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The Kinner Tribe of Kinnaur

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Introduction

Himachal Pradesh is known as the land of Gods and the epitaph becomes more befitting when one enters the tribal district of Kinnaur. Far from the maddening crowd, the land provides seclusion and divine peace.

The beautiful valleys among the high mountain ranges in the backdrop of Kinner Kailash mountain, dense forests and picturesque hamlets, apple orchards on steep slopes, captivating moonscapes, wide meadows and the clear waters of Baspa, Sutlej, Spiti and their tributaries impart exquisite charm, warmth and effulgence to the entire panorama, which is just fascinating.

The life, culture, customs, traditions, manners and the heritage of the people of Kinnaur is a world in itself. This region in the neighborhood of Tibet and along the Indo-China border remained inaccessible and forbidden for centuries, as the land route has only been established a few decades back.

Having little contact with the outside world the place remained and still is a marvelous Buddhist sanctuary. The prayer flags flutter over High Mountain passes and impart evocative beauty to the region where Buddhism is practiced in its purest form.

On this ancient Silk Route to China, the perennial snow keeps high passes inaccessible during the harsh winter months. The people still live in another century or in an ancient world that begins where the roads end.

The Tribes of Kinnaur

Among the tribes of Himalayas, the Kinners are the most fascinating and handsome people living in these parts of Himalayan ravines and cliffs.

The Sanskrit classics describe five major tribes who were the inhabitants of Heaven. They were popularly known as Panchjanas or the five clans and are as follows.

1. Devas

The first among them are the Devas or gods, who were the real inhabitants of Swarga or Heaven. The geographical and topographical details can be ascertained from different classics. In Mahabharata, there is a description of topographical details of Swarga from where Indra, the King of Gods reached the other side of Alkapuri glacier to receive Yudhishtra on his chariot. Yudhishtra had to cross the Alkananda and Saraswati rivers to reach the other side of Alkapuri. This spot as per description from the episode of Heaven entry or Swaragarohan in Mahabharata should be near the Mann pass through which travelers used to enter Tibet.

2. Nagas

The second clan was of Nagas, who were very powerful and their leader Ganapati was the son of lord Shiva. Their capital was Mount Kailash near Mansarovar and its boundary was stretched up to Kashmir, Zanskar, Karakoram, Sinkiang and Mount Hindukush.

Both the Devas and Nagas were powerful clans. They fought with each other to establish their supremacy. The decisive battle was fought by the Nagas under the leadership of Lord Shiva at the time of Rajah Daksha’s Ashwamedha Yagna, because Sati, the consort of Lord Shiva had immolated herself in the fire of Yagna or Havankund. In this battle, several commanders of Devas were killed by the Nagas.

3. Yakshas

The third clan was Yakshas. Alkapuri and the surroundings, Mana Saptdhara, the valley of Alaknanda and Badrinath up to the range of Dhaulagiri was the kingdom of Yakshas. It is the holy place of Lord Vishnu, popularly known as Vushnuloka. It was in this land that the great epics were written. Maharishi Ved Byas created the great Sanskrit epics here by giving dictation to Lord Ganesha. This great kingdom was supervised by Kubera, the lord of wealth, Manibhadra, and Yakshas. It was Manibhadra who established his supremacy in the valley of Alaknanda. That is why the name of the main settlement in the locality Mana became synonymous with Manibhadra. There was another Yaksha named Ghanta Karan who was very popular among the commoners. He was the disciple of lord Shiva and became the tribal god of the area.

4. Gandharvas

The fourth clan was of Gandharvas. Their capital was Prashpur and the kingdom was stretched on both sides of the mighty Sindhu river. They were expert in science, music, and art.

5. The Kinners

The Kinners were the last of the Panchjana. Their kingdom included Kangra, Kullu, Chamba, Sapt- Sindhu and some places by the sides of river Chenab. Its capital was Lahaul. But it is not affirmed that Lahaul is the same locality or not. They are the apostles of beauty and art

Kinners were the great fighters and philosophers. Kalidasa indicated their valor in his Meghadutam and Raghuvamsha. The great Kuru clan of Mahabharta belonged to this very region.

Presently they are restricted in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh only. Kinnaur is a hilly region and a plateau surrounded by snow clad mountains of Dhauladhar ranges. Because of topographical situation they are close to Ladakhis and possess the cultural affinity with the Tibetans.

They belong to the Kinners of Mahabharata or are the descendants of the Kirats. The Kirats were were forced to recede into the remote trans- Himalayan region as they were overpowered by the Aryans and the Khasas.

As the region was inaccessible, they had little interaction with outside world, and therefore the ancient Hindu texts considered them a mystical race halfway between humans and gods.

The Kinners are fond of music, dancing, singing, eating, drinking and merrymaking.

Kinners in Mythology

There is a legend that Kinnaur had fallen from the heaven through the clouds and the Kinners had supernatural powers.

The people find mention in several ancient Hindu texts and scriptures. In Vedic literature, the tribes of Kinners and Kiratas known as Gandharvas or those halfway between men and gods were the ancient inhabitants of the region.

Found in Kinnaur only, the Kinners are the descendants of the Pandavas and find mention in Mahabharata.

The tribal believe that two great sages from Satyuga will reincarnate near Nichar Valley and Akpa in Kinnaur to spread goodwill and wisdom among the people.

The Classes and Castes among Kinners

The Kinners are divided into lower and upper castes and each category is further divided into sub-castes.

With diverse ethnic origins, the society of Kinners is divided into two broad groups according to their occupation. The first are the peasants represented by Kanets or Rajputs with an honorific surname Negi, and the second are the artisans or Scheduled Castes.

The Kanets are the main cultivators and consist of three grades. The first and the second grade have 50 and 17 sub-castes respectively. The third ones called Waza Kanets work as potters, have three sub-castes and are considered as inferior Kanets.

The Rajputs or Khus community is either Buddhists or Hindus and is found in the areas of Nichar, Sangla and Kalpa regions.

The dominant artisan community in adjoining Tibet and Spiti regions is called Berus, which has four sub-castes namely, Bodhi, Nangalu, Lohar, and Koli.

Among the Scheduled castes, the Ores or carpenters and Domangs or blacksmiths are equal in social status and they consider themselves to be superior to Kolis or Chamangs or the weaver class. But actually, it is not so.

Contrary to the upper Buddhist region, the caste system is more common in the lower and middle areas.

Location of kinnaur

Bordering Tibet to the east and situated on three mountain ranges called Zaskar, Greater Himalayas and the Dhauladhar, the Kinnaur district is located in the North- East of Himachal Pradesh in India.

The spectacular valleys of Sutlej, Spiti, Baspa and their tributaries, are encircled by these mountain ranges, the average height of which is between 2319 m to 6815 m(7,610 to 22,362 feet.

The Dhauladhar ranges in the south of Kinnaur, ascend eastward and meet the Greater Himalayas to divide the Sangla valley from the Uttarkashi district of Uttaranchal. Tibet lies across the Zanskar peaks in the east, while the peaks of Greater Himalayas cross between the Zaskar and the Dhauladhar ranges and pass through the middle of Kinnaur. The Spiti valley is beyond Srikhand Mountains in the northwest, while the Kullu region in the southwest.

Being one of the smallest districts in India by population, the region with snow covered mountain peaks is about 235 Km from Shimla. It is a cold dessert having apple orchards and vineyards.

On entering India from Tibet at Shipki la pass, the Sutlej River goes southwest through Kinnaur by piercing the Zaskar, the Greater Himalaya and the Dhauladhar Ranges. In its journey of about 100 Km, the river descends to more than 2000 meters. That is why its gushing waters from the narrow and steep valleys. Small hamlets are located on the sides of these slopes or in the valleys of the tributaries of Sutlej.

Climate

The temperate climate of Kinnaur due to high altitude gives it long winters lasting from October to May and marked with heavy snowfall. The summer season is from June to September. It is spring in April and May, while September and October are the months of autumn.

The region in the south of Great Himalaya and the valleys of Satluj and Baspa receive the rains of monsoon. Rest of the terrain in the high regions of upper Kinnaur is similar to that of Central Asia and comes in rain-shadow area. Hence its climate is arid and dry like that of Tibet.

History of Kinnaur

In the past, Kinnaur was known as however apart from this not much is known about the history of this place; nonetheless many fables and mythological tales are prevalent among the people of Kinnaur.

A branch of the Aryans called Khasha tribe penetrated and dominated this Himalayan region through Kashgar or Kashmir in about 2000 BC. Another race called Bhutias came to Kinnaur from Tibet in 13th and 14the centuries AD.

The Magadha Kingdom in 6th century BC and then the Mauryan Empire in 4th century BC had a sway over this region. Thereafter the Kiratas and Kambojas followed by Panasika and Valhika came to the place in later centuries. The Guge Empire of Tibet made their influence felt in Kinnaur in 9th to 12th centuries AD.

The region was afterward divided into seven portions or Saat Khunds as several local Chieftains raised their heads when the outside influence became weak. These local Lords were used to fight with each other. The Bhotias of Spiti also jumped into these fights and several forts including the Labrang, Moorang, and Kamru were built during this time.

All these petty conflicts came to an end in 17th century AD when the region came under the control of Mughal Emperor Akbar. After the collapse of Mughal Empire, the Chini tehsil area, which was then the name of Kinnaur valley, played an important role.

Later on, the region was amalgamated into the Mahasu area. Due to the political, ethnic, cultural and social factors the Kinnaur district was created in 1960. In 1975, a devastating earthquake took place in Kinnaur.

Contemporary Position

This least populated district after Lahaul & Spiti, is one of the 12 districts of Himachal Pradesh, with its headquarter at Reckong Peo. The population density of 13 inhabitants per square Km.

The three administrative divisions of the district are Pooh, Kalpa and Nichar, which constitute 5 counties or tehsils.
Devoid of homogeneity, the region shows significant diversity in territorial, ethnic and cultural distribution. That is why it is divided into three units. The lower Kinnaur is the area between Chora and Kalpa or including the vales of Nichar and Sangla.

The people are Mediterranean in physical characteristics like those of the Shimla district. They are mostly Hindus with ethnic and historical influence of Buddhism.

The area of Moorang tehsil between Kalpa and Kanam forms the middle Kinnaur.

The remaining north-eastern part of the district is called upper Kinnaur. It consists of the area between Poo and Hangrang valley up to the international border with Tibet.