Remote and mysterious, virtually isolated from the
outside world, the mountainous Jaunsar Bawar region in Northern Uttar
Pradesh has, since time immemorial, nurtured a unique lifestyle.
Their traditions, their customs, their unusual way of life are not to
be found elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh, or indeed, in India.
In Jaunsar live the
descendants-so they claim of the legendary Pandavas-heroes of the
great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. That is why, the people of
Jaunsar maintain, they follow the custom of sharing wives. The five
Pandava brothers had one wife-Draupadi-more by a set of circumstances
than by choice. However, the Jaunsaris are both polyandrous and
polygamous, with several brothers sharing several wives and vice
versa. Some anthropologists aver that the Jaunsaris are the last
surviving pure descendants of the Aryans. Often light
eyed and fair skinned, the Jaunsaris, with their finely chiseled
features are indeed noticeably different in appearance from, for
instance, the Garhwalis who inhabit the mountains barely a stones
throw across the fledgeling Yamuna river which demarcates Jaunsar
from Garhwal. But polyandry and polygamy are not the only facets of
the colourful lifestyle of the Jaunsaris. There are their dances,
their festive sports, their ways of worship, their marriage costumes,
their water mills, and indeed their day to day lifeall so
different from areas elsewhere.
Unlike most other parts
of India, the birth of a baby girl is greeted with joy in Jaunsar.
When she has grown up and is deemed fit by the village elders to
marry-usually at fifteen or sixteen-there will be no burdensome dowry
that has to be given to the bridegroom or his family. Instead, it is
the boys family which will pay an agreed, furiously negotiated
bride price to the girls family before the wedding ceremony
takes place, and the bride is carried to her new village on the
shoulders of the bridegroom or one of his relatives.
The bride price can range
anywhere between Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 60,000 depending on the
economic status of the families concerned. The logic behind this
custom, as explained by the Jaunsaris, is simple. From the moment a
girl is born till the time she gets married, it is the girls
family that bears the expenses of feeding her, clothing her, pays for
her schooling-even if it is a few classes-and spends on a myriad
other things for the daughter. On her part, the girl is an asset to
the family-helping in the kitchen, helping in the fields, looking
after the younger siblings, tending the cattle. Therefore, when a boy
wants to marry her and take away an asset, he and his
family must pay up and compensate the family which has invested in
her. The more adept the girl at her work, the higher the bride price.
Divorces are socially
enforced and acceptable in Jaunsar, but in the case of a divorce, if
the girl returns to her parents, they must return the bride price to
the boy. If the girl does not return to her parents but decides to
marry somebody else, then the family she is marrying into must pay
the bride price to her ex-husband.
There are few roads and
no buses or other motor vehicles that criss-cross mountainous
Jaunsar. Instead, along narrow, precarious tracks that hug the
hill-sides, horses and mule trains with tinkling bells are the usual
form of transport-carrying everything from human passengers
to sacks of potatoes and tins of ghee (clarified butter) which
the Jaunsaris produce in fairly large quantities. The muleteer enjoys
an exalted status in Jaunsar. He is the link between
villages, carrying news and views and gossip from one village to
another. In this respect, the muleteer and the dak (mail)
runner are rivals. Hail, rain, snow or sun, the dak runner
moves on foot from village to village, bringing letters and sometimes
money, from the few Jaunsaris who have fallen prey to the lure of
cities, and carrying away letters for the prodigals.
Between them, the
muleteers and the dak runners link one village to another, and
the whole of Jaunsar to the outside world. While oral traditions are
strong, literacy levels in Jaunsar are low-facts which make the roles
of the muleteers and the dak runners more important than ever.
Within villages, the
village elders hold sway-settling disputes, levying and fixing barter
rates. Most transactions in the villages of Jaunsar are conducted
through the barter system. The tailor, for instance, is paid two
baskets of rice and a small basket of apples (in season) for
stitching the long flowing, knee-length shirt and the tight pyjamas
that most Jaunsaris wear.
At dawn, the village
drummer and his sons drum and play the shehnai (a curved, wind
instrument) to wake up he village gods and the villagers. As dusk
falls, they drum again-a salute to the gods, and the announcement of
curfew in the village-you can venture out at your own
risk in the dark, literally in danger of breaking a limb in the dark
by falling off the edge of a path. During the day, the drummers act
as lookouts, and if they see strangers approaching the
village, they drum a warning, and the strangers are soon accosted and
questioned by the village elders. For their labours, the drummers are
paid a fixed amount of grain and clothes by each village
family. In addition, it is the village responsibility to buy brides
for the drummer and his sons.
While electricity poles
are up at various places, few villages in Jaunsar have electricity.
Little diyas (lamps) with mustard oil are lit in the evening.
And if a cow or a sheep or goat is ill and needs to be tended to
during the night, flaming mashals 9torches) of grass are
improvised to light the way to the cattle shelters. Grain is ground
at the rate of one basket of flour per sack at the picturesque garats
or water mills in the valleys below the village. While all these are
glimpses of life in Jaunsar, life in Bawar is different.
Few people are aware that
Jaunsar Bawar, while geographically contiguous, represents in fact
two different cultures. The people of Jaunsar claim to the
descendants of the Pandavas (the victors in the Mahabharata). The
inhabitants of Bawar claim to be descendants of Duryodhan (the
vanquished in the Mahabharata). By and large, Jaunsaris are gay and
fun-loving. The people of Bawar, somewhat darker complexioned than
the average Jaunsari, are comparatively unfriendly and taciturn. To
some extent, this may be because life is harder for the people of
Bawar, which is at a higher altitude than Jaunsar and relatively
inaccessible, curtailing interaction with outsiders. Unlike the
Jaunsaris, the people in the interior of Bawar shun polyandry. It is
a rare Jaunsari who will agree to marry someone from Bawar would be
willing to marry a Jaunsari-both are contemptuous about each other
keeping alive an animosity that spans untold centuries and dates to
the misty, warring times of the Mahabharata.
Between them, Jaunsar and
Bawar have preserved a way of life that tugs at the imagination. The
beauty of the high, sun-flecked mountains and the misty valleys they
inhabit coupled with quaint lifestyles enshrining customs and
traditions that still echo the era of epics transforms a sojourn in
Jaunsar Bawar into an experience that cannot be duplicated.
There are several routes
for reaching Jaunsar. You can do so by bus (there are both U.P. State
Roadways buses and private buses starting from Dehra Dun) or by car.
The easiest route, perhaps, is via Mussoorie, down to the Aglar river
and then the Yamuna Bridge. As you drive towards Yamunotri, the area
on your left, across the Yamuna, is Jaunsar and extrends to roughly a
little before Naugaon. Thereafter, the area on your left is Bawar.
The reach the interior of Bawar, you have to turn left at Naugaon.
Mussoorie to the Yamuna Bridge is about 1 hour, and Mussoorie to
Naugaon is approximately five and a half hours. Mussoorie to Netwar,
in the heart of Bawar, is eight to nine hours.
The second route is via
Vikas Nagar (an hour from Dehra Dun), onto to the Yamuna Bridge and
the Yamunotri road.
The third route is via
Chakrata (about four hours from Dehra Dun), onto Jogiyo and Gorighat.
The fourth route is from
Himachal Pradesh, via Purola.