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 (as Uttaranchal) was shorn free from lowland Uttar Pradesh in 2000 after years of agitation. The region has its own distinct languages and cultures, and successive deep river valleys shelter fascinating micro-civilizations, where Hinduism and Buddhism meet animism. 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 of Char Dham – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri, the source of the Ganges. Earthier pursuits are on offer at Mussoorie, a British hill station and 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 atop an elephant. Both districts abound in classic treks, many leading through 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 here. Between the seventh and fourteenth centuries, the Shaivite Katyuri dominated lands around the modern-day Baijnath valley in Kumaon, where their stone temples still stand. As Brahmanical culture flourished, Jageshwar emerged 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. The sympathetic high-caste BJP took up the separatist cause after coming to power in 1998, leading to the creation of a new state, originally called Uttaranchal, in 2000, and later reverting to its historical name, Uttarakhand, meaning “northern country”, in 2007. The process of creating the new state was somewhat acrimonious, and deep cultural differences continue to characterize Garhwal and Kumaon.
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. In June 2013, unprecedented rainfall caused devastating floods and landslides across north India, claiming thousands of lives and hitting Uttarakhand hardest of all. The tragedy, compounded by unscientific development – haphazard road-building, unregulated hotel construction on fragile river banks and the establishment of more than seventy hydroelectric projects in the state’s watersheds – was regarded by environmentalists as a disaster waiting to happen.