Historical Perspective of Uttarakhand, by Prabhat Upreti

Kusum Tewari
Kusum Tewari 24 Min Read

Uttarakhand represents India’s spirituality, as its history is that of pluralist cultures. People of many castes and creed have been living in the region. As per findings of the Archeological Department, the history of Uttarakhand is dated to 6th century BC. At one time, the region was part of the Maurya and Gupta empires. The Buddhism spread across the area before Shankaracharya uprooted it. Shaivas also held influence over the region. In fact, every religion embraced the region for it has been an obvious place of spiritualism and meditation. Excavations near the Thapli, Malari and Alaknanda rivers gave evidence of the presence of the Aryan culture. Remnants of an auditorium belonging to the Neolithic Age are there in Devidhura and Ramganga valleys. It seems that groups of Khas, Darad, Abhisar, Parantgan and Kirat came to the region. As such, Uttarakhand has never been devoid of cultures. Its

culture continued to evolve, as is the case with the Himalayas. Tantrik rituals and meditation also had an influence over the region. Ranikhet, Kalimath in Chamoli district, Sem-Mukhem areas of Uttarkhashi substantiate it. Earthen pot culture as well as the copper and iron ages also existed in the region. According to a German expert, the dialect of Bangan area of Uttarkashi bordering Himachal Pradesh is older than Sanskrit. The lives of Banraot tribes in Kumaon represents harmonious relations of human beings with nature. The glorious regime of the Katyuri empire is also attributed to the discovery of metal. The region saw the rise of both pastoral and agricultural societies. Relations between various castes took different shape as economic along with geographic conditions change.

The advent of Shankaracharya during 780 AD. Saw almost the complete elimination of Buddhism in the region. It is now only found in Jaad tribe of Uttarkashi. The influence of Hinduism continued to spread as the remoteness of the area gave a perfect shelter to those who ran away from the battles with the Muslim rulers. The remoteness also provided immunity to the area from the attacks by Muslim rulers elsewhere. Bramanism spread after 780 A.D. before which the region did not have any kind of the Varna system. Before 750 A.D., the region was ruled by the Nandas, Mauryas, Kushakas, Maurvaris, Vardhanas and Pauravas.

In fact, culture of this region began in between 750-1223 A.D. during the prosperous Katyuri regime and continued to develop along with it. The regime was the golden era in Uttarakhand. Otherwise, the history of Uttarakhand is no different from the rest of the world. The common man were used as soldiers and killed in the struggles between kings. The common man’s history is full of agony. He was bogged down by the orthodox customs. It was only his endless toil, which resulted in some comfort to him. However, the common man led a prosperous life during the regime of Katyuris.

Otherwise, the history of Uttarakhand is full of the hegemonistic greed of Nepali kings, the immaturity of Kumaoni kings, the shortsightedness of Garhwali kings and the intrigues of Brahmin ministers. The fight between kings, the struggle among feudal lords and one-upmanship between courtiers are the highlights of the history of Uttarakhand.

The Katyuri kingdom spread to Tibet in the north, Shivali and Terai-Bhabhar in the south, Doti of Nepal in the East and kangra in the West. The era of the last Katyuri ruler Samisuraj lasted ten years from 1050 to 1060. Kachalle Dev, a Nepali aggressor, forced katyuri rulers to quit in his favour. He ruled till 1248 with the help of Mandaliks. His successors were not as powerful. After his death, small Thakur principalities held sway over the area. The post-1455 history is not clear. Subsequently, the whole Uttarakhand is divided into Garhwal and Kumaon areas. And then started the struggle to capture power between Parmar and Kumaoni kings. Ajaypal established Garhdesh by organising the Thakur principalities of the west, and Kalyan Chand founded the Kumaon area. The two ruled till 1870. Garhwal comprised 52 Garh. Pradyumn Shah ruled over the entire Kumaon and Garhwal from 1771 to 1787. Chands ruled Kumaon from 1400 till 1790. Pradyumn Shah was the last ruler of Uttarakhand. His reign spread to Kalinadi of Nepal in the east and Yamuna coast in the west. Rulers of Kumaon and Garhwal fought battles during 1748 and 1790. From 1790 to 1815 soldiers of both the sides fought on behalf of their rulers. During this period, Gorkhas of Nepal took advantage of bitter fights

between kumaoni and Garhwali kings and first annexed Kumaon and then Garhwal. They did not face any resistance in Kumaon but Garhwal did not prove a cakewalk for them. However, family disputes of courtiers, a devastating earthquake and drought weakened the resistance and Garhwal ultimately surrendered before Gorkhas.  The rule of Gorkhas is popularly known as Gorkhali era. The word ‘Gorkhali’ even today symbolises brutal oppression. Gorkhas were extremely brave, but at the same time callous rulers. They destroyed the entire Uttarakhand, turned the whole population into their slaves – economically as well as socially. The commonman was sold as a slave in Rishikesh and Hardwar. The condition of the woman folk worsened. Fearing their cruelty, the people left their villages. The famine, terror, oppression and rape followed. The life of the common man, already ruined by the excessive taxes and intrigues of Kings, became more miserable. The people, who were at least self-reliant before the Gurkhali era, lost their self-dependence. Slaves were sold for as paltry a sum as Rs 10 or 15. The region got rid of the Gorkhali regime because of Pradyumn Shah. Pradyumn Shah joined hands with Britishers under the treaty of Singoli in 1815 and defeated Gorkhas. As per the treaty, Garhwal was divided into two regions – the area on the left bank of the Alaknanda River was taken control by the British and the other remained under the rule of Tehri kings. As such, two different political systems prevailed in these areas. The one side of the history of Tehri comprised the struggle against the kingdom. The two political lines – that of communism represented by Nagendra Saklani and the Congress nationalism led by Suman got rooted in the area. The whole Kumaon region was under the British rule.

As weather of Uttarakhand was close to that of Britain, Britishers were quite pleased with their new rule. They had found an escape from summers. While Britishers got hold over substantial forest resources, the people of Uttarakhand were relieved of oppression under the Gorkhali regime. Britishers administratively reorganised the area. They linked Uttarakhand with the means of transport, even though the motive might be exploitation. Britishers spread education, modernise agriculture and managed forest reserves quite efficiently. These arrangements were not only modern but also more effective for the common man than the erstwhile rulers of Uttarakhand. The interests of Britishers were more exploitative in the long run than petty nature of former kings of the region, but their modus operandi gave a new direction, even though in an implicit way, to political, social and economic awareness of the people.

Recognising the bravery of the people of the Uttarakhand, Britishers recruited them in the army, which gave birth to the Royal Garhwal Rifle and the Kumaon Regiment. The Garhwal Rifle won two Victoria Cross in the two world wars. The soldiers of Uttarakhand were among the top warriors along with Gorkhas. Their mental level, which was already strong because of proximity with the nature, grew by going abroad and taking part in various battles.

Britishers were not only bright administrators, but were far ahead of former rulers in terms of establishing human relations. Some of them are remembered even now for their behaviour with the people. Ramje Commissioner, Trail Atkinson and Jim Corbett of the Kumaon region were some of such examples. In his book, My India, Jim Corbett expressed his feelings in a touching way. The description is unique. This also shows that humanity is not confined to any particular race. The study of the Himalayas in its social, economic and cultural forms by Atkinson remains unparalleled despite opening up of grand universities and the presence of a range of PhD holders now. His study on a range of subjects like animals and culture shows his immense dedication. Britishers separated the Garhwal and Kumaon commissioneries under the Regulation Act of 1891. In 1901, the United Province and Oudh Province were created and Uttarakhand was incorporated in it.

Uttarakhand had been the victim of mismanagement by kings and superstition of the feudal society. Barring courtiers, the common man was superstitious and largely oppressed. The oriental practice of sending certain persons into trance was possessed by gods and goddesses who demanded from others what an ordinary person would have demanded. Even now gods and goddesses had an influence in the lives of the common man. The tradition of Devdasi and practices of human and animal sacrifice were prevalent as in the rest of India. Magic and trickery also had influence in the area. The woman was considered an object of consumption. She was used as a glorified labourer, a practice which is present even now. She is being used in various movements even now. In some castes, the eldest daughter was offered to temple as a devdasi. Her condition was worse in Ravai and Jaunsaar areas of Uttarkashi, where polygamy was in vogue. As such, the practices of committing suicide and renunciation by becoming Mai (sage) were quite common among women. To exploit their gullibility and enamoured by their beauty, many vendors of bangles and clothes tried to elope with them. Despite being peaceful by nature, the common man did revolt when oppression surpassed all limits. The people of Ravain were mercilessly gunned down in the Tiladi incident when they participated in the forest movement in 1955. It reminds one of the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. Suman and Comrade Nagendra Saklani laid their lives for the freedom of Tehri. The people had to pay taxes for going homes of their in’laws at the time of marriage and for arranging for mating of their cows and buffaloes. Nobody could get education beyond class VIII without the king’s permission. The forests of the entire Tehri area were given to a Briton, named Wilson. The king used to call Wilson his golden goose. He introduced the Lagan system by looting away forest resources through rivers. The king remained oblivious to this exploitation. The king used religion for perpetuating his rule and assumed the status of Bolanda Badrinath (Badrinath who speaks). Adopting the Machiavellian policy, he shifted the blame of his oppression and misrule on to his administrators. The history tells us that the common man was oppressed by imperialism both from outside and inside. The common man was oppressed politically – the exploitation continued whether it was the rule of kings or that of Britishers. This shows that exploitation does not end with a change in rule. Some people took to abducting women and kids as an occupation as is evident from many suits filed in courts. Faced with difficult terrain for farming, landslides, cold weather accompanied with snowfalls, farmers led a harsh life. On top of it, he was exploited so that kings and British rulers led luxurious life styles. Being far away from the impact of politics, the remote areas were self-reliant despite being snow-capped.

After the advent of Britishers, the people gained awareness to an extent. They became politically conscious after eminent social reformers like Swami Dayanand and Vivekanand visited Uttarakhand. Schools set up by Christian missionaries and the Arya Samaj became the gateway of renaissance. The change in the judicial system followed. Those who talk of the so called glory of the old Uttarakhand must not forget that an accused was made to place his hands in boiled water and was declared non-guilty only if nothing happens to his hands. The judicial system of Trail during 1816 and 1835 did have a place for lawyers, appeals and agent. The police system was exploitative. However, these systems were reformed subsequently. Annie Beasant and the Rama Krishna Mission had a beneficial impact on the Kumaon region. The youth got facilities of education. Britishers wanted to isolate Uttarakhand from the plains. But the people’s awareness did not allow them to succeed in their plans.

There were protests against bonded porter system. The new forest laws aimed at increased exploitation of forests by Britishers.

They were also resisted by the people. These laws imposed a ban on the use of forests for daily purposes. The people launched resistance movements against the laws and ultimately succeeded in stalling their implementation. The people of Uttarakhand also took active part in the freedom movement. The people of Uttarakhand played four roles during the British rules – as soldiers participating in two world wars on the side of Britishers, as protestors against bonded porter system and the forest act, protestors against ill-practices on the social and religious spheres like the Nayar System and the Dola Palki System and lastly as freedom fighters. The people of Uttarakhand also sowed the seed of revolt in the army. Chandrasingh Garhwali refused to open fire on unarmed Pathans in Peshawar in 1935. Pathans of Peshawar and the Lal Kurti people still remembered the Peshawar incident. The incident laid the foundation of the Indian National Army and revolt in the Navy. From 1880 till independence, the people of Uttarakhand exhibited their intellectual and political awareness. The region also had leaders of the national stature. The geographical terrain of the region was the stumbling block in the way of the emergence of leadership in the area during the freedom movement. Opening up of schools by educationists like Pt Govind Ballabh Pant gave rise to the educated people of international standard.

Uttarakhand had been part of Uttar Pradesh after independence. A feeble demand for creation of Uttarakhand state was raised from time to time. The policy of Uttar Pradesh was never framed as per the geographical conditions of the hilly region. All development work came to a halt after independence. The development process did not take off despite three Chief Ministers of Uttar Pradesh – Govind Ballabh Pant, H. N. Bahuguna and N. D. Tiwari hailing from the area. After the Chinese aggression, three new border districts, viz., Uttarkashi, Chamoli and Pithoragarh, were created. The transport network was set up in these districts. But the same old laws, administration and police system prevailed as existed during the British rule. The people of Uttarakhand felt that successors of Britishers were no different. The area was reduced to a mere colony of Uttar Pradesh. Bureaucracy continued as also the Patwari system. The land, liquor and forest mafias mushroomed. The administrators had to join duties in Uttarakhand on promotion and penalty. The people of plains or even educated section of the hill people did not like to come to Uttarakhand.

The entire history of Uttarakhand reflects the pathetic life of the common man, trapped between the fights among kings of Garhwal and Kumaon. This also led to invisible psychological fissure between the two regions. Once Uttarakhand was self-reliant in agriculture and food grains were exported to the plains during famines. Socialism prevailed though of a different kind – poverty was a great leveller.

After the advent of Britishers, the people of Uttarakhand got government jobs in large scale which gives the birth of money order economy in the area. That economy, however, no longer exists. The development after the pendence led to excessive felling of trees and a rise in unemployment. The recruitment in government jobs, including the army, declined as well as the standard of education. The political awareness, however, grew. The cultural differences subsided as modernity spread and harmony among different sections of the society was on the rise. The composite culture was created and is being nourished by the simple people of Uttarakhand.

The history of Uttarakhand is primarily the rule by kings for the sake of perpetuating their power. Even after independence kings continued to rule Tehri. Various folktales revolve around the intrigues by courtiers. The common man was subjected to abject misery as he was used as a soldier in battles between kings of Garhwal, Kumaon and Nepal. In such a scenario, Veer Madho Singh Bhandari of Maletha became the people’s hero. He sacrificed his son to bring a canal from the other side of the hill to meet the shortage of water in the area. His story became folklore. Using the Garhwali word ‘Singh’ to mean ‘lion’ as well as horns of a cow, the folklore goes le — Ek singh jungle ma, ek singh gai ko, ek singh Madho Singh, doosro kahe ko (there are only three singhs in this world, one lives in forest, the second (horns) is on the head of a cow, and the third one is Madho Singh. Which else is of whom?). The story of Madho Singh was handed down from generation to generation through the folklore. While the masses kept singing folksongs revolving around the story of Madho Singh, kings used them for their interests. Kings of Nepal, Kumaon and Garhwal had family relations among themselves, but they also kept waging battles against each other. The kings, in fact, did not have origin in Uttarakhand. But the masses were used as a tool in their ambitious games. Later, Britishers exploited the place for leading luxurious life style. Britishers were dominant in Kumaon, being closer and less inaccessible. Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Jamnotri in Garhwal did not allow Britishers to hold sway over the region which basically remained the common man’s place. Those areas of Kumaon and Garhwal which were closed to the Railway network were touched by reforms. The people of both Kumaon and Garhwal represent native cultures of the land though kings of both the region forced them to fight with each other. The people of both Garhwal and Kumaon were loyal to kings till Britishers arrived. There is a local saying – Garhwal katak, Kumaon satak, Kumaon katak, Garhwal satak (the people of Garhwal ran away when the Kumaoni army attacked and vice versa). The British Government exploited the area for their interests but gave the region a better system. The system remained more or less the same even after independence.

Surrounded by the snow-capped mountains and ruled by callous rulers, Uttarakhand represents the history of exploitation. Even then the gullible people have nurtured the composite culture of the land.

 The author is a retired Prof. of Political Science and is now settled in the Town of Haldwani, in district Nainital, Uttarakhand state. Even after retirement he remains a social activist and regular writer for various papers and Magazines.


Published by the Convener, SADED, Mr. Vijay Pratap

DA- 9A. D.D.A. Flats, Munirka, New Delhi.

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