Customs such as smearing of kajal on people big and small alike, are rooted in old traditions that are part of the belief system of any people. Like in most parts of India, here in the hills too, it is applied especially on babies to keep them safe and healthy. And to nourish them well, a special ceremony called ‘Unnprashan’ is held during which solid food is given to a baby for the very first time. After the ceremony, keeping in line with local traditions, a very fun custom is performed, for which some toys, a silver coin, pen, ink, books, janeu or the sacred thread and knife are arranged on a big plate. The child is then taken near the plate and encouraged to pick or touch any of the items displayed. It is believed, that depending on which thing the child touches, he / she will be inclined to a particular profession associated with that object–
Toys – games
Silver coin – business
Pen – bureaucrat
Ink – writer/ intellectual pursuits
Books – teacher
Janeu – religious bent of mind
Knife – soldier/ police
Lock – the child is likely to fall into bad company when he grows up
These days, the ‘Unnprashan’ ceremony is still done but people do not take these customs too seriously. So just for fun, why don’t you shut your eyes, and to the count of 3, put your finger down on the plate…and see what object you have chosen….maybe you can try it on a family member or friend, and tell them about this custom of the Kumaonis.
The Kumaonis are a close knit community, so much so that in some villages, people live in traditional community houses called bakhlis or bakholi … in fact, ‘Kumati ki Bakhli’ in the vicinity of Almora is supposed to be the biggest Bakhlee in all of Kumaon. Built as the locals claim, almost 200 years ago, the entire structure rests on a raised platform. With a simple flight of stairs for approach, all the homes within this structure have identical layouts with a kitchen cum living room and one bedroom with a single roof stretching 300 ft in length across all the homes. The area below the homes on the ground floor is where the cattle is kept along with their fodder. The elders had originally designed this ‘Bakhli’ so that the entire community could be together in times of distress and help one another. And it is this very spirit of community that trumps all else, for better and for worse. The entire village stands together, whether it is to respond to a sudden medical emergency or lugging on their ‘back’ rations for themselves and their neighbours from the closest markets, to dancing across mountains for a wedding.
And here is an interesting custom seen in kumaoni weddings….Traditionally the marriage procession is led with a white flag called ‘Nishan’ which represents the bridegroom followed by the local band. This in turn is followed by a white ‘Palki’ in which the bridegroom is carried. The last man of the marriage procession carries another flag which is red and represents the bride. However, on return, the marriage party is led with the red flag, followed by the red ‘Doli’ of the bride and the Palki of the bridegroom. The white flag remains at the end….just an indication of things to come!
Another custom prevalent among the people here is that, when visiting someone, one does not go empty handed but always takes batasha, fruits or sweets as an offering for them.
And ‘The’ most popular sweets of this region is Bal Mithai which is brown chocolate-like fudge, made with roasted khoya, and coated with white sugar balls. Yum! If you happen to travel in the area, do try one of these, which should be available at local sweet shops. Incidentally, one Joga Shah of Almora is credited with the invention of this dark brown mithai covered with sugar dipped khas-khas seeds. The story goes that Joga Shah was actually a Christian called Joga Isai who turned Hindu after the Baal Mithai became so hugely popular here that it literally became synonymous with anything sweet.
Speaking of mithai, do you have a sweet tooth? Which is your most favourite sweet or dessert?
Incidentally, a more recent claim to Almora’s fame is that it is also home to the legendary Dhoni, whose paternal village lies in Lvali in the Lamgarha block of Almora district.
Btw, MSD’s uncle who still lives there recounts the family’s strong bond with their ancestral village and says that their surname is “Dhauni and not Dhoni,”. Dhoni, he says, was a mistake made in the school certificates which has not been rectified despite repeated requests and applications!! From officials in the Almora government to shopkeepers and residents of Lwali and nearby villagers, everybody insists on calling the World Cup winning captain Mahendra Singh Dhauni!
So Almora’s is no longer just famous for being the birthplace of the legendary Baal mithai!
Kumaoni cuisine which is a bit of an acquired taste is perhaps best characterised by its local ingredients, simplicity and freshness. While terms like “organic” and “foraging” are catchwords of the gourmet world, the hill people of this area have been drawing on their local resources since the earliest times to carve out a distinctive cuisine. Mustard is an important Kumaoni ingredient, used both as a tempering agent as well as in the raw leafy form. You must have seen Mustard seeds in your kitchen at home….they are small black round seeds. The small black seeds reminds one of the Chareu, which is a necklace made of small black beads, much like a mangalsutra which is customarily worn by married Kumaoni and Garhwali women. Another seed that look very much the younger sibling of Mustard, which is widely used to temper dishes in both Garhwal and Kumaon is Jakhiya. Did you know, that when doing a ‘tadka’, spices are released into hot oil one at a time, so each spice has enough time to release their own distinctive flavour. And while some spices, sizzle and brown in the oil and release their aroma, our very own mustard seeds actually pop in and out of the hot oil to add their zing to anything! A hugely popular combination here is spicy potato wedges seasoned with jamboo, better known as Alu ke Gutke, served with the nose-tingling Kumaoni mustard and cucumber raita. Jamboo is a herb belonging to the onion family is also used extensively in kumaon to temper dishes. It has a distinctive taste in between onion and chives.In fact, no Holi feast is ever complete for the pahadis without the Alu ke Gutke, served with a ‘hari chutney’.
Holi is one of the most important festivals in this region. Apart from its symbolic significance of the victory of the pious Prahlad over his evil father Hiranyakashipu, in Kumaon, holi also signifies the end of the long Himalayan winter and the beginning of a new sowing season – an in between time for the peasantry to take a short break from the rigours hard agricultural labour.
Kumaoni Holi is unique as what lies at the core of its celebrations is music. Be it the Baithki Holi, Khari Holi or the Mahila Holi, Music plays an integral part in all of them. The songs are a happy marriage of the classical traditions of Hindustani Classical Music and Kumaoni folk music. In Kumaon, Holi is sometimes a two month affair, with some of the musical sittings begin as early as Basant Panchami – the spring festival also dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of Learning, when a riot of yellow is in the air, and customary yellow handkerchiefs are exchanged as gifts.
The Holika Dahan known as Cheer Dahan here is made amid great ceremony at the Cheer Bandhan fifteen days before Dulhendi. A green Paiya tree branch is placed in the middle. Every village fervently guards its cheer as rival villages try to playfully pilfer each other’s pile.
Dulhendi or Chharadi (छरड़ी), in Kumaoni, is celebrated with great gusto much in the same way as all across North India. Chharad is made from flower extracts, ash and water and thus Dulhendi is also known as Chharadi. Apart from Abeer and Gulal, coloured water is prepared using Tesu flowers. These flowers are first gathered from the trees, dried in the sun, and then ground up, and later mixed with water to produce an orangey-yellow coloured water. Another traditional Holi novelty, now rarely seen is a red powder enclosed in globes of Lakh, which break instantly and cover the participants with the powder. Amidst much fun, frolic and colours, the celebration culminates with everyone reciting the following Shubh Kamna in unison….
हो हो हो लख रे (may you live a hundred thousand years)
So how many ‘shunyas’ do you think there are in a hundred thousand? And if one was subtracted from a hundred thousand, what would be left?
On this note, here is an innocent Kumaoni joke, very apt for this junction…
Teacher, Mas-saheb as they are called here, –
“If two were to be be taken away from two, what would be left.” Shibu, the student, – ” Mas-saheb, I am puzzled…I don’t know.”
So, Mas-saheb explains – “If you have two rotis, and you eat them both, what would be left?”
Shibu, scratches his head, thinks carefully and comes up with a winner – “…..ummmmmm……..SAAG! His eyes and wide smile lighting up his face as he responds…
So Saag or cooked vegetables also form a staple of the diet here…the Kumaoni kitchen uses a treasure trove of wild greens like the fiddlehead fern or Lai, not to mention the Sisunak Sag – a green leafy vegetable dish, prepared from the leaves locally known, as you got it – “Bichhu Ghas”. And red rotis, that are made with ragi flour or mandua, which is a rich source of iron. The most important ingredients in pahadi cooking that makes its taste so unique is the smokey flavour that is imparted to the food by cooking it on a charcoal fire, not to mention the liberal use of Ghee or clarified butter that makes each morsel more than delicious! A day at a Pahadi house-hold is incomplete without at least one meal of “Daal-Bhaat”.
On the topic of Daal, mention must be made here of a local lentil called Gahot ki Daal, more commonly known as Horse gram or Madras gram. In Kumaoni ”Ga’ means, ‘initial stage’ and ‘ahot’, means ‘that which destroys stone’ – taken together means, that which destroys stone in the initial stage. Hence, a decoction of ‘Gahot’ is used to eliminate kidney- stones.
In the days of yore, when dynamites were unknown, this ‘stone breaker’ of a daal, was used to break hard rock. A deep hole was made, in the rock and seeds of ‘Ghaut’ were filled in, and then hot water was was poured, and the mouth of the hole plugged with a wooden peg and left overnight. It is said that after this treatment, the rock would to become soft and crack easily.
These seeds are consumed as dal (lentil) and is used in a number of kumaoni recipes, including Thatwani, Phanda, Rasa, Ghautani, and Ghaut Mase dal. In fact, Rasa, which is a soupy preparation is served as a part of the local Kumaoni menu served at both properties. The locals say that it helps maintain warmth in the body, much needed during the harsh winters here. Hopefully you will get to taste it during your stay. However, in case you miss the meal, here is something you may enjoy rustling up with the help of an adult at home.
Preparation: Time 15 min. Servings: For 6
- 250 gm. Cucumber
- 250 gm. Thick Curd
- 1 teaspoon Mustard Seeds (Yellow mustard seeds are best for it)
- 1 teaspoon paste of green chilli / finely cut green chilli
- Salt to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon Turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon Zeera powder
- 1/2 teaspoon Red chilli powder
- Few sprigs of coriander leaves
- Grind the mustard seeds with water into paste and sieve it. Or make a fine powder of mustard seeds and keep aside.
- Wash and peel the cucumber
- Remove the inner soft part with seeds.
- Grate the remaining part of cucumber.
- Squeeze and remove the water from grated cucumber
- Beat the curd and add grated cucumber to it. Mix well.
- Add salt, turmeric powder, mustard seed paste / powder, green chilli paste / finely cut green chilli and mix nicely.
- Keep it aside for at least half an hour for the flavour of mustard seeds to be released and give the tangy taste to the Raita.
- Garnish the raita with zeera, red chilli powder and the coriander leaves.
- Serve this raita as a side with any meal, as it pairs well with almost everything, especially Aloo Gutuk and puri!!
A little cheat for simplifying the recipe is to use bottled Kasundi mustard, readily available in most grocery stores…
While you are here, look out for a day when the sun is out in all its glory…and on that day, you could try your hand at a bit of cooking – but in a different sort of way…something you may have never tried before…a spot of solar cooking! And maybe make a couple of Maggis in the solar cooker with the help of the staff specially trained for this task! Do enjoy your sun kissed maggi! And sure it must have been super tasty! Yum!!