John Vincent Bellezza
Ode to the Birds of Spring
The vernal equinox has come and the days are lengthening here in the Himalaya. A few rain showers have eased the effect of a dry winter, and the birds sing with fuller voices. As I write, I can hear them outside my window, a veritable symphony of trills, chirps and whistles. Surely, the perennial song of the birds shall eventually drown out the cacophony of human strife. Time is on their side; our only just course is to join them, adding our voices to their lyrical outpourings.
Birds played a key role in the mythology and religion of ancient Tibet, a legacy that continues down to the present day in the customs and traditions of the Tibetans. Raptors with outstretched wings grace many of the 60 or so rock art sites of Upper Tibet, just as they do at rock art theatres in other regions of Inner Asia. Across the region, a celestial eagle was the progenitor of important tribes. In particular, the Khyung tribe of Zhang Zhung traces its ancestry back to the horned eagle of Upper Tibet. Horned eagles from prehistoric and early historic times are depicted at a number of rock art sites in upland Tibet. Perhaps these are likenesses of the heavenly ancestor of Zhang Zhung rendered in stone for safekeeping over the ages.
Recently, I have been composing chapter seven of my new book on Zhang Zhung, a chapter that features the rock art of Upper Tibet. This book targets the general educated reader and is free from academic jargon and the technical transliterations of Tibetan that are challenging for non-specialists. It will not however be light on information. Its ten chapters are packed with my archaeological, historical and mythological observations and insights.
Cross-currents in a Himachal Pradesh Hill Town
As many know, Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh is a popular tourist destination. Someone planning a trip there might conclude that as it is on the world tourist map, one would have no trouble getting by in English. Once they arrived, their assumption would prove correct: English serves them well. The tourist would not be wont for many things, his or her basic needs being quite nicely met through this verbal instrument. This monolingual approach to communication, however, does not admit of the full flowering of local life. Communicating on equal terms with all the local groups would require fluency in nine additional languages: Hindi, Gaddi, Pahari, Urdu, Punjabi, Nepali, and Tibetan, Kashmiri, and Shina.
Roughly one third of all Dharamsala’s inhabitants know at least some English. That leaves a large portion of the population that does not converse in English at all. Rather, Hindi is the lingua franca of north India and probably the most useful language to have in Dharamsala. One can talk to just about any non-Tibetan local resident in Hindi, regardless of their ethnic background. Even the large majority of exiled Tibetans speak Hindi, with those born in India fluent in this language.
Before Indian independence in 1947, the lingua franca of north India was Urdu, a language that has a fair amount in common with Hindi. Generations schooled before 1975 all learned Urdu. Urdu newspapers were once popular in Dharamsala but readership has plummeted in recent years. Sadly, the elegance of well-spoken Urdu is quickly receding from the local auditory landscape.
On account of the large Tibetan refugee community, knowing various dialects of Tibetan is also very useful in Dharamsala. It is the portal into the most famous community in the locale. With Tibetan one can partake of the culture prevalent on the far side of the Himalaya in a way that is not possible using just English.
Pahari is actually a group of languages spoken in the western Himalaya. The most common one in Dharamsala is Kangriali, the native language of the fertile Kangra Valley. Kangriali is the most popular tongue in Lower Dharamsala, but most of its native speakers also know at least a smattering of Mandiali and Dogri, two other Pahari languages.
Nepali has been spoken in Dharamsala since the Gorkhas captured Kot Kangra, the main citadel in the region, in 1806. Although they only controlled Kangra for about a decade, some Nepalese remained. The induction of the Gorkhas into the military of the British Raj and then into the Indian army has ensured the continued existence of a vibrant Nepalese community in Dharamsala, particularly in the cantonment.
The speaking of Punjabi in Dharamsala can be traced back to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the charismatic Sikh king who ruled much of lower Himachal Pradesh between 1819 and 1839. In the ensuing century, handfuls of Punjabis settled in Kangra Valley, but it was not until Partition in 1947 that Punjabis came to Dharamsala en masse as refugees. They hailed from Multan, Gujranwala, Sialkot, and other districts in west Punjab, territory now under Pakistani jurisdiction.
The Kashmiris are new to Dharamsala, brought here by business opportunities. Since 1989, tourism in Kashmir, a mainstay industry, has been heavily depressed. As a result, the purveyors of Kashmiri handicrafts have sought markets elsewhere in India. In the last decade, there has been a proliferation in the numbers of shops run by Kashmiris in Upper Dharamsala. Their participation in the local market has been accommodated by an expansion in shop spaces for rent, but some of their newfound economic dominance has come because many of the Tibetan refugees who fled from central Tibet in 1959 and settled in Dharamsala have moved to greener pastures in the US and other developed countries. The Kashmiris have been very skillful in filling this void, rather than newer Tibetan refugees, mostly from Kham and Amdo. These Tibetans have had to carve out a place for themselves in an already crowded marketplace without the benefit of startup capital. As a result they often ply their meager wares on the street.
Although to most tourists a Kashmiri is a Kashmiri, nothing could be further from the truth. In Dharamsala and other towns in Himachal Pradesh the coolie community is dominated by Dards from northern Kashmir. Their native language is Shina, not Kashmiri, and they are predominantly wheat and barley consumers, not rice eaters like those from the Vale of Kashmir. The Dards are a fine people, courteous, impeccably honest and very helpful. They are not so immersed in the murky world of the bazaar, reinforcing their exemplary moral integrity. The Dards might do the lowliest of work but they are among the best in Dharamsala.
That, then, leaves the Gaddis, the indigenous community of Dharamsala, traditionally herders of goats and sheep. The Gaddis occupy all the hamlets around Upper Dharamsala and are also well represented in the lower elevation communities around Lower Dharamsala. The Gaddis are a stoic people who value courage, honor and respect above all other values. Despite their ancient roots, in the modern economic mix of Dharamsala, the Gaddis are at the bottom of the heap. As in so many other places in the world, this indigenous community has been outflanked by more recent arrivals. Most Gaddis are employed as laborers, craftsmen and taxi drivers. Traditionallly warriors and wanderers, this group has not taken so well to the ways of the bazaar. Poor educational standards have also handicapped their efforts to share in a bigger slice of the economic pie.
With so many different communities sharing the same narrow mountainside, powerful cross-currents are bound to surface. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, and other religions in Dharamsala, each with its own social and inspirational bounds, help to define the identity of the various communities. Rarely, however, is religion a manifest issue, language even less so. The level of sectarian and ethnic harmony in Dharamsala is remarkably high.
While ideology tends to divide communities nominally, economics does so much more profoundly. Thankfully, economic tensions have been quite effectively contained, with increasing numbers of tourists visiting Dharamsala each year, adding dollars, pounds and euro to local coffers. Until recently, the economic tide raised all boats, some more than others, but all have been benefiting, at least indirectly, in a commercial and construction boom. In the present climate, therefore, the key to communal harmony is continued economic growth. It is hard to imagine a political or social movement that could supplant the individual’s quest for material benefits as the most effective regulator. Yet, passively relying entirely on the invisible hand of capitalism to maintain communal harmony in Dharamsala may be shortsighted. Does not a community also need a vibrant civic life, a forum where people can express the altruistic side of their nature in mutually beneficial social activities? If one answers affirmatively, then much more needs to be done to build up Dharamsala’s civic sense.
Yet, the whole topic of Dharamsala’s destiny may be academic. If climate change predictions prove accurate, within two or three decades the amount of water available locally will be very much reduced, compounding chronic scarcities that already exist. The catastrophic failure of local water resources could spell the wholesale abandonment of Dharamsala by more recently arrived groups. If hotels and restaurants cannot meet the needs of their tourist clientele, that would spell the end to the most vital local industry. Perched high on a mountain spur, transporting water up to Dharamsala is a formidable proposition. Right now water simply gushes down the mountainsides, and for the sake of all involved, we had better hope that it always does.
The Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh
The Dhauladhar mountains in and around the districts of Dharamsala and Chamba are a stronghold of the Gaddi tribe, pastoralists who have herded their livestock on the steep mountainsides for centuries. They traditionally move great distances between pasturelands in the Outer, Middle and Great Himalayan ranges.
The origin of the Gaddis, a proud and handsome people, is veiled in mystery. According to one historical account, the first Gaddis were remnants of Alexander the Great’s army. Perhaps the verdancy and grandeur of the Kangra Valley and Dhauladhars enticed some of Alexander the Great’s soldiers to remain behind. It was a long way back to Macedonia, and with a highly developed cultural and economic life already in place in Kangra (then known as Trigarta), these ancient European stragglers could readily make a new life for themselves.
The fact that the traditional woolen tunic and cap of the Gaddis resembles those worn by rural shepherds in Greece is used by some Himachal Pradesh historians to lend credence to this tale of origins. It must also be noted that the Gaddis have relatively fair complexions and features, not at all unlike those of Mediterranean stock. Legendary origins in the armies of Alexander the Great notwithstanding, the later history of the Gaddis assumes a different but no less fascinating tangent. For many centuries the Dhauladhars, have been a refuge for peoples displaced by invasions and conquest. The spectacular fall of Gandhara in the 5th century CE or the collapse of the Hindu Shahi kingdom in the 10th century CE were such two major historical events that led to waves of refugees seeking sanctuary high in the Himalaya.
The Dhauladhars are the first Himalayan range that someone fleeing from the plains of the Punjab would encounter, and with mountains up to 5000 m in elevation there were plenty of places that bands of people could hide. Historical tradition holds that defeated warriors arrived from Rajasthan during the Muslim invasions, enriching the tribal base of the Gaddis. Rather than a single tribe, the Gaddis are more of a confederation, united through the pastoralist way of life. This overarching economic focus is reflected in the Gaddi caste structure which is much simpler than that of many neighboring peoples. Most Gaddis consider themselves Rajputs, the sons of ancient kings, with only a very small minority belonging to the Brahman caste or the lower castes.
In recent decades, due to population growth, degradation of pasturelands and the emergence of new economic opportunities, most Gaddis have discarded their traditional way of life. The transhumanance they practice is now endangered. Fewer and fewer of their number are making the traditional annual migration over the Himalayan ranges, a physically tough but spiritually enriching endeavor. However, their old ways may one day reappear. Shepherds can herd animals where tourists dare not tread.