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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER XX. KUMAON.

Life And Work In Benares And Kumaon 1839-1877 by James Kennedy



Kumaon is a sub-Himalayan region, with Nepal to the east, the snowy range, separating it from Tibet, to the north, Gurhwal and Dehra Doon to the west, and Rohilkund to the south. Including the hill country of Gurhwal, and the belt of forest and swamp lying immediately under it, of which only a small part has been reclaimed, Kumaon is about half the size of Scotland.


The province presents a remarkable contrast to the great level country beneath. Over it you travel in some directions hundreds of miles, and scarcely any elevation or depression in the land can be discerned. As you travel northward, and approach the limit of the plains, you see hills rising before you, tier after tier; and behind them, on a clear day, the higher Himalaya, with their snowy peaks, as if touching the heavens.

Kumaon is very mountainous, with as great irregularity as if the land had been fluid, had in the midst of a storm been suddenly solidified, and had then received its permanent shape. Here and there are valleys of some extent, table-lands and open fields are occasionally seen; but over a great part of the province hill is separated from hill by a space so narrow that it can only be called a ravine. The consequence is that cultivation is carried on mainly in terraces. Where the slope is gradual, and the soil fit for cultivation, these terraces, some very narrow and others of considerable width, rise one above the other to the distance of miles, with the hamlets of the cultivators scattered over the hill-side, presenting to the eye of the traveller an aspect of scenery which is not to be seen in Europe, so far as I am aware. At any rate, we saw nothing resembling it on the vine-clad hills rising from the Rhine, or in the mountains of Switzerland.

The country is well watered. It has innumerable streams, varying from tiny rills to large rivers. In travelling, we have been for days within the constant sound of running water. It has a few lakelets, but it has no large bodies of water, like the lakes which contribute so largely to the beauty and picturesqueness of Switzerland and Scotland. It looks as if the deep hollows, of which so many are to be seen, had been unable to retain the water poured into them, and had let it all flow away. A large part of the province is so steep and rocky that it cannot be turned to any agricultural purpose; and even for grazing purposes a large portion is of little use, as the grass is coarse and poor. There is a great extent of forest and brushwood. As the land slopes towards the Bhabhur, the forest is very dense and varied. The timber is of considerable value, but as there is neither road nor water carriage it must be carried on men's shoulders, and this involves an expense more than it can bear.

From what I have said about the peculiarities of Kumaon scenery, its mountains, valleys, and ravines, my readers are prepared to hear it has a great variety of climate and produce. Of hills, of which there are many from 5000 to 9000 feet above the level of the sea, the climate is delightful -- warm, but not oppressively warm, a little warmer than it is in our country in summer; and cold, though not so severely cold as it is with us in winter. The rains are very heavy, but to compensate for this there is, during the greater part of the year, a steadiness of climate which forms a striking contrast to the fickle climate of England. Down in the valleys the heat is very great. Even in winter the sun is unpleasantly strong, and in summer in the deep ravines the temperature is almost as trying as in the plains. When the season has been somewhat advanced, I have been very thankful to escape from the heat of these low places to the bracing air of the hills. The English Sanatoria are of course on elevated sites.

As Kumaon has within its borders a cold, a temperate, and a tropical climate, it has a great variety of produce, and when its capabilities are more fully turned to account this variety will be greatly increased. Most of the grains found in the plains are grown in the hills. The warmer parts of the country produce superior oranges in abundance, and there is also a good supply of walnuts. Of late years apples and pears have been grown with great success, and if the farmers paid attention to this branch of horticulture they might reap a large profit. Attempts have been made on a small scale to cultivate the grape, gooseberry, and currant, but the excessive rainfall of the rainy season has been found unfavourable to them. Tea has become the most valuable product of the province. Tea-planting was commenced at the instance of Government, under its direction and at its expense, more than forty years ago; and now tea-gardens are found all over the province, owned almost entirely by our fellow-countrymen, and, with few exceptions, managed by them. At first Chinamen were employed, but they have been dispensed with, and the entire work is now done by hill people under English superintendence.



The hill people of Central and Southern India, the Kols, the Santhals, the Bheels, and others, as is well known, widely differ in race, language, customs, and religion, from the Hindus and Mussulmans of the plains. In Kumaon, on the other hand, the great majority are strict Hindus, worshippers of the Hindu gods, and scrupulous observers of caste rules. It would appear that when the ancestors of the Hindus, coming from Central Asia, crossed the Indus, and took possession of the country now called the Punjab, they made raids into the lower range of the Himalayas, killing their inhabitants, or turning them into slaves. The descendants of the aborigines are at present found in a class called Doms, who form the artisan portion of the population, and are also largely employed in agriculture. The Muhammadans form a very small part of the population, and are almost entirely emigrants from the plains.

The character of the hill Hindus, in its essential elements, closely accords with that of their brethren elsewhere. They worship the Hindu gods, practise Hindu rites, and are imbued with the Hindu spirit. The Brahmans and Rajpoots are proud of their position, firm in maintaining it, and shrink from everything which would invalidate it. Under native rule the high-caste spirit had full scope, for we are told that for murder a Brahman was banished, and a Rajpoot heavily mulcted; while other murderers were put to death. Such offences against the Hindu religion as killing a cow, or a Dom making use of a huqqa (the pipe for smoking), or a utensil belonging to a Brahman or Rajpoot, were capital offences. The power obtained by the Brahmans was shown by the fact that, when the province came under British rule, one-fifteenth of its arable land belonged to the religious establishments.

All the Hindu gods and goddesses are worshipped in the hills, but the hideous goddess Kalee is the favourite object of worship. Small temples to her honour are found all over the province, many of them in solitary places on the tops of hills, to which it is meritorious to make pilgrimages, and around which at certain seasons melas are held. We have in our wanderings fallen in with several of these temples in spots from which, for many miles around, no human habitation is seen. By far the most famous shrines are those of Badrinath and Kedarnath, in the upper part of Gurhwal, within the snowy range, where Vishnu is the object of worship, and the officiating priests are Brahmans from Southern India. Pilgrimage to these places is very meritorious, as it can only be accomplished at the cost of great toil and suffering, and at the imminent risk of life.


In addition to the gods worshipped all over India, the hill people have local gods unknown elsewhere. Bhoots, evil spirits, commonly supposed to be the spirits of those who have during their earthly life been noted for their wickedness, and have acquired the demon character, are believed to haunt the mountains and forests, and are the objects of special dread. Homage is paid to them to secure their goodwill and avert their vengeance. The people greatly dislike travelling at night, as that is the season when the Bhoots roam about and fall on their prey. When they must move about they break off the branches of the pine-tree, and turn them into torches to frighten off both the wild beasts and the evil spirits. In the imagination which peoples hills and forests with beings outside the circle of humanity, that make their presence especially felt at night, the people of Kumaon closely resemble the mountaineers of other lands, among others those of our own Scotch Highlands, as they were till a recent period. In my early days I heard so many stories in my native Highland village of ghosts and fairies, that I was afraid to move about after sunset except when guarded by others, lest these supernatural beings should lay hold of me and carry me away.


The people have a character for industry. When one sees the difficulties under which cultivation is carried on, he is inclined to consider it deserved. They have periods of lounging, but also of very hard work. The women, in addition to household work, cut and carry wood and grass, and do much farm work -- I have thought at times more than their share; but after all, the heaviest work, the carrying of great loads on head and shoulders, up hill and down hill, and the farm work requiring most strength, is done by the men. Much of the work done by them -- work done by draught animals elsewhere -- must tend to break down their health and shorten their days.

The Kumaonees have been described as untruthful but honest. I must say our experience has verified the unfavourable part of this description more than the favourable. So far as veracity is concerned we have not been impressed with any difference between them and other natives of India. We think their honesty has received more credit than it deserves. This is, at any rate, the opinion of the tea-planters with whom we have conversed, and who have had superior opportunities for judging. They have told us of the strict watch they have to set to guard their tea and fruit. We found that some hill servants, whom we had greatly trusted, had systematically robbed us. The character for honesty was, I believe, given to them because when they set out on their periodical migration to the plains they left their villages unguarded, and found their property safe on their return. I suppose this resulted partly from an unwritten -- may I say? -- honourable understanding, that as in their sparse and widely-scattered population it was well-nigh impossible to guard their goods, the rights of property should be respected; and partly from the circumstance that there was little left behind in the villages which could be carried away. So far as others, especially Europeans, are concerned, this understanding to practise honesty does not hold.

We incidentally heard of no small degree of immorality among the people, but our information is too limited to justify one in comparing them with others in this respect. There is much that is likable among them, but the general moral tone is undoubtedly low. Polyandry, which prevails in some districts in the Western Himalayan range, is I believe unknown, but polygamy is not uncommon among those who can afford it.

Cleanliness has never been considered a virtue of Highlanders. It is not -- or perhaps I should say it has not been -- a characteristic of the Highlanders of our own land. Among the Kumaonees it is notably wanting. The loathsome disease of leprosy has long prevailed in the province, owing to a large extent to the filthy habits of the people. To the same cause there is every reason to believe, we have to trace the outbreak now and then of the plague -- muha muree, the great plague, as it is called -- which has proved very destructive. It resembles the plague which at different times prevailed in Europe and swept away thousands. So great is the dread of this terrible malady, that on the report of its approach people flee from their villages. Cholera has been at times fatal to many, but its ravages are not to be compared to those of the plague.



Kumaon had been long under the rule of a native dynasty, but intestine feuds laid the country open to the attacks of ambitious neighbours. In the latter end of the eighteenth century the Ghoorkhas, a military tribe, rose to power in Nepal, the hill-country to the east, and early in this century they extended their conquests over the hill-country to the west, till they were checked by Runjeet Singh, the famous ruler of the Punjab. Their rule over Kumaon was said to be very oppressive. By raids into British territory they came into collision with the English. After a severe struggle, carried on through two campaigns, they were defeated, and forced to give up the country they had conquered to the west of Nepal, which they had held for about twelve years. Kumaon and the adjoining hill-country of Gurhwal were placed under the jurisdiction of a British Commissioner, and the arrangement made in 1816 has been maintained to the present time.


The country has made immense progress since the English took possession. The people are now under a government which aims at protecting life and property, and at treating all, high and low, with equal justice. No longer are Dom offenders against caste laws executed while Brahman and Rajpoot murderers escape. Atrocious customs have been suppressed, such as the burial of lepers alive, which was formerly largely practised. Sanitary regulations have been issued, and penalties imposed on those convicted of violating them. Fights between villages, ending in robbery and murder, are no longer permitted, though sham-fights are still allowed. I was once a witness of such a fight, when a vast number of hill people were collected, as if for a great field-day, and stones were thrown from slings in a way I thought perilous to the combatants. Roads have been made, and rivers bridged. The new roads are too narrow and steep to admit of wheeled conveyances; often they are only three or four feet in width, and are at a gradient which makes them trying for horses and for persons on foot; but they are an immense improvement on the footpaths with which the natives were satisfied till they came under British rule, and with which they are still satisfied when left to themselves. I have not had much experience of the by-paths of the country, but quite enough to have made me thankful for the new order of things. Very recently a road for carts and conveyances has been made from the plains to Nynee Tal, Ranee Khet, and Almora; but the route is so circuitous that the roads hitherto traversed will continue the chief means of communication.

No sooner was the British rule established than the effect was seen in the increase of cultivation. Mr. Traill, the first Commissioner, states that from the time of the occupation, 1816 to 1822-23, the date of his retirement, cultivation had increased fully one-third, and since that time there has been a steady advance. The population has more than doubled, for we are told that in 1823 there were 27 inhabitants to the square mile, while in 1872 there were 65. At the same time there were 797 to the square mile in the Benares district, and there was no district in the North-West Provinces where the population was under 185, while the average was 378. An immense disparity must continue between countries with such different capabilities, but the progress made in Kumaon under British rule is proportionably as great as that made in the most favoured parts of India.

Wealth has been brought into the country as well as drawn out of it. I have already referred to tea-planting as a new department of agricultural industry. Many thousands have been spent on tea-gardens -- much more, I suspect, than has yet been got out of them. A tea-planter once pointed to a cluster of well-built villages, and said, |These houses have all been built within the last few years by the proceeds of wages made in the tea-garden under my charge.| Then the great influx of European travellers and residents has done not a little to enrich the people in various ways, though at times the labour thus required has been very grudgingly given, as it has withdrawn them from their homes when their own work was urgent.

Of late years a new source of income has been opened up to the people by the enterprise of Sir Henry Ramsay, who has been for many years the Commissioner of the Province, and has done more for it than any of his predecessors. The hill people of some districts have been for ages in the habit of moving down en masse with their cattle at the beginning of the cold weather for grazing, and have returned to their mountain homes when the hot weather had set in. The country immediately under the hills is called the Bhabhur, and is quite distinct from the Turai which lies beyond. This Bhabhur is a formation of sand and shingle filled with boulders, largely covered over with soil, which produces abundant herbage in the rainy season, and is thus good grazing ground in the succeeding months. It has a large extent of forest, composed of trees of great girth and magnificent height. The innumerable streams which come down from the hills flow under the Bhabhur, and make their way into the Turai beyond, where the land becomes water-logged, and the main product is long, rank grass, growing to the height of ten or twelve feet. By a system of canals, devised and carried out by Sir Henry Ramsay, the water as it comes down from the hills is made to irrigate a large part of the Bhabhur, rendering it fit for agricultural purposes. The result is that the people now cultivate the land, beside grazing their cattle over it. They sow toward the end of the rainy season, and reap at the beginning of the hot weather, when they retreat to the hills, and are ready for the cultivation of their fields there. This addition to the arable land has been a great boon to the people. I cannot say, however, judging by those with whom I have conversed, that they are satisfied. They grumble at the new tax imposed for the construction and maintenance of the canals, and also at the tax they have to pay for their holdings in the hills, though I believe it to be very light. They would gladly have all the benefits of a firm and improving government without paying anything for its support.

[Sidenote: WILD BEASTS.]

Notwithstanding the extension of cultivation and the increase of population in Kumaon, we may travel for many miles over hill and forest and not see a trace of man's presence. Cover for wild beasts has been somewhat abridged, but it is still sufficient to shelter them, and to make it unlikely they can be exterminated. Both in the hills and in the country beneath, hunters of wild beasts, European and native, still find abundant employment. Not a year passes without persons, sheep, and cattle being killed by tigers, leopards, and hyenas. They live so much in the gorges of the mountains, and in the depths of the forests, ready to pounce on their prey when opportunity presents itself, that the destruction caused by them is seen, while they themselves disappear. The first thing we saw on our first approach to Almora was a horse which had been killed by a leopard the preceding night. A woman, who had been cutting grass before the door of a house we occupied for a few days, was killed an hour afterwards by a tiger in the adjoining forest. One afternoon we heard the cry of a herd, and running out we saw a goat with its throat cut, but the leopard that had killed it had disappeared in the jungle beneath. On another occasion my pony, picketed near my tent, had a narrow escape from a leopard. I have often heard huntsmen relate the encounters they have had with these terrible brutes. On one occasion I saw four dead tigers brought in by a party that had killed them a few miles from the place where my tent was pitched. Tigers are very migratory. They live in the cold weather down in the Bhabhur and the Turai, and as the hot weather advances they follow the herd up the hills on to the verge of the snow. The bears of the hills feed on fruit and vegetables, and usually make away when human beings are seen, but they are very formidable to those who attack them, or come suddenly across their path. In some places wolves abound, and children and animals require to be guarded against them; but they never hunt in packs as in Russia, and they are not feared by grown-up people. In the lower hills and the Bhabhur there are herds of wild elephants, which do much injury to the crops of the people, and cannot be safely approached. I have been again and again in their track. There are also serpents, but they are not so numerous or venomous as in the plains. The dangers to which the inhabitants are exposed is shown by the annual statistics of casualties, in which the first place is given to the ravages of wild beasts, the second to landslips, and the third to serpents.


I may end this account of Kumaon, its scenery, products, history, and people, by mentioning two stipulations in the treaty with the Ghoorkhas, when the British took possession of the land, which are strikingly illustrative at once of British policy and of Hindu feeling. One stipulation was that certain sums should be paid annually to the priests of certain temples. A second stipulation was that the slaughter of bullocks and cows should be strictly prohibited. Not a vestige of power over the country was left to the Ghoorkhas; the entire rule was transferred to the British. But our authorities, influenced at once by religious liberalism or indifference, and by deference to Hindu feeling, accepted these conditions. The first stipulation caused no trouble, but the force of circumstances has led to the violation of the second. When there were no European troops in the Province, and the only Englishmen were civil officials, officers of native regiments, and a few casual travellers, the prohibition of beef caused little inconvenience; but a large influx of English people, soldiers and others, made the observance of the stipulation impracticable. For a time it was violated, and the authorities professed to know nothing about it; but when Nynee Tal became a great summer resort, and English soldiers were located at it, beef became a well-nigh indispensable article of food, cows and bullocks were killed, and the breach in the treaty by which the country was ceded to us became manifest to all. It is said that when the high-caste officials protested against this outrage on the Hindu religion, an English official quietly said that such good Hindus were not in their proper place, that they should be transferred to their holy city, Benares. This speedily silenced the complaint, as hill people intensely dislike leaving their mountains for the plains.

The treaty with the Ghoorkhas is not the only one in which the stipulation against beef has been made when territory has been ceded. To a treaty-keeping people like the English the stipulation has been very embarrassing, so embarrassing that for a time resolute effort has been made to observe it, but it has at length broken down under what has been deemed the compulsion of circumstances. We have heard of a high-caste official consoling his brethren for the outrage by reminding them it is the nature of tigers to eat cows and bullocks, and by telling them that the English were tigers, had a similar love for such food, and as it was their nature it must be borne with. Though so shocked with the shedding of the blood of cows and bullocks, the ruling class in Nepal have shown no aversion to the shedding of human blood, as is well known by all acquainted with the history of the country. During the mutiny a friend of mine, travelling with a regiment of Ghoorkhas that had come down from Nepal to help us, saw them kill a party of mutineers who had surrendered under an oath of their lives being spared, with a savage ferocity which shocked him beyond measure.


[Sidenote: TRAVELLING.]

The greater part of our time in the Province was spent in the capital, Almora, and in the newly-formed Sanatarium Ranee Khet, but we frequently travelled through many of its districts. I have mentioned the improved means of communication, but vastly better though the roads be than they were in the days of native rule, travelling continues to be very expensive, fatiguing, and in some modes not a little dangerous. Travellers must either walk, ride, or be carried on men's shoulders. The first mode can be adopted only by those who have abundant strength and leisure. It was my mode during our first visit, as I was not pressed for time, and notwithstanding our residence of eight years in the plains I retained a good deal of my youthful vigour. The mountain scenery and the mountain air gave us new life. I travelled on foot some three hundred miles. On the occasion of future visits I was happy to avail myself of a hill pony. Most gentlemen and many young ladies perform their hill journeys on horseback. Happily, hill ponies are, as a rule, quiet and sure-footed; and they require to be, as the roads are narrow, in some places very narrow, and overhang precipices, down which the rider would be dashed if the pony slipped or was scared. At first, riding appears very dangerous, but after a time there is a feeling of security. I remember riding with confidence over places where at first I deemed it prudent to dismount. Scarcely a year, however, passes without riders being killed, and all who have travelled much over the country have to tell of providential escapes. The third mode, the mode adopted by most ladies, and by gentlemen who have not nerve to ride, is to be carried on men's shoulders. The palankeen and dolie of the plains are by far too heavy and cumbrous for the hills. The favourite vehicle is the dandee -- a pole, with a piece of carpet attached, on which the traveller sits sideway, and which has belts for the back and feet. Two men, one at each end of the pole, are able to carry the dandee a short distance, but in journeys four are commonly employed. During the last few years a very light sedan-chair has come into favour, which is far more convenient for ladies, but the dandee is lighter and will continue to be largely used.

We have seen a good deal of both the eastern and western portions of the Province. In 1847 we travelled to Lahoo Ghat and Petorah Gurh in the east. On this occasion I went on to Nepal, and was told by the Nepalese sentry on the frontier bridge that without special permission from Khatmandoo, the Capital, I could not proceed farther. In 1869, in company with my much-esteemed friend the late Dr. Mather, I travelled in the same direction, and saw much of the country, as we went by one route and returned by another. During the later years of our residence we saw a good deal of the western districts, to which I shall refer when giving an account of missionary operations.

Along some of the main roads, at the distance of twelve or fourteen miles, are small rough Rest-houses, with a table, two chairs, and a bedstead, often in very bad condition. These houses are in charge of a watchman, who is often long in making his appearance, and then brings wood and water, and sometimes a little milk. For everything else you are dependent on people with you carrying supplies. Where there is much traffic there is good accommodation.

[Sidenote: TIMELY ESCAPE.]

Our most memorable journey, perhaps, was one made in 1861 to the Pindaree glacier. The journey was a very fatiguing one, as the roads were so bad, and the ascents and descents so steep, that before we got half way I was obliged to leave my pony behind, and to make my way on foot, helped to ascend and descend in some places by strong hill-men, who drew me up or helped me down by a belt round my middle, while my wife and little boy were carried in dandies. Many of the bridges were rough wooden structures, with no parapets. As we approached the snow we suffered much at night from cold in our little tent. The hill people of the higher region we found much stronger and more unsophisticated than those we had left behind. The women seemed never to have seen an English woman or child. They were first afraid to come near us, but my wife made her way to little groups, and they seemed delighted with her, and still more with her little boy. Fatiguing and trying though the journey was, health was improved by it, and we were well rewarded for any toil and inconvenience we endured by the magnificent scenery we saw. Down the Pindaree valley came a roaring torrent, showing by its yellow tinge it came from the melted snow. We were awed as we looked up at the tremendous cliffs on either side. Pursuing our way in silence, I heard a servant from the plains, who was walking behind me, muttering to himself, |Such a wicked place I never saw in my life.| We breakfasted on the glacier, and after looking at some of the crevasses we were glad to make our way back to our tent a few miles below. Next morning we retraced our steps, and it was well we did so, for as we were rapidly descending we had heavy rain, and could see snow falling where we had been. The next day the whole region behind was covered with snow, and we were thankful for our timely escape.

The details of travelling I have now given, and the previous details about the country and people may perhaps enable the reader the better to understand and realize missionary work in the Province.


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