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1 November 2006 Long-Term Dynamics of Geography, Religion, and Politics
Chetan Singh
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In the western Himalaya, the overlap of geography, religion and politics created a cosmic view that appeared to render “secular history” superfluous. Pre-modern states and communities in the region used natural phenomena to create a religious tradition, and then draw upon religion to form a sociopolitical organization. The present article attempts to explain how, in this mountainous region, the natural surroundings were the significant context within which belief systems and social structures operated. It examines the situation prevailing in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the small medieval principality of Kumharsain. Because of its semi-isolation, many of the village cults seem to have retained their roots in natural phenomena. Brahmanical orthodoxy later built upon indigenous beliefs as it spread to the countryside. The state deity was placed close to the rulers, while the indigenous village gods lived with the common folk. An intimate relationship existed between landscape, religious cults and social structure. Even today this relationship persists. It influences both local politics and decision-making processes in matters of development.

Tradition as history

Many indigenous communities in South Asia contextualize their position in a larger world through oral traditions rooted in pre-modern times. As socially constructed memories of the past, these traditions also serve as history. Because they seem to lack a chronologically ordered view of the past, such societies are sometimes considered to be devoid of a sense of history. Instead of being seen as active, autonomous participants in larger historical processes, they were regarded as societies ‘upon whom history acts’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992). However, not many would seriously argue today that there are ‘people without history.’ Even the simplest societies nurtured a ‘history’ that recalls a collectively experienced or ‘remembered’ past. This was often entwined with a cosmic view that virtually functioned as religion. While the need for a secular history was never seriously felt, religion itself became mundane, everyday practice. Political organization and religious ideology were seen as crucial components of a single public sphere. This was a domain where both religion and politics were used in constantly shifting combinations—a stratagem that practically erased the distinction, if any, between religion and politics.

For the study of mountain societies, a third factor—physiography—seems to be of vital importance. It adds a dimension that has influenced the evolution of ideologies of governance, religious beliefs, and social organization. The mountainous Indian State of Himachal Pradesh provides appropriate conditions for examining the historical interaction between geography, culture, and polity. In this rugged territory, large and fast-flowing rivers with their numerous tributaries have created small, semi-isolated valleys separated by high mountain ranges. These tributary valleys are accessible through the main river valley. Geographical divisions of this nature engendered the emergence not only of political territories (Singh 1998), but also of the religious domains of different deities.

An attempt is made here to explore aspects of a ‘believed’ folk history. For the inhabitants of the region, the traditions explored in this article have long represented history in its fullest sense. They embody a social ‘truth’ in which village communities tenaciously continue to anchor their lives (Sharma 1990). Folklore and legend are astute devices for creating community identities and legitimizing political structures. While the long-term logic of the present article is embedded in pre-colonial times, the case discussed pertains to the developments that took place between the mid-19th and the early decades of the 20th centuries. In fact, many arguments made here remain relevant to contemporary Himachal society, especially because developmental planning and the related processes of decision-making have necessarily to be situated within the larger socio-cultural context.

Geography, religion, and the state

Pre-modern Himachal was divided into numerous monarchies and petty chiefdoms (thakurais) fostered by its mountainous topography (Figure 1). They had remained independent over centuries and retained considerable administrative autonomy, even under British rule. This long tradition of political freedom was complemented by the almost uninterrupted predominance of a few interrelated ruling lineages (Hutchison and Vogel 1982). Geographical seclusion and limited economic surplus made many of these states unattractive prizes for invaders. It also saved them from the socio-political upheavals usually wrought by external aggression. But this alone cannot explain the political longevity of the ruling clans or the stability of the traditional social order. Both material and ideological factors combined to establish the hegemonic authority of dynastic rulers as well as the continuity of local traditions.


Himachal Pradesh. (Map by Andreas Brodbeck)


An essential theoretical function of the Hindu monarch was the establishment of dharma (righteousness), and the preservation of a dharmic order. The acceptance of a monarch's political authority by his subjects also implied their submission to a dharmic or moral code of social organization (Drekmeier 1962). Despite the apparent harmony between kingship and dharma, and the Brahmanical approval of monarchy, the king's rule ultimately rested upon the acquiescence of his subjects—who might on occasion disagree with their ruler. He was, as a result, compelled to “perform a precarious balancing act between forcefully proclaiming his own writ to be dharma and, on the other hand, following unassumingly what his subjects tell him to be dharma” (Heesterman 1998). For this reason, the divinity of the Hindu monarch had to be continuously rejuvenated through rituals that functioned as weapons in an everlasting contest between good and evil (Peabody 1991a; Heesterman 1998).

Through Brahmanical rituals the king sought to ensure his ascendancy. Yet contestations—both theoretical and actual—occurred at different levels of the political hierarchy. The primary confrontations usually occurred over the economic resources and social organization of the local community. Newly emergent social groups and beliefs had necessarily to negotiate with village institutions. Village communities usually enjoyed considerable autonomy, and their functioning also varied in different regions (Drekmeier 1962). Conflicts between villages could, however, be frequent and violent enough to prompt state intervention. Because they formed the primary unit upon which the socio-political structure rested, the state endeavored constantly to exert greater control over village communities. Apart from exercising administrative control, a subtler way would be to manipulate religious beliefs and traditions. To exert influence without actually appearing to do so, was perhaps an essential characteristic of the hegemony the rulers sought to establish. Hegemony—so much like religious beliefs—“consists of things that go without saying: things that, being axiomatic, are not normally the subject of explication or argument. This is why its power seems to be independent of human agency, to lie in what it silences, what it puts beyond the limits of the thinkable” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992).

An essential facet of the moral order prevalent in western Himalayan kingdoms was the complex network of hierarchically placed deities that linked the political capital to the remotest village. Despite its apparent rigidity, the hierarchy of deities was occasionally contested and even reordered. Because of the intimate bond between the village folk and their god, this reordering of the position or privileges of particular deities was probably an indicator of social transformation occurring in different villages. The ruler (along with the presiding deity) appears to have functioned as the mediator in disputes between the lesser gods in his realm. Such situations certainly provided the Raja (ruler) the welcome opportunity of asserting his ideological supremacy.

As monarchical states expanded, the subjects and territories of smaller chiefdoms (thakurais) were annexed; but more importantly even their village or territorial gods (deotas) were subordinated to the presiding deity of the monarchy. The ensuing preeminence of Brahmanism over subordinated indigenous cults legitimized the superiority of the upper castes and the political authority of the expanding monarchical state. By using religion as a political instrument, the rulers of the bigger states were in reality exploiting the strength of the socio-political framework of territorial and clan deities upon which the thakurais rested.

Chiefdoms, hierarchies, and the politics of order

One apparent difference between the thakurais and monarchies was that while the latter often controlled territory on both banks of a major river of the region, the former usually occupied a niche in smaller tributary valleys. Moreover, the monarchies attempted to follow scriptural prescriptions of governance, while thakurais subscribed to indigenous religious traditions particularly rich in oral myths and legends. These legends often grew out of, and related to, the people and the physical environment of the chiefdom. Like the original myths that linked society with an ancient past, its norms and values, too, were derived from folk tradition. Not unexpectedly, the socio-political order in the thakurais was closely entwined with the creation and rejuvenation of popular cults. In essence, the thakurai was successful in reaching down to the level of the village community.

The largest number of such thakurais was located in the cis-Satlej area of Himachal; the British clubbed them into a loose administrative group called the Simla Hill States (Figure 2). The present description of nature–culture interaction and its political dimension is restricted to Kumharsain. But the arguments presented here are certainly applicable to much of the western Himalayan society that was similarly organized.


Location of Kumharsain in the former Simla Hill States, based on a map published in: Buck EJ. 1989. Simla Past and Present [1st edition 1904]. Shimla: Minerva Book House. (Map by Andreas Brodbeck)


Kumharsain thakurai

In the chiefdom (thakurai) of Kumharsain, the position of the state deity was occupied by Kot Ishwar Mahadev, whose temple was located at Kothi Mandholi (Figure 3) below the capital town also called Kumharsain (Anonymous 1911: Kumharsain). Kot Ishwar seems to have emerged as the chief deity after replacing an older god of the area—known now as Burha Dev. The latter, nevertheless, remains installed in a place of honor at Kot Ishwar's temple in Kothi Mandholi. (This information came from Surinder Shaunik, the president of the Kot Ishwar temple management committee, who was personally interviewed during fieldwork in September 2004.) The hierarchy of gods in Kumharsain followed the usual pattern of the western Himalayan region. While Kot Ishwar and Shakti (the family goddess of the ruling family) were the two deities that held sway over the entire Kumharsain territory, there were a few that controlled an entire pargana (revenue district) (Lovell 1998)—though the large majority were village deotas.


The village of Kothi Mandholi. (Photo by Chetan Singh)


This hierarchy among deities is illustrated by a local tradition recounting the arrival of seven deotas—the Marechh brothers—in the region. According to popular belief, three brothers settled in the principality of Kumharsain, two chose to stay in the State of Shangri, and one each in the territories of Kotgarh and Kulu (Rose 1970). The three Marechh deotas who chose to stay in Kumharsain were: (1) Dithu of Dholaseri, (2) Marechh (or Malendu) of Malendi, (3) Bareog of Kumharsain. The story of Malendu's appearance in the Chebishi area of Kumharsain is especially interesting. We are told that: “... the seven Marechh brothers came from the Mansarover lake (located in the Tibetan plateau) and fought with Bambu Rao (the demon who then ruled the area).... After his overthrow they came to Hatu (the highest peak of Kumharsain), whence they scattered. Malendu went to Chhichhar forest and after a time flew to the top of the Dertu hill above Chebishi pargana. A Kali or Kalka called Bhagwati, who lived on this peak, received him kindly, but after a while she desired him to acquire a territory where he could be worshipped and recommended to him the Chebishi pargana, as it was subsequently named. So this deota Marechh left the Kalka and came to Lanki forest. Thence he descended to the Nala and reached Janjhat...” (Srinivas 1965; Rose 1970).

Here Malendu revealed himself to a Brahman as a serpent that subsequently transformed itself into an idol. The Brahman took the idol to the mawannas (village chiefs) of Bashera and Pharal who were apparently the most influential persons in that area. Thereafter, the state god Kot Ishwar was informed of the arrival of Malendu (Marechh) within Kumharsain territory. Kot Ishwar gave the new god the Chebishi pargana to rule and four villages for his maintenance. Marechh was to follow all norms prescribed for a subordinate. Subsequently, the chiefs of Bashera and Pharal built a temple for Marechh at Malendi (Rose 1970).

How is one to interpret this story? Perhaps it is not without significance that a Brahman first discovered the idol of Malendu. Nor is it surprising that the two most powerful persons in the area should approach deota Kot Ishwar (the state deity closely associated with the ruler) about the matter and then proceed to establish the shrine of Malendu in this area. Through the Malendu origin myth, the people of Chebishi territory found an appropriate place for themselves in the socio-political order of Kumharsain thakurai. As the chief worshippers of Malendu, the local leaders negotiated with the ruler, who also represented deota Kot Ishwar (Joshi 1981). A hierarchy was duly accepted and reiterated when Kot Ishwar granted the newly arrived god Marechh (Malendu) a territory to rule and some villages for his maintenance (Figure 4). By accepting these grants from Kot Ishwar, Malendu also acknowledged his inferior—yet powerful—position.


Left to right: Kot Ishwar and two subordinate gods. (Photo by Chetan Singh)


The matter, however, did not end there. As a territorial deity, Malendu, in turn, had several smaller gods within his area of influence. Among these were: “... two bhors (assistants) Jhatak and Lata. Jhatak is a deota of an uch, or superior caste, while Lata is a nich or low caste. Jhatak lived at Urshu, a place also called Jhaila, so he is also called Jhaila at Urshu. Some say that Kot Ishwar gave Jhatak as wazir (minister) to Malendu. On one occasion Lata left Malendu and fled to Kot Ishwar, but on Malendu's complaint Kot Ishwar restored him to his master (Malendu), who took him back to Malendi” (Rose 1970).

The status of deotas seems to reflect the inequalities of society. Lata, a ‘low-caste deota,’ was ordered by Kot Ishwar to return to serve his master Malendu. Like a landless cultivator customarily obliged to serve his landlord, Lata was bound to Malendu. It is a significant indicator of the structure of Chebishi society that these distinctions between deotas persist even today.

Amongst the territorial gods, two others were particularly powerful in their respective areas. The first was Mananeshar Mahadev (or Manani), who was the deota of Sihal pargana (district). The second was Doom deota, with an important temple situated in Sharmala village—also located interestingly in pargana Sihal—even though he was actually the deota of the Upardes (Oobades) pargana (Anonymous 1911: Kumharsain). These two deotas were drawn into a prolonged dispute in the mid-19th century. Disagreements of this nature reflected the close association between the hierarchy of deotas and the structure of hill society. Contestations in the temporal world—within the village community and between peasants of different villages—could find expression through hostile behavior between deotas. The fact that these deities held sway over villages and people effectively increased the number of people drawn into the conflict. In numerous instances, controversies pertained to spheres of influence and honor.

The dispute between Manan and Doom deotas originated at the fair of Shamokhar—an open glade with a small pond in the center, situated on the border of Upardes and Sihal parganas (the territories of the two contending parties). Both Manani and Doom used to attend the fair along with their devotees, and the two parties jointly conducted the activities (Beals 1964). Sometime around 1845, however, a disturbance at the fair gave birth to a prolonged feud between the two deotas. To prevent this confrontation from developing into widespread unrest, Rana Pritam Singh, the ruler of Kumharsain, restrained Manan deota from going to Shamokhar. To compensate for this restriction, Manani was permitted to levy an annual fine (chershi) of a goat, and one rupee and 4 annas in cash, from the villages of Dakun, Rabog, and Jadun, where some followers of the Doom deota lived. Interestingly, this fine was realized personally by deota Manani, who toured these villages (once in 3 years) like a tax collector, accompanied by his palanquin bearers, musicians, and other servants. During the tax collection tour, the peasants of the taxed villages also had to bear the unwelcome burden of feeding the accompanying followers of Manani.

Between 1874 and 1896, the administrative incompetence of Rana Pritam Singh's successor resulted in the state being brought under a council of regency (Anonymous 1911: Kumharsain). Perhaps on account of representations made by followers of Doom deota, and the absence of a ruling Rana (chief), the earlier decision of Rana Pritam Singh was reconsidered. A new judgment—passed by Kot Ishwar Mahadev (obviously voicing the dominant view that may then have emerged) banned the holding of the Shamokhar fair altogether and disallowed both deotas from going there. Sometime after 1890, however, the fine (chershi) paid till then by the above-mentioned Doom villages to deota Manani, was justifiably stopped. This prompted the followers of Manani to argue that if chershi was disallowed, the fair at Shamokhar should be restored. It seems likely that members of the council of regency also took sides in this controversy. The council was, however, superseded in 1896 and the British government appointed an Indian administrator—Mangat Ram—as Manager and Wazir (minister) of the State. Finally, it was the new wazir who decided that the Doom villages would have to pay a chershi of 30 rupees every 3 years, but deota Manani would not be permitted to enter the Doom villages to collect it. It may be mentioned that the Shamokhar fair was never revived again.

This confrontation over relative power and territorial jurisdiction of the deotas was evidently a dispute between their followers (Herzfeld 1990; Peabody 1991b). Judging from the decisions taken by the state functionaries from time to time, deota Manani was apparently the more powerful of the two—almost certainly because of more influential supporters (Anonymous 1911: Kumharsain; Rose 1970). Manani's powerful position is also indicated by the fact that unlike other areas, the villages loyal to him do not make a financial contribution to Kot Ishwar, even today on important festive occasions, as we were told by Surinder Shaunik. The considerable support mustered by both groups perhaps explains the prolonged and closely contested nature of the dispute and hence the need for the ruler to play a mediating role. Village or pargana loyalties played an important role in the contest, and in many cases different peasant clans dominated contiguous areas. It appears, therefore, that assertive clans of the Kanet peasantry used the contest between deotas as an occasion to test each other's strength and restructure their relationship with the ruler of the state. Despite his ritual dominance, the Rana's role might in reality have been confined to making a diplomatic choice between two or more equally powerful contenders.


Some tentative conclusions can now be drawn. To begin with, the mountainous topography of the region encouraged the emergence of small, fragmented socio-political entities. This was the world of scattered village communities and autochthonous belief systems that were closely linked with their physical surroundings. Despite this fissiparous tendency, however, there were forces that bound distantly situated people and places to each other. Sanskritic ideology, for instance, coalesced with monarchical authority, appropriated local myths, and created an overarching political hegemony. From its strongholds in the main river valleys of Himachal, Brahmanism reached out to the semi-secluded, unorthodox world of the tributaries. In doing so, it transformed both itself and the local cults that thrived there.

The interplay of geography, culture, and political organization also found expression in the continuous exchange between folk deities, peasant clans, and formal state structures. It was through the village god that the peasantry resolved its internal disputes or negotiated with the outside world. And it was through the village god too that hegemonic forces influenced the peasants. The cosmic vision this created was rejuvenated through the periodic enactment of mythical events at religious processions (jatras) and fairs (Figure 5). Here the hierarchy of gods and their followers was ceremonially reasserted. Though this ritual enactment emphasized an unchanging tradition, within its intricate procedures was probably hidden a subtle reinterpretation that made it relevant to a changed society.


Deities at Kumharsain Fair. (Photo by Chetan Singh)


The study of tradition, however, is not merely an academic exercise of relevance only to historians and anthropologists. Western Himalayan society today remains deeply influenced by religio-cultural customs that continue to have a bearing on the secular processes of decision-making, both at the personal and the community level. Development planners and administrators must, therefore, necessarily take into account the belief systems and historically created community consciousness that still remain powerful motivators. Not surprisingly, a confrontation between two important Kulu gods and their followers at the Kulu Dushehra festival in October 2004 rapidly took on an openly political character (Chauhan K 2004).

More recently, a US$ 150 million proposal by an American company to develop a winter sports resort in the Kulu valley of Himachal Pradesh has become the center of a major controversy. The Kulu-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that first opposed the project received support from deota Jamlu (Rishi Jamdagni), an influential god of the area. In their resistance to the development of a ski village on the higher reaches of the mountains, the NGOs highlighted issues of deforestation, soil erosion, and pollution (Anonymous 2006a; Anonymous 2006b). Deota Jamlu, for his part, appealed to the other gods of Kulu valley to oppose the project as a violation of the religious sanctity of the area and as a threat to the traditional rights of more than two dozen villages (Chauhan P 2006). Upon this appeal by deota Jamlu, the former raja of Kulu (who was also a political leader in opposition to the party in power in the state) invited the representatives of the gods of the valley to a specially convened congregation to decide whether the construction of the ski village should be permitted. From the very beginning, it seems, issues pertaining to the environmental, economic, and political consequences of the large project were intricately woven into the overtly religious idiom in which the protest was being articulated.

The oracles of more than 100 village gods participated in this congregation and opposed the development of the ski village (Aulakh and Sharma 2006). Nevertheless, the company promoting the project decided to appeal afresh to the local gods (many of whose oracles did not participate in the conclave) and is hopeful of their support (Chauhan K 2006). The government, too, came out in support of the Himalayan ski village project, and criticized the opposition leader for his ‘misuse’ of the institution of deotas. Even as he reiterated the government's intention to decide the issue purely on its ‘merit,’ the Chief Minister of the state pointed out that only the deities subservient to Lord Raghunath (the chief deity of Kulu) had participated in the congregation convened by the former Kulu raja (Anonymous 2006c; Anonymous 2006d). The hierarchy of gods, and the political implications of this hierarchy, were once again evident.

Indeed, the village deity and the customary practices associated with it are more than merely a matter of personal faith for individuals. They have, traditionally, always been an integral part of the secular public domain. Their involvement has been not only with matters of creed and religious conviction, but with mundane yet crucial questions of daily life. It is ironic that even as they recognize the significance of tradition, historians and development experts alike have made little effort to evolve a genuinely integrated approach to understand how it influences processes of community-based decision-making in western Himalayan societies. The economic and political calculations informing the verdict of village gods may not, after all, be as ‘primitive’ as they appear to be.



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Chetan Singh "Long-Term Dynamics of Geography, Religion, and Politics," Mountain Research and Development 26(4), 328-335, (1 November 2006).[328:LDOGRA]2.0.CO;2
Received: 1 March 2006; Accepted: 1 May 2006; Published: 1 November 2006

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