Bhotias of the Bhotia Mahal
The Magnificent Children of the Himalaya
The Panchyat Ghar (village level administrative building) of Duktu village has been built strategically. Perched on a high ground, it looks down upon the whole village, as far as Dantu - the next village, two kilometers away, across the Dhauli Ganga gorge. The river issues forth from the junction of Sona and Meola glaciers, about five kilometers away, at the foot of the Panchchuli group of peaks. Duktu is a small village in the Darma valley, deep into the Kumaun Himalaya, surrounded by lofty peaks, on which fresh snowy has been deposited, a sign of coming winter when the whole valley will be buried deep under the snow.
I was lying flat on my mat in the grassy courtyard of the Panchyat Ghar, looking idly up at the deep azure blue cloudless sky. High above my head, a yellow-billed cough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) was gliding incessantly in a circle using the upward lift of the hot mountain air, calling its mate. The sun was directly above my head and its fierce rays were cutting into my skin; but the cool gentle breeze that wafted towards me from the surrounding snow peaks, was cooling me off to doze. It was one of those perfect days. As I was drifting to view a technicolour dream, Gyan Singh, a prominent villager, came rushing in and woke me up from my reverie with an urgent plea, Saab, aapko aabhi ekbar mere ghar jana hoga (Sir, you must come to my house at once).
Naturally, I was most reluctant to leave my heaven. I had planned to languish there till the sun goes behind the mountains. We were trekking for the last three days and certainly, had earned a rest. But by the expression of Gyan Singh, the matter appears to be serious.
So reluctantly I asked, But why?
Gyan Singh replied, 'Two foreigners have come to my house. They do not trust me. When going out, they are locking up their room'.
He continued to pour out his anguish, 'I am illiterate. You please tell them in English that they can trust me'.
It would seem very insignificant to us - the city bred modern man. Who cares a hoot about some foreigners not trusting me?
But Gyan Singh was in great pain, literally. Being illiterate and poor; their lives are tougher than we can imagine. These people simply cannot bear the thought that somebody, that too a foreigner does not trust them. They cannot stomach that because they are Bhotias, whom Mr. Traill certifies as, 'an honest, industrious, orderly race, patient and good humoured'. (Statistical Report on the Bhotia Mahala of Kumaon: Traill, G.W.).
Bhotias are a unique mongoloid race, inhabiting the high Himalayan valleys of Nepal, Garhwal and Kumaun - amidst lofty snow peaks, cascading waterfalls, fiercely flowing streams and if I might add, squalor. The high valleys they populated have become known as the 'Bhotia Mahal', a name given by the British, meaning 'land of the Bhotias'.
The nomenclature 'Bhotia', to describe their race in general, was thrust upon them by the ruling British. Bhotia land, particularly in the Johar valley is called Souka by its neighbours - the Nepalese, the Garhwalis and the Kumaunese and the individual Bhotia is known as "Soukpa".
Legend has it that the valleys were populated by chelas (disciples) of Shakiya Lama, a holy man of Tibet and thus the land populated by them became known as Souka and the inhabitant as Soukpa (Kumaon Ka Itihas: Badridutt Pandey).
Extent of the Bhotia Mahal
The 'Bhotia Mahal' within India, comprises the inter-Himalayan valleys of the snow range bordering on Tibet - Byans, Chaudans and Darma in the east, Johar in the middle and Painkhanda on the west. Bhotias are also found in the Byan Panchayat in Nepal.
I intent to restrict this article within the Indian border which I have had the opportunity to visit several times and study. Also, due to space constraints, I shall discuss only a few traits of the Bhotia Mahal.
The origin of the Bhotias is lost in antiquity. The word 'Bhot' or more correctly 'Bod' and their Mongoloid features point to a Tibetan origin. Some expert thinks that 'Bhot' or 'Bod' is really the same word as Tibet. Sir J. Strachey defines the term 'Bhot' as ethnographical rather that a geographical expression. (The Himalayan Gazetteer: volume : III, Part 1, Edwin T Atkinson quoted from 'On the Himalaya in Kumaon and Garhwal': Sir J. Strachey, Calcutta Review 1853).
The Bhotias themselves, usually, do not admit their Tibetan origin. They claim their descendant from the Rajput clan of north India; who, they claimed, had migrated to Tibet in the distant past and after residing there for several generations, re-migrated to India and settled in the Himalayan high valleys, where they reside now. Most of them use Singh as the suffix (surname) to their name to prove their Rajput origin. They also append the name of their village to their name ( viz: Durga Singh Martolia: Durga Singh of Martoli village).
E T Atkinson supports this theory of migration and re-migration, '.. .it is possible that it may be true, for the existence of Rajput colonies in Tibet at a very early date is recorded in histories both Tibetan and Chinese.' He also points out, 'The traditions of the different valleys, though different in detail, agree in the main out line of the story'.
Studies need to be undertaken into this unique example of early
migration from India to Tibet and consequently very early and probably one of the first, crossing of the high passes.
The Bhotias call themselves ran.- The literal meaning of ran is 'sell' - arms and horse. The experts conjecture that, 'one possible etymology may be that ran man are the people who sell.'
To explain this early migration and many such mysteries and legends of the Himalaya (viz: the well known legend of a priest worshipping both Kedarnath and Badrinath in a single day), some experts suggest a unique
theory, like that of the 'Grand Unified Theory of Natural Forces' that explains all the rules that forces of nature follow.
It is a geological fact that the Himalaya underwent a substantial uplift and some shortening of crust at least on three major junctures, approximately around 2000 B. C, 200 B.C. and 850 A. D. As a result of this upheaval, road communication (though there were hardly any roads worthy of the name) between India and Tibet and Central Asia that existed in the past, were completely cut-off. Thus, there is certainly a possibility that in the distant past Tibet and Central Asia were much more accessible from India than now, giving support to the theory that Rajputs might indeed have migrated to Tibet in the distant past. Otherwise, the strange uniformity or rather similarity, of religion, culture, way of living, economic pursuit and language among the residents living along the southern border of Tibet, almost parallel to the whole length of Himalaya, is hard to explain.
Also every substantial rise in the Himalaya created some unfavourable climatic conditions in Central Asia and Tibet, resulting in shortage of food and fodder, which might have compelled the people there, who were mostly pastoral nomads, to move in search of good climate and fertile land. This might have forced the Bhotias living in faraway Tibet, for a second migration to India. This is an interesting theory, worth pursuing.
Thus it will be safe to assume that the modern Bhotias are a mix of all these ancient tribes, including the Tibetan tribes.
The Habitat and road communication
The only parts of Bhotia Mahal, which are habitable and capable of cultivation, are narrow valleys lying between great peaks in which flow tributaries of the rivers - Ganges on the west and the Kali on the east. Greater part of the Mahal consists of barren rocks or beds of snow with forest of fir, spruce, cedar, cypress and similar alpine trees at a lower elevation. Bhotia Mahal occupies one third of Kumaun and Garhwal but only one-sixteenth of its area is cultivable. In recent years, the cultivable area has shrunk further as the fields were not ploughed for lack of manpower owing to permanent migration of its young residents to greener pastures.
Even during the 19th
century the road communication was almost non-existent. Sir J. Strachey reports, '...there is nothing to deserve the name of road or even a path.'
But, things have not changed much since. Due to the annual pilgrimage to Kailash Manasarovar, the mule path that passes through Chaudans and Byans valley towards Lipulekh pass gets some attention by the administration but that's the end of the story.
The five principal valleys along which the roads run are, the valley of Saraswati leading to Mana pass, western Dhauli to Niti pass, Gori ganga in Johar valley to Untadhura and Kungribingri pass, the Dhauli in Darma to Neodhura and Kachh pass and the Kuthi Yankti in Byans leading to Lipulekh and Lunpiyalekh pass.
People, Culture and Religion
The male Bhotias possess a well built muscular body. The women are usually fair and well built. Traill presents the Bhotias as an honest, industrious, orderly race, patient and good humoured but very filthy in their habits, using the skirts of their dress to scrub both their persons and their cooking utensils.
I would agree with Atkinson to a large extent. It is indeed a mystery to me that despite an adequate supply of water, even piped water, in the villages, as to why the Bhotias still keep their person, their houses and hearth so filthy!
The Bhotias appear to be a homogeneous tribe. Some experts even go to the extent of describing the Bhotia society as casteless. However I
observed several heterogeneous elements and casteism among tribes residing in different valleys. The Bhotias of Mana and Niti are called Marchas and those of Johar are known as Sokpas or Rawats. The Marchas and Sokpas eat and drink together; they also inter marry; but both the tribes looked down on the Bhotias of Darma and Byans and neither eat or drink nor inter marry with them. The flourishing trade with Tibet in the pre 60s in which they had a monopoly, made the Marcha and the Sokpas economically much better off than their brethrens of Darma. So they began to look down on the Bhotias of Darma valley. This argument however fails in case of the Bhotias of Byans valley. They also had a flourishing trade with Tibet and prospered quite well. This aspect of casteism therefore needs to be studied further by the experts.
These divisions, mainly based on economic power, also seem inconsistent with the social structure, which appears to be casteless. Experts observe that, 'The Bhotias have a casteless society.' But Atkinson remarks that 'The Bhotiyas of Juhar acknowledge only two castes, Brahmans and Rajput.. .The principal clan of Bhotia Brahmans in Juhar are Dobedhiyas, Pathaks etc, while in the Rajputs they are Toliyas, Martolias etc.. There are no Brahmins in the Darma patties'. (The Himalayan Gazetteer: volume: III, Part 1, Edwin T Atkinson).
This writer, while traveling extensively in the Bhotia Mahal observed that in the modern Bhotia society, like all other modern societies, there appears to be only two castes - the Haves and the Have-nots.
House and dress
In Bhotia language khu is house. The word khu also means cave which points to the possibility that in the remote past the Bhotias used to live in caves and instead of coining a new word for house they gave a new meaning to the word khu.
The houses are generally of two or three stories and if land is available, built around a courtyard. The houses are substantially built of stone, with sloping roofs of slate or deodar planks, or earth and gravel beaten smooth. Windows and doors, made of wood, are small so as to prevent cold breeze from blowing in but they are intricately carved, particularly, in the houses of affluent people. The ground floor is usually used for the cattle while the living and kitchen areas are on the upper floors. Bhotias use different words for the ground floor and the first floor, which are Tin..
and Thim respectively.
Almost all the houses have no toilets. Open fields away from the village are used instead. There are open-to-sky common walled areas in the village, which have a source of water. These are used as bathrooms by the women folk.
Since they bath not more than twice or thrice a month; bathing has almost taken the form of a ritual. Women-folk of the village gather with their washing and take long time to complete their washing and bathing, especially if the sun is out and shining. The male Bhotias wear anga (coat), pajama (loose trouser) and topi (cap) made locally from wool.
The women wear an upper garment, a skirt from waist to ankle, a conical shaped cap drooping backwards and a cotton girdle on the waist, made locally from wool. The women also wear jewellery, mainly earrings and nose ring made of gold and silver.
This writer observed drastic changes in the dress pattern. The clothes they use at present are not traditional. The fabric is mostly mill made with a polyester blend similar to that used in lower valleys. The women were saris and blouses. The girls and boys like to wear jeans rather than traditional dress. Among young women, the traditional practice of wearing jewellery, particularly heavy jewellery, is dying.
Astha, the young daughter of the postmaster of Baling village in the Darma valley, had her schooling in Dharchula (a border town). She accompanied me on my trek to Duktu from Baling as she had some work there. On the trek, she was wearing a Salwar-Kamiz (a universal north Indian dress for the women) and a leather jacket.
The Bhotias consume large quantities of meat with rice. Ghee (Indian clarified butter) and milk are also taken. Green vegetables are conspicuous by their absence. In my treks, I have hardly come across any vegetable dish in any of the numerous Chatis (roadside eateries). Dal-Bhat (pulses and rice) is common. Some locally available green leaves are consumed. Tea churned with butter and salt is common.
Old food habits have undergone a sea change in the present days. Now, they consume rotis (wheat flour bread), pulses and take tea with milk and sugar. But the old habit of consuming large quantities of liquor has not only survived but has gathered momentum. Both men and women consume large quantities of Daru (fermented and distilled) and Barchhyang (locally fermented).
Status of Women
This is a powerful indicator for any healthy society. An expert remarks, 'The women folk are never looked down upon but get equal status. They equally contribute in maintaining the economy. Strict practice of monogamy is mainly because of equal status enjoyed by men and women. In arranging a marriage, the will of the bride is given higher importance than that of the groom. Absence of dowry also denotes equal status of women. The housewife is called 'Mulin Rani'.
It may be admitted that the status of Bhotia women in their society is much better than their sisters across the Indian sub - continent but still, men rule in reality. Though polygamy is nor prevalent, widows are still forced to marry their husbands' younger brother; even if she dislikes her would be groom. This is done ostensibly to prevent division of precious fertile land.
The recent 73rd
amendment of Indian constitution in 1992 made it mandatory to elect women in the Panchayat bodies (lowest level local administrative units) but I found that though women are elected as even Pradhan (chief) in many Panchayats of the Bhotia Mahal, they are only the de-jure chiefs while their husbands or any other male party functionary is the de-facto chief. In the plains of India, this amendment really empowered women and put them in the decision making lobby. Also beating of women by their drunken husband is very common and such incidents are usually not given much importance by the society.
It is interesting to note that despite occasional Tibetan occupation and influence of Tibetan religion and customs and despite long period of isolation from the Indian plains, Bhotias are, largely, Hindu by religion. They follow Hindu rituals and customs with a strong incorporation of their own culture and customs mainly due to the isolation. Their natural surroundings make them pantheist and animist.
In most of the temples that I have visited, there are no idols but stones on which rudimentary sketches are made to bring in a resemblance of the Hindu divinities. On my way to the higher valleys, I have also seen prayer flags tied to trees, which are treated as sacred groves. Natural objects like mountain peaks (Nanda Devi), rocks, rivulets, trees also represent deities.
Some of their local deities are - Byasirkhi (Byans Rishi, the famous author of the Mahabharata), Shyang Se (Mahadeo or Shiva), Durga and Nanda Devi. There are also many local village gods. They are firm believers of the super natural powers.
Religion here seems to be influenced by Shaivism. Shiva is the main deity and wine, which is offered to Shiva, is one of the main offerings in any Puja (worship). Temples are rudimentary buildings built mostly with loose stones. Sometimes, idols are kept in the open under a tree or under an overhang. Though it would be a digression, at this point I cannot resist the temptation of recounting an incident during my trip to Johar valley in 1996.
I was staying with Durga Singh, the Mukhiya (village head - man) of Martoli village and left very early to visit the Nanda Devi temple of the village up in the valley. As I entered the sanctum sanctorum of temple where the idol is kept, I had a strong smell of such a sweet fragrance that it felt really beyond the realms of this mundane earth. Hairs on my body stood; as if, Devi Nanda was resting there and, upon seeing me enter had just left, leaving behind her body fragrance. I am an agnostic, but the soft light of the early morning, the snow peak of Nanda Devi in the background, the silence and utter calm that reigned, transported me momentarily to a divine world that can not be described but has to be experienced.
Of course, the origin of the fragrance is not the body odour of Devi Nanda but a local flower, called Baklo, strewn all over the floor of the sanctum. But that's another story.
Economic need and adaptation
Owing to their unique strategic advantage and natural ability to adapt to high altitude, the Bhotias built a monopoly in the trade with Tibet. They acted as the medium through which all Indians, as well as the British explorers of later years, had to go to Tibet for whatever reason. This suited the Bhotias well as they reaped the benefit.
Moreover, agricultural production of Tibet being utterly insufficient for the support of its inhabitants, the country almost entirely depended for its supplies on India. That too suited the Bhotias well. Thus trade with Tibet and with Indian plains became the main occupation of the Bhotias and the over dependence on the trade also brought about their downfall.
The Bhotias imported rock-salt, borax, raw wool, woollen cloth, sheep, horses etc from Tibet and exported cereals, sugar, implements, utensils, mill made woollen and cotton cloths and such other articles of daily use.
The Bhotia traders used to stay in Tibet for business from July to October, returning in November to do further business in the lower valleys and plains of northern India.They also acted as the guides and porters to the pilgrims going to Kailash Manasarovar. Bhotias used to provide all the carriages and supplies to the British army, at a handsome profit, I might add, in their marches to Tibet.
The Bhotias became famous as crafty traders and trade thus made them quite prosperous. They were better provided with food, clothing, shelter and other amenities of life than their Himalayan brethrens - the Kumaunis and Garhwalis.
Contacts with the outside Society
Until the 19th
century, the Bhotia Mahal inhabitants, remained, mostly, cocooned in their own society - cut off from the modern Indian society; however as a result of trade with Tibet, Bhotias had to keep some contact with the Indian plains because most of the goods that they exported to Tibet came from there. The contact was largely restricted to trade alone.
One of the earliest contacts with the Indian plains was with Bengal. The copper plate of King Deba Pal found in Munger (in modern Bihar) mentions King Dharma Pals' (770 AD -810 AD) armies visit to Kedarnath. He was the then king of Bengal. The army must have come in contact with the Bhotias.
At that time the Katyuri dynasty (from the beginning of the Christian era to 700 AD) was ruling over Kumaun and then came the Chands dynasty. But owing to their inaccessibility, the Bhotia Mahal, could not be conquered completely and largely remained outside of these kingdoms. They had their petty principalities, which owed allegiance to the Doti kingdom of the western Nepal. The Gurkha invasion in late 18th
century (1790) from the Doti kingdom, for the first time, affected the Bhotias badly. Then in the early 19th century, the British expeditions came and the Bhotia Mahal lost their seclusion forever.
Owing to their political design, the British government started to make forays into Tibet and for that they started to employ the Bhotias - Nain Singh, Mani Singh, Kishen Singh etc as informer-explorer and the British army also started to employ the Bhotias, along with their beast of burden, as porters.
Impact of Indo - China war
This single event had a devastating impact on the Bhotias their economy, their life and their future. The closing of the Indo - Tibetan border, as a consequence of that war, not only stopped their trade with Tibet, the main source of the earning, but also had a cascading negative effect on their daily life.
The war not only stopped the trade but the weaving of woolen cloths and the rearing of livestock, Bhotias' two other major vocations, have also been severely affected.
Till 1962, (the year of the war) hordes of goats and sheep, jibu (crossbreed of yak and cow), mules and horses were reared. They provided the means for transportation between Tibet and India as well as in the annual migration from the upper to the lower valleys. The break up of trade with Tibet and consequential increasing tendencies of permanent migration has lessened the importance of these beasts of burden.
The stoppage of Indo-Tibetan trade resulted in large-scale permanent migration. A case in study is Milam village in Johar valley. Milam, which used to be one of the most prosperous villages of the Johar valley boasted a population of 1733 in 1900 - 954 males and 779 females, which came down to 300 in 1960 and to only 18 in 1981(District Gazetteers of United Provinces of Agra and Oudh; Almora : H G Walton and Himavanta, July, 1998). The trend of permanent migration to towns and lower valleys is very strong in every village of the Bhotia Mahal.
Garbiyang, once a prosperous village in the Byans valley, like that of Milam, is in ruins today. So are Duktu, Sela, Marchha in the Darma valley. The case of Durga Singh, the Pradhan (elected village chief) of Martoli village in Johar valley is an example. His two sons are well educated and settled in cities. Though every summer Durga Singh, accompanied by his elder sister, come to Martoli to till their land; his sons, since settling out, have never once visited the ancestral village. In all the Bhotia villages that I have visited in the valleys of Darma, Byans and particularly in Johar; I felt very sad seeing rows of dilapidated dwelling units, most of which are abandoned and on the verge of disintegration, still standing somehow amidst ruins.
Until the sixties, the Bhotias mainly engaged themselves in trade after elementary education. The changed socio-economic and political scene forced them to seek jobs. The Government also helped them gain employment by declaring them a Scheduled Tribe in 1967 and thereby helping the Bhotias to get jobs in the reserved category. Nowadays, one can find many Bhotias in the army, in the paramilitary and in the police forces as well as in the administration. These people, better off economically, have permanently settled in the lower valleys or northern plains amidst a pleasant climate. They are well educated and are engaged either in business or in service and are reluctant to go to their native villages in the higher valleys.
However a substantial portion of the Bhotia community could not adapt to modern society and they still cling to their ancestral villages in the higher valleys and practice seasonal migration. They are poorer in comparison and have as hard a life as before; may be harder, since their main livelihood, trade, has disappeared and agriculture, as always, is a strenuous and inadequate alternative. This has given rise to sharp divisions and two new castes in the more or less casteless society of the Bhotias. The new castes are as I said earlier, Haves and Have-nots. As most of them live in the lower valleys or in the northern plains and due to their close cultural contact with other inhabitants of these area , the Haves follow 'Brahmanical Hinduism' and have left behind many of their traditional customs and rituals. They are well off and enjoy all the modern facilities of the society.
On the other hand, the Have - nots are still in dire strait. Literacy is low among them. Superstitious beliefs and age old customs still determine their way of life. Few have found jobs in the lower posts of police and paramilitary forces. They cannot afford to purchase costly land in the lower valleys and hence cannot settle permanently in the benign climate of the lower valleys. They still practice seasonal migration and maintain two settlements. This practice of seasonal migration is quite expensive and further strains their meager savings. Thus the division between these two groups - the Haves and the Have - nots is increasing day by day.
The Bhotias of Bhotia Mahal direly needs ideological as well as material assistance.
The effect of the breakdown of the Bhotia economy and their tendency of permanent migration were summed up succinctly and beautifully by the Gaon Buro (village elder) ofMilam village when I was visiting Milam, in 1996.
Looking towards his ruined village, in the fading evening light, which stood amidst breathtaking landscape, he said slowly and painfully, 'Sir, there are no insects here, no big games, land yields gold [very fertile] but see, all are lying abandoned and in ruins.'
If the trend of permanent migration of the Bhotias to the lower valleys, to the towns and cities of north India is not arrested soon, there will be no Bhotia left in the Bhotia Mahal.
- The Himalayan Gazetteer: volume: III, Part 1, Edwin T Atkinson quoted from 'On the Himalaya in Kumaon and Garhwal: Sir J. Strachey, Calcutta Review 1853.
- The Himalayan Gazetteer: volume: III, Part 1, Edwin T Atkinson.
- 'Ecological Adaptation of the Bhotias of Kali Basin of U P Hills': R S Raypa: The Himalayas and the Himalayans. Ed: Manish Kr. Raha: Anthropological Survey of India.
- Radiant Himalayas, R C Naithani. Publication Division, Ministry of information and broadcasting, Government of India.
- District Gazetteers of United Provinces of Agra and Oudh; Almora, H G Walton.
- Himavanta, July 1998.
- Kumaon ka Itihas, Badridutt Pandey.
- 'The Impact of Ecology and Culture on the speech of the Bhotiyas', G.M. Trivedi: People of the Himalaya: Anthropological survey of India.
A study of Bhotia tribe of eastern Kumaun.