Following a Folk Tale Through the Himalayas9 min read
In a high hamlet, a two-hour trek up a verdant slope beneath ice-clad Himalayan peaks, an argument erupted over a folk tale. Two brothers, Pralad Singh Dariyal, 60, and Hira Singh Dariyal, 77, heatedly debated which nearby village in the Johar Valley was once the home of the story’s heroine. Eventually agreeing on a few possible locations, Hira said that the story, which is sung as a ballad and which he remembered from childhood, was virtually unknown today among the area’s young people. “They’re the YouTube generation,” he explained with a shrug.
“No one even knows how to sing it anymore,” Pralad added.
The voice of Pralad’s wife, Sundari Devi, rang out from the kitchen into the courtyard, where I sat with the brothers and a couple of other people in front of clothing drying on a line and pieces of a butchered sheep drying on a neighbor’s stone-shingled roof. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she shouted. “Some people do remember how to sing it. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s not important.”
In the Kumaon region of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, where sky-scraping summits soar over a maze of sublime hills in a corner of the country that abuts Nepal and Tibet, the story known as “Rajula Malushahi” has been passed down orally for hundreds of years. A sprawling epic of adventure and true love that unfurls across a broad swath of the landscape, it’s long been recognized as Kumaon’s pre-eminent folk tale. Short versions were sung by parents to their children, while renditions lasting up to 10 hours were performed by hurkiyas, or traditional bards, who chanted and drummed alongside a handful of backup vocalists for local audiences, often as a way to pass cold winter nights, before televisions — and now smartphones — became ubiquitous.
When I first learned about “Rajula Malushahi” on a previous visit to Kumaon, I was immediately intrigued. After reading as much of the literature about it as I could find, I decided on a recent trip to use it as a guide to traveling through the area, letting it take me places I might not otherwise think to go.
While creating an itinerary, I realized that there was no definitive route to follow, since there is no definitive narrative. Before it was first written down in the 1930s, numerous versions were sung. Though they tend to share the same overarching plotline, there are many variations among them, including where certain episodes are said to have occurred. It seemed fitting that planning a trip around a centuries-old folk tale was more an act of creative interpretation than a strict adherence to a single text.
I headed first for the Johar Valley, which is where the story (according to most versions) begins. There, a girl named Rajula, who was so beautiful that the sun paled before her, was born into the Shauka tribe — one of the subgroups of shepherds generally known as Bhotias. Her father, Sunapati Shauk, was the richest trader in the region, shuttling goods over the Himalayas between India and Tibet on the backs of sheep and goats, the best animals for navigating the treacherous terrain. Historically, this once-lucrative route thrived for about a thousand years before collapsing in 1962 with the outbreak of a war between India and China and the closure of the border.
In the story, Rajula grows into a clever and confident young woman. She meets Malushahi, the young monarch of the Katyuri Kingdom, which ruled Kumaon from around the seventh to the 11th centuries, and they fall in love. They are quickly separated, however, as her hand has already been promised by Sunapati to the son of a Tibetan king, an important trading partner. Rajula, rebelling, escapes from this undesirable arrangement, then travels through Kumaon to find Malushahi again, overcoming numerous obstacles with her courage and quick wits. After many dramatic twists, including deceptions, murder and sorcery, the lovers are finally reunited — either happily or in death, depending on the version.
After initially arriving in Delhi at the end of last September, I traveled for a few days — first by rail, and then by road — to the Johar Valley’s main town, Munsiyari. My friend, the writer Shikha Tripathi, who is herself Kumaoni, happened to be there working on a story about climate change. Together, by S.U.V. and on foot, we traveled for most of a morning to the village of Paton, where we talked in the courtyard with the Dariyal brothers, as Shikha translated.
Our conversation concluded when a village-wide feast began. A woman who had married a man with family in Paton was making her first visit — 13 years after their wedding. Everyone came out to welcome her, including people who now lived elsewhere and had returned for the celebration. Vats of rice, mutton and dal had been prepared, and we ate on flat rooftops with views of the valley walls slanting sharply into the clouds.
When the feast wrapped up, Shikha and I went back to Pralad’s place to get our bags and shift to the house where we’d been offered accommodations for the night. I stepped into the kitchen to bid Sundari goodbye and found three other women sitting on the floor with her. Before I could say “thank you,” two of them began to sing, filling the low-ceilinged space with the resonant tones of the first verses of “Rajula Malushahi.”
They sang for about five minutes, which was more than long enough to transform the dimly lit room into a musical time machine, transporting us beyond the temporal world into the wonder of the moment. It was Sundari’s gift to us — and was her way of conclusively proving the point she had made to her husband.
The next day, Shikha and I hiked, drove and hiked (uphill again) to a village where Hira had told us that some of Rajula’s community had scattered after being cursed at the end of her story. Upon reaching Jimia, we learned that a celebration of the Hindu festival Dussehra was about to begin.
Led by drummers and men carrying saplings adorned with flags and tufts of yak hair, a joyous procession descended from the homes at the core of the village to a small temple at its edge. Two sheep were sacrificed to the local goddess, Bharari Devi, a form of Durga, a major Hindu deity. The drumming surged with fevered intensity and the jagar — a ceremony in which the goddess enters into the body, or bodies, of one or more of those in attendance — began around a smoldering bonfire.
A possessed woman staggered around like a zombie. A man named Gajendra Singh Quiriyal — the village’s grand pradhan, or leader — fell to the ground and convulsed on the fire’s edge, caking himself with ashes and embers. The goddess then settled into Rudra Singh Quiriyal, Gajendra’s brother. Blankly staring at something no one else could see, he flung rice over himself and into the crowd. Villagers shouted questions one atop the other, like a scrum of reporters at a chaotic news conference, seeking help with their problems. Most persistent was a middle-aged man desperate for his wife to have their first child. Bharari Devi promised to grant his wish.
When the jagar was over, the pradhan, who’d brushed himself off, asked me to snap a picture of him with his wife and daughters and insisted that Shikha and I stay with them that night. Rice and meat from the sacrificed sheep was served to all. On a grassy terrace just above the temple, women danced in a circle while singing songs to welcome back to the village their sisters and daughters who had moved away after marrying men from other places. Some of the dancers wore traditional Shauka dress — including embroidered headscarves, black blouses, and black skirts.
When we spoke to the women as they sat together following an hour or so of dancing, the elders among them said that they had all heard the tale of “Rajula Malushahi,” but only one remembered how to sing it. Encouraged by the others, Tulsi Devi Nuriram performed a few verses, surprising me with a completely different melody and rhythm than I’d heard the previous day.
Everyone I would meet who knew the story line of “Rajula Malushahi” — the youngest of whom appeared to be in their 60s — spoke of it as though it was based on actual events, while well aware that it is a folk tale. It occupies a liminal space in the collective imagination, somewhere between fiction and fact, fantasy and reality — which was not unlike how I internalized my experience of that day.
The following night, which Shikha and I spent at a homestay in the village of Darkot, a center of Shauka weaving, we met with a folk theater performer who was well-versed in much of the scholarship about the tale. After launching into a long, impassioned analysis of which elements of particular versions were most likely to be true, Lakshman Singh Pangtey concluded by saying, “There is no guarantee about anything I’ve said. After all, it’s a 500-year-old story.”
Shikha stayed in Munsiyari, and I continued on alone. I first went to Bageshwar, where Rajula once stopped to pray. The god Bagnath, a form of Shiva, was so overcome by her beauty that he attempted to extort her affections with threats and promises — a deal she angrily refused. When I visited the same site at the confluence of the Sarayu and Gomati rivers, where a 15th-century Chand-era temple stands, women had gathered to observe Karwa Chauth, praying for long life for their husbands. In the bustling, friendly town, scenes of life and death, commerce and worship, played out on the streets and riverbanks on a scale large enough to fascinate yet small enough to be absorbed without overwhelming.
In the hills and villages of the Gomati Valley, women harvested winter fodder for their livestock, men turned fields with plows pulled by oxen, and everyone I met was happy to see a stranger and chitchat in Hindi. I was charmed by the town of Dwarahat, where Katyuri-era carved-stone temple complexes are tucked among brightly colored houses and gardens, near where Rajula was captured, beaten and left for dead in the forest. And I visited the riverside temple of Agniyari Devi in Chaukhutia, where Malushahi first laid eyes on Rajula, and she laughed at him for mistaking her for the goddess herself.
Along the way, I happened to meet a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew one of the last great hurkiyas of Kumaon. Before long, Nain Nath Rawal invited me to his home, in Sirola village, to hear him sing. I went with my friend, Shriyani Datta, who was staying near Almora, some two hours away.
Rawal’s two-story stone house was set along a ridge atop cascading terraced fields with eye-popping views of the high peaks. He invited us into a room on the upper floor, with shelves of awards for his contributions to Kumaoni culture, and pictures of gods and goddesses encircled by flower garlands hanging on bright yellow walls. An 81-year-old farmer, he was taught to sing by his mother, who gave him lessons when he was young.
When, among many questions translated by Shriyani, I asked why audiences root for Rajula when they wouldn’t approve of a young woman from their own community overtly disobeying her father, breaking a marriage contract and running away to find her beloved, he acknowledged that “today, her family would probably send the police after her.” But, he explained, Rajula and Malushahi were destined to be together, which meant that Rajula was doing the right thing. “If that happened now,” he added, “you couldn’t prove that fate was involved.” The story’s theme, he said, is “turning divine intention into reality through love.”
Rawal sang while playing an hourglass-shaped drum, called a hurka, for over 20 minutes, accompanied by Baji Nath Rawal, who tapped on a stainless steel plate, while two vocalists, Mohan Nath Rawal and Chandan Nath Rawal, sang backup. Though he had made more than 120 recordings during his career, this was the first time he had recorded “Rajula Malushahi.”
Rawal remarked that he used to perform the ballad around Kumaon at all-night festivals, but that they were rare events these days. “My generation is trying to keep our local culture alive, as much as we can,” he said, “but times have changed.”
For now, at least for those who recall it, the story is still woven into the landscape, which conjures memories of a young woman who, ages ago, defied convention to follow her heart.
“I hope this song survives,” Rawal said, as we headed downstairs.
Michael Benanav is a writer and photographer whose most recent book, Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save Their Animals and an Ancient Way of Life, was published in 2018.
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