By Pradeep Singh
Nine decades ago James Hilton created an imaginary utopia termed Shangri-La in his bestselling novel, The Lost Horizon. His writing created a buzz amongst the public at large on finding Shangri-Las in different places and continents. Near home, culturally and geographically, Tibetans long before Hilton had recorded in their ancient texts the existence of seven Shangri La-like places which were called Nghe-Beyul and one such Beyul called Khembalung is said to be the creation of the great Padmasambhava in the ninth century and it became a revered Buddhist refuge during the period when Buddhism was under attack.
Well into the seventeenth century, Dehradun itself was referred to as ‘terra incognita’ and its existence to the larger world was known more precisely once the Udasi saint, Guru Ram Rai (1646-1687), came and settled in the Doon Valley in 1676 and set up his establishment which has since been known as the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai. Subsequent conquest of the Doon Valley by the Gurkhas in 1803 and the further annexation of the region by the British East India Company in 1815 placed the Dehradun district on the drawing boards of modern cartographers who were tasked by the British to map the region over which they sought to govern. Though maps of the district started appearing from the early decades of the nineteenth century and continued to improve every decade with the consolidation of the British Raj, yet, there remained a substantial part of the district that, by its remoteness and logistical challenges, remained an Ultima Thule for the administrators of the district, which stretched between two holy rivers, the Ganga to the east and Yamuna to the west.
While enough was getting to be known about the two geographical areas of the Doon Valley, called Eastern Doon and the Western Doon, there was little, if nothing at all, that was known about the northern pargana of Jaunsar Bawar. Traditionally, this region was not truly a part of the dominions of the Rajas of Garhwal. It formed, terrain-wise and culturally, too, a part of the eastern Himachali culture often in control of the Sirmaur princely state, which often resisted the efforts of the neighbouring Garhwali royal house to annex Jaunsar Bawar.
The pargana of Jaunsar Bawar was a wedge of steadily rising uphill country lying between the Tonse River to the west and the Yamuna flowing to the east, the two rivers meeting to the south at Kalsi, the first town of importance and a portal to the mysterious upper reaches of the increasingly wild and mountainous land. Kalsi had in the past centuries enjoyed royal notice. Ashoka the Great chose Kalsi to place his famous rock edict to inform his subjects about divine values and ethics. Later, at times, Kalsi served as temporary capital of the Sirmour princely state.
The lower part of the region was called Jaunsar while the upper and more rugged portion of the pargana was Bawar, with the Kharamba Peak looming at a height of 10,118 feet. Between these two better know geographical divisions was the lesser known sub-division of Lokhandi, a stretch of enchanting high meadows or bugyals. A noticable feature of the region as a whole was its lack of flat space and the presence of cliffs and gorges in which raced numerous torrents that added to the flow of the major rivers of Jaunsar Bawar like the Yamuna and the Tonse, besides others like the Pabar and Amlawa. One of the earliest British administrators of the district, Col Fredrick Young had observed that not one parcel of flat land could be found measuring a hundred yards in the entire region. This necessitated extreme care in farming the small patches of land created painstakingly and with great resources by means of stone embankments locally called pushtas. Water may be flowing in the gorges below but to the small fields it could only be brought by means of small masonry channels or kuls that further drained the farmers’ meagre earnings. Crops such as maize, barnyard millet (mandua), rice at lower altitudes of Jaunsar and later potatoes and some wheat and pulses like kidney beans were all that could be raised through back breaking toil. The region was just self sufficient in grains till the setting up of the cantonment at Chakrata and the convalescent depot nearby at Kailana in 1869 by Col Hume made the region deficient in food grains, which were then onwards imported from the plains.
The high altitude meadows rich in nutritious grasses however encouraged rearing of goats and sheep, giving the region a pastoral charm to which was added the natural physical beauty of the Jaunsari men and women. The more enterprising amongst the Jaunsaris imported male bull calves from the plains and cared for them over the next few years that allowed the animals to become hardened and then they fetched good price at the cattle fairs in the plains where there was a great demand for them from farmers.
In their social moorings, too, the region of Jaunsar Bawar was an island of splendid isolation. Cultural practices made the local folk stand out. Engendered by paucity of arable land for agriculture and to avoid division of this asset, families stayed tightly knit in which the men folk married collectively a single woman. In this feature of polyandry, the region probably had inspiration from the mythology of the Pandavas of the Mahabharata, who exemplified polyandry. But the culture of Jaunsar allowed great freedom to their women folk, even to the extent of divorcing their husbands, the practice being called “reet katna”.
The geography of Jaunsar Bawar, too, played its evolutionary hand in creating a mystique over the region. The largely limestone geology of the place caused the innumerable cliffs and sharp ridges and steep gradients that made travel and communication difficult, resulting in further isolation. At the same time, the soil quality ensured that Jaunsar Bawar enjoyed the finest Deodar stretches of forest known anywhere. Undisturbed for centuries, these giants of the earth, immortal in their own way, grew luxuriously and the forest floor around was thick as cornfields with Deodar seeds that had germinated in the rich subsoil. Despite excessive commercial exploitation by the colonial forestry model, Jaunsar Bawar still retains vestiges of the wealth of its Deodars.
The easy availability of good timber at hand enabled the industrious Jaunsaris to produce their own architectural style of constructing houses and other useful buildings. The style is known as the ‘Kath Kuni’ style. Logs of wood are alternated with stones and mortar to raise charming dwelling places of two storeys or more that dot the hillsides and along the roads. The local Deity that the Jaunsaris revere ardently is Mahasu Devta, whose legends are the material for another long yarn by the fireside in a ‘Kath Kuni’ home.
A companion piece on the region appeared in Garhwal Post, titled ‘Bygone Doon: The Saga of Chakrata’.
(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the “Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehra Dun” and “Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehra Dun”)