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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.

In the northern and the central parts of Kinnaur, the influence of Buddhism on the lifestyle, culture, and religion could still be seen due to the close proximity of the region with Tibet. The old Tibetan contacts appear in the fairs, festivals, and customs of the people.

The majority people are Hindus, but the sculptures and wood carvings in ancient Buddhist monasteries at Morang and Namgia are in typical Tibetan style.

Because of the modern ideas the customs and the extended family system are changing.

The Meaning of Kinner Word

The inhabitants of district Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh are known as Kinara, Kinners or Kinnaurese. In local dialect, they are also known as Kannaura or Kinnaras, or Kinnauri people.

The word Kinner has come from a Sanskrit, in which Kin means strange and nara means people. Hence the word Kinner means the strange people.

The Physical Appearance of Kinners

The Kinners are the simple, god fearing, honest, frank, hospitable, peace-loving, familiar and friendly people, who fully enjoy the life in its isolation and deficiencies. They live in very bad conditions but brave the vagaries of inclement and rough weather.

They are very soft spoken and elegant people by nature. They easily get adjusted to living in the poor conditions. They prefer to live in joint families.

They lead a simple life full of hardships, but their cultural legacy is rich and profound and they have a wealth of legends, myths, and rituals.

They have a fair complexion, tall structure, broad foreheads, muscular and strong bodies and big eyes. Their physical appearance is quite similar to that of the Aryans. But the people of middle Kinnaur have mixed racial characteristics.

The people of upper Kinnaur in Hangrang valley have Mongoloid features. The Mediterranean features are found in Peo. Sometimes there is an admixture or blending of Mediterranean and Mongoloid elements.

The Kinner Women

The women of Kinnaur are famous for their beauty.

Their charm and spell find mention even in ancient scriptures.

The Kinner girls known for their captivating beauty were trained as Vish Kanyas or poison girls by the kings to kill their enemies.

They were given small doses of poison from early childhood, and on becoming adult their kiss could kill anyone.

Costumes of Kinners

These handsome Kinners are the most colorfully dressed inhabitants found in the Himalayas. Both men and women wear sleeveless woolen jackets called baskets and the clothes are mainly of wool. A gray woolen cap called thepang is worn with a white or green velvet band.

The men wear long apron type shirts or Chamn Kurti, which are tied at the waist with a piece of cloth. They also wear a long woolen Tibetan coat or Chubha and tight woolen pajama or Chamu Suthan. They wear tight trousers, shirts, and tuxedos, over which the woolen are draped. Their shoes are heavy and sometimes profusely nailed on their soles.

The women wear the shoes made from hemp fiber, wool or the hair of a goat. They drape themselves in a woolen sari or Dhoru, the first wrap of which is over the shoulders towards the back, while the embroidered borders are displayed throughout the length stretching up to the heels.

The shawls of beautiful colors in dark shades are used for Dohru. A full sleeved blouse or choli is worn by women serves as a decorative lining.

The Community Dance in Traditional Costumes

the-kinner-tribe-of-kinnaur

The Language of Kinners

The Kinners speak the Kinnauri or Kanauri language belonging to the group of Tibetan- Burmese dialect in the Himalayas. The use of this dialect raises a possibility that the Kinners are not Indo-Aryans, but an extension of Darads of Iran, who speak a language close to the Persian dialect. In ancient times the Kinners probably spoke a language close to Darads, but when Tibet annexed Kinnaur, Spiti, and Ladakh, they adopted the new language. That is why this ethnically Indo-European Kinner tribe speaks a language of Tibet-Burmese family.

The second language is Hindi. The people in the upper Kinnaur speak Bhoti language. The educated people can speak and understand English too. The Hindi elements in Kinnarui dialect are the distinctive feature.

The people in Pooh and Sangla region speak the Tibetan Jangram dialect. In Satluj valley an old Zhang- Zhuang dialect is still spoken by about 200 people.

The upper caste and lower caste people in the same village speak different languages, as the latter are not allowed to speak the language of the former.