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God’s Own People

Himachal is an enchanting part of the Indian Himalayas and is often referred to as the magical showcase of nature’s splendours. Verdant green meadows and wide valleys set against imposing snow clad mountains; limpid lakes, torrential rivers and gushing streams; fruit laden orchards and gentle terraces of corn and tea.

The people likewise imbibe the colorfulness and variety of nature, as reflected in their rich tradition of folklore, song, dance and music. Setting aside the daily care and monotony of life, they break into seasonal celebrations ever so frequently with colourful and lively festivals. Their songs speak of their past glory and valour in battle, of their heroes and heroines and of love, passion and in praise of surrounding nature. Great lovers of music, the Himachalis are heard singing while on their chores on their terraced fields and at their modest looking dwellings.

About 90 per cent of the people consist of Hindus who have a common culture, religion and tradition. The principal communities are the Brahmins, Rajputs, Kannets, Rathis and Kolis. The other major group consists of the tribals in five main divisions: the Gaddis, Kinners, Gujjars, pangawals and Lahaulis. A hardy and adventurous people, the Gaddis are the traditional shepherds who rear sheep and move down from the Alpine pastures to the lower regions during the winter months. Polyandry and polygamy and practised simultaneously by the Kinners, a pastoral people inhabiting the hilly tracts of Kinnaur. The Gujjars, originally Aryan, are generally nomadic who rear buffalo herds. While the Pangwals, belonging to the Pangi area in Chamba district, have a composition of both high and low caste Hindus; the Lahaulis, a tribe of Lahaul-Spiti, are predominantly Buddhist by faith.

Whatever the caste or creed, the Himachalis, in general, have a highly developed sense of art which is expressed in their objects of daily use. Their mealware including attractive utensils, ritualistic vessels, icons and silver jewellery; the unglazed earthenware of Kangra; embroidered shawls and other raiments which portray both classical and simple folk styles and designs; and traditional jewellery for almost all conceivable uses, are some of their more mentionable crafts.

Weaving of wool is a major cottage industry by itself. The highlanders of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur weave dresses from it for special occasions such as festivals and weddings. The wool products are made in either the Byangi wool—having a long staple of more populous part—are predominantly Hindus.

The approach between Kulu-Manali and Lahaul Spiti via the rohtang Pass did not exist in ancient times. According to local legend, the Lahaulis came to know about the existence of profitable market in the south through the birds and the winds. Forthwith, they beseeched Lord Shiva to open the ice bound high barrier separating the two valleys. Lord Shiva acceded but cautioned them thus: “But beware of the winds which my whip will rake up as I strike down the barrier.” The events followed as the lord had predicted and when, finally, calm returned, the people saw that He had created pass to bridge the northern and southern parts of the State.

Without doubt, the Himachalis have a deep reverence for the deities from the Hindu pantheon because life in the mountains is, to say the least, precarious round every bend. Their fervent pitch of worship is therefore understandable. Take for instance a very recent legend pertaining to the Kamru Nag shrine in Mandi district. Thousands of pilgrims offer gold and ornaments to this deity by throwing them into a nearby lake in village Marhar. In October 1911, C.C. Garbett, a British commissioner ordered the draining of the lake to recover gold and silver for the British treasury. Though the devout followers advised the British against such a sacrilegious act, they went ahead with the plan. Providence had, however, something else in mind. And the governor was forced to abandon his plans due to a bout of severe dysentery.

Far from being flights of imagination, the myths and legends of this region are strongly rooted in Indian philosophy and thought. One of the themes of the legends is concerned with the concept of prakriti which unfolds, in different patterns, the numerous forms of the eternal feminine principle of the Universe. The feminine wisdom gleaned through experience infuses man’s life with divine energies in the garb of a wise old lady, as she is the storehouse of life’s manifold experience and wisdom. The original pattern of femininity (vyakta) is obtained through what actuates life—the soul. This principle is at the back of the legend, ‘three Brahmins and goddess Annapurna’. According to this, the transformation of man took place at the hands of a woman: in this case, Goddess Annapurna. Similarly, the legends of Goddess Hateshwari and Naina Devi represented the divine, sensuous and nourishing aspects of the feminine principle in the ritual offerings to the deities i.e. the worship of shakti.

Belief in the vital female energy or shakti is again manifested in the worship at the Jwalamukhi temple known for its eternal flare. The miracle of this unceasing flame is attributed to the Holy Mother Durga.

Legends also delve into the various aspects in which he masculine principle acts as a mighty, divine creative force. Here the anima—the aspect of the eternal feminine—related on the one hand to the male ego and, on the other hand, to the animus aspect of the eternal masculine constitute, with the latter, the syzygy of wholeness. This is demonstrated in the story about Lake Rewalsar. It is said that the princess of Mandi had developed a high esteem for the spiritual attainments of a Buddhist monk living at Rewalsar. Her frequent visits to him roused the jealousy of the Hindu priests. In a frenzy, they set fire to the forests around Rewalsar in which the monk and the princess perished. A search for their bodies later took the people to a lake with floating islands. It is believed that the spirits of the monk and the princess seated together on a lotus, float from island to island. They are visible only to the devout and the sensitive. Surrounded by mountains, Lake Rewalsar’s calm waters mirror the belief of Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs alike, all of whom consider it sacred.

With religion so deeply rooted in the people of this region, it is hardly surprising that this State is also the land of fairs and festivals—each with its own unique features. Culturally, they are an amalgam of the Shiva-Shakti cult and the Vaishnav faith. Once a year, against the natural backdrop, the presiding deities are carried in gay palanquins in colourful processions to the site of the fairs and festivals when the devotees pay homage to the gods, dance and sing and make merry. Among the numerous festivals celebrated in every nook and corner of Himachal is Dussehra, held each year in October and the Dussehra of Kulu is especially famous. On Dussehra day, a rath (chariot) embellished in local style carries Lord Raghunathji, the deity of the valley. Hundreds of other hill Gods are also brought to Kulu on this occasion. Filled with mirth and gaiety, the people sing and dance in ecstasy for five days to the accompaniment of their folk musical bands. The rathyatra of Lord Raghunathji signifies the march of Rama to conquer Ravana.

The people’s urge to get together and enjoy life is also reflected in the commercial fairs when goods are traded or bartered. One such annual fair is the Lavi fair in Rampur Bushehar which brings together the people of Spiti, Lahaul and Kinnaur who sell their pashmina and wool articles.

Among the tribal fairs organized by the people of Pangi, Lahaul and Kinnaur, the Sisu fair held in March every year at Rewalsar is the most important. Similarly, the Gaddis and Pangwals hold the Minjar fair once a year in the charming landscape of Chamba. It is held to appease the rain god Varuna for timely rains. People adorn themselves with golden silk minjars (silken tassels), in the festive week starting from the second Sunday These minjars are immersed in a traditional style on the holy banks of the Ravi on the outskirts of Chamba town on the concluding day.

Shakti festivals are common to the religious places in Kangra and Bilaspur districts when lakhs old devotees throng the Shakti shrines each year in the navratras. Famous among them are those held in March April (Chaitra) and September October (Ashwin) at Bhaonawali in Kangra, Chachanumda in Dadh and Naina Devi in Bilaspur districts.