Folk Tales of Kumaon
Gaura is a highly revered Goddess of both Garhwal and Kumaon. In real folklore Parvati is referred to as Gaura. The legends of love and marriage of Shiv Parvati are integral to Kumaoni folklore. These are inclined towards Brahmanism. Tales of Gaura Devi have multiple levels of worship and the associated rituals are elaborate.
By Anjali Nauriyal
Pic courtesy: Praveen K Purohit
Gaura is depicted as a poor village girl in many folk chronicles. In one particular narrative for instance Gaura reaches her mait or her maternal home in a famished condition. She is delineated as a stock human. In some other portrayals she becomes Gaura of the classical Sanskrit texts and is shown as a woman undergoing excruciating penance to get Shiva, the love of her life.
But notably in the folk form, she and Shiva both appear as shepherds and live an ordinary life and spend the most part of their lives in abject paucity.
Tales of Gaura Devi have multiple levels of worship. The rituals are elaborate and five types of grains are soaked in the water and the pot is then carried to the riverbank for submersion. The worship is associated with some sort of fertility cult dating back to Neolithic times. The Gaura Pooja of Gujarat seems to be similar to Gaura worship of Kumaon.
Then there is the Gaura who ushered the huge environment movement in the state of Uttarakhand. In 1974 Chipko, a woman-centric Himalayan spiritedness saved countless trees from being axed by government lumbermen.
In the year 1974, a group of women of Village Reni in Alaknanda Valley, headed by a gutsy mountain woman, Gaura Devi, embraced trees continuously for three long days to save them from lumberjacks out to devastate the forests.
Their uproar resulted in saving a staggering number of 25,000 trees from being slaughtered. This incident spearheaded the Chipko Andolan in the Himalaya, the biggest peaceful environmental movement in the world, and Gaura Devi attained the status of a demi-god within her community. She had withstood the ire of the gun-wielding government forest appointees, and grappled with them to protect the trees, venerated as god’s gift in concordance with the community belief.
Gaura Devi was born in 1925. She hailed from a tribal Marchha family of Laata village in Chamoli district. Her forefathers were traditionally involved in wool trade who depended on the forests for their day-to-day survival, and she relocated to a nearby village named Reni (near the Tibetan Border) after her wedding.
Her husband died when her son was still a toddler and the young widow was forced to shoulder the responsibility of the family, including looking after the vocation.
Struggle had become the leitmotif of her life. Her domestic woes notwithstanding she actively participated in the Village Panchayat activities working zealously for the well being of the community at large. Safeguarding the forests became her major concern and she became a major inspirational figure in the region.
Egged on by the success of the Chipko Andolan, the womenfolk of Reni propositioned her to head the Mahila Mangal Dal (Women’s Welfare Association), which she gladly accepted. The aim of the Dal was to ensure the cleanliness of the village and safeguard the forests by helping sustain healthy trees and prevent deforestation. Gaura Devi was by this time in her late forties and attained the status of an activist. She initiated several campaigns in the adjoining villages to spread awareness about the worth and value of trees. Her modus operandi was peaceful protest that included argument, demonstrations, public meetings, rallies and the like.
It so happened on that particular day that the menfolk were all absent. It is said that the state government had conspired to send the menfolk away by assuring them a hefty compensation for land used by the army. When the contractors came with loggers on March 25th a village lass informed Gaura Devi, the woman of daunting courage.
In no time Gaura Devi mobilized the womenfolk of the village (27 in number) and accosted the loggers. She tried to reason with them, and even when they hurled abuses at her and brandished guns she persisted with her resistance. The loggers threatened them with dire consequences, but the womenfolk led by Gaura Devi hugged the trees and continued hugging them for days on end. Even guns did not intimidate or petrify them. They held a vigil night after night. They exhibited their resolve to go to all extremes to protect the trees that they worshipped.
Today the image of the women hugging trees has become synonymous with the biggest non-violent environmental movement in the world!
When the menfolk returned to the village they were stunned to find the trees standing tall. They had rushed back after they received information about the felling and had presumed that all would have been destroyed. Imagine their shock upon finding that Gaura and team had accomplished the impossible. 27 illiterate women had scored an ace.
Soon the UP government, at the behest of experts and policy makers, banned all commercial/deforestation activity in the area for 10 years.
Gaura Devi’s name slowly faded into oblivion.
She died a sexagenarian, forgotten and unsung in July 1991. With her died the soul of environmental protection in the region. Many years later a natural catastrophe caused a major environmental upheaval in the habitat that was once Gaura Devi’s abode and circumstance.
Himalayan Action Research Centre, and the Society for Participatory Research in Asia have been credited with spreading information about this gutsy mountain woman of the Himalaya and her team. Their effort enshrined her memory in the collective consciousness of the world.
Gaura Devi is today hailed as a leader who opened the eyes of the world to the efficacy of ‘peaceful environmental activism!’
The folklore related to this brave mountain woman needs to be celebrated continually.
(Dr Anjali Nauriyal is Senior Fellow with Ministry of Culture, GOI. Veteran journalist, author and actor, Dr Anjali Nauriyal is currently rearching on Folk Tales of Kumaon).