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Five Husbands, Five Wives - Jaunsar Bawar

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 stone’s 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 life—all 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 boy’s family which will pay an agreed, furiously negotiated bride price to the girl’s 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 girl’s 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.