Kumaon, also spelt as Kumaun, is a geographical and cultural region in Uttarakhand, which is a northern Himalayan province of the union of India, carved out of Uttar Pradesh in the year 2000. The region borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region in the north and Nepal in the east. Jim Corbett, the famous British hunter-conservationist noticed something uniquely special about the geographical location of Kumaon region in the Indian peninsula: “Look at a map of India. Pick out Cape Comorin, the most southerly point of the peninsula, and run your eye straight up to where the Gangetic Plain slopes up into the foothills of the Himalayas in the north of the United Provinces. There you will find the hill station of Nainital…” (My India, OUP, 1958).
Jim Corbett spent many years of his life here at Nainital, the way to which is a major gateway into the hills of Kumaon. A keen and perceptive traveler would notice a sudden and subtle change in everything around as he or she enters this gateway at the last major town of Kathgodam in the plains. New vistas begin to open to the eyes, and a pleasantly woody smell enters the nostrils - the smell that intensifies and steadies as one moves up, the smell that changes its texture according to the season. The ambience grooves in and settles as the traveler moves further up along the ascending serpentine road. What begins to settle more is the feeling the culture of the region creates in the traveler. At some precarious looking bend in the road or on the edge of some steep and dangerous gorge, the traveler notices a small or not so small temple dedicated to some deity, where a brief halt and a short prayer is supposed to avert any possible mishappening. At some distances in the valleys, the traveler sees houses, either small clusters of them or, sometimes, a single house perched at a height like a hermit deep in meditation. (Till cement and iron bars reached these idyllic hills and valleys, these houses were made with locally available and environment-friendly material and had a specific three-storey structure. But that is another tale and doesn’t fit in here). Every big or small cluster of houses, and its residents, have an invisible connection with a patron or a patroness deity - a clan deity - whose sacred temple is always at some distance from the hubbub and the clamour of human life, as if to let the deity ‘live’ and work and meditate in peace. Periodically, the people from these clusters of houses - these hamlets - gather together to carry out some ritual festively performed. Somewhere at the centre of the socio-cultural life of the people are these deities, who, as the people deeply believe, bless them and protect them and also ensure justice in both material and non-material affairs.
The two articles in this section, titled Hill Cultures, come from the same Kumaon region. One of the two articles is by a professor of English who has lived more than half of his life in Kumaon among the native people of the region. Born and brought up in what is famously known as the ‘Awadhi’ culture of Uttar Pradesh, the writer of the article brings in an interesting comparative perspective upon the cultures of Lucknow, the heart of Awadh, and Almora, often identified as the cultural capital of Kumaon. The other article, by a professor of history, speaks about two of the principal deities of Kumaon region with a historian’s objective perspective.
Prakash Joshi (Editor, Hill Cultures)