Hazaribagh Exploited: Tourism, History and Culture; Or Just Coal

Posted on October 1, 2011 in Specials

By Mihir Vatsa:

There are two kinds of people when it comes to their hometown: the first kind would dismiss any chance of recognition- be it political, social, historical or cultural; while the second kind would strive to see the hidden nuances in each aspect. Unfortunately, I belong to the second kind. Through this narrative, I intend to present before the world, a rather neglected town named Hazaribagh in the Indian state of Jharkhand; explain how Hazaribagh is significant in three distinct ways- Tourism, History and Culture; and underline the challenges which this town currently faces to exist as the propagator of any of the before mentioned categories.

If one may search this town on internet and follow what Wikipedia has to say, then etymologically, Hazaribagh means ‘a land of thousand gardens’ and was considered ‘a popular health resort’. Somehow or the other, these two descriptions only deepen the wound which has already been inflicted upon this unfortunate town. For first, there are no gardens as such now, and second, the health resort is lost. These two definitions would have worked quite well if we lived in either colonized India or till the time when Hazaribagh was still a part of Bihar. On 15th October, 2000, Bihar was divided to form a new state with certain promises- Jharkhand. Happy with this division and hoping a better future for the new state people came out on streets singing ‘ab khahiye sakarkand, alag bhel Jharkhand’. The glory was quite short lived though- especially when it came to Hazaribagh. In the succeeding sections, I shall explain exactly why.

Hazaribagh is geographically located at an average altitude of 2019 ft., on the Chhotanagpur Plateau. This altitude in turn attributes to the rather pleasant climatic condition throughout the year. One can feel the ‘gulabi thandak’ while entering Hazaribagh- crossing stretches of valleys, rivers, seasonal waterfalls and quite a number of lakes. Also, Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary -which was a National Park once- welcomes the travellers coming from north. If history be trusted, then tourists from the states like West Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh were counted as the regular visitors of this little town which promised them solace and tranquillity. F.B. Bradley-Brit, in his book ‘Chhotanagpur- A Little Known Province of the Empire’ (1903), said: ‘If there is a heaven on earth this is it, this it, this it…’

I guess, if Brit were alive now, he would have readily taken his words back. There are hardly any forests left. The temperatures soar high like never before, the lakes almost dry up during summers and the moment one steps out of Hazaribagh town, a thick gust of coal dust welcomes them. So where did it go wrong? Is it mining? But doesn’t mining strengthen the economy… after all we all need minerals, don’t we? Or is it population? But again, one can’t stop people from reproducing or settling down in a region, can they? Or is it Urbanisation? But then we need malls, and multiplexes… Mumbai has those, why can’t Hazaribagh? These questions are not really issues as these ‘issues’ only construct a culture. We need coal to make trains run, we need people as they make a society, and we also need urbanisation as we can’t expect ourselves to live in thatched roof and attend haats to buy vegetables: after all, we all work, earn money and reserve the right to live in whatever way we wish. The problem is in connection. These issues, which are also the building blocks of a country need to be connected in a balance. Sadly, it seems a utopia; and sadly Hazaribagh is bearing the after effects of this derailed utopian dream.

Hazaribagh is not merely a town- it is a ‘health resort’, a historical city and a cultural junction. I shall briefly explain all the three categories I just divided my hometown into. Health resort– a title earned because of its verdant surroundings, the fact that it is a hill station. Hill station. No, I do not ask the reader to compare it with famous places like Manali or Lansdowne but consider that the topology is basically of a plateau- and plateaus do not have lofty peaks. There are forests, still; lakes, still; waterfalls, still; a somewhat cooler climate as compared to the neighbouring places, still. Maybe the biggest blow to this aspect of Hazaribagh is deforestation done in the name of ‘development’. I find it hard to drive my car through a silly two lane highway- let’s make it a four lane! Sure, go ahead; but what about all the trees I would cut? The country needs coal- let’s mine the whole forest, no one lives here anyway. Sure, suit your interest; but where would this country get water from if there is no rain? The problem with Hazaribagh, or to say, a majority of such townships, is that there is no one to answer these contrasting questions. Trees can’t speak, who cares? Forests just occupy land, what a waste? The life continues. The ‘health resort’ just watches its own destruction… maybe shed a tear or two.

Megaliths at Punkree Barwadih

Hazaribagh is also a historical city. No, I do not make this claim; but the ancient rock art sites, prehistoric shelters and megalithic complexes which die in the backyard would surely suggest so. In the Karanpura valley of Hazaribagh region- a region which lies under the danger of being mined out for coal someday or the other- all the three evidences of history stand; unnoticed by the government, unnoticed by the ASI, unnoticed by the ‘mainstream’ population. Reason? They belong to the tribal civilization. Tribals. Tribal population has anyway been the most difficult factor to deal with, for an authority, whenever it has come to something which it categorizes as ‘development’. The refusal of the tribals to surrender their lands for the Posco plant in Orissa, or the refusal of the tribals to surrender their lands for NTPC mining project in the Karanpura Valley are just a few examples to take. Authority says: ‘Take the money, give the land’ and tribals say: ‘what would we do with this money when we are not educated enough to get jobs? This money would disappear in a few years, then what?’ I will not indulge more in describing such conflicts but my intention to bring this scenario in the fore light was just to show that tribals, or the marginalized, or the minority, are still subjected to the trauma of various policies which posses the calibre to demolish their whole existence.

If these cases happen even today, how can one expect the authority to protect their history? Maybe the biggest misfortune of the tribal population is the fact that they live just above the riches mineral belts in India. I shall take the liberty to cite a few examples here, probably to make it clear that my assertions are not based on loose grounds. The megalithic complex at a village called Punkree Barwadih is maybe the finest stone observatory erected by the ancient tribals; the problem being, this complex stands in the mining area of NTPC. Just recently an Australian mining company Theiss was awarded the contract to mine whole of this region but no step has been taken by the ASI to protect this thirty five hundred years old history of megalithic civilization. The rock art site at the village named Isco, some forty five kilometres from the district headquarters of Hazaribagh, is expected to date back to 9500 BCE but the tourism department of Jharkhand government is hardly aware of such an existence. If this be the case that they are really unaware of this site, then I believe this article shall make them aware, and they would work for its respectful recognition; if this be not the case, then this article shall plainly show their ignorant attitude towards such historical artefacts, and sites.

As I had previously stated, Hazaribagh is a township which offers a cultural junction between the Tribal culture and the Aryan culture. There is no need to explain what Aryan culture really is considering the ‘mainland’ population practices the same. I would shed some light on the Tribal culture of Hazaribagh instead by taking two art forms in consideration. These two art forms are known as Sohrai and Khovar. Sohrai is a harvest art which follows during the time of Sohrai festival. Sohrai festival takes place near about the same time when Hindus celebrate Diwali. The art form is matriarchal and its murals symbolise natural instances- mainly flora and fauna. There is indeed a reason behind this. Tribals of Hazaribagh live in forests and the influences show directly in Sohrai art. Khovar, on the other hand, is again matriarchal and its murals symbolise fertility in marriage. It is, in a crude sense, marriage art. There are many villages which practice these two art forms but lie in the interior parts of Hazaribagh. These art forms carry the essence of the culture with them and if a healthy union of the Tribal and the Aryan culture is made possible, then Hazaribagh shall emerge as a region harboring the symbiosis of two cultures very much different to each other. Again, for that, an active participation from the government is required.

Since my intention behind this narrative was just to reflect the plight of Hazaribagh in the present situation, I shall not deviate into other topics which also demand proper attention and research. For this article, I had chosen to explain Hazaribagh as three possible regions- Hazaribagh as a tourist spot, Hazaribagh as a historical city and Hazaribagh as a cultural junction. In conclusion, I shall only say that an article like this, cynical in its approach it may be, only tries to uncover what lies behind the veil. I, as a Tourism Activist myself, may see Hazaribagh in three different lights but this would remain a region which has been shifting its focus throughout the history. The present would fail to consider Hazaribagh as a ‘health resort’; the mining companies would fail to consider Hazaribagh as a ‘historical city’; the ‘mainstream’ would fail to consider Hazaribagh as a ‘cultural junction’. An outsider would only see Hazaribagh as a town burning in the flames of black diamond… nothing else.

The author is a third year student of English Literature in University of Delhi; a writer and an independent Tourism Activist in Hazaribagh.