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Siwalik Passes: Passage to Dehradun

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Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh 

Passes, the silent witnesses to geopolitics and cultural exchange, are the portals through which has marched humanity in her longings for a better homeland. Before the homo-sapiens were driven by circumstances and inner restlessness, myriad species too had found passes convenient for migrations dictated by emerging challenges in their environment and habitat.

While flying species were relatively unconcerned about terrain when migrating across large land masses, mammals including humans had to consider challenges forced in their path when they sought to move over long distances. Major obstacles to smooth travel by early man were in the shape of hills and higher mountains. Staying over a period in a limited geographical area made it unsustainable as, soon, the available resources like food, fodder, fuel, water and soil fertility were exhausted. This required fresh search for alternate spaces to survive as a social group. In the early days of humanity living as groups, pastoralism was a way for survival and these groups were constantly on the move to seek pastures for fodder for their herds of cattle and other domesticated animals like horses, sheep and goats, which formed the precious collective wealth of the group.

For migration on a large scale it was essential that the route to the desired destination be such as to allow movement without difficulty. But, inevitably, hills and mountains came across as insurmountable obstacles till the pioneers in the group explored navigable paths through defiles in the particular hill or mountain range. These navigable points between hills (termed col or saddle) were the passes which ensured that travel by foot or even by wheeled carts was feasible.

In recorded and unrecorded history, passes have played a pivotal role in assisting migrations for epochs. Many a pass has become iconic in the annals of historians. Closer home, the Indian subcontinent has some famous passes that have changed the course of history in South Asia and made ordinary mortals with extraordinary courage into founders of dynasties that have ruled for centuries. The Khyber Pass, the Bolan Pass, the Karakoram Pass have already a legendary status in historical literature.

The Dehradun Valley has the distinction of being bound by the Himalayas in the north and the Siwaliks in the south, pretty much making the valley an enclave that has remained outside the pale of history till recent times. Only in the last five hundred years or so has the district seen gradual colonisation by different social and political groups. This isolation was primarily owing to the difficulty faced by outsiders in finding suitable navigable passes that provided access to the district.

Intrepid and courageous explorers in due course discovered a few suitable defiles in the Siwalik Ranges that could be used for crossing the ranges from the south. The gradient of the southern face of the ranges was steeper but gentler on the northern side, descending into the valley.

These initial passes were discovered at Haridwar, Mohand (at places called Kheeri Pass) and Timlee, and these did provide for easy access for movement of men and material to and from the valley. Timur, the Central Asian invader and conqueror, in the fourteenth century had entered the Valley from the Haridwar side through a “darra” (pass) which in his celebrated memoirs is termed as Kuttil Darra. His memoirs are explicit about his march through the Doon Valley to Nahan and beyond on his return to his capital in Samarkand.

It was the Timlee Pass on the western extreme of the Doon Valley that was used by the East India Company army in October 1814 under General Rollo Gillespie to move its regiments and artillery from Ambala and Saharanpur to take the battle to the Gorkhas. The Gorkhas under Balbhadar Kunwar were in occupation of the Valley since 1804. The outcome of the Anglo Gorkha War in the Doon was decided a month later after the Battle of Nalapani. I have detailed this episode in my two part article in the Garhwal Post: Nalapani: A Hill Once Red.

Once the East India Company (and later the British Crown) annexed the Doon Valley, it extensively used the Mohand Pass in the central portion of the Siwaliks. The pass was initially good only for traffic by foot and pack animals. But later it was developed with modern engineering, adding a causeway and later a tunnel to make it the principal pass for approaching the district.

What is generally not known is that the Siwalik Ranges were pierced by several other passes in the more obscure parts of these uplands. The nature of the geology of the Siwaliks and the rain pattern of the region ensured that numerous seasonal torrents cut through the softer soil of the hills and created rudimentary passes that were capable of aiding travel on foot, albeit a rugged and hazardous endeavour considering that the Siwaliks of yesteryears were teaming with predators.

These lesser and obscure passes into the Doon Valley are: Sulemanpur Pass, Runsroir Pass, Luchkoa Pass, Bulawala Pass, Sukh Rao Pass and Runjanaiver Pass. Another pass is also near the Shakumbari Devi. In the pre-colonial and early colonial days, the district was periodically witness to raids through these passes by bandits from the plains as these defiles allowed quick entry and exit to the raiders while deterring pursuit by the authorities. British administrators had to deal with this lawlessness and have recorded their efforts to root out the menace. My article, ‘Dacoits: Their Dreaded Decades in Dehra Dun’ talks about some legendary dacoits and their activities.

On the positive side, these passes over time allowed for the march of progress. Trade became regular and prosperity was gradually spread among the residents of the Valley. Urbanism took firmer roots and with the passes allowing railroads into the district, Dehradun was integrated into the larger polity of the country.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of ‘Suswa Saga A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehra Dun’ (2011) and ‘Sals of the Valley A Memorial to Dehra Dun’ (2017).)