Shilpkars of Uttarakhand


Chilpkar Books of Mr. C L Pradyot


While we were still a part of erstwhile un-divided Uttar Pradesh some of us became members of cultural organizations which were devoted to the promotion of what could today be broadly described as , say,  a ‘ Pahari Culture’. These cultural groups, which seemed to spring up wherever Uttarakhandi  diaspora happen to settle down. No one knows how many dozens of such groups exist in Delhi, or Mumbai or Jaipur. You name the place and they are there. Mostly engaged in its cultural heritage they took mostly the shape of organizing committees of annual ‘Ram Lila’. Some, as I had learned as the District Planning Officer of Pauri, were named and registered as specifically as ‘Khandusain Nahar Vikas Samiti’ or in plain English Khandusain Irrigation Canal Development Committee ! Later, one came across organisations which were committed to the ‘over all’ development of Uttarakhand, engaged in almost all kinds of development activities. The latter category organized Seminars, Annual General Meetings, or just get-togethers, all ending with cultural functions, representing all geographical parts of present Uttarakhand. One such organization was constituted by late lamented Dr Giri Raj Shah, a multi-dimensional personality, who was a senior member of the Indian Police Service. Uttarakhand Shodh Sansthan, which he very zealously promoted as its founder President spawned several State and District Chapters. As these were cultural organizations, primarily engaged in literary and cultural pursuits, a very large number of government servants took active part in its proceedings. A good number of us became a part of its Lucknow Chapter. Its founder president was another police officer, Mr Chaman Lal Pradyot, IPS. While a poet at heart and in sentiments, he was a senior member of UP Police organization. Lucknow Chapter under his patron-ship took shape as a very broad based entity, the soundest in financial terms, as it admitted only Life Members. Several Seminars and Workshops were organized and it brought out very regularly its house Journal, named ‘Uttaranchal’. This writer became its founder Chief Editor.

Formation of the state saw many of its active member get engaged in their official engagements and during the initial years, after some resurgence, the Shodh Sansthan as perhaps it lost  its raison d’ etre with establishment of official Cultural and academic Councils, became far less active. Dr Giri Raj Shah’s passing away synchronized with the emergence of Uttarakhand, as the 27th State.  Mr Chaman Lal Pradyot, however, kept on with his literary and social reform agenda and this writer was able to follow his intellectual growth with some effort, the official burdens taking their usual toll. Our common penchant for writing, his being poetry and mine rather discursive, kept up our occasional contact despite our advancing age. It is only lately that this writer became aware of his literary contributions to social science aspects.

This writer’s innings in the service of the Central Government included a brief stint with the Ministry of Home Affairs, when it was responsible for the welfare of the Scheduled Castes ( SCs), Tribes ( STs) and the Other Backward Classes ( OBCs). It allowed this writer to closely look into the issues that very disturbingly continue to agitate all conscientious minds of a secular, egalitarian, democratic and developing country – that constitutes India. These very same issues stand deeply embedded in this country’s roadmap — called the Constitution of India. Chaman Lal Pradyot’s current concerns now converge on, as he himself says, on his personal experiences, the life that he has lived himself, primarily in the remote mountain villages — which has further been informed by his long experience in the police service. This month witnessed Chief Minister Harish Rawat formally release a bunch of five books centred on the theme of the Shilpkar, or the Scheduled Castes of Uttarakhand. Two of these five, namely ‘Shilpkar Andolan evam Isai Missionaries’ and ‘Shilpkar evam Arya Samaj’, are his solo writings, whereas the remaining three, ‘Uttarakhand Ke Shilpkar’, ‘Shilpkaron Ko Samajhane Ki Drishti’ and ‘Shilpkar Unnati Ki Disha’, a collective of essays written by various writers.  

An Interesting Comparison

The first two books mentioned above, written singly by Chaman Lal Pradyot, both in 2013 and published by HIMPAPS ( Himalayan Institute of Modernization, Development and Policy Studies ), Dehradun, though cover two different aspects yet given the period they both try to cover provides and interesting comparison to an objective reader. As is obvious the first tries to cover the way the Christian Missionaries, the evangelicals, went about bringing the Shilpkars or the Scheduled Caste communities under their fold, particularly during the colonial period ( 1858 to 1947 ). As the title also suggests the communities in question relate to those who today inhabit this state, Uttarakhand, presently. The second, on the other hand, looks at the efforts made by the Hindu reformists, namely the Arya Samajis, to bring them under or rather retain them within the fold of Sanatan Dharma, or the Vedic Hindu concept of Hinduism. Taken together, as this writer has suggested, these two provide an interesting theme of action and reaction, or as to how the aggressive evangelical efforts resulted in the emergence of a reactive and responsive Hindu revival and reformist movement, in the shape and form of Arya Samaj and how both influenced each other.   

The book on the evangelical efforts divided in 18 chapters covers the period starting from 52 A.D., the stated year of the Apostolic arrival of Saint Thomas in the Malabar ghats, to the 1930s, when Indian people were being empowered and politically awakened through the Gandhian influence, a span of nearly two millennia.  The first four chapters briefly cover arrival of European powers and their contest for supremacy in the Indian sub-continent ultimately resulting in East India Company’s control and securing the Diwani rights. How the initial opposition of the Company officials to the entry of the missionaries, and arrival of William Carey, Marshmann and his team and their monumental efforts in translation of The Bible in several oriental languages finds mention, in the Dutch enclave of Serampore ( chapter 6 ). Chapter 7 specifically mentions how the Company officials strictly opposed entry of the missionaries as they feared that their evangelical efforts might prove inimical to their commercial interests. The policy of the Company before the Charter Act of 1813, the thin end of the wedge, kept away the Indian masses from the influence and this is best reflected in the narrative of Bishop Heber, the bishop of Calcutta, when he visited Almora in 1820s. The entry allowed to the missionaries by the Charter Act of 1813 and the energetic explosion of Methodist evangelicals from the North American shores heading for most of the European colonies, and the sudden change in the policy of strict religious neutrality to one of tolerant indifference is covered in the next chapter.

Next five chapters narrate how the East India Company’s introduction of a relatively modern mode of administration led to first institutional introduction of education, as we understand it today, as also efforts to control epidemics like Mahamari in Kumaon and British Garhwal. The change over from the Company rule to direct control of the British Parliament, after the Sepoy rebellion of 1857, in June 1858, saw expansion of land settlement, Tehsili schools. The role of Bishop Budden, London Mission Society and Commissioner Henry Ramsay ( 1856-84 ), and till the death of the former in 1892, has not been recounted so far and this absence gets reflected in this narrative. However, the role of Henry Ramsay in expanding the entry of the missionaries in Pauri, and setting up the first regular school in 1842 is now an established fact. When ever this story gets properly narrated the exact expansion of early missionary activities in the then British Kumaon will get adequately understood. London Missionary Society’s educational and evangelical activities started expanding themselves all over British Kumaon, which included Garhwal district also, from 1850s through 1880s.

Shilpkar Movements

Chapters 14 to 16 focus particularly on Shilpkar movement in colonial British Kumaon.  According to Pradyot the expression ’Shilpkar’ does not connote any particular caste as such but represents a comity of lakhs of crafts-persons who are also the original inhabitants of this region. These crafts-persons had a culture of their own and have had a great and ancient tradition. They not only gave birth to scores of folk-songs but also enriched the cultural heritage though various forms of dance. Even so this class remained dependent upon the so called upper castes for their day to day requirements and very livelihoods. Pradyot rightly states that the so called lower castes became aware of their rights only after 1880s and the early decades of the twentieth century only. Indeed, the British records during the early decades of the British rule in Kumaon depict a most distressing situation of the “Khasiahs” in these parts, which were bereft of any development whatsoever as a near quarter century of the usurious rule of an unbridled rule of the local Gorkha Governors had resulted in large scale migration of the locals and utter penury of almost all classes. The state of common mass was hardly different from each other, except some very privileged classes. During the early decades there is no evidence to distinguish between the so called upper and lower castes. The Shilpkar movement in Uttarakhand was split in two groups; while one espoused nationalist sentiments, led by Jayanand Bharati and Khushi Ram, the other, loyalist was led by Munshi Hari Prasad Tamta and Babu Singh. Both groups wished to lead the Shilpkar movement but were not averse to indulging in criticism of the other group, to achieve this end. Pradyot holds that the British did precious little to advance the cause of this down trodden class and tended to support a very small number of them and help them stand against the upper castes, as their competitors.

Shilpkar, 100 years of an Identity

Quoting various sources Pradyot takes the reader through the birth of Tamta Sudhar Sabha in 1905, Almora fracas on celebration of Coronation of George V in 1911, visit of Punjab Kesari Lal Lajpat Rai to Sunkiya in 1913, home of Khushi Ram, where he chastised every one for maltreating these skilled crafts-persons and gave them the term- “Shilpkar”. It is this christening by the Lala Lajpat Rai which has remained with this community, giving the community a unique and well deserved identity of its own. In 1925 this very description entered the official records. It is to the credit Khushiram that the community accepted this new identity and went ahead to wear the sacred thread, the latter considered a bold step according to the norms of the times.

Hari Prasad Tamta, the other prominent Shilpkar leader, dedicated his entire life for the up liftmen of the depressed classes. He worked with the Government to ensure flow of official benefits to this neglected section of the society, through establishment of schools, night classes etc. His efforts extended over a large range of activities, from allotment of government land, financial assistance to continue with the traditional crafts and so on. Though the joint efforts of these two prominent leaders, Hari Prasad Tamta and Khushiram the first ever Shilpkar Conference was held at Dyolidanda forest, some 4 kms away from Almora, where as many as 10 major resolutions were passed, on 24th September 1925. Dating back to 1925, this resolution consisting of praising the British rule for its equal treatment to all classes of the society, as against the feudal kingdoms and military oligarchy of Nepali rule, demand for promotion of education , representation in various representative bodies, reservation in armed forces and raising of a Shilpkar Regiment, as was done during the World War I, allotment of land like the Punjab government, opening of schools under their community management, ending with an appeal to all Shilpkars to maintain harmonious relations with the so called upper castes is indicative of how centuries of oppression has rendered these segments dependent on official patronage. How much, one wonders, has this dependence in Uttarakhand has changed despite more than six decades of Independence preceded by two decades of the colonial rule ?  

The evil of  “ Untouchability ”

Pradyot says that  it was only after Gandhi’s visit of Kumaon that the movement against the evil practice of untouchability gathered momentum, even though some upper  caste nationalists had shown some inclination towards such a reform. Even the first generation Shilpkar leaders were able to differentiate between the need to distinguish between socio-economic development vis a vis their status within the religion they professed. Hari Prasad Tamta preferred development over status within the religion. He advocated siding with the Government, in order to avail these basic facilities for the Shilpkars, thus opposing the nationalists. This difference of approach came out in the open after the second Shilpkar Conference held in 1930, Khushiram going the nationalist Congress way, while Munshi Prasad Tamta favoured working with the British Government. Tamta’s proximity with the officials has also been confirmed by some official records which have surfaced recently From 1930 to 40s Hari Tamta worked very actively for the cause of the Dalits and took lead in Shilpkar Dola-Palki movement, which ended in a compromise struck in 1939 in Pauri. The next Shilpkar Conference held at Bageshwar in 1941 pressed for accelerated socio-economic development of Shilpkars while Hari Tamta’s efforts for allocation of land to this landless community bore fruits and Hari Nagar( Bagehwar), Nar Singh Danda( Pithoragarh) and Lohaghat for the first time witnessed establishment of some Shilpkar ‘busties’ or hamlets.

In Garhwal, it was Arya Samaj which took lead in improving the social status of the Shilpkars. Swami Ram Teerth, a pioneer Arya Samaji, spent his last days in Tehri Garhwal. Arya Samaj, established by  Dayanand Saraswati, advocated eradication of “untouchability’ and save the Hindus from the evil design of the foreigners. The evil practice of untouchability and practices such as these, according to Arya Samajis, was mainly responsible for religious conversion of Hindus into the fold of Chrsitianity. It was as early as in 1867 that the first member of the so called lower caste, Khayali Ram, was baptised at Nagina, who later on rose to became a preacher and evangelist. The Shilpkars, or the so called lower castes were seen as a weak link, which became the centre of attention for these missionaries, bent upon conversion. Pradyot, extensively quoting Arya Samaj literature, Shiv Prasad Dabral, Dinkar Kumar, Ram Lal Gautam, Mohanlal Babulkar, Bhakt Darshan, Jotha Lal Shah  and news papers like Shakti and Garhwali builds up a chronological narrative of Shilpkar movement. Induction of Shilpkars in the armed forces, Pradyot quoting Dr Ram Lal avers allowed them first time ‘ to breath in fresh air and raise their children educationally.’ The 1932 Poona Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar, was a major initiative on the part of the Mahatma to save the country from the evil design of the British to divide it on the Caste-lines, and later take leave from politics and dedicate himself for eradication of “Untouchability” and upliftment of the down-trodden sections of the society. In chapter 15 Pradyot provides a chronological account of  movement against the resistance shown by the upper caste in allowing use of Dola-Palki, at the time of nuptial ceremony, by the Shilpkar community. Commencing with the Borgaon ( Dugadda ) incident he covers incidents like Korikhal (  Bidalgaon, 1924 ), Languri-Mandoli ( 1933 ) and Timlyani-Udaipur( 1939 ) and various measures taken by the Shilpkars and enlightened leaders  in inviting Thakkar Bappa ( 1936 ), Viyogi Hari ( 1936 ) and a very strong reaction of Gandhi who suspended individual Satyagrah in Garhwal, where am evil practice like stopping Dola-Palaki was practiced ( 13 October, 1946, Harijan Sewak ). If the Dola-Palaki movement represented the state of social awareness among the Shilpkars, the land allotment movement depicted realisation of utter lack of assets that rendered these sections vulnerable and powerless.

Missionaries Impact in Colonial Uttarakhand

Pradyot assessment of the impact of Missionaries work in colonial Uttarakhand ( Chapter 16 ) mentions the work of London Missionary  Society ( LMS). Lately its  authentic narrative,  derived from the records preserved in the British Library have been brought to light by this writer in his work, ‘ Founders of Modern Administration in Uttarakhand ( 1815-1884 )’ which would be helpful in setting this record right . It has now been shown how Commissioner Ramsay was instrumental in extension of the Methodist’s work in Pauri, which today exists as the Mesmore Inter College. Arguably, much of the head-start that education has received in todays Uttarakhand must be credited to the pioneering efforts of these Christian Missionaries, in particular the Ramsay College in Almora and Mesmore, in Pauri. Early health and sanitation, as well as for poverty alleviation efforts, one should not be churlish in giving due credit, where it is indeed due i.e. these Methodist missionaries. Pradyot leaves his readers with many a questions, in his concluding chapter. To what extent the utter state of poverty among the so called lower sections of the then society, both in Kumaon and Garhwal, responsible for Missionaries’  early success in proselytisation ? The poor, says Pradyot, existed amongst other religions also, say among the Muslims, but there was no similar rate of success. Indeed, over all, there has not been any objective study of the introduction of evangelicalism in these mountain regions and its socio-economic impact, and more importantly, as has been initiated by Chaman Lal Pradyot, any systematic effort to look at the community, rather the communities, which today have been described as Shilpkars in Uttarakhand. The counter movement, the Arya Samaj movement, to free the Hindus from the aberrations which had led into driving a particular section of its body mass, into a state of abject poverty, and hence vulnerable to the designs of other religions to take them under their fold, has also not been attempted in a systematic manner.

Laudable Initiative

The companion volume, Shilpkar evam Arya Samaj,  looks at the same community, the Shilpkar, as an object which was likely to be taken away into the fold of Christianity under a colonial rule which supported evangelical work from 1880s onwards more openly, from the view point of a reformist Hindu ‘missionary’, which took recourse to ‘purification’ or ‘shuddhikaran’, as a process to counter baptism. Was the Arya Samaji movement merely a response to the accelerated efforts of the Methodists in the United Provinces and Presbyterians in the Punjab or a movement of self-purification and revivalist efforts on the part of some enlightened Hindus who could see that aberrations have been allowed to consolidate themselves which had reduced a cosmopolitan religion into a mockery of rites and rituals which had no sanction under the original Vedic tenets ?                                                                                                        

How a community or a combine of several communities, grouped as Shilpkars today, have raised themselves through the efforts of some enlightened leaders, who dedicated themselves to the cause of up liftment during a colonial rule and got them into the so-called mainstream of national rejuvenation. Chaman Lal Pradyot deserves our heartfelt congratulations, for first co-opting a whole range of conscientious academics and writers who have contributed their individual insights and researches into what has now grown into a body of serious works on Shilpkars, made available to lay and serious readers, and himself taking a lead by contributing two stand alone volumes on the same theme. In other volumes we would try to look into various aspects that today deserve to be researched further so that these insights get used for a faster socio-economic development of one of the most productive segment of Uttarakhand polity, who once gave this region its economic and cultural identity to the rest of the world.

As this series of book review of five books, written and edited by a khaki-wearing savant, Chaman Lal Pradyot makes headway, Harish Rawat Cabinet decision to name Doon University after Maharshi Valmiki, finds its small space among various sops that continue to drown a gullible, disaster devastated population. One faculty member who was in conversation with this writer on this issue did not sound particularly very happy, as apparently no one seemed to have been consulted and one wondered whether the University i.e. any of its decision-making constituents, was even sounded about this. This reminded me of one very insightful observation that was once made by one of our revered seniors, PS Krishnan, the Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, when he had quipped: ” Untouchability has not been removed from India, it has been internalized in the psyche of the Indian so called upper Castes. It is no more physical, manifest in ones’ external behaviour; it expresses itself in several forms of covert actions –far more lethal, incapacitating its victims, the down-trodden sections of the society.” Very blunt, but how so true ! In his Government of India posting this writer was witness to its enduring and lasting effects while visiting scores of so-called SC busties, anywhere in the North Indian States under his direct charge, invariably away from the main village habitation, always located in the worst geographical part of any given village. ‘Rural India’ has indeed become immune to these realities – urbanization, surely appears to be a great leveller, but only superficially ! The obnoxious Caste –system, has become a bête noire of every liberal and free Indian mind and his or her enemy number one. Communalism and Corruption, make it a three-some.  

India Free, not Equal

Rev. Jesse Jackson, noted American civil rights activists, speaking the other day in Kolkata strongly reminded the audience that India and the USA despite being largest democracies in the world, suffer from the menace of social and economic inequality and added, “ but the gap between the various surplus culture and deficit culture is much too great. Too few have too many and too many have nothing…some countries export oil as their major contribution, some export timber and agricultural products…India has been exporting brains…India’s number one product are strong minds in the scientific field that can make a contribution to saving India and the world..That is all the more reason why the exclusion of some children from school and thereby leaving them no choice but to become illiterates is such a sin..In some sense,” he concluded,” the fact remains that India is free but not equal” ( The Hindu, 26 February).

Best Collection of Essays

The trilogy of books on the Shilpkars of Uttarakhand  edited by Chaman Lal Pradyot provides us an excellent evidence of what Rev. Jackson was trying to drive home the other day In Kolkata. The first compendium of 27 articles included in ‘Uttarakhand Ke Shilpkar’ ( Winsar Publishing, 2012 ), when read in context of the preceding general observations, make these articles easily one of the best collection of essays which could be expected from the  writers and ‘liberal minds’ who are conversant with the history of social reform, especially in modern India in general, and Uttarakhand in particular. The first seven essays, grouped in first part of this compendium, make an attempt to trace its historical origins. Pradyot, raises a very pertinent point when he asks himself, namely, both Vedic ‘Chatur Varnya’ system and Buddha dharma originated in India but why is it that the latter was embraced by so many other countries of the world while the former remained confined  within the confines of a part of even this sub-continent ? We all have been witness to even the last ‘Hindu’ country, Kingdom of Nepal, abandoning its state religion. The pernicious impact of the cancerous Caste system seems more than apparent when one follows the tortuous and painful politico-economic emancipation of our northern neighbour. He has a strong argument when he disagrees with the contention that it was the divide and rule policy of the British which divided this country, as it is a historical fact that during the six preceding centuries this countries was perhaps far more fragmented, with a large population resorting to religious conversion by those who could no more suffer the social indignities and economic sufferings inflicted by their co-religionists. Statistically, the number of so called down –trodden sections of the society, the SCs and STs, even today constitute a far bigger portion of the BPLs (  Chaman Lal Pradyot).   

The writer-duo, Dinesh Kukereti and Kedar Dutt, cover a large historical rather time canvas, making a point the Shilpkar communities were the original inhabitants, enslaved by the immigrant Khasias, the feudal regimes that followed deteriorated their status further, rendering them landless with the British period hardly improving their lot. During early nineteenth century even though the practice of Slavery was officially abolished, a report prepared by Mosley Smith, a Junior Assistant Commissioner during Commissioner Col Gowan’s time established its prevalence in British Kumaon ( Uttarkahd Ke Mool Niwasi ). Captain Shoorvir Singh Panwar’s, endorsing Chief Minister Harikrishan Raturi’s celebrated history, maintains that the Shilpkars are the original inhabitants of Garhwal but they are not in a position to recount their own origins. Captain Panwar says that originally the Vedic Aryas had no Varna distinction but in due course it acquired one, but it was based on occupation, so much so that Brahman and Shudra indeed belonged to the same class ( Buddhijivi and Shramjivi, Yajurved, Mantra 30/22 ). These remnants of the Adi Arya, later known as various Kirat tribes, followed the old practices and the later aberrations with which the plains regions were plagued did not affect the mountain regions for very long time. During the post Mahabharat period the country striven by civl war became vulnerable to external aggression. Captain Shoorvir Singh makes an important point that while all immigrants, namely, the Brahmins, Kshatriya and Vaishyas trace their origins to the outside plains regions, it is Shilpkars alone who claim their origins here itself. It is indeed a pity, according to him, that the migrants should have subjected the aboriginal communities to such a pitiable state of existence. He recommends that those handicrafts in which these communities excel deserve to be supported and they need to be assisted in acquiring modern skills and helped in setting up enterprises ( Uttarakhand Ke Shilpkar ).

A kaleidoscope of Skills    

Dr. Pant’s essay, following an ethnographic line of examination, ends up with five observations, of which the one suggesting a segmentation based on pigmentation of the skin and the other, that like the Johari Bhotantik the all conquering caste system making inroads among other tribal groups, deserve some attention ( Uttarakhand Ki varn-vyavastha ka eitihasik avalokan ). Subardhan’s essay adds great value to the compendium as it draws our attention to the information gathered about the socio-economic condition of various Shilpkar ethnic constituents at the time of decennial Census of 1931 and it significantly covers Shilpkars of both i.e. the British Kumaon and the Tehri Garhwal State. As many as 51 sub-castes based on their occupation have been covered. These consist of Aagri ( iron-ore mining, Ramgarh and Suni-udiyar), Auji and Bajgi ( drummers and concussion-ists ), Athpahria ( beater of dhol at the palace gate announcing end of a prahar), Badi and Bera ( dancers and singers ), Bairi ( basket-weavers, Danpur and Dhamas, near Almora ), Bakharia ( then halia ), Barhai ( carpenter ), Bora ( bag and rope makers of jute and hemp, Almora ), Bhat ( plains court poet and singers, but unlike the pahari Hurkiyas their women do not dance ), Bhool or Teli ( oil expellers ), Chamar ( skinners of dead animals ), Chanel ( cobblers, Almora ), Chunera ( wooden-pot makers ), Dalia ( diviners who could stop hailstorm, Narendranagar and Kirtinagar ), Darji ( tailors ), Dhaloti ( bronze-melters, makers of bronze hucca, Tehri State ), Dhanik ( cultivators, basket-makers), Dhobi ( washermen ), Dholi ( drummers, some now work as tailors ), Dhauni ( sand-cleaners, gold-sievers, reduced in number ), Dhunia ( cotton ginners, some now weavers and cultivators), Dhunials( anglers and boatmen, also Dheewar, Dheemar or Jali ), Dondi ( dancers ), Dondiya, Gadoi ( Naubat drummers, Tehri), Hobyara ( Tehri, Turhi players ), Hurkiya ( hudka players), Mirasi ( new age Hurkiyas ), Jagri or Jagaria ( magician ), Jamaria ( cultivators), Koli ( weavers ), Kumhar ( potters, Tehri Bit, in Almora Hankia ), Lohar, Mistri, Mochi, Nagari, Nai, Nath and Jogi,  Orh ( masons ), Pahari ( assistant of Padhans ), Patar ( makers of leaf-plates ), Pauri ( servers ), Raj ( skilled masons ), Pummi ( cloth-weavers), Raunsal ( cultivators ), Rudia or Ringalia ( bamboo and basket makers ), Sirdalia ( stone workers ), Sunar, Tamta, Tirva ( sharpners of knife and sword) and Turi ( makers of turhi/rangsinga, musical instruments ).

The 1931 Census is a good source of recording change in occupation rates of wages and modes of payments and their problems. Their status in Tehri state mentions that though considered belonging to the lower castes they do not suffer from the evil practice of untouchability. Indian census operations have contributed considerably to reignite and re-discovery of castes and various sub-castes as these were officially solicited and readily tendered thus facilitating consolidation of existing stratification on caste lines. The range of skills and professions which defined these sub-castes provide a fascinating account of self-sustaining and self reliant rural life in 1930s.( Janganana 1931 mein Shilpkaro ki stithi ). Bhola Datt holds that Shilpkar is a nomenclature of a collective consisting of Koli, Lohar, Darji, Badi and Rudias and the term essentially covers various crafts-persons.

Oadgaon of Chaundkot pargana of Garhwal comes for special mention, with more than 150 families professing construction work and woodcraft and majority coverage of Shilpkars by Arya Samajis.  N.R. Bauddha hypothesis avers that the non-Aryans, the Dravids and so called Nagas, proficient in craft of construction and various crafts, as evidenced by the remains of the Indus valley civilization, moved towards the south and northwards on the arrival of the Aryan tribes, some settled in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Kulindas ( Kol ), Paukha and the Naga descendants are said to be their successors. The Nagvanshi  rulers, their temples and buildings are said to be all over Uttarakhand , particularly the various Buddhists remains in Kashipur, Champawat and Pithoragarh.( Uttarakhand mein Shilpkari). Shiv Prasad Dabral in his history of Uttarakhand also holds that when the Chinese Buddhist scholar Huin Tsang visited parts of Uttarakhand, Kunind and Govishan ( Kashipur ) region, Buddhism was on the decline and their monasteries were silently taken-over by ocre coloured sanyasins, the laymen not being able to distinguish between a Bhikku and sanyasin. Arguably there exists a strong presence of Buddhism right upto the seventh century in cis-Himalayan Uttarakhand and revival of Bon-influenced Tantrik Buddhism from across western Tibet after the visits of Indian Buddhist preachers,  Guru Shantirakshit and Guru Padmsambhava, the latter the founder of modern Buddhism.  

Academic Validation

The second part of the compendium consisting of nine essays, highlighting the role played by the Shilpkars in giving a cultural identity to this central Himalayan region, is also a veritable who’s who of modern eminent scholars who have written on any aspect of Uttarakhand’s cultural landscape. Professors Maheshwar Prasad Joshi, Shantan Singh Negi, Vijay Bahuguna and Chandramohan Rawat, Suresh Chandra Tamta, Yashodhar Mathwal, Shekhar Pathak and Jaspal Singh Khatri, all are scholars who have covered various aspects of Utarakhand’s cultural heritage through their literary and research works. They all bring to readers’ notice various facets of  arts and crafts, so characteristic of Uttarakhand’s unique contribution to various disciplines which have come down to us as our rich heritage. Their writings draw from evidences which is accepted by the scholarly world Prof M.P. Joshi draws an interesting conclusion when he says that there is sufficient evidence which in practive proves their influential presence, the Vedic literature mentons “Shudra, Aayogya and Anarya” kings, while the first Emperor of the historical age, Ugrasen-Mahapadm Nand, was said to be a Sudra. In the first half of the seventh century AD, Hwen Tsang, mentions several Sudra kings in North India. ( Adya Paudyogiki evam Adya Bauddhik Chintan ke Samvahak ). Santan Singh Negi draws our attention how our cultural tradition has been conserved by the Shilpkar artists through a great oral tradition (  Sanskritik Virasat ke Samvahak, Auji). Suresh Chand Tamta describing the transition in occupational preference bats for strong official back up if the fast loosing traditional technology is to be modernised and made competitive for supporting these crafts-persons.( Kumaon ke Shilpkar). Yashodhar Mathpal how over time in arts and crafts, certain arts not needing external support got classed as superior arts ( fine arts ) and how various crafts whose raw material required semi-processing and use of manual labour before their final use, got identified with certain sections of the society, leading even ultimately to the evil practice of “untouchability”, e.g. leather-working.(  Kastha-shilpi : Ateet se Aaj tak). Shekhar Pathak, tracing history of social movements in Uttarakhand, includes Caste related movement among other kinds of social movements e.g. Christian Missionaries, Education, Begar, Forest, Women, Naik etc. However, the counter movement triggered as a response to the evangelicals’ efforts to woe the so called lower-sections of the majority religion towards Christianity, be it the Arya Samaji or education, forests, women or Naiks, all had a common underpinning of the attention paid to the poorest sections, also suffering social indignities, perhaps has not been examined with the help of missionaries literature, which commenced in 1850s.(  Uttarakhand mein Samajik Aandolano ki Rooprekha).  

Forthright Current Appraisal

It is the third and final section of this compendium, consisting of as many as eleven essays that provide us some harsh reality checks, with no punches held back – as sure sign of the present liberated thinking about the state and status of the Shilpkars in the present times. In his hard hitting appraisal Prabhat Kumar Upreti commences with condemnation of the religion which gave birth to as pernicious a system as the “Caste-system”, which even compelled a sensitive person like Dr B.R. Ambedkar, to leave its fold and embrace Buddhism during his last days.  Quoting Kunwar Prasoon, Prabhat Upreti, mentions how could predict that “ creation of Uttarakhand will not help the backward mountain areas but only result in decentralisation of corruption, not of power. During the agitation for creation of Uttarakhand, when in some places attacks were also aimed at some dalit sections, except Krishnanand Maithani no one condemned these unfortunate attacks. Chipko environmentalists could listen to the heart-beats of the trees at risk but not these threatened Dalits. It was clear that Dalits’ loneliness and isolation was to last longer.”( Shilpkaro ki Samjik Stithi). The other forthright reality-check is provided by a brief article by Rajiv Lochan Sah, editor of Naini Tal Samachar, where he forthrightly accepts that “ what really triggered the 1994 agitation for the state was the fear behind implementation of the 27% reservation for the OBCs. The Castes which did not exist here, why reservation should be provided here, was something that was agitating the minds of the unemployed for some years – the demand for an independent state provided the spark that was missing.”  Rajiv Lochan mentions many instances where the Shilpkars were mal-treated and it compelled them to hold a meeting with the Shilpkars and the Valmikis, at Srinagar, to allay their apprehensions, in the new state that was about to take birth. Rajiv Lochan ends up by asking a few disturbing questions, which shows, how deep are the roots of this ancient form of discrimination.” This section boldly highlights what ails this state today, when seen from the eyes of the members of a community,  collectively called Shilpkars. Full marks to the editors and bravo to the contributors of this mirror-like section, Prabhat Kumar Upreti, Arun Kuksal, Rajiv Lochan Sah, Mnaju Chandra, Mahesh Pande, Prem Pancholi, Kalika Prasad Kala, Vinod Kumar, Neeraj Ruwali, Ajai Kumar Pradyot and Pravin Bhatt, for flagging all the burning issues, for showing the mirror to all of us. Easily the best part of this well composed compendium.      

Summing Up

Vijay Bahuguna and Chandramohan Rawat have very conscientiously quoted  M.O. Mathai, in his Reminiscence of the Nehru Age, by way of Dalits’ imprint not only on relatively transient traditions of India but also on more durable ones, quoting Dr BR Ambedkar himself:

                                    The Hindu wanted the Vedas and they sent for

                                                          Vyas, who was not a Caste Hindu.

                                    The Hindus  wanted  an  epic and they sent for

                                                         Valmiki, who was an untouchable.

                                    The  Hindus  wanted  a  Constitution,

                                              And they sent for me.  ( Dr B.R. Ambedkar ) ( Mathai 1982:25 )   


This compendium, is a must read, and for this we all thank Chaman Lal Pradyot and his team.


R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

One thought on “Shilpkars of Uttarakhand

  • June 19, 2014 at 4:47 am

    Dear Dr. Tolia

    First thank you very much for bringing to our attention these important books.  I look forward to reading them for myself.  However, one question. Where are these books available to buy, especially over the internet?  I am also surprised that HIMPAPS does not seem to have a web presence.  Any answers will be welcome.


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