The age of Kullu’s hill rulers, or rajas has passed into history. The scriptures tell us that the original name of Kullu Valley was Kulanthapitha meaning “the end of the habitable world.” This can be appreciated by anyone who has stood at the top of Rohtang Pass, bounding Kullu and Lahul on either sides.
The human population of the region has always been largely settled in mountain villages and in the tributaries of the Beas River. The farmers and shepherds of these villages, with their pragmatic knowledge and techniques, have always been the central link between human society and natural ecosystems in the Sainj-Tirthan region. Agriculture in these mountains was largely for subsistence until the 1960s, when profit-making commercial agriculture and horticulture began to transform the economy and agriculture of the area.
19th & 20th Century Development
In the 19th Century the British started exploiting the rich forests and their products. A new trend of negative human impacts on the environment commenced. Initially, the cutting of the forests, and later road construction required additional labor. More people from other areas migrated into the interiors of Kullu to fill these labor needs. They introduced different customs and stresses and this in turn affected the local populations and their way of life.
The first half of the 20th Century was a period of even more intense migration into the area and increasing human impacts. One important milestone was the official recognition of the forest rights of local people by the British government. This settlement report (Anderson Report, 1886) codified these rights, such as use of medicinal herbs, grazing, timber cutting, etc.
Since Indian independence (1947) human impacts continued to increase with mixed cost-benefits: natural resources brought increased economic prosperity but the natural environment paid a price. In the interests of development and resource exploitation new roads were built increasing the flow of traffic into Kullu from within India as well as from Nepal and Tibet. Another cycle of stresses commenced: more roads brought more people, creating more impacts and further affecting the natural resources, culture, and environment of Kullu.
Modern medicine and the need for natural precursors of pharmaceutical products led to increased exploitation of forest medicinal herbs. As population pressures increased, the need for additional sources of income increased and both villagers and immigrants looked to the forest for their livelihood. A pattern of decreased sustainability of natural resources had begun.
As the 21st Century dawned, GHNP became an official reality under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. Globally, India’s special ecology places her as one of 12 countries with mega-biodiversity and with unique flora and fauna. GHNP protects one of the major ecological zones, the Western Himalayas, for the people of the world.
Human settlements in the Upper Beas Basin began well over 2,000 years ago, with a gradual migration northward from the lowlands up into the river valleys. Archeological knowledge of subsequent centuries, especially regarding agriculture and land use, is limited. The dominant caste of farmers and shepherds on the land were people called Kanets. Perhaps as much as 1,000 years ago, Rajputs of high status began penetrating the upper Beas region from the Punjab lowlands, during the early Muslim invasions. The most powerful Rajput families in modern centuries were descended from Kullu Raja’s retainers and they did not intermarry with Kanets. Brahmins also gradually moved into the mountains from the north Indian lowlands. They looked down on local religious traditions. They built temples to the high gods of Hinduism, and served as hereditary temple priests (pujaris).
In spite of their high ritual (caste) status, many of these Brahmins also held land, and worked the plough, unlike most plains Brahmins. At the lowest caste level were small numbers of untouchables, today’s Scheduled Castes or Dalits. Rural villagers had very limited tillable soils in the mountain valleys for their agricultural use. Even in the 19th century there was a high ratio of rural population to tillable land. On their small tilled terraces they grew hardy subsistence crops which were adapted to local conditions.
By the 1800s they owned over 80% of the agricultural land in Kullu subdivision. They referred to themselves simply as zamindars, the owners of the land. In the early 1900s they began to claim the caste name of Rajput, a status which was recognized officially in the 1930s.
Agriculture & Subsistence
Farmers grew a variety of basic food grains. In the valley bottoms, rice, the main summer or kharif grain, was cultivated under irrigation. The irrigation canals (kuls) were cooperatively managed by the villagers under the direction of village officials chosen for that specific task. Winter or rabi grains included wheat, buckwheat and barley (the latter was cultivated in higher fields and was a favorite in Inner Saraj, location of present GHNP). In early modern times the kharif crop was enriched by several new plants from the Americas, such as corn, amaranth, and potato.
Cultivated with the grains, or on smaller plots, the farmers grew beans, sarsun (mustard) for cooking oil, as well as squashes, green beans, and leafy green vegetables. By the 19th century many European vegetables were also grown. On steeper hillsides they grew fruit and nut trees such as apricot and peach for oil, walnut, and other nuts. In these thin mountain soils, severely deficient in nutrients and basic chemicals, crops do not grow without enrichment with manure. The sources of manure were an important element of traditional agriculture, linking tilled fields with domestic livestock and the forest. Farmers used cattle and sheep manure and chaff, mixed with green cuttings from small pine and fir trees. For fertilizing crops this was an effective combination, but it did damage to the cut trees, if it was not done with restraint. Finally, there are indications that villagers practiced leaving their terraces fallow at least every third year.
Forests & Pastures
Forest use was another dimension of the villagers’ subsistence. They had open access to the forest for firewood and construction timber. They collected a wide variety of medicinal herbs, which anyone was allowed to harvest. Bamboo was reserved for the basket-makers. For occasional meat they hunted mammals and birds in the forest, especially in winter when the snows drove ungulates down the mountainsides toward the farm settlements. Villagers did not use guns, but laid snares for quail, pheasant, and even mammals such as ghoral, bharal (blue sheep) and musk deer.
The most important non-agricultural use of land in the Kullu and Seraj region was animal grazing in the countryside (known as pastoralism). Village households had small numbers of cattle, sheep and goats for subsistence use. As a link with the commercial economy, both local villagers and outsiders also kept larger flocks of sheep and goats, which had to migrate in search of food. Each spring, when receding snows allowed, flocks moved upwards through the forest zone into alpine pastures (or thach) for summer grazing on nutritious upland vegetation. It is a matter of dispute whether these high openings in the forest were partly or entirely created by shepherds using fire to eliminate trees.
There is debate as whether the villagers’ livestock caused severe deforestation around settlements at lower elevations, especially on the warm, dry, south-facing slopes in the river valleys. Dietrich Brandis, the most knowledgeable early British observer (1877), described a degree of degradation of the landscape of the lower Tirthan valley which was already as severe as today: “The lower part of the Tirth valley presents a lamentable scene of desolation, the slopes on either side…being furrowed by torrents and scarred all over by landslips and incipient ravines, which indicate that grazing and burning are destroying rapidly the natural covering of the hill sides.”
Degradation of pastures continued into the 20th Century including the higher alpine meadows in what would become the Park.
People & the Park
Enlightened individuals in and out of government recognized the threat to the natural beauty and value of the Kullu Valley. In the early 1980s efforts began to protect the area and create a conservation site representative of the unique ecology of the Western Himalayas. Through surveys a region was identified in the Banjar Valley of the Kullu district which was sparsely populated and had sustained minimal human impact. This 754.4 sq. kms. area eventually became the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP). Working with local government and local people, from 1980 to 1999 a series of steps were implemented (surveys, research, environmental impact reports, local rights issues, etc.) to officially consolidate the creation of the Park, working with local government and local people. A critical aspect of the Park’s creation was the settlement of the local people’s rights first recognized in the Anderson Report (British, 1880s), compensating them for the loss of livelihood as a result of resource areas being incorporated into Park.