Religion & Culture of Himachal Pradesh
¤ The People
The population of HP consists of a medley of tribes, all speaking
their own language. Some of them are the Gaddis, Gujjars, Kinnauris,
Lahulis and Pangwalis. The majority of the people are of Aryan stock,
with exceptions like the inhabitants of Lahaul and Spiti who are
distinctly of Mongol origin. Perhaps the most exotic among them are
the Kinnauris, known for their extraordinary beauty and ornate
¤ The Earliest Inhabitants
Before the coming of the Khasha Aryans were the Kols and Mundas.
These people are represented by the various scheduled castes like the
Kolis, Halis, Chamars, Darains, Rehars, Chanals, Lohars, Baris, Dagis,
Dhakis or Turis, and form a considerable part of the population.
The great social fusion over the centuries, a process which is still
going on, has resulted in many changes in the appearance and
characteristics of these people. As such, like the rest of Northern
India, they are ascribed to Aryan blood by mainstream historians.
¤ People Had A Simple Living
HP is the least urbanized of states in India, and so theres an untouched
simplicity about its inhabitants. Living in a world of their own, the
people are sometimes quite unaware of whats happening in the
rest of the country.
Their whole life seems to revolve around high peaks, near-accessible
passes, rivers and deep valleys. All this makes for people who are
essentially simple, honest, god-fearing and firmly rooted in the
bedrock of the past. Ninety percent of the people live in distant fairy
tale villages and small towns, and depend on agriculture for
their livelihood. Many also rear sheep, goats, and other cattle.
The traditional village house of Himachal has a rather interesting
structure. The lowest storey is for household cattle, the middle for
storing grain (also doubles as sleeping room for the family in winter)
and the top floor or dafi forms the living area.
¤ The Gaddis of Chamba
The Gaddis are shepherds who move their flocks of sheep (which may
range from a couple of hundred to a thousand in number!) from lower
pastures in winter to higher ones after snowmelt. Interestingly, the
Gaddis are only found scattered around the Dhauladhars. They call this
area Gadheran or the land of the Gaddis. To them the Dhauladhars are
not just a mountain range but like their mother.
The Gaddis move freely between Chamba and Kangra when the passes of
the Dhauladhar allow them to do so. In winter they move down south and
can be seen around Kangra, Mandi and Bilaspur and in the small
villages between Baijnath and Palampur. Marriages between people
living on opposite sides of the Dhauladhar are common.
A typical song of a bride living in her in-laws house on the
other side runs thus
Oh Mother Dhauladhar
Bend a little
O bend a little
On this side lies my mother-in-laws place
On the other side lies my fathers place
Bend yourself a little
Bend a little
O bend a little.
the northern quarter is divine Himalaya,
The lord of the mountains,
Reaching from Eastern to Western Ocean,
Firm as a rod to measure the earth
There demigods rest in the shade of clouds,
Which spread like a girdle below the peaks,
But when the rains disturb them
They fly to the sunlit summits
Kalidas, 5th century AD Sanskrit poet
For thousands of years Indians, and especially the Hindus, have
looked upon the mighty Himalayas with awe and reverence. For them it
is the abode of the gods. There Shiva, the great god of destruction
(belonging to the holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer), sat in
deep meditation until Parvati, the himalaya-putri (daughter of the
mountains), succeeded in winning his love. Temples of Shiva and
Parvati abound in these mountains and thousands of pilgrims from the
plains make their arduous climb to them each year.
¤ The Celebrations
Himachal is dotted with quaint Pagoda-like or shikhara styled
(spired) temples. Most of these have fascinating legends attached to
them. (Ask the locals, and theyll be only too glad to share them
with you.) While festivals are special occasions for celebration,
worship is a part of daily life. Hinduism was brought to these hills
by the immigrant Rajput tribes of the 5th to the 15th century.
But the Hinduism practiced here is in its more lenient form the
caste system is less rigid than elsewhere in India. The people have
their own distinct flavour of the Hindu religion, especially in the
They have combined local legends and popular beliefs with the beliefs
of Hinduism. The gram devta (village god) cult is a case in example.
It is a curious mix of animism, demonism and Hinduism. The rugged
landscape seems to have inspired such awe in the paharis (people of
the mountains) that they have deified the diverse manifestations of
¤ Buddhism Religion
than 95% of the population of HP is Hindu but Buddhism has also made
inroads in to the state thanks to the nearness to Tibet and presence
of the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala.
The ashen valleys of Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur are made brilliant by
the Buddhist way of life.
At times the demarcation between Hinduism and Buddhism is very faint
in these hill regions. For example, the rituals of the Kinnauris are a
mix Buddhist and Hindu practices. The hundreds of gompas and
monasteries here serve as a veritable library for the student of
Buddhism. No wonder HP is said to be Gods Own Country.
There are also several notable churches and Sikh gurudwaras in the
state. Christianity came in with the British, of course, who dashed to
these mountains whenever the heat of the plains got to them. Shimla,
Kasauli and Dalhousie served as the most important British retreats,
and so have the most well known churches of the state.
St-John-in-the-Wilderness in Dharamsala is also quite an
attraction.Sikhism, too, is practiced in a few places in Himachal.
Paonta Sahib in Sirmaur district is a major pilgrimage for Sikhs, and
so is beautiful Manikaran in the Kullu Valley. The Sikhs played an
important role in the history of Himachal and Guru Govind Singh, one
of the ten founders of the religion, began his career on this very
¤ A New God Everyday?
Everybody knows that India is simply crawling with both gods and
people. But Kullu valley is way ahead in that such a small part of the
country alone boasts of 365 gods! and of course these gods and
goddesses have many amusing tales to tell. Sample this one, it links
the mountain goddess Hadimba to the royal house of the former Kullu
State. Hadimba has a charming temple dedicated to her in Manali in the
Anyway, driven by drought, a poor man by the name of Bihang Mani Pal
from Haridwar (in Uttar Pradesh) reached the Kullu valley in search of
water. Soon he became an apprentice to a potter in this new place. One
day as he was carrying pots to the market, he came upon an old woman
who was actually the demoness Hadimba in disguise. Hadimba lifted him
on her shoulders and promised to make him king of all he surveyed if
he worshipped her as a goddess. Pal did exactly so. and lo! Bihang
Mani Pal became king of Kullu and Hadimba his patron deity.
Each community in Himachal has its own set of rites and rituals that
is preserved zealously. The customs and manners of these hill people
are somewhat different from those of the plains. For instance, in some
parts of Shimla and Sirmaur a reverse dowry system is practiced
the grooms father pays a sum of money to the brides father
to meet the expenses of marriage. This practice is known as dhari.
An amusing system of betrothal among some Himachalis, especially the
agricultural classes, is the atta-satta ka nata. A series of marriages
are arranged by the relatives of marriageable girls and boys. Thus, a
father promises his daughters hand to anothers son on the
condition that the latter give his daughter to a third mans son,
who in turn promises his daughter to the first man. Sometimes there
are five or six links in the chain, and one breach nullifies the whole
The Marriage Rituals
Marriage by elopement, called haar, is sanctioned in HP, especially
among the lower castes. and not just that, the setting for such an
affair is also delineated!
The occasion happens in a fair or a neighbourhood marriage.Polyandry
is not uncommon in Himachal, especially in Kinnaur. This might be
linked to the story of Draupadi, wife of the five Pandava brothers.
According to local legend, the Pandavas and Draupadi sojourned to the
Sangla valley during their incognito exile (See Mahabharata for
It is said that they built a fort here to protect themselves from
their hostile cousins, the Kauravas.
Draupadi soon came to be worshipped here as a deity. The practice of
marrying a widow/widower to an unmarried brother-in-law/sister-in-law
(husbands younger brother/wifes younger sister) is most
prevalent in Himachal. Serving meat and chhang (country liqueur) is
also a must in some marriages. Such rituals of marriage in the hills
turn topsy-turvy the traditional Vedic marriage and notions of
propriety prevalent in the plains.
¤ Birth Customs Rituals
Like all rituals of the people of HP, the birth customs, too, have a
quaint local touch. During the wifes pregnancy, the husband
refrains from killing any animal with his own hands, though he may eat
The woman is also not allowed to see the face of a dead person, or go
near a burning place, stream or forest. Immediately after the birth of
her child, the woman is given a mixture of ghee (clarified butter) and
gur (jaggery) to drink.
Sometimes liqueur is also given; a ritual which, in the plains, would
shock most people out of their skins. The namkaran or naming ceremony
among the Kolis (a particular caste) is rather unique. Boys are named
after the day or month of their birth like Savaru from Somwar
(Monday), Mangloo from Mangalwar (Tuesday), Basakhu from Baisakh
(April-May), and so on.
Thanks to the many tribes each with its own language and
dialect Himachal boasts of more than 60 dialects. These are
Chambyali, Pangwali, Lahauli, Kinnauri and so on. In places with a
Buddhist population, Tibetan is the language.
But the states main language is Pahari, a derivation from
Sanskrit and Prakrit, which is largely unintelligible to plain
dwellers. See the section Language and Literature for more on Sanskrit
and Prakrit. Hindi is also spoken widely and is the language of
instruction in schools. With Himachals close proximity to
Punjab, Punjabi is the medium of communication in some places.
¤ Festivals & Fairs
The endless succession of festivals and fairs forms an important part
of the cultural life of Himachal.
There are few places where religious ceremonies are as inventive or
as frequent as in this state. Each year sees a cycle of rituals and
festivals with melas (fairs) full of fun and frolic. So its
almost like a yearlong party for the people up there. The main
festivals are Holi, Dussehra and Diwali, brought into the fold by the
immigrant Rajputs from the plains, but there are also hundreds of
Sometimes these have to do with the gram devta (village god) and at
other times with the seasons. Thus, the arrival of winter is marked by
the feast of bonfire, and summer by the festival of
More than having a strictly religious import, these festivals are a
time to dress up in all sorts of finery and go socializing or
shopping. Should you find a crowd of bedecked people moving en masse
over the hills to another village, you can confidently follow them in
the hope of reaching a mela.
¤ Dussehra Festival
Himachal is famous for its weeklong Dussehra Festival celebrated at
Kullu. Though the event is meant to honour Lord Raghunathji (Rama of
the Ramayana fame), it has little to do with the tradition of the
Ramayana. Its basically a get-together for all the devtas (gods)
of the valley who come in their dolis (palanquins) to the Dhalpur
maidan (field). The celebrations which follow are truly on a grand
scale. See Kullu for more.
Anyway, apart from the religious festivals, HP also has a number of
festivals which are secular in nature. These relate mostly to arts and
crafts exhibitions, winter sports, and the like. Heres a list of
such festivals. Do check with the Himachal Tourism Development
Corporation for the exact dates.
||Where its at
||Whats in it
|National Snow Statue
|Folk Dance Competition
|All India Water Sports
kayaking, rowing, sailing, water surfing and so on.
|Winter Sports Festival
||Winter sports contests
||A trade fair, with
entertainment like wrestling and so on.
|TIPA (Tibetan Institute
of Performing Arts) Festival
||Opera festival including
folk dances and plays.
||A handicrafts bazaar.
|Hang Gliding rally
||Cultural programmes, art &
handicrafts exhibitions, golf tournament, and flower shows.
||A trade festival.
music, dance and the like.
||A trade fair, with
everything from fruits to horses sold or bartered.
||Troupes from all the
Himalayan countries (Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet) participate in the
|Ice Skating Carnival
||Ice-skating of course,
with fancy dress & other competitions, and the grand finale of a