MUSSOORIE, Aug 28
Nature has been a close friend for people in the hills. From waiting to hear the call of a bird announcing the arrival of kaphal ( a kind of local berry), to observing the change in the colour of ferns to indicate the end of monsoon to eating the same pulse in different forms due to the weather change, nature decides a lot here. For it ‘s these and more signs of nature that have for decades , been used as an indicators of the changing season which in turn changes the activities of the simple lives here.
Take for example the fact when Wake robbin/jack in the pulpit, also known as Saanp ka bhutta locally (a plant with a cobra like hood) is replaced by its wild red fruit resembling a corncob, it’s a sign that monsoons are ready to say their goodbye. Another indicator in nature is the ferns which grow with wild abandon on tree trunks during monsoon start turning brown.”When wild ginger and garden escapees (wild dahlias) take over the hillside and tree ferns turn brown one has to be sure that rains have come to an end” says author and photographer, Ganesh Saili.
Nature, says Dr D. R. Purohit (well known for reviving rare dance forms and the dhol damau in the hills), is the very warp and woof of the hill life. “Take for example the simple fact that when Paiyyaan (Himalayan wild cherry) blosooms, you know spring is round the corner. With September and bright sunny days ahead, it will be time to cut thor (grass) for the cattle for winters.”
In fact a visit to any of the villages in the hills is enough to show one the season and the close connect with nature. The bright autumn sun helps the winter pulses to be ready to be harvested and dried. Pumpkins swell to their proud selves will be covered with a mixture of cow dung and mud (believed to help store them longer) and are dried in the sun. Other veggies like sweet gourd, pumpkin chucks, radish, and some greens are all be dried and stored as suksu (a mixture of dried veggies for winters).
Mumbai based artist Saru Dabral who loves to paint the hill life says, “Nature is integrally related to hills and people of the hills. They live the nature as both are totally dependent on each other, be it food, farming or climate. In fact they reflect nature itself.”
Very closely related to nature of course have been the women folk of the hills who go to collect firewood for the stoves and grass for their cattle.
Seventy year old Phangni Devi, from Baseli village in Tehri Garhwal, might be too old to go collecting grass now but her days as a young women are a clear memory. “In the hills nature speaks to us through sights and sounds, indicating impending changes to follow. I still remember how my heart would feel elated to hear ghuraan (happy chirping of birds) which indicates spring and how I’d feel low when I heard baasna (sad noise the birds make when the grains in the fields are cut and they have little to eat).”
Another now dying ritual which helped with studying signs of nature was danda ghumna (staying in the forest for a few days) followed by women who became mother in laws. “Since the daughter in laws at home helped with chores, we older women would go and stay in the forest for 4-5 days. We’d observe the trees and birds and flowers and it helped us connect with nature better,” shares 86 year old Godambari Bhatt from Timli village in Rudraprayag.
Author Surendra Pundir who has written several books on the folk tales and culture of the hills, especially Jaunsar area sums up when he says, “Back in the old times when there weren’t television sets and radios and very few roads, people in the villages only had signs from nature to decide when they would plant different things, what had to be dried and stored for winters and what had to be eaten to adjust to the cold weather. It’s a system deeply ingrained in the people from the hills.”