Once upon a time, in one of the villages in Kangra valley, there lived a small family of a mother, son and his wife. The family owned a field where they grew rice, wheat, corn, maize and some vegetables. It was the time to harvest rice, but the son had gone far away with his livestock. The laborious work of cutting, thrashing, crushing and pounding began in every other house in the neighbourhood and so it did in their house. Everything had to be done by hand, those days had no machines. So, the sasu (mother-in-law) and bahu (daughter-in-law) toiled very hard in the fields every day. Once the crops were harvested, Sasu ordered Bahu, ‘Lohri is coming. So, de-husk the rice in the oakli and then pound it.’ Obedient Bahu did as ordered. Although she tirelessly separated the rice from its husk for many days, she was left with little. As the day of Lohri approached, Sasu came to check on her and looking at the small quantity, she became furious.
She asked Bahu, ‘Why is there very little rice? Did you eat the rest of it? I am sure you did.’ Bahu replied politely, ‘No! I did not. I could only finish so much. It is one thimbi (unit of measure for quantity) full.’ Sasu refused to trust her and with a rod, hit bahu hard on her head. Bahu fell and died. Sasu was not affected by her death but she missed Bahu when there was too much work at home and in the fields as she had no one else to help her. On the day of Lohri, she went to the courtyard to collect rice to make khichri and there she saw a bird. It’s called gugghi in the local language. It appears during the time of Lohri. The bird sang ‘boto diye pat pur pur’ which means ‘the measurement was full.’ Sasu was puzzled to hear this but went ahead to collect rice. She was shocked looking at the rice and husk. Tears uncontrollably flowed from her eyes as she realized that the quantity was right. Obviously, poor Bahu did not eat anything. Sasu became sad and was furious at herself for reacting at the moment. Sadness and guilt took over in the coming days and finally she also died.
I heard this story from a local woman who is a Gaddi Brahmin. The story reflects upon the natural environment in which it is based, women’s everyday chores, the custom of people to share food with other beings and certain social issues. She also mentioned that sometimes there is a constant rift between sasu and bahu, but their relationship is not as dramatic as this story depicts. Stories also carry deep social meanings the songs, are an expression of the imaginative mind to represent a situation (Vyathit 2018). When I enquired about the story of Sasu killing Bahu, the lady said that there were no such happenings in the past. Anu, her bahu, commented, ‘My grandmother told the same story but that revolved around a mother and daughter.’ She comes from a neighbouring village and assured us that it is possible to have many variations to the same story. Spreading some grains on her courtyard floor where we sat, Anu mentioned that it is a general practice for people to feed grains to the bird.
Most of the festivals in Kangra, as in many other parts of India, are associated with the performance of sacred rituals, songs, dances, folk stories and so on. Though the intention behind these rituals may be the same, the process of celebration varies greatly regionally. As these performative traditions are passed on orally, they are told and re-told at many occasions through many people, yet always addressing a purpose. They all carry profound meanings. Based on strong cultural and physical contexts, they reflect the relationship that people share with their fellow beings, the surrounding ecology, their value systems and evoke a sense of bonding that bring communities together also becomes a base for them to refer to and learn from. This article focuses on the various rituals related to agriculture in the Kangra valley, by bringing to light its rich oral traditions. Through this article, I also aim to understand the deep connection that human beings have with their surroundings, which has in turn leads to the formation of such intangible culture. Having had the good fortune of living in Sidhbari for the last nine months, I was able to observe people and their patterns here. Hence this article reflects upon the agricultural rituals based in Sidhbari and its neighbouring village Rakkar.
Place, People, Pattern
Situated in the state of Himachal Pradesh, the Kangra valley is flanked by the majestic Dhauladhar peaks on the north and the Beas River on the south. Sun rays and the snow-covered peaks play a versatile drama of light and shadow here, forming both background and foreground for the many villages set in between. Like several other villages of the region, Sidhbari and Rakkar, located in the northern part of the valley, have clusters of mud and cement houses amidst a vast expanse of agricultural fields. People worship a local deity called Pakhalu nag and the temple is in Rakkar along the Manoni stream that passes through both the villages. Water flows through artificial irrigation channels called kuhls, connecting the stream to the fields. Initially, these channels were lined with stones and rocks but now they have been redone in concrete. Sadly, due to the hydro-electric power plant located nearby, these kuhls no more receive water like they used to before (Baker 2005). Kuhls also pass through houses making water accessible for women to wash clothes and vessels. Despite the overwhelming growth of cement houses considered more prestigious, all the vernacular houses have a courtyard—a semi-open, semi-public space where most of the activities take place. People from the same community live in a cluster and each cluster lives in proximity to the other.
The villagers belong to different communities. These include the Gaddis who are semi-nomadic pastoralists tribe, moving from upper valleys to lower ones and vice-versa, according to the seasons to graze their sheep and goats. Different castes like Brahmins, Thakurs, Chowdarys, Rajputs come under the Gaddi tribe. Halis, Dogris and Gujjars are also found in these villages apart from the newly migrated Nepalis and Biharis. People strongly conform to their caste practices. Festivals and events take place within caste boundaries and marrying into another caste is discouraged and often prohibited (Parry 1979). The valley has a rich linguistic heritage and the dialect changes every few miles. However, the Pahari dialect itself is under threat as most of the kids are sent to Hindi- or English-medium school. The expanse of diversity is clearly visible in the languages and traditions, as much as it is visible in the rich flora and fauna that exists here.
Historically, most of the communities migrated here and to places higher up in the mountains, to protect themselves from the various invasions which took place in the South Asian subcontinent across centuries. People also settled down in this valley as it was an active centre of trade and commerce. Over the last three generations, people of the Kangra valley, including the Gaddis, have largely taken to settled agriculture. To a large extent this has been an outcome of the colonial policy of land settlement under the British, which championed the cause of permanent agriculture as it brought immense revenue to the British government. As a result, lands were purchased, brought under tillage and people began to live here permanently to take care of the fields. Today, the fields are either flooded with crops or with water depending on the season. In the more recent decades and specifically since 1960s, the valley has seen a tremendous influx of Tibetans as Dharamshala became the capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama. There has also been a constant inflow of tourists and increasing number of summer homes for people who live in Delhi and Punjab. Despite so many changing patterns, houses and number of people shifting livelihoods, it is more remarkable that the agricultural rhythm and rituals remain so meaningful to those who still practise farming.
Cycle of crops
The agricultural cycle completely depends on the changing seasons. The valley produces two main types of crops—the kharif and rabi. The rabi crops are sown in winter and harvested in spring, like wheat, jo, linseed, potato, onion etc. The kharif crops are sown before monsoon and harvested before winter, like rice, corn and few other vegetables. Rabi needs less water while kharif crops need more. The process of cultivation varies slightly across different crops. While manuring, ploughing, sowing and harvesting remain constant practices, for paddy, fields are additionally flooded after the seeds have been sown. Seeds are sown in one part of the field. Once they sprout, they are transplanted to rest of the field.
The cycle of crops relates to the changing seasons. The overall rotation of crops is based on the solar calendar but the condition to sow is determined by the lunar cycle. The rhythm of this changing cycle is marked by several rituals and festivals pertaining to agriculture. Every phase of cultivation has a ritual or festival associated with it. The rituals are not only performed to thank the gods and ask for their blessings but also to apologise to the earth when it is ploughed (farmers apply tikka to the earth and offer sweets and flowers as a part of the ritual); to Nag devta (the snake god) when rain is needed; to agricultural tools which bring food and prosperity. Every object and process related to agriculture is considered sacred. While the sacred rituals are accompanied by chanting of hymns and verses, the everyday rituals like working in the fields, thrashing and pounding rice are often associated with songs. Songs, like stories, have a strong cultural base and are sung only at a particular time and place. It is also interesting to note the transformation of thought into a ritual through songs and stories. For instance, the story of Lohri and Gugghi bird has influenced people to feed birds with water and grains and remind them to connect with birds. Similarly, many other agricultural festivals are also associated with such intangible heritage that one can learn from. We will now explore these various agricultural festivals in detail.
Lohri: The time of transformation
Every year after the rice has been harvested, it is processed and stored. The next round of crops sees tiny wheat seedlings emerge out of the fields. As the days get shorter and nights colder, people get ready to celebrate Lohri or the festival of transformation. Lohri is celebrated according to the solar calendar on the day when the sun shifts from one rashi or zodiac to another, in the month of January. According to the Hindu calendar, this day is considered very auspicious as it marks the end of Poas, or the winter solstice month. Poas is considered to be an inauspicious month and celebration of any sort is forbidden through its duration. Lohri marks its end and provide an opportunity for people to celebrate.
On the day of Lohri, few children visit neighborhoods, early in the morning in groups of four to six, singing songs and covered in woollen clothes with plates in their hands asking for gifts. Earlier they used to make a visit starting at least a week before Lohri. These days parents are worried about their kid’s safety and refrain from sending them. Recalling earlier times, a local Gaddi woman from Rakkar village observed that previously ‘children used to collect only grains but now they take all sorts of things.’ Grains are gifted to those who sing. People believe that these songs bring prosperity to their homes and hence are happy to share grains. Groups of children coming together develop a sense of bonding within them as they decide on their songs, clothes, and the route to take through their neighbourhood and this brings a sense of belonging to the community too. Sometimes, they also dress up as husband and wife. Just as the festival of Lohri is a way of being grateful for a good harvest, in times of scarcity it is a way of sharing one’s produce with the rest of the community. Hence, most of the songs of this festival, such as the following one, invoke the tradition of sharing and asking for gifts.
This is the English translation of the Pahari song:
Oh people of the house!
Please come out, it is cold and our feet are feeling the chill.
It is cold and we are shivering from inside.
We have come to take our Lohri grains.
If you will give, please give or else we will leave.
Children are also given a mixture of poha, jaggery, dry coconut and peanuts. Once the children leave, the women folk begin the event of making khicchdi in their kitchen. As I visit the house of Hariyali, a local gaddi woman, she takes me to her kitchen where the utensils are neatly organized on the smoothly plastered mud wall. The floor smells of fresh cow dung. I sit there as she lights up her mud chulha (mud stove) and fills the room with her beautiful voice singing Lohri songs. Singing songs while performing everyday rituals is a way of transforming a person emotionally. Set in melodious tunes, these songs speak of separation, pain and love for fellow beings, invoke blessings of deities and seek their permission and call upon nature’s rhythm and abundance (Narayan 2016). Singing a song that says, ‘Sair aayo babroo oh Lohri aayi Khicchdi’ (which means, ‘Come Sair, there is baboo! Come Lohri, there is khicchdi’) through her nasal voice, she indulges herself completely between cooking and singing, pouring rice into the pan which is later served with spoonful of ghee. Dinner is cooked early on Lohri and people set off to visit their relatives’ place. Married daughters visit their parents. Children may come in the evening too and later families’ light fires in their respective courtyards. Sweets are thrown into the fire as an offering and this event brings together the whole community.
Baisakh: A celebration of wheat harvest
The wheat crop begins to ripen in the month of Chaitra (mid-March to mid-April) and the fields are filled with people harvesting the crop. Before harvesting, a small puja is performed for the sickles being used in the fields. Tikka is applied on the sickles and offerings are made to the local deity. The landscape changes as new varieties of birds and flowers appear. Seeti, the bard of the basket weaving community (locally called Doomna) goes around Sidhbari and Rakkar throughout the month of Chaitra singing songs of the month and of Shiva and Parvati’s wedding which is believed to have happened then. Baisakh is celebrated on the Sankaranti day (first day of the month) in April to welcome the summer months and to thank the gods for the wheat harvest. For many communities in the valley, this day is also the beginning of a new agricultural year. It is worth noting that both Baisakh and Lohri falls on the Sankaranti of the month. Celebration of the new year happens only after the bard’s visit. Hence, people wait for him and offer him small amounts of grain and money.
On the day of Baisakh, offerings are made to the local deities from the first harvest. Sweets and savouries are then distributed as people visit their relatives. A small pooja is performed to thank the sun, the earth and the kul devta (family god) for a good harvest. Baisakh also marks the onset of summer and I was told by Pritham Sharma, a local Gaddi Brahmin that people perform a separate ritual for the ancestors. Sometimes during the summer months, the kuhls run dry and there is a scarcity of water. While symbolizing the change of season, Baisakh also reminds people to store water for the coming summer heat. Ghadas (clay water pots), always odd in number, are filled with water and people go around their courtyard in a circular clockwise direction pouring water from the ghada and praying to their ancestors to kindly visit and drink water. This shows people’s connection with their ancestors as they continue to be a part of their households.
Later, these half-filled ghadas are distributed to the married daughters who come to visit their parents to celebrate Baisakh. Women are expected to take care of the family and perform rituals to generate prosperity in the household. It is considered inauspicious for a house to run out of water. Hence, the ghadas are given to the womenfolk to gently remind them to store water and not to keep the family thirsty. Baisakh also coincides with the mustard harvest and people remember that the radiant yellow of the mustard flower used to echo in yellow clothes and scarfs which are worn for Baisakh.
Baisakh is also accompanied by singing songs, showing love for birds and flowers as it is celebrated right after spring. The following song is one of the oldest in the valley and is sung between mothers and daughters. Set in the contexts of seasons and festivals as well as the experiences and emotions of individuals, such songs often express that which might otherwise not be permissible.
‘The bird is hopping from one stream to another.
Singing beautifully in front of me
I am getting ready to go home,
It is the time of Baisakh.
The bird also wants to come with me and I want to bring her.
Oh Mother! Will you please send father to come and take us?
My mother-in-law will not let me go otherwise.
Oh Daughter! Your father is sick and cannot come.
So please come on your own.
Oh Mother! Will you please send my brother to come and take us?
Oh Daughter! Your brother is too young to come.
So please come on your own.
Oh Mother! I am very sad.
At least send me the leftovers after you people have eaten.
According to the kinship practice in Kangra valley, girls are married into faraway villages. In those days, married women were not allowed to go home alone and her parents or brother was expected to come and take her. This song indicates the poignant feelings of daughters who are unable to visit their parents during festivals.
After the wheat harvest, the fields are prepared for paddy. Once the earth is covered with a layer of manure, seeds of rice and corn are sown and the fields are flooded with water. Walking past these fields, one encounters muddy pools of different sizes and shapes.
Hariyali: Festival of rain and fertility
Once the rice seeds have been sown, a celebration to welcome the rain and prayers for the fertility of crops is undertaken in the month of July. Ten days before this festival, dhrub grass (three-blade grass) is collected and five to seven kinds of seeds are mixed and sown in a basket. And on the last day, clay dolls of Shiva and Parvati are made and married to each other. The basket which now has small shoots of crops is kept in front of them and their marriage is considered to cause the fertility in the land. Once the wedding is over, women take these dolls and immerse them in a nearby khad (deep ravine). This sacred union of Shiva and Parvati is seen as a symbol of fertility in this region.
Sair: Celebration after the rains
Dark clouds dance across the sky, clashing with one another leading to incessant rains starting in July and continuing till mid-August. Though the rains are much needed for the growth of rice, they also lead to major landslides often resulting in damage to hillsides, fields, houses and pathways and at times injuring people and animals. No work is undertaken during this period. The darkness in the sky exhibits the darkness that pervades through the lives of these communities during the monsoon months. And after a long wait, during the month of September, the sky clears and people are relieved from this darkness.
Pritham Sharma says, ‘Sair is a celebration of this time. A time of relief from the dark times to the joy of welcoming the next harvest. People wait with all eagerness to celebrate Sair. The houses are cleaned of mould and fresh coating of lepai (a thin mixture of cow dung, gum and water) is applied. Newly harvested monsoon crops like corn, one straw of rice, katta (a type of sour fruit), cucumber, pumpkin is lined in front of the God in the pooja room along with roti. We thank God for getting them past the dark month and ask for a good harvest. We draw figures of fruits and vegetables along with birds on our living room wall denoting the beginning of a new harvest. Our married daughters visit our homes once again and Sair becomes another occasion for families to come together and ensure that all members are well past the dark month. Like other festivals, Sair is also accompanied by ritual practices, stories and songs.’
He also mentioned that, ‘during Sair, the barber of the village carries a basket full of fruits, vegetables and an idol of the deity and visits every house. People give him grains and money. In the past, barbers did not own any land. They visited homes and families looking for work. This contrasted with other occupational practices, such as those of carpenters, who were themselves visited by people when they needed any work to be done. These old practices evoke a time when it was difficult to get money and barter was the common medium of exchange. In return for cutting hair, the barber was given a basket full of fruits, vegetables and grains after the monsoon harvests. The existence of the custom even in today’s time shows the socio-cultural bonds of these communities. And these bonds exist with nature too.’ For instance, Sair is the time when birds that look as colourful as ripe fruits, vegetables and dhaan (grain) arrive. People often sing songs denoting their love for these birds, asking people not to kill or injure them. The following is a brief description of what one of the song means as described by Pritham.
There was a king who ruled a part of the Kangra valley. Once the monsoon was over, he went out after a long time. Seeing the beautiful birds, he was greedy to hunt them to eat. As he got ready to leave with his small group of soldiers, the queen came out and tried her best to stop him. She begged him to not kill the birds. Angered by her behaviour, the king asked, ‘Who are these birds to you? Are they your relatives?’ The queen replied, ‘Yes, they are like my siblings and we come from the womb of the same mother.’ Even after hearing this, the king pushed the queen away and went to hunt. Shooting a bird or two, he returned with great pride, but the queen could not take this horror. Though the king ate the cooked birds, she could not stop crying and refused to eat or drink. Slowly she became weak and died.
Emotionally, the story connects the women to the birds. This story comes as a warning that if people kill the birds, the women folk in the house will mourn and die. A story like this reiterates the relationship people have with their surrounding ecology.
Thus, with colourful birds and green fields around, people begin harvesting rice and corn. By the time of Diwali, people finish harvesting rice and the ground is prepared for the next cycle.
Forms of nature worship
Apart from worshipping crops, people also worship trees like peepal, amla and plants like tulsi and pomegranate. These rituals are more women-centric and they pray to the trees to provide them with a good husband and a prosperous life for their family. Tree worship is common all over India and it comes with interesting stories and songs. Women come together during these occasions and share stories and sing songs. Traditionally, elderly women chant hymns and narrate stories and the younger ones gather and listen. Transfer of a rich traditional knowledge takes place through this practice. People also use products of agriculture in their worship of nature. The story of Rahu and moon on the day of lunar eclipse is illustrative of this. According to this tale, once the moon borrowed some money from Rahu. Days went by, but the moon could not return the money. As a result, Rahu chased the moon asking for money, along with the interest that had piled up. To escape from Rahu, the moon ran away and that is why the sky is completely dark on the lunar eclipse. To rescue the moon, people leave some grains in their courtyard to this day.
These rituals and festivals practiced in the Kangra valley suggest towards the deep cohesion between the human and his environment. As they specifically pertain to agriculture, they emphasize this bond even more. Agriculture, as viewed through the lens of these festivals, is not just seen as the production of food but incorporates a whole new way of life.
William Newell in his article ‘A Himalayan Village’ says:
If in one's own city one observes Diwali or Lohri in a certain way, then one thinks that people in other parts of India also act in the same way at the same festival. But in actual fact within the large unit of a country like India there are multitudes of different customs, rites and ceremonies found only in one spot which represent the individuality of the area concerned. (Newell 1953)
As in the case of the Lohri and feeding birds, the rituals draw on a close observation of nature and seek a harmonious relationship with it. Just as this dependence on the natural landscape is duly acknowledged and celebrated through the worship and appeasement of deities, so is the interdependence of the community members also reiterated time and again like the Doomna bard receiving grains after singing Chaitra songs and the barber receiving gifts during Sair. Whether it be Lohri, Sair or Baisakh, sharing and caring for one another and remembering to have a good time, are the key ingredients of these festivals.
The translation of rituals which takes place through stories and songs, brings alive a rich oral tradition. Making their way into homes and everyday life, the stories of Kangra valley denote that these rituals are all based on geography, history, culture and politics. Creating strong sense of belonging and bonding between people who sing songs together while cooking or farming, songs have often helped people overcome certain issues and helped people communicate problems that were generally taboo for discussion. However, these days, many of the songs relating to nature are forgotten as they are often not sung. The younger generation often remember songs that are available on social media but do not recollect their meaning. It is important to document these songs before they completely wither away. The above examples are clear evidences that humans in the past existed as a part of the surrounding ecology and these dialogues were manifested in the form of stories, songs and rituals.
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