Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are the three Indian states that occupy the Himalayan region of northern India. The predominate ethnic group is the Pahari. There are believed to be around 30 million Pahari: 10 million in Himachel Pradesh and Kashmir; 11 million in Uttra Pradesh; and 9 million in Nepal. The languages they speak—identified as Western Pahari, Central Pahari and Eastern Pahari (Nepalese)—are noticeably different than the languages spoken in the plains. Dadic languages include Kashmiri. Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken as one approaches Tibet.

Himachal Pradesh is a state that rises from the Indian plains into the Himalayan foothills and the Himalayas themselves. Known for its clean air, stunning Alpine scenery and sparking rivers, it embraces the famous hill station of Simla and the area occupied by the Dalai Lama and Tibetans who have fled from Tibet. Caravan routes in the area played a role in spreading Buddhism to China and elsewhere in Asia. The western part of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh is characterized by high alpine peaks, alpine meadows and riverine forest. Upper mountain glacial and snow meltwater sources of several rivers, and the catchments of water supplies are vital to millions of downstream users. The region is quite popular with tourists.

Uttarakhand, formerly Uttaranchal, is a state in the northern India. It is often referred to as the Devbhumi (literally "Land of the Gods") due to the many Hindu temples and pilgrimage centres found throughout the state. Known for its natural beauty of the Himalayas, the Bhabhar and the Terai, Uttarakhand became the 27th state of India in 9 November 2000. It was created from the Himalayan and adjoining northwestern districts of Uttar Pradesh. The state is divided into two divisions, Garhwal and Kumaon, with a total of 13 districts. The provisional capital of Uttarakhand is Dehradun, the largest city in the region, which is a railhead.

The term Uttarakhand , meaning "northern tract" or "higher tract," formally refered to the Himalayan districts of Uttar Pradesh, between the state of Himachal Pradesh to the west and Nepal to the east. It contains the eight districts of the Kumaon and Garhwal divisions. The main local languages are Kumaoni,Garhwali, and Pahari ("mountain"), a language of the Indo-Aryan family. The language of the elite, business, and administration is Hindi. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Before Uttarakhand was created the residents of hill districts of Uttar Pradesh felt themselves lost in the large state of Uttar Pradesh and their needs ignored by the politicians more concerned with wider regional issues. There has been almost no development of industry or higher education, although the 1962 border war with China resulted in some infrastructure development, particularly roads, which also were extended to make the more remote pilgrimage sites more accessible. Men of the region are forced to leave their families in the hills and seek employment in the plains, where they mostly find menial positions as domestic servants, which they consider undignified and inappropriate to their caste. Students must also go to the plains for higher education. All find the heat of the lowlands very oppressive. The major potential in Uttarakhand for hydroelectric power from the Ganga and Yamuna rivers and for tourism has not been developed, locals feel. Springs, which are essential for drinking and irrigation water, have been allowed to dry up. The particular needs of hill agriculture have been ignored. The plains produce grain primarily, whereas fruit growing is more promising in the hills. *

On the other hand, adjacent Himachal Pradesh, which consists of Himalayan districts formerly in Punjab or in associated princely states, became a state in 1948. Himachal Pradesh is geographically and culturally quite similar to Uttarakhand and has enjoyed satisfying progress in power generation, tourism, and cultivation. Some administrators observe that small states such as Himachal Pradesh can make more rapid progress just by virtue of being smaller, so that the problems are less overwhelming and local needs are not lost. *

Some tribes in the Simla Hills use lichens as bedding material and stuff their cushions with wolf moss.

See Separate Article on Kashmir and Kashmiris


Pahari is a term that is used to refer to mountain dwelling people and is generally used to describe Indo-European-speaking peoples of the Himalayas in north India and Nepal. Among the groups that fall into this category are (from west to east): 1) the Churachi, Gaddi. Kinnaura and Sirmuri (all in Himachal Pradesh); and 2) Jaunsari, Garhwali and Kumauni (all in Uttar Pradesh). [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

There are believed to be around 30 million Pahari: 10 million in Himachel Pradesh and Kashmir; 11 million in Uttra Pradesh; and 9 million in Nepal. The languages they speak—identified as Western Pahari, Central Pahari and Eastern Pahari (Nepalese)—are noticeably different than the languages spoken in the plains.

The Pahari people are generally believed to have originated from people that migrated from the plains to the mountains during the past 3000 years, presumably to escape population pressure, famines, droughts, disease and military and civil conflict. Great numbers are believed to have migrated after the Muslim invasions. Some of these people lived in fortresses villages, of which ruins can be seen throughout the region.

Pahari Religion

The vast majority of Pahari are Hindus. Most of their beliefs and customs are in line with the Hinduism practiced in the plains. There are some key differences though. There is little systematic differentiation between castes. Taboos on eating beef are recognized but otherwise other dietary restrictions are treated lightly or ignored as are some aspects of ritual purity and restrictions on women. There are a number of gods that are associated with their alpine environment. Households and villages worship their own sets of gods. Many homes have shrines.

The are two main categories of religious practitioners: 1) Brahman priests, who fulfill the role defined for them by Hindu texts; and 2) folk practitioners, which include shaman, diviners, mediums, exorcists, and healers. Many of these belong to lower castes.

In her paper “Rejection and Reaffirmation of Hierarchy in the Himalayas, Sarah Levenstamm wrote: “Among the distinctive practices and traditions of the Seepur area are the worship of devtas, localized forms of Shiv and Shakti Hindu deities, and even the deification of powerful men in their lifetimes, including some of the current “Raja’s” ancestors. Distinctive local mythologies and legends surround such deifications and provide justifications for beliefs, practices, and phenomena, such as the explanation for the absence of the Kshatriya caste. With the practice of deifying localized devtas and individuals, rivalries betweenneighboring villages often emerged. A typical legend that embodies a rivalry between villages outside Shimla centers on the assertion of the sanctity and power of a village’s devta. This myth recounts a time when Seepur’s central deity, Seep Devta, went on pilgrimage, and villagers from the other side of the valley visited the sacred grove of Seep Devta and stole one of his sacred cedar trees. The stolen tree allegedly can still be seen in the neighboring village, where it grows “upside down,” with multiple trunks that look like tree roots in the air instead of the characteristic single straight trunk of most cedars. It is said that when Seep Devta saw the stolen cedar, he rained down a hail of iron balls on the offending village. This myth accounts for distinct natural phenomenon: the hill on the other side of the valley even today has a pocked appearance. [Source: Sarah Levenstamm Rejection and Reaffirmation of Hierarchy in the Himalayas, SIT Graduate Institute, April 2013]

Pahari Rope-Sliding and Other Ceremonies

Ceremonies are numerous, complex and vary according to deity and region involved. Some are held as rites, to honor ancestors or ward off evil spirits. Others are associated with life cycle events. Animal sacrifices are performed. Cremations are generally performed next to a stream, with ashes thrown in the water afterwards. Children and people who die from particularly nasty diseases or accidents are buried.

In the old days, spectacular rope-sliding events were held in some Pahari communities in conjunction with numerous sacrifices and activities led by shaman, priests and other religious practitioners. In the rope-sliding event a lower caste man was tied to a gigantic oil-soaked rope that was hung down a cliff. The man let go and slid down the rope, often with a trail of smoke behind him, created by friction. If he survived, the gods were deemed pleased and the event was deemed a success.

Gerald Berreman wrote in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Among several events “peculiar to the Pahari region (all well within the range of Hindu ceremonies) is the famous rope-sliding ceremony. Too complex to describe adequately here—and now outlawed—it is worth mentioning because it incorporates the features of all Hindu ceremonies in a unique and spectacular Pahari idiom. Basically, it is an attempt to appease the wrath of the most powerful deity of the region, who has wrought dire and persistent misfortune on a village, by offering him a magnificent and expensive entertainment accompanied by many subsidiary sacrifices and supplications carried out by scores of priests, shamans, and other specialists before hundreds of worshipful participants and spectators. The climactic event occurs when a ritually prepared low-caste man who has been secured to a saddle astride a gigantic oil-soaked rope that is stretched between a tree at the top of a cliff and another at a distance below to form a steep incline, is released to careen down the rope, smoke streaming behind, to an uncertain fate at the end of his ride. If the spectacle is successful, the rider survives, the god is pleased, the community is relieved of its misfortune, the many who contributed to the event are benefited in proportion to their material or financial contribution, and everyone who witnessed it is blessed. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

In her paper “Rejection and Reaffirmation of Hierarchy in the Himalayas, Sarah Levenstamm wrote: “The practice of Himalayan “rope sliding” provides an example of a “Little Tradition,” perceived by many followers of the “Great Tradition” of Hinduism as deviant, which has been transformed by interaction with the exterior. A beda, a member of a specified lower caste in Mid-Hills village hierarchy dedicated to the worship of Mahadev, is chosen by a village shaman to build and slide down a rope in a ceremony performed when villagers “have been experiencing difficulties such as sickness or poor crops” to please the deity Mahadev and ensure improved harvest and health for the community. Historically, it is said the beda would often fall to his death, or would even be killed by townspeople if he performed the ritual unsatisfactorily. However, Berreman asserts, “the danger in rope sliding is greatly emphasized and probably exaggerated in the folklore of the region,” and it is thus a practice sensationalized to be “a quaint, improbable, and fascinating performance…derived from a form of human sacrifice.” Berreman analyzes rope sliding as “a Hindu ceremony well within the range of ceremonies found in villages throughout India. That is, it is equivalent in function, meaning, and use to many ceremonies of propitiation of deities in India,” essentially, “a sub-regional expression of a pan- Indian tradition.” [Source: Sarah Levenstamm Rejection and Reaffirmation of Hierarchy in the Himalayas, SIT Graduate Institute, April 2013]

Pahari Men and Women

Men generally do heavy work like plowing, repairing, terracing and building structures while women do chores like sowing seeds, preparing manure for fertilizer, winnowing and handmilling the grain, and preparing food. Low caste women often support their husband’s caste speciality.

As a rule Pahari women have considerably more freedom than there counterparts in the plains. They are not secluded and can participate full in ritual activities, sports, culture activities like singing and dancing. Women can get divorces. Widows can remarry. Pahari women generally carry themselves with more confidence and are engaged more in life than plains women.

Marriages are expected be within caste and outside clan. Bride price are paid rather than dowries. Polygamy is allowed. It is sometimes between a man and sisters. In some places polyandry is practiced and is regarded as ideal. Marriages sometimes used take place when children were as young as eight but now take place mostly after puberty when girls are at least 13 and boys are at least 16. Divorce is generally easy to get and usually requires the return of the bride price. Children stay with the father’s family after divorce.

Children are breast-fed until they are three or four and occasionally up to six. Boys generally hang out with girls and remain largely in the woman’s world until they are about the age seven and then begin spending more time with men. But boys and girls are not segregated as they are in the plains. Schooling is largely confined to the upper castes.

Pahari Society and Castes

The caste system of the Pahari is adapted to subsistence agriculture. The high castes are generally landowning farmers and the low castes are generally landless peasants. In many cases lower caste members belong to artisan castes associated with specific crafts but in reality all they do is farm labor. Similarly, some of the upper castes are Brahmans and Kshatriya that do not perform many priestly duties or fight. Many practice some trade in addition to agriculture and there is great deal of trading services among different caste members.

The three main castes are: the Brahman, Kshatriya and Achut (Untouchables). In most areas between 50 to 90 percent of the population are Kshatriya In many places there is essentially a binary caste system with the Kshatroyas at the top and the lower castes, called Doms, at the bottom.

Village matters are addressed through caste councils and a village council headed by heads of high caste households. They decide matters involving low caste members as well as high caste members. Some regional councils set by the national government have seats reserved for women and Achut members.

Pahari Villages and Homes

Pahari villages usually have less than 350 people and are situated on open hillsides near sources of water (usually a stream or spring), foresta that provide firewood and grazing land for animals. Hillsides are terraced for agriculture and irrigated when possible with flumes and canals that direct upstream water and power water mills.

Houses are generally rectangular with two or more stories and made with 36-centimeter thick adobe walls reinforced by wooden beams with gabled or flat roofs of slate, heavy wooden shakes or thatch. They are generally two rooms deep but can be up to six rooms in length. Many houses use the bottom floors for animals and the top floors for people. Rooms include bedrooms, a kitchen, storage rooms. Doors, frames, windows and sometimes rafters are intricately carved and sometime painted.

Pahari often migrate between summer pastures and lower elevation winter homes. Some families have additions dwellings located in fields that are some distance from the village. Some are used on a seasonal basis. Other are used when crops need special care or are vulnerable to attacks from pests.

Pahari Agricultural and Economic Life

Most Pahari are subsistence farmers with the land sometimes owned by members of higher castes. Extended families often cultivates plots of land and are able to get two crops a year: 1) wheat or barley planted in October-November and harvested in March-April; 2) and amaranth, wet or dry rice, lentils and vegetables planted in April-May and harvested in September-October. Fields are kept productive with animal dung fertilizer and periods of fallowing.

Milk and milk products, potatoes, ginger and some vegetables are produced for consumption and sale. Apples, apricots and opium are cash crops. Water buffalo are preferred over cattle because they produce richer milk. Both cattle and buffalo are valued for their dung which is used as fertilizer and fuel. Strong Pahari bullocks are valued as draft animals. Goats and sheep are kept in some places for meat and sacrifices.

There is village level and regional level industry in the form of smiths, carpetmakers, weavers, shoemakers and the like. What people can’t make for themselves they buy or trade, traditionally with people from the plains. There is a tradition of skilled work from carpenters and jewelry makers. The division of labor is by sex and caste.

Land still remains largely in the hands of the upper caste and feudalism, bonded labor and “debt slavery” continue to exist. Efforts have been made at land reform. but low caste people generally own little land and when they do it is often of poor quality.

Uttarakhand Movment

The Uttarakhand movement that was one factor in the creation of Uttarakhand state in 2000 was motivated by regional factors along with economic factors stemming from its particular geography. There was no protest against the dominance of Hindi in education and administration in the state. As regards religion, the population of the hills is almost entirely Hindu, like the large majority of Uttar Pradesh. The influx of outsiders has not become an issue; indeed, the problem had rather been the need for natives of the region to leave it. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The first demand for a separate Uttarakhand state was voiced by P.C. Joshi, a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), in 1952. However, a movement did not develop in earnest until 1979 when the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (Uttarakhand Revolutionary Front) was formed to fight for separation. In 1991 the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly passed a resolution supporting the idea, but nothing came of it. In 1994 student agitation against the state's implementation of the Mandal Commission report increasing the number of reserved government positions and university places for lower caste people (the largest caste of Kumaon and Garhwal is the high-ranking Rajput Kshatriya group) expanded into a struggle for statehood. Violence spread on both sides, with attacks on police, police firing on demonstrators, and rapes of female Uttarakhand activists.

In 1995 the agitation was renewed, mostly peacefully, under the leadership of the Uttarakhand Samyukta Sangharsh Samiti (Uttarakhand United Struggle Association), a coalition headed by the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seeing the appeal of statehood to its high-caste constituencies, also supported the movement, but wanted to act on its own. To distinguish its activities, the BJP wanted the new state to be called Uttaranchal, meaning "northern border or region," essentially a synonym for Uttarakhand. In 1995 various marches and demonstrations of the Uttarakhand movement were tense with the possibility of conflict not just with the authorities, but also between the two main political groups. Actual violence, however, was rare. A march to New Delhi in support of statehood was being planned later in the year. An interesting development was that women were playing an active leadership role in the agitation. *


The Lepchas are a Buddhist people that live around the Himalaya mountains around Mount Kangchenjunga in Sikkim and Darjeeling. There are about 30,000 of them in Sikkim, 1,500 in Nepal, 30,000 in Bhutan and 30,000 in India. It is believed they originated in Mongolia or Tibet. Their name, meaning “nonsense talkers,” was given to them, by their Nepali neighbors. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Lepchas have a history of being subjected by other people: namely the Nepalis, Bhutanese and Tibetans. They have been assimilated, in many cases, with the people that live around them. They have intermarried expensively with Nepalis.

The Lepchas live simply and in Spartan conditions and have a reputation among other peoples as being backwards. They practice Tibetan Buddhist, and the Min religion, an ancient belief, which incorporate animal sacrifices to ward off evil sprits. In their collection of legends and myths are many stories about the Yeti, the Abominable Snowman. He is worshiped as the god of hunting.

Lepcha Life

The Lepchas have traditionally lived in widely scattered villages in the mountains and forests that often only consisted of three or four houses. Traditional Lepcha homes are rectangular in shape and are raised one meter to one and a half meters off the ground on stone piles and are often constructed of wood, plaster and bamboo. The area underneath the house serves as shelter for animals and a storage space. Villages are led by headsman. Crime is almost unheard of.

The Lepcha raise wet rice, dry rice, buckwheat, maize and several varieties of millet for consumption. Their main cash crop has traditionally been cardamom., Vegetables and fruit are produced in kitchen gardens and collected from the forest. They also keep cattle for milk and goats for meat and sacrifices. Their food is not as spicy as Indian and Nepali food. Millet is not raised for eating but for making alcoholic beverages.

Men and women share chores and duties relatively equally. The most important social units are nuclear and extended families and clans. The Lepchas generally get married when they are very young: girls by the age of 14 and boys by the age of 16.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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