Kumaon was on my travel wishlist for a long time. But for some reason, I could never go beyond Nainital. Earlier this year, I went a bit ahead and explored the lakes of Kumaon, Mukteshwar, Jageshwar, and Binsar. There is a lot still left but I at least have a sense of the place – its landscape, its people, its food and its lovely views of Nanda Devi. Equipped with this newfound intimacy with Kumaon, I thought of reading a bit more about it. As luck would have it, this book on Kumaon by Manju Kak came up for review. I started reading it as soon as I could.
My first activity with this illustrated book was to sit back and enjoy the colorful photographs. It was like re-living the places I have visited. I made a mental plan for the ones I am yet to visit. Images are nice, I would not say brilliant. The landscape of hills is so photo-friendly that all you need to ensure is clicking at the right time of the day. I enjoyed flipping the pages – snow clad peaks are my favorite. Details of wood carved windows and doors are a big focus of the book. And there are many beautiful images of people, especially women framed by carved frames.
In the shadow of the Devi Kumaon of a Land, a People, a Craft
After a few days, I started reading the book and the opening was just perfect. It ported me to a land that we often call ‘Dev Bhumi’. It spoke of Nanda Devi and her Yatra’s. And it spoke of the etymology of Kumaon. It speaks about the colonial period that left its imprint by way of architecture. It told me about Rohilakhand Kumaon Railways that was constructed way back in 1884. Manju Kak talks about the various tribes of Kumaon.
Laawaris Fund was created with unclaimed cash and belongings of pilgrims who had died on Pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar
Next few chapters talk about the craft of wood carving and talking about the Shilpakars or the wood carving craftsmen. There is too much repetition in these chapters. Every chapter repeats the same thing – time and again. More than the craft author likes to talk about the assumed lower position of craftsmen in the society. I did gather a bit about trees & wood. And how the knowledge passed from father to son. But I did not gather if there are any nuances of wood carving in Kumaon. She does talk about motifs but I could not find any distinct identity of the region in them. I am sure there is a regional marker – but that would need a deeper study.
The author quotes a lot from a gazetteer and from some other authors who have written on the subject. It looks like the author has no real ‘connect’ with the place & most writing has been done based on secondary sources. The gazetteer talks about the colonial times from a colonial gaze. I was hoping an Indian gaze with an understanding of Indian ethos. I wonder if the author had an audience in mind. Half of her chapters are generic introductions. That could apply to most of India – is she talking to people who can see Kumaon as India. Is she talking to Indians and presenting Kumaon as a distinct culture and landscape – if yes, she would barely pass the test.
While she has chapters on Gods, she talks about the deities in a very superficial manner. She does not even touch the subject of Lakulish cult that was prevalent in Kumaon and signs of which can be seen at Jageshwar. She talks about Golu but does not bring out the faith people have in him. And how judicial stamp papers are left all around the temple.
When talking about Lakshmi Ashram – Manju Kak uses the phrase ‘once upon a time’, when it is all about recent past in an ancient land. I wonder how did the story of one particular NGO fit into the narrative of the region. If there is a relationship the author shared with the NGO, it needs disclosure.
I gathered that most upper caste people in Kumaon are migrants. But some of them have been migrants so long that they are the people of Kumaon. There is an attempt to see the sub-altern so much that the mainstream is neglected. Do upper-class cultures not have a story to share?
Swami Vivekananda started the campaign to promote greater awareness of Hindus tenets in 1897 – it started from Colombo and finished at Almora in Kumaon.
After I finished the book, I realize the images are mostly placed randomly. There are more temple pictures from Garhwal than from Kumaon. There is no mention of temples like Sun Temple. Crafts that are mentioned in the appendix should have been explored in the book. The author switches between the past and the present randomly. Don’t know who is to be blamed – author or editor.
This book seems to be a very half-hearted attempt to document Kumaon. 15 years of research should definitely bring out a narrative that is not so haphazard. Beginning on a high note, towards the end it left me disappointed.
Take your call.