Kumaoni women, unsung heroines of the Hills; Reminiscent of social universe that doesn’t exist anymore

Due to Heavy recruitments into British and Indian armies and an exodus towards plains for livelihood, it was left to the women to maintain agricultural lands and care for the old and the young

Photo Courtesy: Twitter
Photo Courtesy: Twitter
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Namita Gokhale

I grew up in the hills of Kumaon, taking it for granted in those distant days that women were stronger than men. I could see it all around me, in the tall straight backed women traipsing down the precarious hillsides, a mountain of branches and twigs balanced on their proud heads, in the old women clambering determinedly on to steeply sloping rooftops, laying out dung cakes to be used as fuel in winter. I could see it in the ancient crones , who would outrun the cows while chasing them out, when they strayed into our gladioli infested garden, slapping them on their rumps with rude authority.

These women, these mountain women of Kumaon, live in my heart and my imagination and turn up in my books with unfailing regularity. There is Hidimbi, the first and senior most of the Pandava wives, who was to appear as a supporting character in my YA novel ‘Lost in Time: Ghatotkacha and the Game of Illusions’. The noble demoness effortlessly took over the story, and became the central character and heroine of the book. There was the self-willed and whimsical Tilottama in ‘Things to Leave Behind’. And, most recently, Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali, the first First Lady of Pakistan, and the subject of a recent collaborative biography which I worked on and wrote the introduction for.

I find the story of Hidimbi intensely moving. She staked her love and loyalty to Bhima and stood by him against all odds. Soon after she gave birth to their son Ghatotkacha, Bhima and the Pandavas left her to fend for herself as they continued their wanderings in exile.

There is a temple to Hidimba in the Kumaon hills, near Sattal. I think of her as a heroic and inspirational figure, and also tragic in her unreciprocated strength, generosity and giving. She seems to exemplify the true Shakti of the women, and the goddesses, of the hills, their tenacity and power of will.

Tilottama- ‘eccentric, headstrong, born-before-her-time Tilottama’ - effortlessly took over a complex historical novel and became almost the central character in it. She entered into my life and consciousness as well, in a way no character I had written had ever done.

And the Begum- born Irene Ruth Margaret Pant on Almora in 1905, champion of feminism and women’s rights, went on to become one of the most important and inspirational political figures in Pakistan. In my introduction I observed ‘ ...whenever I encountered the half-told stories of Begum Ra’ana I could sense the mountain grit in her, the legendary strength that comes so naturally to Kumaoni women.

To go back to the distant past, the wild and wise women of the Himalayas managed to frequently annoy, offend and infuriate the great patriarchal sages who roamed these mountains in search of salvation. The followers of Shankaracharya habitually sealed the shrines sacred to rebellious goddesses with the same ritual enthusiasm with which they re-indoctrinated Buddhist abodes and viharas.

But the strength and sorority of the women of Kumaon, which came from the soil, the songs and stories, the skies and clouds, the hurtling streams of that charged landscape, was not so easily tamed. The more a caste-bound patriarchy tried to break them in, the more they resisted. Their strength was not the strength of rebellion or aggression; they just were the way they were.

Not just the women of Kumaon, the goddesses too are not incarnate as resplendent consorts or docile domesticated icons. The goddesses of Kumaon are not the docile Devis of the Northern plains, but fiercely individualistic, ‘Ugra’ manifestations of pure energy. The temple of Naina Devi in Nainital marks the spot where Sati’s eyes supposedly fell to the earth. Pashan Devi - the goddess of rock - is an incarnation of the primeval earth mother. Nanda and Sunanda , the tutelary sister-goddesses of Kumaon, symbolise strength, sorority, and independence.

Popular heroines of the Chand dynasty, they were elevated to divinity by the power and thrust of folklore. Vanini Devi and Shyama Devi were considered guardian spirits of old Almora. Garh Devis are invoked in cremation grounds on moonless Amavasya nights. Anjari and Ujyari are ritualised manifestations of the cycle of night and day.

Paharis are partial to superstition, and it’s interesting that the Dayans or local witches, with their feet pointed backwards, are supposedly inversions of the ancient religion of the cult of Diana, which came to these parts with the Himalayan sojourns of the Greeks and the Yavanas.

There is the story of the temple of Goddess Kalika or Mahakali situated in a pine-forest to the east of Gangolihat. Supposedly, whosoever heard the voice of the Goddess died. Obviously she was, in the way of women, a powerful and vocal Goddess, and the local populace began migrating in large numbers. When the Adi Shankaracharya came to these mountains sometime in the early part of the eighth century, drumming out Buddhism and local practice with his ‘Digvijay’, he conducted some ritual prayers and symbolically sealed her shrine with a large stone slab. The call of the Goddess was silenced, but not for long.

Modern Uttarakhand survives largely because of its women. Over the course of the last few centuries the region was reduced to a money-order economy. Heavy recruitments into the British and Indian armies, and an exodus towards the plains in search of a livelihood, led to a demographic imbalance whereby it was left to the women to maintain the agricultural lands and care for the old and the young who remained in the villages.

Uttarakhand is a highly literate state, yet the cream of its educated youth still look to the plains to find employment. The absent men do leave a vacuum in society, yet the business of daily life, of cutting wood and drawing water, remains the duty and domain of women, who continue, stoic as always, with the daily itinerary of their ‘dincharya’.

Today, and everyday, I salute the unsung heroines of the hills, their stubborn courage and indomitable will.

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Published: 08 Mar 2019, 3:51 PM