Women carry fodder for their cattle near Marh Kharayat village in Pithoragarh. The Nanda Devi peaks are visible in the background. Photo courtesy: Sanjay Kharayat

Pithoragarh : 24 January, 2016

Pithoragarh district that shares border with China and Nepal is significant from the security, historical, cultural and social point of view. It was part of Nepal till the 15th century. It has been home to various ethnic groups and races.

“Pithoragarh district was well-known in the ancient times and in the middle era for the traditional pilgrimage routes to Kailash Mansarovar and the Pashupatinath temple of Nepal from the mainland and routes to the Char Dhams and other main Hindu religious places in India for pilgrims from Nepal,” says Dr Madan Chandra Bhatt, a well-known historian. The district was also significant for trade with Tibet, as here grains collected from local farmers from all corners of the Kumaon region by Shauka traders were stored before these were sent to Tibet via high Himalayan passes.

The district has been home to ethnic Kirat, Khasas, Kol and Shauka tribes, besides ‘puranic’ races of Kinnar, Gandharva and Apsara. These races and their cultures are alive even today in the form of Shaukas in the Johar valley, Vanrawats in Askot, and Kols who are spread everywhere and Khasas, who are a mainstream community now living in the Gangetic plains. “The district is significant not only from the security point of view but also from the historical and cultural point of view. It still bears cultural traditions of Shaukas, Rangs, Khasas, Kols and mainstream immigrants. These ancient ethnic groups exist in the district even today and observe their original traditions,” says Dr Ram Singh, a historian living in the district.

Historically, Pithoragarh district was part of Nepal before the 15th century when Kumauni king Bharati Chand captured it and made it part of the Kumaon kingdom of Chands after fighting Doti king of Nepal for 12 years. “The existence of two forts of Chand King at Bhatiyakot, near the Nepal border, is an evidence of that war with Nepal,” says Padma Dutt Pant, another cultural historian of Pithoragarh district.

Pant says the district was under the control of the Malla and Brahma clans of Nepal before Chand king of Kumaon won it from them. However, the district later remained part of the Gorkha regime of Nepal from 1791 to 1815 before the British wrested it from them.

Pant adds the name Pithoragarh emerged after Gurkha invaders of Nepal constructed a fortress on the hills of Pitrota village, which is in the present day town. “Some historians say that the fort was constructed by Rai Pithoragarh, better known as Prithviraj Chauhan of Delhi or Prithviraj Chauhan-II of Delhi, but have found no historical evidence to support their claim,” says Pant.

The district was carved out of Almora district in 1960 considering its significance from the border security point of view. “It was the Soar valley where the district headquarters was established in 1960. The name Soar has been derived from a ‘sarovar’ that existed 1,500 to 4,500 years ago when the entire valley was submerged in its water,” says Dr Ram Singh quoting a research done by Dr KS Waldia, a well-known Himalayan geologist, who is a native of Pithoragarh town.

Dr Ram Singh says there are varied facets of the historical background of the district. While some of its parts have been under the cultural influence of mainstream communities, other parts bear the influence of Nepalese, Tibetan and Kirat cultures. People in some parts of the district still practise Tibetan Bon, Mahayan Buddhism, Kirat, Shaiv, Shakat, Vaishanav, solar and various local cultural traditions that have been defined in the ‘Puranas’ and other ancient religious scriptures. “While the Kirats of Askot still speak a different dialect and have a culture unknown to others, Rangs of the Darma valley are practising something similar to the Bon religion of old Tibet. The Khamps of Khimling are followers of the Kingyut sect of Mahayana Buddhism while people in various parts of the district worship mainstream deities such as Shiva-Shakti and various Vishnava forms,” says Dr Ram Singh.

Soar valley cradle of Pithoragarh town
The Nepalese invaders captured the Soar valley defeating the Kumaon king in the 18th century and started keeping their troops to guard it from invasions, mainly from the Kumaon king who ruled at Champawat those days. The practice of keeping armed troops here has remained intact since the 18th century and a big part of the Soar valley is an Army cantonment even today. “Gurkhas captured the region in 1790 and they started building small fortresses to locate their troops in the valley where the population had started growing despite battles between Kumaon and Nepalese kings,” says PD Pant, a local historian.

Pant says Pithoragarh town began to take shape in 1816 when the British after drafting Gurkhas into their army kept them in the valley. They set up a small market to facilitate goods to the soldiers and their families who started residing in the valley. “The old market of Pithoragarh town was called Line Bazaar as it was situated near the residential area of the soldiers and used to supply essential commodities to their families,” he adds. 

According to local residents, the Soar valley was granted the town area committee status in 1937. This status was upgraded to the fourth category nagar palika in 1962 and the second category nagar palika later on. It was finally granted the nagar palika parishad status in 2011. “With the improvement in the status, facilities also increased in the town. It also became the district headquarters after Pithoragarh became a district along with Chamoli and Uttarkashi in the wake of the China war in 1960,” says Hem Sharma, a local resident.

The drinking water, health and communication facilities improved in the town after it became the district headquarters in 1960. The then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister ND Tiwari launched the first big drinking water scheme in the town in 1979. The Tribune

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