Scheduled Tribes of Himachal Pradesh: An Ethno-geographical Perspective

Sumit Mukherjee

Bodh ladies of Spiti in ceremonial attire

Bodh ladies of Spiti in ceremonial attire

The exemplary adaptive power of these geographically isolated people answers why they don’t bother to break the physical barrier of the great Pir Panjal mountain range which compels them stay cut off from the outer world throughout winter from mid-November to mid-May every year.

I asked her opinion on the proposed tunnel. To my surprise she expressed her opposition. "This peaceful Lahaul will be lost altogether as many people from all over India will easily enter this valley".

That was a chilly and slightly moist morning in early October 1983 in Keylong, the headquarters of Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. Deodar, Pine and Willows had already started losing their glossy green lustre. I was in the midst of my empirical scanning of a big gathering in the main ground of Keylong near the Deputy Commissioner's office. I was listening to the jostling people and keenly observing activities among groups and individuals. All top brass security men and secretaries were either instructing their fellow men or receiving instructions over walkie-talkies mostly sitting in their designated vehicles fitted with VIP strobe flash lights. A continuous flow of people were pouring in from all directions in their traditional attire, some remarkable with special ornaments and flowery headgears. The small decorated podium was soon full and the tentacles of colourful crowd started filling the roads and lanes around. It was an expected bumper gathering as the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi was about to address the people of Lahaul where she was to announce the historic project to connect Manali and Lahaul through an all season road tunnel beneath the mighty Pir Panjal range.

In fact it was my first ever visit to the district and the state as well on a field study mission deputed by Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata under Ministry of Culture, Government of India. My focus area was on the adaptive aspects of living of the people of Himachal as such in tune with the harsh and almost uninhabitable topography of higher Himalayan altitude zones with extreme climate. As a young loner from Kolkata I found lots of sympathizers and assistants as I slowly entered the interiors of the state and the best of the lot was Sri Ramlal Bodh, my first acquaintance, who I met during a road blockage site caused by sudden landslide in Katrain, Kullu valley during the same journey to reach Lahaul. Ramlal was a studying for a Bachelor degree in a Shimla college, returning home to Kardang village opposite Keylong. He belongs to the Bodh or Bhot tribal community of the Bhaga valley of Lahaul. He voluntarily became my language interpreter and field guide in a difficult and completely unknown region. Later he took me home to stay with his family, perhaps out of feeling for a poor lanky fellow trying to survive with little knowledge in a cold desert ecosystem. With time, we became friends and remain so till date.

As I sat at a nearby tea stall, writing in my field notebook, an elderly lady in a typical Lahauli gown (Cholu) approached me with two pieces of white paper. Hesitantly she asked me to write an appeal addressing the Prime Minister about her plight. While she expressed humble gratitude I asked her opinion on the proposed tunnel. To my surprise she expressed her opposition, citing several reasons. "This peaceful Lahaul will be lost altogether as many people from all over India will easily enter this valley. Crime will infest the whole valley where there is hardly any case of theft at present; cultural values will be lost”. During my stay in Keylong, there was nobody working as a porter, so I had to leave my valuable official tour materials in a locked trunk at the roadside outside a residential building where the bus had dropped me on arrival. I found no beggar in this pristine high altitude valley. Though tourism had not taken off, Lahauli people were reasonably affluent and happy with their single agriculture season producing wheat, barley, peas, beans etc for their own consumption with and hops as cash crops.

Tribal Habitats

Tribal societies in general, whatever definition one follows, are most uniquely characterized by the relationship with the ecosystem they live in. Their system identification, usage and conservation of the local natural resources, on which they depend most, make them ‘ecosystem people’. Such an intricate relationship with nature creates a unique cultural landscape. Going by the definition of cultural landscape of UNESCO, put forth during World Heritage Workshop 2002, it is the combined work of nature and man and represents livelihood, identity and belief systems of the dwelling people. Thw most prominent example in Himachal is the Cold Desert Cultural Landscape, the Trans-Himalayan zone, proposed as the World Heritage Landscape to UNESCO.

Concentration of Scheduled Tribe communities and Buddhism dominated zone on physiographic map of Himachal Pradesh

Concentration of Scheduled Tribe communities and Buddhism dominated zone on physiographic map of Himachal Pradesh

Therefore, we find all major tribal habitats conforming to the major river valleys surrounded by lofty water shade ranges. Most prominent of those are upper Ravi valley inhabited by the Gaddi tribe, Chandra Bhaga valley by Swangla and Lahaula, Spiti valley by the Bodhs or Bhots and upper Satluj valley by the Kinnaura communities.

It will be interesting to divide the state in eco-cultural zones for a better understanding of the cultural linkages with the existing ecological niches. The upper or high altitude zone with harsher ecological conditions is dominated by people following Mahajan (Tantric) Buddhism or Tibetan Lamaism. The community depends on pastoralism and horticulture crops and speaks Tibeto-Burman language. In contrast the middle altitude zone south of Pir Panjal is the habitat of indigenous communities like Khas, Kuninda and Kol speaking the languages belonging to the Indo-Aryan family. They practise terrace cultivation, horticulture and pastoralism or animal husbandry. The southernmost sub-mountain belt houses later immigrants who have wider exposure and thus expertise in settled cultivations, animal husbandry, trade and business and speak mixed Pahari languages.

It must be mentioned further how this 320 km long northwest- southeast running great wall of the Pir Panjal range of the Greater Himalayas rising above 3500 m impacts not only on the topography and climate but the whole eco-cultural complex of the region. The south-west monsoon can’t cross the range leaving Lahaul and Spiti district in rain-shadow region which gets its valuable snowfall from western winds in winter and thus the Chandrabhaga and Spiti river valleys are called the Trans-Himalayan Cold Desert region. The people, who have historically adapted to these extreme conditions, are culturally more linked to the Tibetan region on the adjacent north than the southern mainland. Those primarily nomadic herders found themselves comfortable with the rough terrain and climate of the region and became the permanent inhabitants.

Scheduled Tribe population

Gaddi, Gujjar and Kinnara tribes totally constitute 82 percent of the total Scheduled Tribes population in the state. The other important tribes viz. Bodh, Pangwala and Swangla follow in the rank but with lesser numbers. Lahaula, Jad, Domba and Beta tribes count less than one percent of the total STs in the state. Its interesting to note that all the major tribes have remarkably high sex ratios, i.e., more female per thousand male, and even the ratio of all tribes is almost equal (999) compared to the all India figure of 990 for all STs.

Bodh belles of Lahaul in a marriage ceremony

Bodh belles of Lahaul in a marriage ceremony

The 10 Scheduled Tribe communities of the state are well spread over all the 12 districts though their original habitations are represented by higher concentrations of each population in respective districts. Thus, Bodh has the highest population in Lahul and Spiti followed by the adjacent Kullu district. Gaddi tribe is a huge majority in Chamba followed by Kangra. Solan, Kangra, Mandi, Sirmaur and Bilaspur districts are the major dwelling areas of the pastoral Gujjar community.

Likewise Kinnaura in Kinnaur, Pangwal in Pangi valley of Chamba etc show similar concentration patterns in respective districts.

Ethnography of the people of Himachal Pradesh is unique. All communities of Himachal Pradesh have been studied in a comprehensive manner by Anthropological Survey of India under the People of India project in collaboration with several local institutions. As many as 124 communities have been identified including nine scheduled tribes. The report differs a bit from that of the Census of India in the way that Lahaulas are not recognized as separate tribal community and merged with other tribes of Lahaul valley as a linguistic group speaking Lahauli language of Tibeto-Burman family. Remarkable ethnographic diversity is noted among the people of the state as a whole in terms of racial characters, languages and dialects spoken, types of social organizations, religious and ritual practices, traditional food items, marriage systems, fairs and festivals and several other cultural traits. In fact there are prominent physiographic controls on the Himachal cultural landscape. Major river valleys are habitats of certain community and linguistic groups.

Special mention may be made here about the most isolated non- tribal Malanees group residing in the Malana village in Parati valley near Kullu. They are recorded as the ‘first republic in the world with its own executive and judicial system and bicameral legislature representing people and households, subject to the will of ultimate arbitrator, the local god. ’ (Singh, 1996). They speak the Malanees dialect within themselves but also speak Kulvi and Hindi with outsiders. But no outsiders are allowed to settle in the village permanently.

The Bodh or Bhot

Among the major tribal communities of Himachal Pradesh, I interacted most with the people of the Lahaul and Spiti valleys during tours in 1983, 1985, 1993, 2015, 2017 and 2019. For obvious reasons I have chosen to talk about the friendly and culturally colourful Bodh people within the limits of the present essay.

The Bodh are also called Bhot (the Sanskrit word for Tibet) and Chesang in Himachal Pradesh predominantly reside in the Spiti valley. They are also the major community in Lahaul valley. They are akin to Jad, Lamba, Khampa tribal groups of the state. Kullu district has the second largest population of Bodh though they are also spread over all the districts as smaller communities. There are six occupational classes viz. The Bodh or Chezang the agriculturalists, Kharpan the minister, Nord the ruler, Beda or Shippi the musician, Hesis the goldsmith and Zo or Lohar the blacksmith.

Lama Shushil Dewa, Head Lama of Lo-Tsa-Ba-Lha Khang of Pooh village Upper Kinnaur, informed me in 2015 that the pastoral nomads of Dok Pa community from the Rongcheng-Kham-Uchang region of southern Tibet crossed over to Shipki La in Sutlej valley of Kinnaur around a thousand years ago. First those nomads reached Pooh and Namgia village of Upper Kinnaur. Finding this valley relatively rich in natural pasture with milder winter than their homeland, they settled down permanently and gradually spread all over Spiti valley.

Almost 80 percent of them follow Tibetan Tantric Buddhism and thus the name Bodh. Remaining 20 percent, mostly in Lahaul valley are Hindus. In fact the lower Chandrabhaga valley or the Pattan valley is known as the transition zone of Buddhism and Hinduism (Mondal, Mukherjee & Dutta 2002). The Bodh speak Bhutia dialect and use Bhotia script. Most of them speak broken Hindi or English with outsiders and even can write in Devnagari or Roman scripts. More than half of the population is literate and particularly most of the young generation are going for higher education outside the district.

Their traditional dress is prominent. The males wear kera or cholu with woollen trousers and the pattu the waist band. The females put on a long gown cholu with jeptan – a shawl around the shoulders. They love colours like maroon, red, blue or black.

They pursue a typical form of agro-pastoral economy; a good example of an environmentally adapted people living within their own traditional habitat for at least a thousand years. Arable land is grossly inadequate, especially in Spiti valley, and there is only one crop season which is completely dependent on scanty snow/ice melt water for irrigation. Since three decades or so both the valleys produce profitable cash crops like potato, vegetables in Lahaul and green peas, apple in Spiti.

An old Bodh lady

An old Bodh lady

In spite of following Buddhism the Bodh are non-vegetarians owing to the cold desert condition they live in and dearth of local vegetables. Their usual menu includes animal meat of any kind e.g. sheep, goat, cow, yak etc., from their own livestock, cooked in dishes like thukpa, thenthuk, momo etc. Tsampa – the toasted and powdered barley (sattu), is consumed ritually and very commonly in different preparations. They mix the powder with normal tea or with salted butter tea poh cha or cha soma and drink it regularly on winter mornings. They love to consume tsampa with thukpa (noodle stew) and thenthuk, as wholesome meals. A popular local dish zara, kind of porridge prepared with roasted powdered black peas (sanmah) mixed with tsampa and served with local ghee, is still consumed in severe winter months. There are two popular local alcoholic brews viz. Chhang (white opaque) and arak made from either barley or wheat. Cereal based local food items like chilra (spongy cake), zuar (porridge) and butoru (deep fried paratha) once popular are now consumed rarely and preferred only by elderly persons. Consumption of vegetables is rare in Spiti valley compared to Lahaul because the latter produces a number of good varieties of those.

The custom of sending the surplus able-bodied manpower to the monasteries is still followed by the Spitians religiously. In general, the eldest son inherits the landed property and the younger ones are sent to different monasteries to learn Lamaism and thus the unwanted fragmentation of small land holdings are avoided. In case of larger land holder’s families, one or two younger sons can stay back in the family and practise polyandry by marrying the elder brother’s wife. This tradition, now limited to a few families, helped society not to overgrow disproportionate to its static and restricted resource base. The eldest daughter inherits all the ornaments from her mother and is free to decide upon any further distribution among younger sisters. Even daughters, mainly among poorer families, are also sent to nunneries and get trained to become a Chomo.

‘Goetr’ is the major fair held in every monastery on ninth, tenth and eleventh months of the Bhoti calendar. The most significant fair ‘Ladarcha’ is celebrated in Spiti in August in a huge ground near Kibber village. ‘Losar’ the Bodh New Year is the most popular festival celebrated by the Bodh people all over the district and wherever they have settled in other parts of the state during October-November.

The reaction of that old lady of Keylong, perfectly hit the warning bell much relevant to all the tribal communities of Himachal Himalaya. The integrity, self sufficiency, territorial identification and above all peaceful living are the main characteristics of such communities. The younger generation undoubtedly expressed their hopes and expectations from the all season tunnel road for obvious reasons. But the elderly had strong points of conflict over the sustainability of the project in terms of delicate environment and rich cultural integrity. The much talked about Atal Tunnel has already been made operational since 2nd October 2020 and its impact awaits proper visibility and assessment.

References cited

Census of India 2011 Table A-11 (Appendix) District Wise Scheduled Tribe Population.

Mandal, H. Mukherjee S. Datta, A.2002 India an Illustrated Atlas of Tribal World, Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata.

Singh, K.S. (Ed) 1996 People of India: Himachal Pradesh Volume XXIV, Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata and Manohar Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi.


An anthropological study of the Lahaul and Spiti valleys in the context of the Atal Tunnel, an all-weather road which has finally connected these communities with the outside world, all year round.

About the Author

Sumit Mukherjee M.A., PhD (Geog.) was a field-based researcher in Human Ecology. He retired from The Anthropological Survey of India after three decades of service. Worked among various communities spread all over India including Himachal Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Assam, Meghalaya, and has authored two important Atlases on Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes of India other than several books and articles. He is a trained mountaineer, who has organized and participated in several mountain expeditions and explorations in the Himalaya during the last four decades.


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