Kangra patwari’s defining function in a scholarly work on kuhls

J Mark Baker

On January 16, I received the sad news that Krishan Kumar Sharma, retired patwari, residing in Chimbal Har near Palampur, had passed away. He was 88 years old, a dear friend and mentor.

We first met in the autumn of 1990, when I was beginning field research on the kuhl irrigation systems of Kangra valley for my PhD degree. The gravity flow, community-based irrigation system of Kangra valley in Himachal comprises one of the largest locally managed irrigation networks in the world. Known as kuhls, they have endured for centuries despite recurring floods, droughts and earthquakes. Though rapid socio-economic changes challenge their ability to persist today, most kuhl irrigation systems here continue to brim with water during the hot, dry pre-monsoon season, when dependence on kuhl water for irrigation peaks.

The two first met during the
writing of this book in the 1990s.

I had heard about an extraordinary archival record that describes many details of these irrigation systems — the Riwaj-i-Abpashi — that was first prepared during the 1874 settlement of Kangra district. In the hope of seeing this important historical document, I presented myself to the Palampur tehsildar. My request was generously approved. The tehsildar deputed Sharma, who was posted in the tehsil office, to provide assistance with translating it from Urdu into Hindi and English. This chance meeting grew into a friendship and a joining of two families on opposite sides of the globe, which continues to this day.

In the first few days of our work together at the tehsil office, Sharma carefully read aloud in Urdu and translated, while I wrote in my notebook. The unique combination of his scholarly Urdu, along with his detailed knowledge of local agricultural practices and Kangri language, enabled him to accurately translate and explain each sentence. After a few days of working together, Sharma requested and received permission to take the volume to his home in the nearby village of Bindraban.

Continuing our work at his ancestral house represents some of my earliest and fondest memories together. Absorbed in the Riwaj-i-Abpashi, we would sit side by side on a charpoy in the shade of a towering mango tree, next to a small cowshed and the woodpile. It was during these days that I first met and got to know his family — his wife, his mother, his sons Vijay, Uday and Sanjeev, and daughter Meena.

Our friendship quickly deepened. Sharing the evening meal, often staying the night, getting to learn from Shyam Lal Sharma, his father (Pitaji) — these were all memorable elements of that time. In fact, two of the many stories Pitaji recounted during our evening conversations — including one about the dire consequences of challenging the authority of a kohli (kuhl watermaster) — were included in my book about the kuhl irrigation systems of Kangra. Pitaji was steeped in the oral history of Kangra and, despite his increasing blindness, he retained a razor sharp memory of the region, including changes in agricultural practices, political authority, etc. It was through extensive conversations with him that I first realised how kuhls are embedded within the culture and identity in Kangra.

Sharma also gave me permission to cultivate one of his family’s small terraced paddy fields. This “participant observation” enabled me to experientially familiarise myself with local agricultural and water management practices. Ploughing with a pair of bullocks and planting, cultivating and harvesting paddy on this plot of land, in addition to participating in the annual kuhl irrigation system maintenance and repair activities, provided me with a nuanced understanding of these irrigation systems. Without Sharma’s support, this embodied understanding would have been hard, if not impossible, to obtain. He provided a solid foundation from which to launch the more than two years of extensive fieldwork and archival research on which ‘The Kuhls of Kangra’ is based.

My return to the United States in 1993 marked the end of long-duration stays with the Sharma family in Kangra. However, our friendship remained strong, nourished by return visits to Kangra every two-three years with my spouse, and later, our children.

Sharma was an extraordinary person. He embodied and reflected the historical periods he lived through. His impressive command of multiple languages reflected his education in the mission school in Palampur before 1947. He would often reference poems and stories from the cannon of British literature, recite verses of beautiful Urdu poetry, and recount stories from Hindu texts. In his later years, sitting cross-legged and bolt upright on a cot on the verandah of the roadside home he built in Chimbal Har, he would elaborate at length on poetry, stories, history and philosophy.

Sharma’s passing is certainly most acutely felt by his close family, but for me, it represents an immeasurable loss of a dear friend, an elder and a teacher. His loss also represents a fraying of the threads that connect the past to the present. It is now through our shared memories of Sharma, and ongoing relations with his family, that these threads of continuity and connection may be sustained.

— The writer is Professor at Humboldt State University, California, USA, and author of ‘The Kuhls of Kangra’

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