Pahari - Religion and Expressive Culture

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Religious Beliefs. Because the overwhelming preponderance of Paharis are Hindus, only that religion is described here. There are also Muslim Paharis, but they have been little described in the literature. Presumably their Islamic religion is that of the rest of South Asia, with a distinctly Pahari cast to it, notably as a result of beliefs and practices, pervasive in Pahari culture, that are neither identifiably Islamic nor Hindu in origin.

Pahari Hinduism shares most of its content with pan-Indian Hinduism, including some degree of belief in dharma (intrinsic individual and collective duty or "right behavior"), karma (just desserts contingent on fulfillment of dharma), samsara (reincarnation in accord with karma), maya (the illusory nature of existence), nirvana or samadhi (ultimate escape, if karma permits, from the wheel of reincarnation into oneness with the universe). Similarly there is an awareness of the scriptures, the great deities of Hinduism, the holy places, the holy days, the periodic and life-cycle rituals, the values, the prescriptions and proscriptions enjoined upon the faithful, etc. But there are also distinctive Pahari traditions regarded by their practitioners as the consequence of social and environmental circumstances of their alpine existence. In contrast to villages of the plains, there is little systematic difference among Pahari castes in religious belief and practice. In the eyes of outsiders, expatriates, and sophisticates, these traditions are often seen as rustic and therefore embarrassingly unorthodox and in need of reform. The dominant aspect of this rusticity is a lack of rigor in following the behavioral injunctions of Sanskritic Hinduism: dietary restrictions are virtually ignored, except for the taboo on beef; many of the great deities of Hinduism and the rituals associated with them are overlooked; niceties in the expression and maintenance of ritual purity are treated casually; most Sanskritic restrictions on high-caste women are not observed; and Lifecycle rites and periodic rituals are understood and observed in a distinctly Pahari manner.

Supernaturals are of many types and innumerable manifestations—as suggested by the frequently quoted description of Hinduism as a "religion of 330 million gods." Deities (or gods) are the most powerful of supernaturals and must be placated to avoid their destructive wrath. Placation takes the form of honoring them with worship, especially by making offerings to them (prominently through animal sacrifice). In Sirkanda a number of household deities (associated with, affecting, and therefore worshiped by household members) are worshiped by each family at shrines in the dwelling. In addition, there are village deities, worshiped by most villagers on ritual occasions at a shrine in or near the village. Among the latter deities are the five Pandava brothers, known to every Hindu as heroic warriors of the Mahabharata epic, but to my knowledge worshiped as major deities only, and universally, by Paharis. Polyandrous Western Pahari societies cite the polyandrous Panduvas as the precedent for their own Marriage rules. There are in addition a variety of other categories of supernaturals: ancestral spirits, ghosts or demons, sprites or fairies, etc. As with deities, each of these has dangerous powers that must be avoided, warded off, or properly attended to. Various diviners, exorcists, curers, and other specialists capable of dealing with the malevolence of such supernaturals are to be found in every locality.

Religious Practitioners. Pahari religious practitioners, as throughout Hindu society, are of two major types. The first type includes those of the priestly (Brahman) caste, exclusively entitled by birth to their profession, whose responsibilities are to convey, oversee, perpetuate, and perform the scripturally prescribed aspects of Hinduism necessary to the long-term maintenance of relations between the faithful and the supernatural. The second type includes the individually gifted and supernaturally inspired practitioners of folk traditions, who, while not incompatible with Hinduism and in fact universally associated with it, are not enjoined by it: namely, the shamans (called baki in the Central Pahari region, and bhagat in the north Indian plains), diviners, exorcists, curers, and a variety of other practitioners—most often of low caste but potentially of any caste and either sex—who serve the immediate, pragmatic needs of people by dealing via the supernatural with the fateful, unpredictable aspects of their lives.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies are numerous and often complex. They honor and placate deities and ancestors, celebrate or ward off the effects of astrological concordances, memorialize and celebrate life-cycle events, protect and perpetuate the well-being of individuals and groups, etc. Among several peculiar to the Pahari region (all well within the range of Hindu ceremonies) is the famous rope-sliding ceremony. Too complex to describe adequately here—and now outlawed—it is worth mentioning because it incorporates the features of all Hindu ceremonies in a unique and spectacular Pahari idiom. Basically, it is an attempt to appease the wrath of the most powerful deity of the region, who has wrought dire and persistent misfortune on a village, by offering him a magnificent and expensive entertainment accompanied by many subsidiary sacrifices and supplications carried out by scores of priests, shamans, and other specialists before hundreds of worshipful participants and spectators. The climactic event occurs when a ritually prepared low-caste man who has been secured to a saddle astride a gigantic oil-soaked rope that is stretched between a tree at the top of a cliff and another at a distance below to form a steep incline, is released to careen down the rope, smoke streaming behind, to an uncertain fate at the end of his ride. If the spectacle is successful, the rider survives, the god is pleased, the community is relieved of its misfortune, the many who contributed to the event are benefited in proportion to their material or financial contribution, and everyone who witnessed it is blessed.

Arts. Pahari artisan castes are the artists of this society, best known for wood carving of doors, windows, columns, rafters, etc. and ornamental stone carving. Carpenters and masons are noted for their architectural achievements through ingenious and beautiful use of wood and stone. The artistry of gold- and silversmiths, expressed primarily in Women's jewelry, is also notable. Tailors and shoemakers are responsible for the colorful traditional Pahari clothing. The distinctive Pahari music has recently been selectively adapted to a popular idiom without entirely losing its traditional qualities, and it has achieved popular attention and commercial success in India. This music derives from folksongs known to all elements of Pahari society, rendered and preserved by the musician castes.

Medicine. Traditional practitioners employ a wide variety of herbal and ritual treatments for illnesses, injuries, and discomforts. In every village there are specialists known for their success in healing: herbalists, masseuses, curers of pustular diseases, bone setters, laceration healers, midwives, shamans, exorcists, etc. Elements of conventional Ayurvedic medical belief and practice are discernible but do not generally form a tightly organized system in rural villages. Government programs have brought medical personnel—employing variously Ayurvedic, Unani, and scientific medical treatments—to many villages and health clinics to many regions. Hospitals are available in major centers. Still, however, most treatment is by traditional, indigenous practitioners. When medicines are sought from outside they are almost always patent Remedies rather than prescribed medicines. Mortality, especially infant mortality, remains extremely high in the Pahari areas.


Death and Afterlife. Among Hindu Paharis, death and afterlife are understood and dealt with in characteristically Hindu fashion. (Muslims bury their dead and attend to death in ways prescribed by Islam, but here I am able only to discuss Hindu customs in the matter.) Among Hindus, small Children are buried, as are those who die of particular virulent diseases and the rare holy individual who has achieved samadhi. Others are cremated, preferably by the side of a stream, with the remains being committed to the water. The ceremonies attending death, cremation, and the postcremation period are complex but not notably different from those prescribed in Hinduism. Women do not attend the funeral cremation, but they, like all relatives, participate in mourning according to the closeness of their kinship to the deceased. It is believed that the station of one's next life in the cycle of reincarnation—one's karma—is a consequence of fulfillment of one's dharma—the donation to charities, the performance of austerities, etc.

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