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Banjaras & the Emergence of Dehradun

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Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

No city was built in a day and no inspiration to found one was adequate without the participation of important stakeholders in this process. Guru Ram Rai (1646-1687), when he found his way to the heart of the Doon Valley, it ended the splendid isolation in which this other-worldly ‘Shangri-La’ was cocooned. The saint’s desire to set up his spiritual seat in the central portion of the valley set off a train of events which kindled a nascent urbanism in the heart of what was a pure pastoral stretch of land lying between the Siwalik Ranges to the south and the Himalayas on the northern extremes.

Guru Ram Rai, who had by now been ordained into the Udasi (Udaseen) sampradaya, sought the solitude of the Doon Valley to pursue his spiritual career away from the clamour of Delhi from where he came to Doon in 1676. His initial abode was indeed very rudimentary and inadequate for the future activities of his Udasi establishment, which was soon to become known as Darbar of Guru Ram Rai. But this was not achieved in a hurry. Being the son of a Sikh Guru, his lineal ancestors, down from the fourth Guru, Ram Das, followed by Gurus Arjan, Hargobind and Har Rai had already established major centres of Sikhism like Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Kiratpur. Anandpur and Paonta were to follow shortly.

While the centres of the Sikh faith in the Punjab enjoyed being on the network of important trade routes to and from India, the Dehradun centre of Ram Rai had no such advantage, as in those days it was surrounded by stretches of pristine but dense Sal forests. Also, no known trade route crossed this wilderness barring a few pilgrimage paths to the upper reaches of Uttarakhand.

Thus, for setting up of his Udasi (Udaseen) Darbar complex there was an all important need to secure supply of the basic materials that would be essential to raise buildings for the Darbar and its establishment.

Right from the days of the Delhi Sultanate, rulers like Alauddin Khilji had depended on the unique but motley social group known as the Banjaras for all their commissariat, be it for the army or keeping the cities stocked with grain to keep prices in check and ensure social stability in a foreign land.

The Banjaras were the pre-eminent traders and transporters of essential commodities across much of the subcontinent. They used primarily bullocks for pack animals but also camels if needed. Banjara entrepreneurs owned collectively several thousand bullocks, carts, tentage and had their armed escorts. The members of Banjara community were from different social groups and even differing faiths but their enterprise was like a corporation which traded in different commodities that they bought and sold on their routes dictated by the profit to be made. Transporting grain, salt, spices, sugar, jaggery, oil, turmeric and other essential items was their profession. But more importantly they at times took special orders to assist armies by supplying grain and other critical needs while freeing the army commanders of need to maintain their own supply lines. Even during the campaign against the Marathas, the East India Company army used their services. This ensured impunity to the conduct of business by Banjaras and rulers often issued orders for protection of the Banjaras.

The Banjaras due to the nature of their profession were also pioneers of many land routes. They discovered the navigable passes through hilly terrain; they knew the best camping grounds with grazing for their animals and water for all. This knowledge about terrains also made the Banjaras much sought after for transport needs of those undertaking building projects which required large work force to be fed and supply of essential materials like timber, limestone, sand and water maintained.

Guru Ram Rai’s Darbar in its infancy and later during its days of expansion had the service of one of the most prominent Indian Banjara leader, Lakhi Shah Banjara (c.1580-c.1680). Lakhi Shah Banjara traded across much of India on a massive scale and was commended by the Mughal establishment for his services. Equally, the Sikh Gurus too depended periodically on the services of Lakhi Shah Banjara for their needs. Lakhi Shah Banjara and his extended family were devotees of the Sikh Gurus for generations.

In Dehradun, Lakhi Shah Banjara had his ‘Tanda’ to the south of the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai, the place to this day is remembered as Lakhi Bag. Tandas were the temporary camping grounds of Banjaras and there are numerous towns that have Tanda as a prefix or suffix that were once the temporary abodes of the Banjaras.

The Darbar complex evolved over several decades and much was constructed after the demise of Guru Ram Rai in 1687. In the building of the core of the Darbar complex and the adjacent urbanisation, the role of the Banjaras cannot be overlooked. They alone could haul valuable timber from the surrounding forests to the city. They brought in the bricks not normally produced in the valley due to lack of good clay. They had their transport teams to cart sand and stones for construction and also provide food grains needed by the work force.

It is no coincidence that the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai was located at the confluence of three Banjara routes from outside the Doon Valley. These three routes used the passes at Haridwar, at Mohand and at Timli to enter the Valley. In times to come, the British too used these Banjara discovered routes for much of their campaigns in India and more significantly for laying the network of Railways as the gradients and passes were already tested by Banjara caravans for centuries even though little credit is given to these doughty, colourful and enterprising providers of an extraordinary service in difficult times of yesteryears.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of ‘Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehra’, and ‘Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehra Dun’)