Our cultural memory is the strongest of all; it is passed on like traces within our DNA over countless centuries. There is a definite need to preserve this heritage, which is where Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICG) comes in. In India, the traditions that have made their way into its compendium include Koodiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre of Kerala; yoga; the ritual Manipuri tradition of Sankirtana; and brass and copper utensil-making by Punjab’s Thathera community. But there’s a little-known tradition that was inscribed into the list in 2009— the colourful Ramman festival of the Garhwal Himalaya.
My curiosity to witness a typical village festival sprouted from my father’s childhood experiences at rural fairs. There is always a sense of community in such storytelling, as your mind, a tabula rasa (‘blank slate’) innocently carves and buries stories of its liking deep within.
A month after leaving my job, I set out for the twin villages of Saloor-Dungra, Ramman’s long-time home. Nestled in the Paikhanda Valley of the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand, we drove for 10 hours from Dehradun to Joshimath, the base for the trip. As we retired for the night, a friend from the villages left a message for us: the festivities would begin at 1pm, immediately after the Hindu New Year.
What led Unesco to recognise this remote custom? Documents show that Ramman is more than a century old. Lying at the intersection of performing arts, mountain agro-ecosystems and oral traditions, it makes for a unique cultural assembly that celebrates the bonds between humanity, nature and the celestial world.
As we strolled in on April 26, changing melodies hung in the air. Jagars (singers) spelled out local legends, while in the courtyard, 18 mask-wearing locals danced to 18 beats—the number eulogises various deities in the 18 Puranas—all for Ramman’s tutelary deity, Bhumiyal Devta. The local god presides over and witnesses the processions. The Das community was on drums, while the jagars shared narrative poems, transmitted orally for generations. The brass turhi, blown by kshatriya clans, made for a startling background; its war cry is like an elephant’s trumpet.
The first routine of the masked dance is Mwar Mwarin, depicting the everyday travails of buffalo herders who travel from the plains to the hills for business. Performed as a goosebump-inducing leopard attack on a villager, it gives you a taste of how normalised the perils of mountain life are. The turhi then announces the Mal Nritya, an episode of war between locals and the Gorkha tribe. The belief is that the enactments, as a tribute to the gods, serve as a safeguard.
Following this, the sacred mask of Narsimha Devta, a district deity, is held facing upwards and placed on the head of a descendant from the Bhandari family. Bhumiyal Devta resides in the temple only during the festivities, and is shuffled along different households—one each year—the remainder of the time. It is symbolic of blessings that each household—Saloor-Dungra has a total
of 486—may receive, and represents one god for all. His appearance at Ramman comes seated atop a bamboo pole, rotated by a priest along to drum beats. Fur plucked from the Chanwar cow, a rare high-altitude breed, makes up his fluttering ‘hair’. Further theatre showcases the Krishna Lila, and Ram’s life, significant to the name of the festival. Ram, Sita and Lakshman enter while performing exactly 324 steps, and the princess’ abduction by Ravan is central to the show, as is the monkey-god Hanuman setting Lanka on fire. The act is concluded with Ram’s crowning as king of Ayodhya, bookended by a baniyan dance based on the challenges faced by Tibetan and Bhotia traders in the region.
Lastly, there is a dance based on Kuru Jogi, a fictional character who carries with him a sack of thorny weeds—a type of grass, they are found in the mountains post the clearing of fields during Baisakh, and stick to one’s body. The kuru grass is found all around and people try to avoid contact with it. For comedic effect at Ramman, a ‘Grass Sage’ goes around trying to brush the weed against spectators, who either run away or accept it as prasad. A local informed me that youth in the villages are trained at workshops for each character and the customary dance forms.
Ramman ends in a trance-like dance by Bhumiyal Devta on his bamboo pole, followed by a priest-led goat sacrifice. The deity then descends from his temporary perch, ready to rest in a local’s house until next year.
SpiceJet and Indigo fly daily from Delhi to Dehradun. Taxis can be booked from Haridwar (the nearest railhead) and Rishikesh to Joshimath, home of the twin villages (270 kms/10 hrs). You can also board the overnight Nanda Devi Express to reach Dehradun or Haridwar. Private buses like Vishwanath and Himgiri from Dehradun to Joshimath (`600-800) are another option. Saloor-Dungra is 10 kms from Joshimath via a local cab, which should cost `1,000 both ways. Get off at the village roadhead, hike for 30 minutes and you’ll reach the Bhumiyal Temple. Enjoy Ramman all day, and inform your driver in advance for an evening pickup back to your hotel.
What to see and do
>After the festival, try a full-day tour of Joshimath with visits to the rejuvenating Tapovan hot springs, Narsingh Temple and Adi Shankaracharya Temple.
>Drive to Malari, a small village near the Tibetan border surrounded by snow-clad peaks. >Enjoy a cable car ride to slope 10 at Auli, and a further trek to the Auli Gurson Meadows to witness great Himalayan peaks like Nanda Devi.