Thursday, March 23, 2023
Himachal Pradesh

Himachal People

Customs and Traditions


In Himachal the customs associated with death are quite strange and interesting. As death approaches, the sick man's body is lowered on the ground, smeared with fresh cow dung. His head must point to the north and as soon as death occurs, conch shells are blown. This is a signal for the relatives to burst out crying. It is inauspicious to die on a bed and alms must be given by the sick person prior to his or her death.

After the death has occurred, a linseed oil lamp with a cotton wick is lit and placed in a corner of the room and covered with a woven grass basket. This lamp symbolises the dead man. The mourners come and sit in this room and the ritual mourning is done here. The dead body is laid on plantain leaves in the courtyard, bathed and then placed in a wooden coffin or upon a bier and covered with a colourful shroud and taken to the cremation grounds. On the way, the funeral procession stops at a few places where some stones and leaves are placed in the name of the dead man.

Before consigning the body to the flames a Pind Dan (ritual feeding of balls made of cooked rice, sesame seeds and curds to the birds and elements in the name of the died one) is performed. It is considered propitious to add fuel wood to the pyre. After the cremation, people bathe and come back to the deceased's house. So long as the dead body lies within the house, no food can be cooked therein. After this for a month the close relatives observe Sootak. During this period the use of things like meat, fish, garlic, onions, asafoetida is taboo. At the end of this period either the daughter's or the son's father-in-law (Kudam) brings food items cooked with asafoetida and feeds it to the bereaved family, after this the taboo is lifted.

In some families, the death of an aged member is celebrated with the slaying of goats and feasting. On the third day, the bones and ashes are immersed in a holy place like Haridwar, Rivalsar or Manasarovar. For ten days the house observes a mourning period. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are taboo for condolence visits. The daughters come at the end of the month long Sootak. The close relatives have their heads shaven and the widow removes her marriage jewellery. On the tenth day clothes are washed (Kapad Dhulai) and the holy Garud Purana is recited by 'Charjee' (a special class that recites scriptures in houses where death has occurred). In the tribal families, the Lama reads out the scriptures. For a year each month the day of the death is observed with special rituals. A plaster statue of the dead one is placed near a stream and the articles of his use are immersed in the water.

If someone dies an untimely death a special ritual called Sapindi is performed. Each year an annual Shradda is performed to commemorate the dead one. Each four years a Chatur Varshik is done. People, usually Brahmins, numbering in three, fives, sevens, nines or elevens are invited and feasted and presented with pots and pans and clothes. The whole village is then feasted.

The tribal areas follow a slightly different set of customs. In Kinnaur when someone dies, all the villagers gather at his house at night. This custom is known as Drum Rating. The dead body is then bathed in a large vessel called Lam Kunyal and then wrapped up in a white shroud. Two people then carry the body to the cremation ground on a plank. The legs of the body are turned behind at the knees with the help of wooden pegs. It is believed that if the legs are straight an evil spirit might enter the body. He also recites some Mantras and during this, it is considered auspicious if a drop of blood become visible on the forehead of the dead one. When the funeral procession leaves the house, a piece of bread stuffed with Dal is thrown on the roof top for the crows. It is believed that the crow can communicate with the dead person. For seven weeks, the Lama comes to the dead man's house to recite the sacred text (chhos). At the end of the seven week period the Lama and Jomo read the text together and are then fed by the family of the dead man. On the day of the death, the Lama tells them about life after death and about rebirth. Sometimes alms are given to counteract evil influences. Some tribes light a lamp in the name of the dead one for seven days. On the third day after death the chholya ceremony is performed and on the thirteenth day Damkochang is performed. On the 15th day, the Lama performs a Havan. The next day, those who go to collect the ashes leave a stone or a little flag upon the hill top in the name of the dead one. A year after the death, the Lama performs the Fulyach (or the Dalhyang) ceremony, at which he gets food and clothes in the name of the dead.

These customs are followed with some local variations in the Lahaul valley. If an old man dies no one may touch the dead body till the Lama arrives at the house. The Lama whispers an invocation to the dead man's soul in his ear and ask it to leave the body and this is called 'Fuhan'. After this, the dead man is seated on a wooden or metal chair in a corner and a lamp  is lit with butter in front of it. The body stays in the house for two or more days according to the status of the dead man's family. Then it is wrapped in a shroud and placed on a bier and carried to the cremation ground. The Lama recites prayers, the relatives cry and conch shells are blown. Two men, one with a conch shell and another with a flag follow the funeral procession. Sometimes an umbrella is held over the bier. On the way, the procession stop a couple of times to allow the man with the flag and the man with the conch shell to circle the body for which they are paid a sum of money.

At the cremation ground, the shroud is torn into five pieces, four of which are hung upon the four corners of the funeral pyre and the fifth is placed on the forehead of the dead one. The Lama recites mantras and gets barley, rice and butter thrown into the pyre which is set to light. On the next day the ashes are collected by the family and it is immersed in the Chandrabhaga river.

In the tribal areas some customs are quite unusual. In the Spiti valley when someone dies, the Jhanvan (witch doctor) is called to find out whether the body should be burnt, buried or cut up into pieces and thrown upon hill tops for the wild animals to consume. All communities there follow the orders of the Jhanvan. The Sanglas and the Sipis have their own customs.