Sacred Groves and the Role of Women in the Himalayas of Uttarakhand, India

I can’t find a single definite reason for choosing the Himalayas as the location for my master’s thesis but one of the main one’s I can recall is just the sheer excitement of experiencing life of people in the region and learning more about them, and in-turn, a bit about my own origins. Though I was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, which is situated North West from the location of my thesis, the state of Uttarakhand, the call of the majestic Himalayas remains the same. The magnificence of the Himalayas can keep me writing forever but I would like to keep this blog post more focused on some of my findings and considering today (8.3.2020) is International Women’s Day, especially the women of the mountains. This is not a generalization of all areas and women across the entire Himalayan range but just my experiences and local knowledge around my research sites. My thesis titled “Sacred Groves of the Himalayas and significance for Cultural Ecosystem Services in Uttarakhand, India” was my attempt to explore the very roots of nature worship in the region and the effect of globalisation on belief systems of people and on their intimate relationship with forests.

The Himalayan folk are a very simple yet tough people. Having lived in the most treacherous of terrains, exacerbated by the lack of modern facilities and extreme climatic conditions, the people of the mountain, especially the women, display mental and physical strengths that the modern societies of today can only hope to match. Women play a leading role in the management of the entire household. Activities such as cooking, cleaning, farming, taking care of children, gathering fuel wood and fodder, shopping, feeding and taking care of livestock, are some of the several tasks that are led by women. The women truly represent the backbone of families in the region. Below I have described one of the most mesmerizing sites, the Chamunda Temple, that I visited, and the vivid shades of how women contribute to making these mountains a home for themselves and their families.

The Sacred Sites:

The Chamunda Temple and sacred grove

The Chamunda Temple is located in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand and is named after the highly revered and feared Goddess Chamunda. It nestles in well among Cedar trees of the sacred grove (also named Chamunda) that owes its protected status to the presence of the temple. According to legend, this was a site of volatile energy, and a realised sage called Shankaracharya arrived here to bring this intense energy under control. Once the site was consecrated, the temple was constructed to keep the energy controlled and since then it has been an important place of worship for the local people. Generally, a sacred grove is offered to a Deity for a period for 5 years and then taken back for a year to make use of the resources that remain mostly untouched for that period. For those 5 years, the use of material from the forest is strictly regulated and the rules vary slightly from grove to grove based on what the village panchayat (committee) decide. Wellness of the grove and needs of the villages is taken into consideration when enforcing the rules. One important fact is that cutting of the Himalayan Cedar, or locally known as Deodar (Tree of the Gods), is strictly forbidden. The Chamunda Sacred grove is one of the most peaceful places that I have ever visited. The silence inside the grove is only matched by the sound of the diverse wildlife within. I was able to capture a very serene moment with a Himalayan Macaque family in the grove.

Monkey Family
A Himalayan Macaque family

Farming:

As mentioned earlier, women truly represent the backbone of the societies that thrive in these remote locations. With thorough dedication towards developing a strong and vibrant society, the women, like the ones shown below, are shining example of what makes the rugged mountains conducive to living.

Women working in the fields and passing on the traditional farming practices to next the generations

In the above image, the several 100 generations of farming knowledge can be seen being passed on to the next generation. The little girl was listening and watching attentively as she was explained the delicate work of planting saplings. This image was taken very close to the Chamunda Temple where subsistence farming practices are prevalent, as also seen in rest of the Himalayan region. During the day, working in the fields is one of the several activities that women undertake. Subsistence farming is, however, taking a big hit in the Himalayas due to the climate (rainfall) becoming more and more unpredictable. Additionally, traditional farming practices are being lost due to the next generations choosing to pursue financially more secure professions. Incentivising farming along with other technical and operational changes is key to maintaining the flow of knowledge. This has happened to a certain extent but there is definitely room for improvement. Better education and health facilities in the mountainous areas will prevent youth (and several families) leaving for big cities to obtain the same.

Fodder Collection:

In the images above, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the women who were collecting fuel wood and fodder from the jungles and taking it to their homes. This is also a common sight during the day time as later in the evening is not the best time to trek through the groves due to the threat from leopards and wild boars. The forests are also not very easily traveled through as there is no pathway to walk upon and one has to improvise at every step which would be very challenging after sun-set. Hardly anyone moves through them at night. During the year, women are also seen climbing the massive cedar trees to lop off branches from the top for fuelwood. As you can tell, the work is not the easiest and they must practice this from childhood as experience is critical in the mountain jungles. Such activities promote community bonding, especially among women.

Local girls carrying fodder sourced without consent from sacred groves

In this image, a very important aspect of what makes strong and disciplined societies can be seen. I noticed some local girls carrying fodder taken from a nearby forest to their respective houses. However, after walking a certain distance, an aged man started following them shouting angrily along the way until they reached their village. The fact of the matter was that they had secretly procured this fodder from a sacred grove where it is strictly forbidden to harvest from. Rules and regulations governing the use of resources from sacred groves should be followed strictly in the Himalayas as the penalties are also swiftly enforced. This allows the forest patch to flourish which then can, as per rules, be used only every 5 years for fodder, fuel wood, etc. As mentioned, the rule and fines can very from grove to grove. These girls (and their families) would have most likely been fined for this in addition to the embarrassment within the community.

An aged woman works happily in her field

The women of the mountains are truly ageless. Their extensive knowledge is a combination of natural resource management and household management and has been transferred from generation to generation and continues to be today. This aged woman was seen happily working in her family’s field and was quite glad to have her picture taken. We spoke a little about her life and how she feels like she could do activities such as this until she cannot anymore.

I left these mountain villages humbled and with a new found respect for the folk that reside in the various altitudes of the Himalayas.

Problems and Concerns:

As already mentioned several times, the mountain folk of the Himalayas show some of the strongest character traits. However, this strength is facing its toughest test today with a multitude of issues such as population, changing weather patterns, slow pace of development, and social norms that have and are still preventing the women folk from achieving their full potential. All these issues are interconnected and amplify each other depending on the region of the Himalayas in question. ‘Ghost’ villages are a major cause for concern with an overall trend of out-migration that is seen from the mountains to the major low-lying cities where the economics are stronger. Hence the struggles are for both, those that are left behind in the mountains (and eventually leave if some sort of financial stimulus isn’t available) and also for cities that have to house the migrants, thereby increasing the pressures on the existing infrastructure. An example of abandoned homes is seen in this picture below.

Such abandoned homes is a common sight in the mountains

Due to lacking infrastructure, lacking medical and education facilities, and unreliable sources of income for families, it is unavoidable that this sort of exodus happens. Truthfully, the Himalayas are not conducive to large scale industrialization and infrastructure building in the first place. The sheer difficulty in negotiating the terrain, let alone modifying it, is a major reason for this. In addition, the volatile nature of the landscape due to floods, rock falls, avalanches, and tectonic activity poses further difficulties. Social issues are also present such as lack of proper representation of women in decision making committees, cast system, etc, which prevent people from achieving their full potential. Over the years, improvements have been seen through education and government policies but as is the case with India, it is still a slow process due to the host of other issues that need to be tackled across the country. A democracy with 1.3 billion people as part of a developing economy is bound to experience slow but a stable growth. It is astounding to note that India houses the population of the entire African continent (and quite possibly more) with just 10% of the area (3.2mil sqkm, India, in comparison to 30.3mil sqkm, Africa).

Overall, the focus has shifted to capacity building of the mountain population, especially the women, to boost the economy and prevent further out-migration. Organisation such as the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development (GPNIHESD) and Central Himalayan Environment Association (CHEA), with support from Uttarakhand Space Application Center (USAC), all of whom were a source of immense information and guidance during my thesis, have undertaken several individual and government-supported initiatives and studies to empower the mountain communities. Himalayan handicrafts are famous worldwide and through several such programs, women are given opportunities to earn money on the side. Sapling-making among other part-time jobs are also incentivized.

The Himalayas offer some of the most exquisite views, diverse flora and fauna, and an overwhelming sense of being. Human beings make up a very small and almost insignificant part of this majestic landscape, yet, protecting and enhancing the synergy between humans and the rest of nature is supremely important if they are to survive in the lap of the Himalayas as they have done for several thousands of years.

Leave a Reply