By Vijayaraghavan

With every hairpin bend a new and more magnificent picture painted itself on the windscreen of the car. The gradual transition from the yellow to the red and then further to greener and greener latitudes forced a smile on my face and fresh air down my lungs. The horizon-less picture stretched itself until my 12-hour ride to Kullu.

An acceptable hype indeed, Kullu lies on a valley bed 1,279 meters above sea level, overlooking a number of valley’s speckled with colorful houses. Unlike Nahan and Sirmaur, the rooftops in Kullu resembled the mountain peaks in our childhood drawings. They all looked like they were awaiting the cold snowy winter.Kullu was once an unexplored haven for wildlife and healthy ecosystems has now become a bustling hub for adventure sports and marijuana dealers. At the start of the ride I would never have imagined what I was about to experience in the small town of Kullu. A hidden marvel masked beneath the pretext of religious rules.

A spiritual experience indeed, the Devtas were brought into the limelight.

Through this short piece of writing, I am not trying to look for an answer to what is the before and after of the situation or what is “good” and “bad”. Who am I to sit in my air-conditioned house, sipping on finely brewed coffee from expensive ceramic mugs while typing on my laptop that will be discarded in another 3 years, to tell the locals in Kullu that they need to act upon the current scenario that has taken over the ambiance of my summer getaway?

Instead, I plan on throwing questions to the wind. Here are some thoughts for you to dwell on today.

Emotion In Conservation

Let me paint you a story:

It starts with a sniff. The overpowering smell of the chir pine trees.
Set in the dense forests of Himachal Pradesh, there are tiny village communities who have been living there for generations and generations, as far as one can remember. It is believed that people who used to live in close relationship with forests, spent their entire life in a mutual give and take and ultimately died within the forest are reincarnated in forms of wildlife such as snakes, deer, birds and trees.

This phenomenon of reincarnation gave way to a new form of worship, where wildlife and forests were the epicenter of what was believed to be the only religion, and these flora and fauna took the form of a single superior “Devta”. Anyone who dare question this was an outcast. The community was running on faith and devotion unlike the politics outside this sacred home.

Now, an important question you would ask is, who are these Devta’s? And where have they come from? Every few years the villagers used to get together over bonfire and spiritual hearts to perform a sacred ceremony. In this ceremony, the community chanted hyms and songs while they waited for the Devta to enter the body of any one-community member.

After an evening of melodious hym, one elder member used to go into a state of trance. It was believed that the Devta had entered his/her body for the sole purpose of using the human as a mouthpiece. Whatever is spoken in this state of trance is what the Devta wants to tell the villagers.

The “Chosen One” is known as the “Gur” in the village from then on.
He or she is the ultimate decision maker for all activities in the community. This would range from grazing cattle to collecting firewood and herbs to donating money for anyone with a small enterprise.
The Devta was considered the “elder” in the village family.

A spot called the Dev Van is an area, which the Devta marked out for himself. It might be as simple as a stone or a tree. From that day onwards it becomes a norm that no one is allowed in that area. No chopping of wet wood, no collection of raw herbs such as the local Punja, Dhoop, Pateesh, Kaudu, Nahni are allowed.

As per research conducted by environmentalists and the Panchayats, at one point of time, nearly 30% of the forests in this area belonged to the Devtas. Devtas place certain rules and regulations in the forest in order to conserve and protect.

It might not be inked on legal paper but the Devta had full control over the village communities. Even the pastoralists were highly dependent on the Devta’s advice for their
grazing activities.

The Devta decided the exact date of the departure of the cattle grazers. The reason behind this is to conserve and protect the various saplings and herbs that haven’t matured yet because these are most susceptible to trampling.

In 1999, 755 kilometers of the Kullu Valley was demarcated as the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP). This meant that the local people lost rights to access the land. Their custom and herb and fuel wood collection was taken away from them.

My question here is, was it alright to displace the local communities even when there was no harm done?

Was it right to declare an area as a National Park and put into play standard rules rather than move away from all that’s traditional?

Is it of sound mind to assume that the power of the government
overpowers the power of religion in the case of human psychology?

Is it traditional knowledge that should be the soul center of all goings on?

You would think that this has improved the condition of the forest, but that isn’t true. When this emotional chord was ripped from the hands of the locals there was a sense of anger that seemed to build within them. A lack of ownership that has led to acts of rebellion as well as an increased crime rate.

Communities are venturing into the forest at any given time in the year to fend for their basic necessities thereby ruining the saplings and the state of the forest. The forest that was once their home has now become a source of necessity and power. There seems to be an emotional connection to the forest more powerful than the dependency purely based on survival and profit.

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