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Till Kingdom Come

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By GANESH SAILI

A howling wind rattles our windowpanes. Icy fingers rent the sky.bLightning hits a distant hill and peals of thunder resound in the air. Somewhere out there, pound the beat of drums. I break out in cold sweat.

A break in the clouds gives me a glimpse of the Jaunsar and Bawar – twin mountainous regions in the north-west of Uttarakhand. And Till Kingdom Come takes me back in time to a place where not so quiet flows the river Tons.

I first made that journey in the fall of 1975, and a few memories survive. Foremost among them is that rattle-trap of a bus bumping along a pot- holed road carved out of a mountain face.

‘How do you drive so fast?’ A co-passenger nervously chats with the driver.
‘I shut my eyes whenever I’m scared!’ says he.

With those words as consolation, we shut our minds to the hereafter that looms perilously close.

Anyway, come with me and meet the intrepid Lokesh Ohri, scholar-author-historian extraordinaire as he takes us to Hanol on a journey through the narrow gorges and deep valleys of the Tons. It is a land of magical spells, where he takes us to the temple of Mahasu Devta which is unlike any other temple in the plains.

And this is his domain. This is where he reigns supreme as his oracles deliver verdicts choosing candidates, temple priests endorse electoral candidates, and it is said that during the British Raj, even officials capitulated to Mahasu’s authority. But that was too good to last. Post the events of 1857, there was a hardening of attitudes on both sides and officials of the Raj like Emerson, Atkinson, Young and Williams were disparaging towards local beliefs and turned ugly partisan. That in turn gave birth to the bitter fruit that came in the shape of the Tilari Kand (of 1929-30), and the Dhami Rebellion (of 1939-40).

However, Mahasu forges aunique political and social system over which he reigns. As the Chalda Mahasu, he travels constantly, carried in an processon in a boxed-like palanquin (and no ordinary palanquins these gilded with pure silver hammered together by silversmiths from Kumaon to make a vehicle fit for a divine king) speaking to the people through his servitors.

Elsewhere, the Gazetteer of Sirmur State (1934) tells us of a girl who arrived in Sirmur. The Raja challenged the woman to walk safely over the Giri river on a rope and offered her half his kingdom if she accomplished the feat successfully. The woman accepted the challenge and a rope was stretched across the river. But before starting the woman vowed that if she should fall victim to any treachery on the part of the Raja, a curse would fall upon the city which would be destroyed by an awful catastrophe, exterminating every living soul. The woman was crossing safely when some of the Raja’s people cut the rope, doubtless with the Raja’s knowledge, and she fell into the river and drowned. The prophesy was fulfilled and annihilation did come. A flash flood wiped out the king, his family andhis sole heir too.

Reading Lokesh Ohri’s well researched book, snatches of tales told by my mother drift through my mind onemore time. Her voice whispers: ‘Never cross the Tons, my son. Watch out for blackmagic where people sometimes get lost.’

Think of Jaunsar and Bawar and the throbbing of drums resound in the air again. The Hanol temple looms large in my mind. Outside the courtyard of the temple, in a field, I remember a little boy beating a round drum. He smiles dreamily, lost in the fitful music that resounds through the valley.

‘You play the drums well,’ I chit-chat.

‘You should have seen the one last year,’ he says caressing the taut skin, ‘It was made out of wolf-skin and the beat shred the drum skins made from lamb.’

As the sun sets, the memories linger. They return on dark stormy nights, and the drums beats begin out again.

A fascinating read, especially for those who want to understand the finer nuances of life lived in the mountains of the Western Himalaya.