this celebration, the first being worship and the ritual sacrifice of goats followed by a dramatic representation of different agricultural and pastoral activities in which very expressive masks are used and lastly the cultural part where songs are sung along with the performance of the Chanchari or the circle dance. The hilljatra is a living tradition and all care should be taken to preserve its style in a rapidly changing society.
Bagwal at Devidhura
Champawat is famous for its Barahi temples. A very unusual fair, which attracts people from Kumaon, Nepal, and even other places, is held every year at the Devidhura temple of Barahi Devi on Raksha Bandhan day. In this fair, Bagwal i.e. A fight with stones is played between 4 Khams or groups of people. The Khamconsists of 4 clans, namely the Garhwal, Chamyal, Langaria and the Balig.
According to folklore, every year, a man chosen form the people of Kham would be sacrificed to please the Goddess Barahi. In a particular year, the turn for sacrifice came to an old woman who had a single grandson. She accepted her grandson’s fate with a heavy heart. Pleased with her devotion, the Goddess granted her the life of her grandson, but on one condition – that the same amount of blood as that of an average man must be offered to Her. Thus, was born the tradition of Bagwal, where the four clans pelted stones at each other and offered their blood to the Goddess. Despite sounding as dangerous as it does, it may be noted that there has been no loss of life on account of this event.
The priest and the heads of the Kham worship Goddess Barahi and distribute prasad. Four people from each clan are prepared for the fight. The villagers support their representatives with songs and dances to the rhythm of the drums. Two groups are formed which throw small pebbles at each other. Each group protects themselves with a wooden shield known as the ‘Farra’. The Bagwal continues till the priest signals the end by blowing the conch. The ceremonial fight lasts about 20 minutes. In recent years the stone pelting has been replaced by throwing fruits and flowers.
Nanda Devi is the chief patron Goddess of Uttarakhand. It is a widespread belief in Uttarakhand that Goddess Nanda Devi is the daughter of the Himalyas and the wife of Lord Shiva. That the people of this state worship her with deep faith and reverence is proved by the fact that not only are there are numerous shrines and temples dedicated to her in this region, but also that several festivals and functions are devoted to Nanda Devi, the most significant ones being the Nanda Raj Jat held in Nauti and the Nanda Mahotsav held in Almora. Nanda means well-being and prosperity. The fairs are held every year in memory of Goddesses Nanda and Sunanda during the month of September and is taken as a symbol of spiritual and material prosperity. The fair is said to have started in the Kumaon region during the reign of Raja Kalyan Chand in the 16th century. Since Nanda Devi is considered the Kul Devi (family deity or Mother Goddess) by the people of Kumaon and Garhwal, by virtue of which Nanda Devi Festival is celebrated at Almora as well in Johar where it is known as Nandashthami. In Kumaon the fair is held in Almora Nainital, Kot (Dangoli), Ranikhet, Bhowali, Kichha and also in the far flung villages of lohar (like Milam and Martoli) and Pindar valleys (like Wachham and Khati).
Celebrated over 5 to 7 days, in the Nanda Devi temples across Garhwal and Kumaon, the festival commences on the day earmarked for the Devi’s visit to her maiti or parents’ home and culminates with the return to her husband’s home. This tradition is beautifully expressed in the folk songs of Uttarakhand. The Chhoti Jat Yatra celebrations begin at the end of August or early September, starting from Wan and ending at Bedini Bugyal.
The Nanda Devi Fair is held with a great deal of pageantry and magnificence signifying the cultural and economic affluence of the region. This fair highlights the rich cultural heritage of the Kumaon region along with the folk dances and songs. Schools and colleges students also perform in the festival to showcase their talent. Moreover, one can also see the performance of the local artists. On the final day of the fair, the dola (palanquin) of Nanda and Sunanda Devi is carried out to be submerged in the water by the devotees.
This annual festival is transformed into a huge affair once every 12 years at Roopkund when a four horned sheep is born. The yatra is called Nanda Raj Jat. This magnificent 21-day journey is undertaken by thousands of people, who are guided by the aforementioned four-horned ram leading to Shiva’s home at the base of Trishul.
The Haatkalika fair is held in Gangolihat, a small town in the Pithoragarh District of Uttarakhand. The fair is organized in honor of Goddess Haatkalika, a divine embodiment of Maa Kali. It is believed that the Goddess Kali shifted her abode from West Bengal to this place and has been the popular goddess in the area ever since. This place is also a ‘Shakti Peeth’ which is a place where a mortal body part of the Goddess Sati is supposed to have fallen.
On the ashtami (eighth day of the month) of the Chaitra and Bhado, a fair is held here to pay homage to Goddess Kalika. On this day, animals are sacrificed and offered to the Goddess. The athwar (eight sacrifices) processions with drums and flags and dances is a spectacle.
Jauljibi and Thal fairs: This fair of cultural and commercial significance is held every year from 14-21 November at Jauljibi, the confluence of the rivers Kali and Gori, 10 km from Askot in Pithoragarh. It is the meeting ground for three different cultures – the Shauka, the Nepali and the Kumaonis. This Mela played an important role in the trade between Tibet and the Terai regions of Uttarakhand where these communities traded cereals, food-grains, ghee (clarified butter), leather, jaggery, woollen products and pure bred and sturdy horses. Cultural programs with music and dance are held to entertain those who attend and like in all fairs, food plays an important role. Though this fair is primarily a commercial one, its cultural importance cannot be overlooked.
About 50 km from Pithoragarh district head quarters is a town called Thal, a similar fair is held on Vaisakh Sankranti (14 April) and it attracts a large number of Shaukas. However, with the closure of the Indo – Tibet trade these fairs have lost their former importance.