Northeast of Delhi, bordering Nepal and Tibet, the mountains of the Garhwal and Kumaon regions rise from the fertile sub-Himalayan plains. Together they form the state of Uttarakhand, which was shorn free from lowland Uttar Pradesh in 2000 after years of agitation, and changed its name from Uttaranchal in 2007. The region has its own distinct languages and cultures, and successive deep river valleys shelter fascinating micro-civilizations, where Hinduism meets animism and Buddhist influence is never too far away. Although not as high as the giants of Nepal, further east, or as the Karakoram, the snow peaks here rank among the most beautiful mountains of the inner Himalayas, forming an almost continuous chain that culminates in Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in India at 7816m.
Garhwal is the more visited region, busy with pilgrims who flock to its holy spots. At Haridwar, the Ganges thunders out from the foothills on its long journey to the sea. The nearby ashram town of Rishikesh is familiar from one of the classic East-meets-West images of the 1960s; it was where the Beatles came to stay with the Maharishi. From here pilgrims set off for the high temples known as the Char Dham – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri, the source of the Ganges. Earthier pursuits are on offer at Mussoorie, a British hill station that’s now a popular Indian resort. The less-visited Kumaon region remains largely unspoilt, and boasts pleasant small towns with panoramic mountain views, among them Kausani, Ranikhet, and the tiny hamlet of Kasar Devi, as well as the Victorian hill station of Nainital, where a lakeside promenade throngs with visitors escaping the heat of the plains. Further down, the forests at Corbett Tiger Reserve offer the chance to go tiger-spotting from the back of an elephant. Both districts abound in classic treks, many leading through the bugyals – summer pastures, where rivers are born and paths meet.
The first known inhabitants of Garhwal and Kumaon were the Kuninda in the second century BC. A Himalayan tribal people practising an early form of Shaivism, they traded salt with Tibet and shared connections with contemporaneous Indo-Greek civilization. As evidenced by a second-century Ashokan edict at Kalsi in western Garhwal, Buddhism made some inroads in the region, but Garhwal and Kumaon remained Brahmanical. The Kuninda eventually succumbed to the Guptas around the fourth century AD, who, despite controlling much of the north Indian plains, failed to make a lasting impact in the hills. Between the seventh and the fourteenth centuries, the Shaivite Katyuri dominated lands of varying extent from the modern-day Baijnath valley in Kumaon, where their stone temples still stand, and Brahmanical culture flourished, highlighted by the rise of Jageshwar as a major pilgrimage centre. In following centuries, Kumaon prospered further under the Chandras, who took learning and art to new levels, while Garhwal fell under the Panwar rajas. In 1803, the westward expansion of the Nepali Gurkhas engulfed both regions, but their brief rule ended with the Sugauli Treaty of 1816, resulting in annexation of both regions by the British.
The Birth of Uttaranchal
Following Independence, Garhwal and Kumaon became part of Uttar Pradesh, but failure by the administration in Lucknow to develop the region led to increasingly violent calls for a separate state. Things came to a head in October 1994 when a peaceful protest march to Delhi was violently disrupted in Mussoorie by the UP police. The sympathetic high-caste BJP took up the separatist cause after coming to power in March 1998, leading to the creation of India’s 27th state, originally called Uttaranchal, on November 9, 2000.
The process of creating the new state was somewhat acrimonious. Deep cultural differences characterize Garhwal and Kumaon, and both regions hoped to host the new capital. Dehra Dun, in lowland Garhwal, was eventually chosen, upsetting the Kumaonis considerably. Meanwhile, in Haridwar – culturally a part of the plains – farmers took to the streets to demand things remain as they were. In January 2007, the state reverted to its historical name, Uttarakhand, meaning “northern country”. More than a dozen years after it was created, scores of old and new problems continue to face the young state.
On the environmental front, deforestation in the hills has led to a rapid loss of arable land, while global warming continues to shrink glaciers at an alarming rate. As both water and power shortages continue to impact much of the state, many of Uttarakhand’s controversial hydro-electric projects have been scrapped or stalled over a scrum of political, religious and environmental concerns. Yet while officialdom founders, groups such as the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO), inspired by self-reliance crusader Dr. Anil Joshi, are taking sustainable development into their own hands, working to meld local resources and modern technology.Read More
As the sacred land that holds the sources of the mighty Ganges and Yamuna rivers, Garhwal has been the heartland of Hindu identity since the ninth century when, in the wake of the decline of Buddhism in northern India, the reformer Shankara incorporated many of the mountains’ ancient shrines into the fold of Hinduism. He founded the four main yatra (pilgrimage) temples, deep within the Himalayas, known as the Char Dham – Badrinath, Kedarnath, and the less-visited pair of Gangotri and Yamunotri. Each year, between May and November, once the snows have melted, streams of pilgrims penetrate high into the mountains, passing by way of Rishikesh, the land of yogis and ashrams.
For more than a millennium, the yatris (pilgrims) came on foot. However, the annual event has been transformed in the last few years; roads blasted by the military through the mountains during the war against China in the early 1960s are now the lifelines for a new form of motorized yatra. Eastern Garhwal in particular is getting rich, and the fabric of hill society is changing rapidly – visitors hoping to experience the old Garhwal should spend at least part of their time well away from the principal yatra routes. In addition to their spiritual significance, the hills are now becoming established as a centre for adventure sports, offering all levels of trekking, whitewater rafting, paragliding, skiing and climbing.