• Devayani Khare

Kumaon - A Deep Dive

Updated: Oct 5

Kumaon - an administrative division skirting the borders of Nepal, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the state of Uttar Pradesh, was once an independent Himalayan kingdom. Its political outline is reinforced by geographical ones: the Kali river defines its northeastern boundaries, to its south lies the Terai belt, and a mountain range divides it from the Garhwal region to its west. From a geographical point of view, Kumaon is interesting as it has four distinct landscapes: 1. The Terai lowlands or the foothills of the Himalayas, have distinct sal forests - which are accessible as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries today. 2. The Lesser Himalayas or the Himanchal are defined by nappe formations - folded or upthrusted layers of rock that look like they've been shoved one over another. What is a nappe? Think of a tablecloth (after all, nappe is French for tablecloth) that is being pushed from one direction. It will form several folds - some upright, some half-toppled, some collapsed. That's exactly how nappes form in layers of rock that are transported along thrust faults (breaks in the Earth's crust where older rocks are thrust above younger ones). Keep an eye out for such features in stone when you're next travelling through the mountains. 3. The Great Himalayas or the Himadri are where the tallest peaks occur - Mount Everest, Nanga Parbat, Kanchenjunga, and Annapurna, among others. Hence the name Himadri or Himalaya - the abode of the snow, and this region is often covered with snow all year round (though climate change has had a significant effect in recent years!) 4. The Tethyan-Himalayan zone or Bhotland is a lesser-known region of the Kumaon, perhaps, due to fewer tourist destinations. These regions are defined by sedimentary rocks that haven't undergone changes or metamorphosis that were deposited where the ancient Tethys Sea and its continental shelf lay. This zone has long been inhabited by tribes like the Bhutia (from where the name Bhotland is derived), Jaunsa, Tharu, Raji, among others. * This region is sometimes, mistakenly referred to as the Trans-Himalayan zone. However, in geology, Trans-Himalayan applies to ranges like Karakorum and Ladakh that lie beyond the Indus Suture Zone - a rip-like margin north of the Himalayas, south of Tibet that marks where the Indian plate collided with the Eurasian plate. These different landscapes have affected every other feature of the Kumaon: the vegetation, the wildlife (including some incredible bird life), human settlements and occupations through the millennia, as well as the geographic and natural adversities experienced.


From the perspective of geomorphology, Kumaon's features indicate a past (and a present) of constant upheaval and change - here's what you can read into the features:

- Abandoned channels or meanders: abandoned channels or meanders in a waterway indicate that a river has changed its course - a common occurrence in glacier-fed rivers.

- Uplifted terraces and deposits: I'm sure you've seen step-like terraces along river channels in hilly areas, where farming often occurs? Terraces can be formed in different ways, yet in this region, they are a result of local upliftment of older floodplains, characterised by river-shaped deposits.

- Waterfalls: in geomorphology, waterfalls are distinct features that indicate a sudden upheaval of a landmass (or sometimes, a dip in sea level - not relevant to the Kumaon region) causing a river to plummet or descend sharply in a landscape. The Kali and Dhauliganga rivers have several waterfalls that hint at a seismically-active landscape.

- Hotwater and sulphur springs: Uttarakhand has earned the title 'dev bhoomi' - or the 'land of the Gods' for various reasons, and the hotwater and sulphur springs are part of the lore. Springs occur at tectonic boundaries where the crushed rocks pose a barrier to the flow of groundwater and force it upwards, bringing with it sulphur, known for its healing properties.


How does landscape influence the vegetation?

Apart from geomorphic features, altitude and inclination pay a significant role in shaping landscapes. This little illustration (my drawing skills are much rustier than I thought!) was adapted from a book that describes the habitat of Himalayan birds. Anyone who has travelled through Himalayas - from Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, to Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, and has observed the changing landscape, would remark that this profile by and large holds true. The altitude dictates the climate - temperatures, rainfall and humidity, the availability of water, the slope angles (if the angles are too steep, plants cannot gain a foothold on slopes) which in turn influence distribution of tree species. What's incredible then, is that the book it was adapted from - the Birds of the Indian Hills by Douglas Dewar, is over 100 years old! It was published in 1915, and yet the landscape notes, and most bird observations (changes in the species names and some colonial overtures notwithstanding), still ring true. * For birdwatchers or bird-lovers, I would recommend the Birds of the Indian Hills - Douglas Dewar, which also covers the Nilgiris and the Palani hills (though in lesser detail). You can download it for free from Project Gutenberg here. Similarly, those who've read Jim Corbett (published between 1940-50s), will remember how he paints a lurid picture of the landscape and its people as a backdrop for his tiger hunting tales. To me, that is the 'persistence of memory' - how landscapes are shaped, through geological, ecological, and human timescales, and yet bear traces so that we can read the past and the present (and perhaps, some of the future) in them.


Folklore & traditions - sentinels of landscape memory!

Quote source: Twitter "I met Mrs Martolia by the River Goriganga in the Kumaon Himalaya. Undeterred by landslides and avalanches, she was steadily making her way up the valley to Martoli, her 11,000-foot-high summer hamlet. She sang of life in the shadow of Nanda Devi, the bliss-giving mother-mountain." Video credits: Vaibhav Kaul (@Himalayologist)

The Gori Ganga (or Gori Gād in Kumaoni) is a glacier-fed river that flows near Munsiyari town, and marks the route that locals follow to reach their summer hamlets further north. The word 'gori' (white) in this river's name may signify pristine waters as most glacier-fed channels are in the upper elevations, or it may refer to the fine white-clay sediment carried downriver - the source of which is visible in the backdrop of the video.

The reverence of those who live in the 'shadow of the Nanda Devi' mountain, and consider 'her' sacred, represents just what mountains and other geologic features signify in our life and culture. Apart from geology, it is these oral traditions and the faith they inspire that enable us to read something of past landscapes.


Maps have been used to record journeys like the survey expeditions undertaken by the Geological Survey of India to measure the height of mountains. We wouldn't know the height of Mt. Everest (and win bragging rights for the world's highest peak!) otherwise. Topographical maps (perhaps you saw these in school?) depict physical features like mountains, rivers, valleys, contours, cultural features of roads, railways lines, administrative boundaries, vegetation or agricultural land use - each with a distinct artistic squiggle or drawing. And of course, there are navigation maps that allow us to measure distance, direction, area and shape, albeit with some distortions.

There are countless other uses for maps, and perhaps in a future piece, I will tackle the topic more heartily. For now, I'd rather show than tell. The legend I've used above is just a small (tantalising?) part of a larger map of Uttarakhand. Apart from faint hints of the physical and administrative features, the map is covered with historic notes on the region from past kingdoms, to where freedom fighters fought, and the tourist attractions around (much zooming in required, it is sure to keep you busy for a while). The marginal information documents a timeline of human civilization, a list of rulers up until Independence, and bears inset maps about the communities and linguistic composition, the social movements that define the region (yes, the Chipko movement is among them), and other interesting socio-political tidbits.

This map was created by Rajiv Rawat, and was five years in the making - it is among the most exciting, recent maps I've come across for India. I wish more states undertook mapping exercises like this.


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