- The inhabitants of the Kumaon hills are commonly known as the Kumouni. The social structure is based on the extended family system, the eldest male member being the head of the family. Women are respected in society but they usually confine themselves to household activities. No religious ceremony is considered complete without the wife joining the husband. Women also work in the fields and forests alongside the men.
Despite Kumaon being an integral part of the Indian mainstream, it has often experienced sociological and historical phenomena which are at variance with those in the rest of the country. This may be because of the distinctive geographical features of the region. In the last 4000 years, Kumaon has given shelter to and is, consequently, an amalgamation of various people who have migrated here from all places.
Kumaon is derived from the word Kurmanchal. – It means the Land of the Kurmavatar, the tortoise incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu is referred to as the preserver of the Hindu Trinity.
As Adi Kailash (also known as Chotta Kailash) is situated in Kumaon Hills, the region has immense importance in Hindu mythology.This is more so since Adi Kailash is one of the three residences of Lord Kailash (Shiva), his wife Goddess Parvati and his sons Lord Ganesh and Lord Kartikey.
From 500 B.C. to 600 A.D, The Kunindas ruled the Kumaon region. Theirs was the first known ruling dynasty of Kumaon region. They reigned for almost 11 centuries at a stretch. For almost five centuries after their reign ended, the Katyuri kings ruled the Kumaon region. Their rule extended from the 7th to the 11th century, with Baijnath, near Almora, serving as the capital. One of the many contributions of the dynasty was the building of the Sun temple of Katarmal which has seen more than 900 years pass by. It is situated on a hilltop facing eastward exactly opposite the town of Almora. It is also believed that, in the 16th century, the famous Maratha warrior Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj used shilas or granite stones from the sacred river of Kali Gandki for the famous idol of Pratapgad’s Bhavani Devi.
The original inhabitants of Kumaon are said to have been the Kols (also related to the Mund, ethnic group). One of their groups migrated to Kumaon after they had been defeated by the Dravidians. The Shilpkars of Kumaon are said to be the descendants of the Kols. The Kirats are believed to have been the ancestors of the tribes which are today known as Shaukas, Banrajis and Tharus. While the Shaukas were active from the Tarai region to Tibet, the Tharus and Boksas confined themselves to the Tarai, and the Banrajis had always lived in ‘splendid’ isolation.
Chand Dynasty of Pithoragarh is, usually, credited for the building and development of the modern Kumaon. With their capital at Almora, right in the heart of Kumaon, the dynasty ruled in the 17th century AD. It took the Chand rulers two centuries to complete the magnificent temple complex at Jageshwar, near Almora which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It boasts of amazing architectural beauty throughout the cluster of a hundred and sixty-four temples.
After the beginning of the local dynastic history, inhabitants of Kumaon, most of whom were pastoralists, agriculturists and traders, were influenced from the ‘savarnas’ or higher castes who had come from different parts of India. This migration to Kumaon continued upto very recent times.Today Kumaon, is generally said, to consist of Brahmins, Rajputs and Shilpkars, with the Sahs or Shahs sometimes considered a separate caste. However, in order to be able to understand Kumaon fully, one must mention that it consists of Shaukas, Banrajis, Tharus, Boksas, Shilpkars, ‘Savarnas’ Gorkhas, Muslims, Bengalis and Punjabis (who came after partition) and Tibetans ( who came after 1960).
The Joshis, Pants and Pandes, Brahmins of Kumaon Hills, trace their roots to the Konkan region of Maharashtra. Most of them migrated to and settled in Kannauj, which was then a centre of Brahmanical influence. Kannauj is frequently referred to in the the epic Mahabharata and is alluded to by Patañjali in the second century B.C. In the 17th / 18th Century they again migrated from Kannauj and settled in the Kumaon hills of the Himalayas.
The overall rate of literacy in the state is 72.3%. This endows it with large pool of educated labour that industry can draw from. Importantly, the spread of high level of literacy is even across the rural and urban sectors with the respective literacy rate of 68.5% and 81.5%.
The Kumaoni Brahmins (Priest Community) are the descendants of the Vedic Aryan priests who migrated from the plains. A large number of Vedic Brahmins migrated, along with the Rajputs, from Rajasthan and Gujarat. Similarly a large number of Brahmins also migrated from Maharashtra / Karnataka region.
In a number of cases the Brahmins who came to visit the religious places in Kumaon, decided to settle there for good. Like in case of Rajputs, they started naming their settlements/ surnames after the name of their places of origin. The reasons for migration are lost but common practices remain: the manner of the thread ceremony for instance, in which the Vedas are read for three days, and the anointed Brahmin asks for bhiksha (alms), gets his hair tonsured and ears pierced. The Brahmins were in charge of imparting knowledge to people, prayer and rituals. Later Kumaoni Brahmins migrated to Nepal and Garhwal Hills. For example the all Joshi’s from Garwhal Hills ascribe their origin to Kumaon; some from Joshiyana village near Hawalbagh, others from Jhijar, Galli and Joshikhola in Almora.
Some scholars have argued that the Bhumihar Brahmins of Eastern U.P. and in the state of Bihar, Mohyal Brahmins in the state of Punjab, Namboothiri Brahmins in Kerela, Havyak Brahmins of Karnataka, Anavil Brahmins of Gujarat, and Kumaoni Brahmins of Uttarakhand share the same lineage and are similar to Chitpawans in custom, tradition, practices, temperament and hold Bhagvan Parshuram in high esteem.
The records of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati in “Brahmarshi Vansha Vistar” and Acharya Chatursen Shastri in “Vayam Rakshamah” points towards the same origin, by taking help of all ancient texts as well as prevailing customary practices and temperament of these illustrious Brahmins.