No, this is not a write-up about food!
This is about Kumaoni – a musical language from the hills of Uttarakhand.
A language that is slowly losing its identity due to migration of locals and very less written content available (even though the language is based on the Devanagari script).
Folk tales in Kumaoni are entwined with folk songs related to various customs and have been passed on for generations through word of mouth. Sadly I can barely speak Kumaoni as a language (though I understand it) but the stories I heard from my grandmother and parents remain as memories.
Most of the Kumaoni folk tales are interwoven around various festivities – a famous one being the festival of Makar Sankranti which in the local language is called as Kaale Kauva (Black Crow) or Ghugutia. Sweets made from jaggery and flour are strung into a garland and offered to the crows. The ladies of the house make the sweets in various shaped like swords, dumroo, and rhombus and make a garland of sweets, peanuts and oranges which the children carry outdoors and offer to the crows while singing a rhyme.
‘काले कौवा आ ले, घुघुती माला खा ले
बड़ तू लीजा, घर मैं कै दी जा;
पूरी तू लीजा, छुरी मैं कै दी जा;
ले कौवा लगड़, मैं कै दीजा सुनु का सगड़’
Surprised! Why do we name a major festival after the Black Crow? Well, there is a story behind it!
The folktale has some varied versions across Kumaon. I will briefly narrate the one I heard from my grandmother:
Once there was a King named Ghughut Singh. His court astrologer gave a prophecy saying the King will be killed by a crow on the day of Makar Sankranti. This upset the king very much. He first thought of killing every crow in the land but he knew it was not the right way to deal with the problem. His court advisors gave him an idea. They worked out a scheme to keep the crows busy on Sankranti.
Soon a Royal Announcement was made in the Kingdom. People were asked to prepare sweets with Gud (jaggery) and flour in large numbers. On the day fateful day, people had to offer the sweets in large numbers to the crows flying across the kingdom.
The people did as commanded. On Makar Sankranti all the crows got busy eating the delicious sweets that none ventured near the royal palace. Thus King Ghuguti was saved and every year on Sankranti it became a tradition to offer sweets to the Black Crow.
I heard this story many times from my grandmother. But while hearing the story was fun, I never wanted to share the sweets with the crow! Now days with the crows hardly visible in big cities, most of the sweets are devoured by squirrels and the abundant Myna. My father, a man of science, explained the scientific connotation behind the story of Kaale Kauva.
Sankranti marks the onset of change in season. The migratory birds start returning to the hills – crow being the first one. The offering during this festival is a mark of welcoming the migratory birds back. Secondly during peak winters, after snow fall in the hills hardly any food is available in the forests for birds. Through such customs people are encouraged to offer food to the birds.
My childhood was filled with stories. There is another interesting story I heard from my grandmother. It is the story behind our surname – Lohani.
Lohani is a modified version of the term Lohumi which in Kumaoni means Loh (Iron) + Hom/ Havan (holy fire). Lohumi means one who can do Hom/Havan using iron.
The story behind the surname is as follows:
Once a group of Purohits (Brahmins conducting prayer rituals) traveled to the hills. They wanted to meet the King who was known for his wisdom and generosity and ask him for a piece of land and wood to perform their prayers peacefully. Alas, the guards at the kingdom gates were not so wise. Instead of helping the needy they made fun of the Purohits.
The guards challenged the Purohits that if they were so knowledgeable and wise then why do they need wood for havan, they might as well use the soldier’s swords. Saying this, the soldiers threw their swords towards the visitors. The Purohits collected the swords and much to the surprise of the guards; lit the holy fire using iron swords instead of wood. When the King heard of the incident he invited the purohits apologized and offered them a piece of land in his kingdom. This particular group of Brahmins and their kin were bestowed with the title of Lohumi – One who can light fire from iron.
I do not have a scientific explanation for the story but I do tell it once in a while as an ego booster.
There are many other stories hidden in the heart of the hill region. If you ever visit to the lush green hills of Kumaon and hear a folksong, do stop by and ask its meaning. You might just end up hearing an interesting tale about a brave queen or a soldier returning home.