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“Dehradun City: Its Historic Importance”

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VOW Literature Fest

Mussoorie, 20 Nov: The session on ‘Dehradun City: Its Historic Importance’ started on a refreshing note with Lokesh Ohri giving a short introduction of VoW, the RSTF, his co-panellist, Ajay Sharma, and speaker Dr Samir Sinha. Dr Samir Sinha is a Forest Service Officer and a crusader of sustainable development. Ajay Sharma is a reputed historian and an avid bird-watcher, who has introduced bird-watching to some schools in Dehradun. Lokesh Ohri is a reputed anthropologist and has written many books, one of them being “Till Kingdom Come: Medieval Hinduism in the Modern Himalaya”.
The insightful discussion started with Dr Sinha asking an apt question on what heritage means, especially when it’s often misconstrued as something elitist. To which, Ajay Sharma replied that heritage is everything ranging from our being to our past, our monuments to our songs, etc. Everything that helps us understand ourselves and “become” ourselves is a core component of heritage. Following that line of thought, he said aptly, that being sensitive to our heritage is pretty much equivalent to being sensitive to ourselves, our forefathers, etc.
To the same question on what heritage is, Lokesh Ohri replied that for him personally, heritage isn’t limited to monuments or local practices but includes a wide ambit of phenomena that includes wildlife, forests, and even songs sung by our grandmothers. Heritage is a core component of our identity and, hence, preserving our heritage is crucial for ourselves, our collective self. By doing so, we’re keeping the link between our past and future generations intact. However, he emphasised on the point that there are some dark and morbid aspects of our heritage like sati, caste system, etc., that should be discarded but nevertheless not forgotten to ensure social evils like these never ever resurface. Still, he cautioned on the need to remember and actively preserve aspects of our heritage that are pristine and crucial for us and our future.
After that analysis of the importance of what heritage constitutes, the discussion went into the etymology of the word, “Dehradun”, basically how Dehradun got its name. Ajay Sharma took participants on a journey back to the 17th century, when the Mughal Dynasty was ruling vast swathes of North India. Aurangzeb won a bitter succession battle with his two brothers, Dara Shikoh and Murad Baksh, and ascended the throne in 1658. Aurangzeb was unhappy with Guru Har Rai over his support to Dara Shikoh during the succession battle. However, since he had made a promise that he’d never ever step foot in a Mughal Court, he sent his eldest son, Guru Ram Rai. With his wit and clever articulation of words, he managed to win Aurangzeb’s favour and became his friend-philosopher and advisor. However, after a period of twenty years, he asked to leave the court to embark on a spiritual quest, which Aurangzeb allowed and sent an entourage to help him along the way. Guru Ram Rai arrived at Dehradun in 1676. As his spiritual prowess grew, many of his followers started coming to the Doon valley for “Dera”. The two words soon amalgamated into one and thus, Dehradun got its name.
The next part of the discussion was about how the British influence has impacted Dehradun. The British first made their incursion into Dehradun around the first half of the 19th century. Although they were initially not interested in the Himalayan kingdoms because they thought it wasn’t economically profitable, they became interested in securing the trade routes from Tibet. Also, around that time, cotton was becoming redundant and losing its popularity, because of which the British thought that pashmina was a good economic alternative. Soon after, the Anglo-Gorkha War erupted and seeing the bravery of the Gorkhas, they even erected memorials at Dehradun. This brought many British officers to Dehradun. They wanted to establish Dehradun as an institutional space, because of which Dehradun still has many reputed institutions in the fields of education, law, etc.
Ajay Sharma also highlighted the socio-religious and cultural importance of Temples in Dehradun. Then, they also highlighted how Dehradun is affected by global politics as well. Dehradun also has had a lot of socio-cultural exchange with the Tibetans. He compared the arrival of many Tibetans with Dalai Lama after he was exiled from Tibet was like “Buddhism revisiting the valley”. He said that the presence of many Tibetan food stalls selling Chowmein and Momos in Dehradun was indicative of how Tibetans have influenced the wider cultural ethos of Dehradun. Also, Dehradun has a long history of cultural exchanges with Afghans. Afghan Royalty often came to Dehradun and contributed to its culture through food, music, dress, etc.
It was a very interesting discussion to see how Dehradun “became” what it is now, through its interactions with diverse cultures and accommodates immense diversity in its veins. We have many lessons that we can take away from Dehradun and how we can use it to make our social and political lives better. The urgency of this message is further accentuated by the increasingly polarised world of today. Maybe this is what learning history, in particular the history of Dehradun, can instil in us.