High Culture

By Anupam Sah 3

Mountain heritage is as fragile as its environment. Conservationist Anupam Sah recounts his Kumaon childhood, describes the similarity of traditions across the Himalaya and prescribes an approach to preserving this precious heritage, both built and intangible

The hills are alive A village festival in the Garhwal Himalaya || Courtesy: Stephen Altar

The hills are alive A village festival in the Garhwal Himalaya || Courtesy: Stephen Altar

Military-Buju, Mathuri-Veer, formally known as Lt Colonel Mathura Lal Sah (MBE), my paternal grandfather, returned after World War II to his village in Kumaon, after stints in Egypt, Sicily and Monte Cassino. Completing his full service he retired from the Indian Army, bought a bit of land and built his house near our ancestral joint family home, where Nann Babu, his younger brother, continued to stay. This village is Ranibagh, named after Jiya Rani, in whose name the Jaagar still takes place at the Uttaraini-ka-mela on the cold night of Makar Sankranti at Chitrashila Ghat, situated at the confluence of the Pushpabhadra and Gaula rivers. Ranibagh lies on the bridle path from Kathgodam, the railhead for Nainital.

How green was my valley then! The perennial Kunmuniya Gadhera waters babbled down through the fields and sustained the crops, birds and animals, along with our family. In this house, Markandey Nivas, it was delightful to watch the sunbirds, barbets and paradise flycatchers in the morning. After lunch, we pressed our elders’ feet and, when they dozed off, we tiptoed away to read books. When night fell, we all gathered around the warmth-giving barosa, full of embers and ash, to hear the jungle tales of emerald-eyed Pratap, walking the hills with Ram Daju, toting their double-barrelled shotguns.

During the three-month winter vacations, when my school, St Joseph’s College in Nainital, shut down, it was here in the relatively warmer clime of Ranibagh that, as a boy of 13 or 14, I read the book First Blood by David Morrell, and wished that someone would make it into a movie. I also came across an article, in an old Reader’s Digest, titled “How
Science Cures the Ailing Art”. It was an article on the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro inRome and I wrote to them, expressing my wish to become an art restorer. Both my wishes were granted. Over the years I’ve watched the cinematic rendition of First Blood many times and studied art conservation in New Delhi, Rome, Florence, Liverpool and York. Immersing myself in this profession, I have worked in almost every state in India.

One late morning, as Ama, my paternal grandmother, made daal-bhaat and lai-kisabji in the adjoining kitchen, I sat on the steps of the porch. Acutely aware of the aroma of the lai, I listened to a journalist asking Buju, “Karnal Saab, tell me some interesting thing you did during the war. What did you do when the bombs fell?” Buju replied, “We dove for cover and crouched, and did not move.” The scribe was visibly disappointed. When he left, I asked Buju, naively, “What did you not like in the war?” Strange question, I think now. He said, “One thing I regret most was the
sight of books and manuscripts being burnt in heaps.” Many years later, it came to pass that the Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation was established at Ranibagh, to serve as a training centre for people from all around India for the care and conservation of manuscripts and rare books. Abbreviated for convenience as HIMSHACO, it operates in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Government of India’s National Mission for
Manuscripts, and its larger sphere of work is to protect and preserve ethnographic, historic and artistic works, architecture and traditions, within their indigenous context.

Like other regions of India, Uttarakhand has its share of historic manuscripts, records and maps, horoscopes, notes, accounting bahi-khata and jottings. Some are housed in archives, universities, courts and offices, while most remain with the people, themselves, either bound up in a cloth potli or stashed away in trunks. Many of these manuscripts are written on barua-kagaz, or “spider-paper”. Its name comes from the weblike mesh of long plant fibres, processed by hand from a shrub of the genus Daphne that grows throughout the Himalaya.

From this shrub, the bast fibre is removed from the stalk. It is then boiled, kept on a flat stone surface, and beaten to pulp with heavy wooden mallets. The fibres of the plant are separated in this manner. A handful of pulp is then dispersed in a vat of water. A fine screen fixed to a light, wooden frame is pulled out of the water. As the water drains, the suspended fibres can be seen thinly and uniformly dispersed on the screen, which is then placed outdoors to dry, or in the kitchen at night, where the hearth keeps the room relatively warm and dry. As the cellulose-rich fibres dry, the inherent plant gum binds them together. Eventually, a sheet of barua-kagaz is peeled off the screen. The porous surface of this paper is then coated with a thin flour-paste and burnished so that the inks do not blot on it. The paper is ready for writing or painting.

The carbonate-rich water of mountain streams provides a natural buffer against degradation, ensuring long-lasting properties to this paper. The raw materials and the process are the reasons why this hand-made paper lasts centuries while today’s machinemade paper begins deteriorating in a few decades. Like many quotidian activities of the past, paper-making too was once an art, and it took years to master the process. Remarkably, the craft tradition of making
paper from Daphne stalks links distant parts of the Himalaya. Even today, a thousand kilometres east of Kumaon, in Arunachal Pradesh, the so-called spider paper is being produced by the Monpa community employing this very same process. Many of these Monpa families send one of their children to the Tawang Gonpa (monastery) to train to become monks to conduct rituals and contribute to the spiritual well-being of the world, guided by sacred texts written on this Shugu paper, as it is known in Arunachal Pradesh.


Tawang Gonpa in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh was established in 1860 by Mera Lama who fled Bhutan to avoid the conflict between the Kagyud and Gelug Sects. It is one of the largest monasteries of Asia and has about 500 resident monks. The monastery has 16 branches and five nunneries in the region. The local population holds the monks of this monastery in great regard, and the monks in turn conduct rites and rituals for them. Every year 15–20 monks are inducted into the fold. It is a vibrant monastery around which are entwined the region’s memories. Tawang is at a height of 11,000ft above sea level and has to be accessed through a pass that is at a height of 14,000ft. Its relative remoteness has allowed its cultural and sacred traditions to remain largely undisturbed.

The monks of the Tawang Monastery have a large repertoire of sacred rituals which they practise to this day. These rituals are accompanied by sacred chanting, music, dance, plastic arts and oral traditions. The Tawang monastery, among others in Asia, was selected by HIMSHACO for the UNESCO Monks Project that was designed with the objective of documentation, education and training to revitalise traditional decorative arts and building crafts in the Buddhist temples of Asia. On the advice of senior monks, it was decided to revive, primarily through traditional methods, the practices of Dontayang (manuscript reading/chanting), Chezo kargyen (butter-sculpture making) and Silnyenrolmo (playing specific musical instruments along with chants) as all these practices are essential to conducting the sacred rituals properly.

This was a noteworthy exercise in the preservation of intangible heritage, which is just as valuable as it lends significance, meaning and cultural and contextual relevance to the physical forms of our heritage. Senior monks selected students and trainers. A schedule of teaching was prepared and the master trainers imparted training through practical sessions. For unsupervised practice, a set of audio CDs was prepared in which the musical pieces were “broken and simplified” into a number of cognisable steps that the student could follow after basic guidance from the teacher. With the help of this system, the teacher could allocate different practice exercises to different students simultaneously, according to their proficiency levels.

The training culminated in an examination in all the sacred practices. The selection of the training subjects was strongly prioritised and interlinked with a holistic view of the rituals in the monastery. The trainees prepared butter-sculptures in the stipulated time for the ceremonies. Ritual music pieces played on the Gelling, a wind instrument, were used to invite the deities to the prayers. The Kangling, made from human leg bones, was an essential accompaniment to the sacred chanting and prayers. The playing of the Kangling is strenuous and it is a reminder to the congregation of the mortality of the human body. The Dungchin is a 12- to 15-ft long wind instrument and is intrinsic to the sacred chanting and prayers. Chanting, linked to the study of scriptures, is the most important aspect of praying and monks sitting at prayer in the monastery must be aware of the correct techniques. The trainees now play these instruments during the rituals. As a result the monastery can now conduct the rituals in a “pure” and “complete” manner. When monks go into the region to conduct rites for the people, they take the instruments with them to accompany the prayers in the homes and in the large and small monasteries strung along the Himalayan belt.


Back here in Uttarakhand, the traditional stone and wood structures are either being neglected or being covered over with cement, and new structures are being built right up to their thresholds. The beautiful wooden villages are but ghost villages now, with residents migrating from the mountains at an alarming rate. As conservationists and concerned citizens we must take hold of the situation with an informed approach. To illustrate with an example: In the midst of the Sitala Devi Temple complex near my hometown of Ranibagh was a shrine with its rustic and ancient form covered with cement plaster, which destroyed its original look. A couple of years ago, some of the young men in Ranibagh got together and with some training and a lot of supervision, they removed the cement plaster from this shrine, exposing the underlying stone structure. They scraped the cement out of the joints and filled it with traditional lime-sand-urhad dal mixture and they replaced the cement roof with slate-like stones. This transformed the shrine back to its genuine form. This is a practical approach to undo the modern additions on local structures in the mountains and helps them regain their original physical character and local context.

Conservation in the mountains is about building down rather than building up. Structures are intrinsically linked with the landscape and any change in one alters the other; therefore, both need to be addressed simultaneously. The felt need for conservation of heritage is not strong enough to motivate policy-makers to pump in scarce resources exclusively for this apparently unproductive purpose. There are many more important sectors to consider, such as fodder for cattle, saving the crops in the hills from increasing numbers of wild boar and deer, transport of agro produce to the markets, drinking water, child health, etc. Therefore it becomes even more important to approach heritage conservation by linking it with other sectors. Heritage conservation and its results should be planned and employed as tangible and visible levers for development. Once development is sound, and natural and man-made heritage is celebrated, many activities in our mountains, including tourism, will benefit. The Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation is dedicated to following a holistic approach to conservation that incorporates not only the restoration and preservation of important objects and traditions but also their cultural, economic and environmental significance.


  1. Aadil Desai June 4, 2017 at 9:44 pm - Reply

    Great reading this article, Anupam. Very interesting and informative. Keep ’em coming!!!

  2. Mudit Jain June 5, 2017 at 12:03 am - Reply

    The central question to be addressed is to provide livelihood in remote places through agriculture and crafts and tourism and allow people to remain at home.

  3. prosper June 19, 2017 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    nice post.Thanks for sharing

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