Kumaon: Echoes of the Past

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    During Navratri each year, the hills of Uttaranchal come alive during the the annual procession of Nanda Devi. This centuries old ritual is one of the few legacies of the Chand kings who ruled over Kumaon between the 16th and 18th centuries. In fact the popular hill town of Almora, the cultural capital of the region, was their capital and it was called Rajapur.

    This is just one of the many fascinating insights that one can find in the book In The Shadow of The Devi: Kumaon of a Land, a People, a Craft published by Niyogi Books and authored by Manju Kak a writer, scholar and artist who has explored the region.

    While a lot of the Chand Dynasty legacy was destroyed during the Gorkha occupation of the region in the 18th century CE Kak brings together an amazing tapestry of the cultural landscape and how it evolved

    It is believed that Kumaon was mostly uninhabited forests before different migrating tribes settled down here. Isolated over time within the deep valleys of the Himalayas, the people of Kumaon developed their own distinct culture.

    Kumaon was mostly uninhabited forests before migrating tribes settled here

    The book looks at society in Kumaon at large and also at the lives of the craftsmen there. Several chapters talk of the dying art of the traditional wood carved houses of Kumaon region. The art of carpentry and woodwork flourished under the patronage of the Chand dynasty. The artisans were hereditary shilpakars who passed on their skills from one generation to the other. Sadly, the art of exquisitely carved wooden houses is in decline, as people prefer more modern constructions. Interestingly, while these old houses may rattle and creak, they are earthquake resistant ( a necessity in this area), unlike modern constructions.

    The book also looks at local beliefs, traditions, the position of women in the society and the environment. That’s where it is a standout.

    The old wooden houses are earthquake resistant, unlike modern buildings

    In the midst of all the beautiful photographs of lush landscapes, smiling women and breathtaking scenery, Manju Kak does not romanticise Kumaon’s traditions and society. She gives a very frank and candid account of the brutal and harsh, past and present. There are very matter of fact accounts of the exploitation of workers by the Thakurs (Landlords), and the crippling caste dynamics that exist. A special mention must be made of the pitiable condition of women in society as well as the large scale environmental degradation that is destroying the region.

    Manju Kak’s book is a great introduction to Kumaon, its culture, its people and the many problems that have to be addressed!

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