In the Forbidden Land/Chapter III
- Pithoragarh—Fakir women—A well-ventilated abode—Askote—The Rajiwar and his people.
THE country up to Bhot is comparatively well-known, therefore I will not dwell at length on the first portion of my journey.
On May 9 all my baggage, accompanied by two Chaprassis, left on its way to the frontier, and I followed on the next day. Two days' marching, at the rate of twenty-five miles a day, brought me to Shor, otherwise called Pithoragarh.
The road is good all the way, running through thick forests of pine and fir trees, and you get here and there pretty views of wooded mountain ranges. Nevertheless, it is tiring owing to the many ascents and descents, as will be seen from the following figures showing the principal elevations. From 5510 feet we climbed to 7650 feet, descended to 2475 feet, climbed again up to 6020 feet at Gangoli Hat, and re-descended by a steep incline to 2500 feet. The intense heat prevented me from walking at my usual pace, and I did not, therefore, reach my destination before sundown. Walking on in the dark, we saw the distant flickering forest fires crawling here and there like incandescent snakes along or up the mountain-side: these are caused by the igniting of the grass, shrubs, and undergrowth by the natives, the flames not unfrequently spreading and playing havoc among the finest trees of the forest.
At Pithoragarh (6650 feet) there is the old London Gourkha fort to be seen, on a hilltop, also a well-kept leper hospital, a school, and a mission-house. The soil is fertile and there are many stretches of well-cultivated land dotted with habitations. Water is plentiful, and though the scenery certainly lacks trees except in the immediate neighbourhood of the villages and houses, it has, nevertheless, a certain picturesqueness on account of its background of wooded mountains. I started from Pithoragarh at 6.30 A.M.; leaving the road to Tal on the left, I followed the track at a medium elevation of 6250 feet, arriving at Shadgora (6350 feet) just in time to witness the blessing of a calf by a Brahmin. Inside a diminutive shrine—into the door of which I was curious enough to peep—I discovered two skinny, repulsive old women, with sunken, discoloured eyes, untidy locks of scanty hair, long unwashed, bony arms and legs, and finger and toe nails of abnormal length. They were clad in a few dirty rags, and were busily attending to the lights burning on several primitive stone candlesticks along the walls of the shrine. There were also some curiously-shaped stones standing upright among the candlesticks. The ceiling of this place of worship was not high enough to allow the women to stand, and they were compelled to crawl about inside on all fours. When they saw me they stretched out their angular arms towards me, begging for money. I gave them a silver coin, which they shoved under one of the peculiar stones, and then, turning round, immediately made violent gestures suggesting to me that I was to depart.
Farther on I came upon a point where three roads branched off to Deolthal (six miles) on the left, to Askote (twelve and three-quarter miles) in the centre, and to Pithoragarh (eleven and a quarter miles), a different route from the one followed, on the right. I took the middle one, and travelled on in a storm of hail and wind with a constant deafening roar of thunder and splendid flashes of lightning, which produced magical effects on the ever-changing and fantastic clouds and the weird mountain-sides along which I ploughed my way.
I arrived late in the evening at Askote, where there is neither Dâk Bungalow nor Daramsalla, and found to my disgust that none of my carriers had yet arrived. I was offered hospitality by Pundit Jibanand, who put me up in his schoolroom, a structure consisting of a number of planks put together regardless of width, height, length, or shape, and supporting a roof of straw and grass. The ventilation of my abode was all one could wish for, and as during the night I lay wrapped up in my blanket under the sheltering roof, I could admire through the disconnected portions of the walls the brilliancy of the star-studded heaven above. When the sun arose, bits of scenery appeared between plank and plank, until by degrees the gaps were all stopped up by figures of natives, who took possession of these points of vantage to gaze to their hearts' content on the sahib, who, with signs of evident suspense on the part of these spectators, managed even to shave. Hilarity, on the other hand, was caused when I smeared myself all over with soap while bathing. Admiration followed at my putting on my last starched shirt and other mysterious garments, but the excitement grew almost to fever-heat when I went through the daily nuisance of winding up my watches and registering daily observations of temperature, etc. The strain was too much, I fancy, and a general stampede followed the moment I touched my unloaded rifle.
The town of Askote is not unlike an old feudal castle such as are found in many parts of Central Italy. Perched on the crown of a central hill, the Rajiwar's palace overlooks a fine panorama of mountains encircling it on all sides. Among the higher peaks discernible from the palace are the Chipla Mountain and the Dafia. Then across the Kali River, forming the boundary of Nepal, is Mount Dooti. The "gown" or town itself numbers some two hundred houses scattered on the slope of the hill, and includes a school, a post-office, and two Mahommedan shops. The Rajiwar had on my arrival just completed building a new Court, a simple and dignified structure of brown stone, with fine wooden carvings on the windows and doors, and with chimneys in European fashion in each room. One wall in each room was left open, and formed a charming verandah, commanding a magnificent view of mountain scenery.
The Rajiwar of Askote occupies a unique position in Kumaon. Having repurchased his right to the tenure of land in the Askote Pargana as late as 1855, he now possesses the right of zamindar (translated literally, landed proprietor), and he is the only person to whom has been granted to retain this privilege in the Kumaon Division. Jagat Sing Pal, the Rajiwar's nephew, assured me that the people of the Askote Pargana are brave and good-natured. They never give any trouble to the Rajiwar, who, on the other hand, is almost a father to them. They apply to him in every difficulty, in sickness and distress, and he looks after them in true patriarchal fashion. The Rajiwar is not rich, probably because he spends so much for the benefit of his people and of the strangers who pass through Askote. Many of these are little more than beggars, of course, even when they travel as fakirs, or other religious fanatics, going to or returning from the sacred Mansarowar Lake in Tibet. The present Rajiwar, Pushkar Pal, belongs to the Ramchanda family, and he is a descendant of the Solar dynasty. His ancestors lived in Aoudh or Ayodye (as it was formerly called), whence they migrated to the hills of Katyur in Kumaon, where they built a palace. The hill regions up to Killakanjia and the Jumua River were under the Raja of Katyur's rule, he assuming the title of Maharaja. A branch of the family came from Katyur to Askote, its chief retaining the hereditary title of Rajiwar beside that of Pal, which each male assumes. The Rajiwar pays a yearly tribute of 1800 rupees to the Government of India. In the time of the Gourkhas he paid nothing except occasional gifts of Nafas or musk-deer to his neighbour the King of Nepal, with whom he is still in very close relation. He was then practically an independent king. Still Rajiwar Pushkar Pal has always been perfectly loyal to the Government of India.
"Are the people very obsequious to the Rajiwar?" I asked of Jagat Sing Pal.
"Yes, sir. For instance, when the Rajiwar sits on his Karoka (a kind of throne) he is saluted with a particularly respectful salaam. His subjects bring their hand up to the forehead and support the elbow with the left hand, as a sign that this salutation is so weighty that it requires the support of the other hand."
At Court functions, the male relatives, friends, and servants sit near the Rajiwar, his brother first, his son next, then his nephews, etc. Women are of course not admitted, and although no strict code of etiquette exists, the Rajiwar and his family are nevertheless always treated with Eastern deference.
- Daramsalla, a stone-walled shelter for the use of travellers and natives.
- Rajiwar: head of kingdom.