In these Himalayan villages, Deepavali arrives a month later

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on October 26, 2019

Late to the party: Deepavali is celebrated after a month by the tribes of Jaunsar-Bawar and others in the Himalayas   -  NISSAR AHAMD

The mountain tribes have their little-known versions of the festival of lights

Days after the fairy lights have all been switched off in the north, a tiny region in the hills is going to be all lit up. For, in the Jaunsar-Bawar region of Uttarakhand, less than 100km from Mussoorie, Deepavali is celebrated a month after it is marked in most other parts of the country.

Legend has it the festival of lights honours Lord Ram, as he returns to Ayodhya with hisfamily after being in exile for 14 years. Folklore in Uttarakhand holds that the news of the return reached the region, tucked away in the hills, rather late. Called Diyai, this festival takes place on the new moon night after Diwali or Deepavali. Another reason cited is that the usual Deepavali period is mostly a busy harvest time in the region. So it is only when the villagers are done toiling in their fields that they are ready to celebrate.

“The festival is celebrated mostly by the hill tribes of Jaunsar-Bawar, with Deepavali rituals borrowed from the tarai (plains) taking over in other parts of Garhwal. However, in these villages of the Jaunsar-Bawar region, the festival takes place for two days,” says Ganesh Kothari, an old-time resident of Mussoorie. “The night before the Jaunsari Diwali, the entire village stays up to worship the local deity. Clusters of deodar sticks called viyati are lit as people sing and dance.”

The festivities continue the next morning, when at least one member from each family visits every other house in the village and is offered tea and chiwra (beaten rice). “Every family also takes offerings of walnuts to the temple. The village pandit (priest) then distributes the walnuts among the crowd that gathers in the evening. The next morning sees a temple procession, with a dola, a wooden structure with the idol of the local god, taken out by the villagers with song and dance. The person who carries the structure on his back has to dance at least five rounds with it, and, after that, the entire village assembles at his house for tea,” Kothari says.

The tribes of the region who live in remote parts of the Chakrata tehsil have their own customs, many of which are significantly different from those followed by other Garhwalis. But Jaunsari Diyai is similar to the celebrations marked in the adjoining region in Himachal Pradesh (HP), where the festival is also called Boodhi (old) Diwali. Boodhi Diwali, too, is marked by song and dance.

The Jaunsari Diyai marks a good harvest of rice and mandua, a type of millet indigenous to the state. For the festival, villagers illuminate their fields after the harvest. “One of the favourite snacks to be served on this occasion is mooda, a mixture of wheat, jaggery and bhang seeds,” says Ajay Bisht, a resident of Dehradun.

The tribes of Jaunsar-Bawar also believe that they have links with the Mahabharata. The Jaunsaris hold that they are descendants of the Pandavas, and the Bawaris believe that their forefathers were the Kauravas.

“A puja called thati-mati puja, which many believe is being done from the time of the Pandavas, is conducted on first day of Diyai. This puja represents the division of land among brothers,” says Bisht. The folk songs and dance also tell tales from the Mahabharata.

While some Garhwali and Himachali communities celebrate the festival on the new moon, parts of Kumaon mark it on full moon day, a fortnight after the amavasya (new moon) Deepavali held in most parts of north India. But there are some communities — such as the Tharu tribes people — who do not celebrate it at all for they consider it to be inauspicious, “The day is marked in mourning of lost ancestors by the Tharu tribe,” says Bisht. The tribe, originally from Rajasthan, lives in the hills of north India.

The festival varies significantly across regions of these two tiny hill states, as it does across the country. In some villages of Kullu district of HP, it symbolises the killing of the demons Dano and Asur, who had terrorised the community in the form of snakes. Animal sacrifice would take place earlier, to mark the occasion, but is no longer in practice.

The hills of Kumaon and Garhwal are known for festivals that celebrate nature, such as the Phooldei festival, held in honour of flowers, and Harela, a harvest festival. As they say, in India there is a festival for every occasion. And better late than never.

Published on October 25, 2019

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