In the northern quarter is divine Himalaya,
The lord of the mountains,
Reaching from Eastern to Western Ocean,
Firm as a rod to measure the earth…
There demigods rest in the shade of clouds,
Which spread like a girdle below the peaks,
But when the rains disturb them
They fly to the sunlit summits….
Kalidas, 5th century AD Sanskrit poet
For thousands of years Indians, and especially the Hindus, have looked upon the mighty Himalayas with awe and reverence. For them it is the abode of the gods. There Shiva, the great god of destruction (belonging to the holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer), sat in deep meditation until Parvati, the himalaya-putri (daughter of the mountains), succeeded in winning his love. Temples of Shiva and Parvati abound in these mountains and thousands of pilgrims from the plains make their arduous climb to them each year.
Himachal is dotted with quaint Pagoda-like or shikhara styled (spired) temples. Most of these have fascinating legends attached to them. (Ask the locals, and they’ll be only too glad to share them with you.) While festivals are special occasions for celebration, worship is a part of daily life. Hinduism was brought to these hills by the immigrant Rajput tribes of the 5th to the 15th century.
But the Hinduism practiced here is in its more lenient form – the caste system is less rigid than elsewhere in India. The people have their own distinct flavour of the Hindu religion, especially in the upper hills.
They have combined local legends and popular beliefs with the beliefs of Hinduism. The gram devta (village god) cult is a case in example. It is a curious mix of animism, demonism and Hinduism. The rugged landscape seems to have inspired such awe in the paharis (people of the mountains) that they have deified the diverse manifestations of nature.
More than 95% of the population of HP is Hindu but Buddhism has also made inroads in to the state thanks to the nearness to Tibet and presence of the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala.
The ashen valleys of Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur are made brilliant by the Buddhist way of life.
At times the demarcation between Hinduism and Buddhism is very faint in these hill regions. For example, the rituals of the Kinnauris are a mix Buddhist and Hindu practices. The hundreds of gompas and monasteries here serve as a veritable library for the student of Buddhism. No wonder HP is said to be God’s Own Country.
There are also several notable churches and Sikh gurudwaras in the state. Christianity came in with the British, of course, who dashed to these mountains whenever the heat of the plains got to them. Shimla, Kasauli and Dalhousie served as the most important British retreats, and so have the most well known churches of the state. St-John-in-the-Wilderness in Dharamsala is also quite an attraction.Sikhism, too, is practiced in a few places in Himachal. Paonta Sahib in Sirmaur district is a major pilgrimage for Sikhs, and so is beautiful Manikaran in the Kullu Valley. The Sikhs played an important role in the history of Himachal and Guru Govind Singh, one of the ten founders of the religion, began his career on this very land.
A New God Everyday?
Everybody knows that India is simply crawling with both gods and people. But Kullu valley is way ahead in that such a small part of the country alone boasts of 365 gods! and of course these gods and goddesses have many amusing tales to tell. Sample this one, it links the mountain goddess Hadimba to the royal house of the former Kullu State. Hadimba has a charming temple dedicated to her in Manali in the Kullu Valley.
Anyway, driven by drought, a poor man by the name of Bihang Mani Pal from Haridwar (in Uttar Pradesh) reached the Kullu valley in search of water. Soon he became an apprentice to a potter in this new place. One day as he was carrying pots to the market, he came upon an old woman who was actually the demoness Hadimba in disguise. Hadimba lifted him on her shoulders and promised to make him king of all he surveyed if he worshipped her as a goddess. Pal did exactly so. and lo! Bihang Mani Pal became king of Kullu and Hadimba his patron deity.
Each community in Himachal has its own set of rites and rituals that is preserved zealously. The customs and manners of these hill people are somewhat different from those of the plains. For instance, in some parts of Shimla and Sirmaur a reverse dowry system is practiced – the groom’s father pays a sum of money to the bride’s father to meet the expenses of marriage. This practice is known as dhari.
An amusing system of betrothal among some Himachalis, especially the agricultural classes, is the atta-satta ka nata. A series of marriages are arranged by the relatives of marriageable girls and boys. Thus, a father promises his daughter’s hand to another’s son on the condition that the latter give his daughter to a third man’s son, who in turn promises his daughter to the first man. Sometimes there are five or six links in the chain, and one breach nullifies the whole arrangement.
The Marriage Rituals
Marriage by elopement, called haar, is sanctioned in HP, especially among the lower castes. and not just that, the setting for such an affair is also delineated!
The occasion happens in a fair or a neighbourhood marriage.Polyandry is not uncommon in Himachal, especially in Kinnaur. This might be linked to the story of Draupadi, wife of the five Pandava brothers. According to local legend, the Pandavas and Draupadi sojourned to the Sangla valley during their incognito exile (See Mahabharata for details).
It is said that they built a fort here to protect themselves from their hostile cousins, the Kauravas.
Draupadi soon came to be worshipped here as a deity. The practice of marrying a widow/widower to an unmarried brother-in-law/sister-in-law (husband’s younger brother/wife’s younger sister) is most prevalent in Himachal. Serving meat and chhang (country liqueur) is also a must in some marriages. Such rituals of marriage in the hills turn topsy-turvy the traditional Vedic marriage and notions of propriety prevalent in the plains.
Birth Customs Rituals
Like all rituals of the people of HP, the birth customs, too, have a quaint local touch. During the wife’s pregnancy, the husband refrains from killing any animal with his own hands, though he may eat meat.
The woman is also not allowed to see the face of a dead person, or go near a burning place, stream or forest. Immediately after the birth of her child, the woman is given a mixture of ghee (clarified butter) and gur (jaggery) to drink.
Sometimes liqueur is also given; a ritual which, in the plains, would shock most people out of their skins. The namkaran or naming ceremony among the Kolis (a particular caste) is rather unique. Boys are named after the day or month of their birth – like Savaru from Somwar (Monday), Mangloo from Mangalwar (Tuesday), Basakhu from Baisakh (April-May), and so on.
Thanks to the many tribes – each with its own language and dialect – Himachal boasts of more than 60 dialects. These are Chambyali, Pangwali, Lahauli, Kinnauri and so on. In places with a Buddhist population, Tibetan is the language.
But the state’s main language is Pahari, a derivation from Sanskrit and Prakrit, which is largely unintelligible to plain dwellers. See the section Language and Literature for more on Sanskrit and Prakrit. Hindi is also spoken widely and is the language of instruction in schools. With Himachal’s close proximity to Punjab, Punjabi is the medium of communication in some places.
Festivals & Fairs
The endless succession of festivals and fairs forms an important part of the cultural life of Himachal.
There are few places where religious ceremonies are as inventive or as frequent as in this state. Each year sees a cycle of rituals and festivals with melas (fairs) full of fun and frolic. So it’s almost like a yearlong party for the people up there. The main festivals are Holi, Dussehra and Diwali, brought into the fold by the immigrant Rajputs from the plains, but there are also hundreds of local celebrations.
Sometimes these have to do with the gram devta (village god) and at other times with the seasons. Thus, the arrival of winter is marked by the ‘feast of bonfire’, and summer by the ‘festival of flowers’.
More than having a strictly religious import, these festivals are a time to dress up in all sorts of finery and go socializing or shopping. Should you find a crowd of bedecked people moving en masse over the hills to another village, you can confidently follow them in the hope of reaching a mela.
Himachal is famous for its weeklong Dussehra Festival celebrated at Kullu. Though the event is meant to honour Lord Raghunathji (Rama of the Ramayana fame), it has little to do with the tradition of the Ramayana. It’s basically a get-together for all the devtas (gods) of the valley who come in their dolis (palanquins) to the Dhalpur maidan (field). The celebrations which follow are truly on a grand scale. See Kullu for more.