A zoology student from Mukhwa village sheds light on the fascinating life of “Pahari Wilson,” who both plundered her valley and created the livelihoods that flourish to this day
Story by: Divya Nautiyal
See a video introduction to this story in Hindi
When the floods devastated Uttarakhand in 2013, all access to the Upper Taknore valley was cut off. Connecting bridges and roads were destroyed by the disaster. Along with my family, I was stuck in Mukhwa, an interior village high up in the Garhwal Himalayas, where I was born and spent most of my summer vacations. With no electricity, no internet and literally no mode of communication with the world outside, this was a great time for stories and my nani (grandmother) and mama (uncle) always had a new adventure tale to share with us!
The stories of ‘Hulseyn’ or ‘Pahari Wilson’ were particularly intriguing to me. More than a century ago, this British runaway ventured into the Garhwal region without any kind of aid and left behinda legacy that still lives on today!
Fredrick Wilson was only 25 years old when he deserted the East India Company in the early 1840s. For reasons unknown, his escapades took him north, deep into the heart of the mountains of Garhwal.
When I think of a bus journey on the long winding roads of Uttarakhand, I think of snow covered peaks, aromatic pine trees, waterfalls, ancient caves, rolling hilly pastures and remote settlements, dotted with women carrying grass loads on their backs. As fun as the journey might seem, riding across bridges and traversing from one side of the Ganga to the other is still daunting to many as the road snakes into the Harshil Valley. So it’s hard to imagine that in the olden times, when roads and bridges were uncommon here, people traded salt, wool and grains across the border and undertook pilgrimages through remote mountain passes, deep jungle trails and tattered pathways.
The earliest mark of Wilson’s presence in the valley is a 350 feet long wooden suspension bridge across a treacherous gorge made by the Jadhganga River, a tributary of the Bhagirathi. When the bridge was first constructed, nobody in the entire valley had the courage to cross it. So a ferocious Wilson galloped on his horse across it to assure people of its safety. A newer iron bridge has since replaced Wilson’s suspension bridge, connecting the two ends of the deepest expanse of the Jadhganga on the route to Gangotri, past the Lanka hamlet. I have been on this bridge many times. It always thrills me to get off on the bridge, throw a stone from the top and watch it disappear. We would often time the stone’s landing! An ancient bridge can also be seen deep down from the bridge, built by the pilgrims of Garhwal after Wilson’s bridge collapsed. Nevertheless, history still breathes through Wilson’s bridge deeper in the gorge, now in ruins with a pair of deodar posts across from each other withering slowly with time.
It took Wilson some time to settle in the Harshil valley and establish an ‘empire’ of his own. He married Subeda, a young woman from Mukhwa village. Subeda couldn’t bear any child to Wilson so she fixed his marriage with her own niece, Raimata. A-19-year-old Raimata was married off to 54-year-old Wilson and gave birth to three sons – Nathaniel, Charles and Henry. Nathaniel was called Natthu; Charles, Charlie Sahib; and Henry, Indri by the local folk.
Wilson acquired land in Harshil and constructed a posh wooden house. As Nani recalls, it was the finest house she had laid eyes upon in her youth. Inspired by the architect of the Red Fort, the house, built with deodar wood, had two gates with lofty walls that no burglar could ever jump over. Wooden stairs connected the two floors, traditional designs were etched into the walls and the rooms were extremely spacious. The barrels of the storage unit called kothaar never ran out of grains and liquor. Often the house echoed with the sound of a gong-bell Wilson rang to pass orders, summon his men and address his audience from a platform. Unfortunately, on a snowy evening in 1997, as two army personnel were trying to keep themselves warm by the fireplace, the house caught fire and burned down to ashes. That was two years before I was born, and now I wonder what it would’ve been like to walk inside that old historic house.
Rich in flora and fauna, the dense pine and oak forests of Uttarakhand have supported the agrarian lifestyle of people for centuries. Wilson saw ample opportunity in these forests and started illegal timber extraction in and around Harshil. The anger in my mama’s voice was apparent as he talked about an angrezi guy showing up out of nowhere and exploiting our resources. An indignant Mama further told us that the railway tracks that began connecting India in the 1800s, were laid by the British with wood supplied from Harshil by Wilson. Tons and tons of deodar tree trunks were floated down the river Ganga to be collected downstream. Trading wood with the East India Company earned Wilson much wealth and power. He later gained a logging license from the King of Tehri in exchange for a paltry annual fee. Hence allied with the king, Wilson in a short period of time decimated the forests of the entire Garhwal region.
Over time, the forests were heavily plundered of the Himalayan Cedars and the soil was denuded of its richness. The population of the Kasturi Mrig (Himalayan Musk Deer) suffered greatly as it was recklessly hunted for its pelt and musk which was exported to England. Not only land animals but also many birds were shot for trade and recreation. Sunderlal Bahuguna, the leader of the Chipko Andolan – the biggest conservation movement in Garhwal – held Wilson responsible for setting deforestation in motion in northern India, and the gradual extinction of the endemic wildlife.
Uttarakhand is also called Devbhoomi– the Abode of Gods –given all the pilgrimage sites and ancient temples across the state. Mukhwa is considered the winter throne of the goddess Ganga. Every year, before the onset of winter, the priests carry the palanquin of Ganga back to Mukhwa from Gangotri. Someshwar, the incarnate form of Lord Shiva resides in Mukhwa as the village’s local deity. His blessing brings rain for the crops, heals the sick and drives out demons from the possessed, while his anger brings death and destruction. The panchaang is the religious calendar of Mukhwa, marked with a number of festivals and fairs. The fair of Selku is a celebration to embrace autumn and bid monsoon farewell. The night is lit with fire play (bundles of deodar stick tied with a long metal wire and lit) and the day comes alive with the beat of drums, ballads, the folkdance Rasu and a pooja (prayer) ceremony. Amidst the fervor of Selku, one can see the palanquin of Someshwar happily dancing on the shoulders of men and a person in trance performing Aasan, the walk on holy blades.
Wilson was not religious. As is narrated by the village folk, Wilson challenged the power of Someshwar, provoking the deity to walk on Wilson’s seven deadly swords and proclaim his so-called power. The spirit of Someshwar entered a mute child and performed Aasan on the swords held in a row by his men. Someshwar then told Wilson to offer his gong-bell and the gold embroidered shawl kept away safely in a trunk at his bungalow as a sign of victory. Wilson was taken aback by the stark details that Someshwar knew about his secret possessions!
It is believed that Wilson’s act of challenging the power of Someshwar angered the deity greatly and Wilson couldn’t escape his wrath. He cursed Wilson that his bloodline would be wiped out completely after one generation and he would be forgotten. Aasan is still held every year during the Selku festival; however, the holy blades are not sharpened anymore as it is believed that nobody should test the power of Someshwar like Wilson did.
No written manuscripts of Wilson’s adventures in Mukhwa can be found today, but the oral traditions have kept history alive. His gold shawl still adorns the local temple and the deep clang of his bell continues to fill the air with its mythical mystery. I’ve never seen the shawl since it is kept in the inner part of the temple where women are not allowed, but Mama told me that it is red-colored with gold embroidered borders, though pretty old and worn out now.
Wilson’s gong-bell. Photo: Divya Nautiyal Wilson’s coin. Source: Raja of Harsil
Premchand, Raimata’s nephew, a resident of Mukhwa, still lives in a house that was built as a gift by Wilson to his beloved wife’s family. The structure stands tall and sturdy, housing a big family. The maalgujaar, the chief of Mukhwa village, was gifted a house by the Angrezi Babu (foreigner) too. In total, he built around 5 houses in Mukhwa, which I’ve visited many times. The valley witnessed a new growth phase under Wilson’s reign. He employed local men in his timber trade and taught them the skill of hunting. People who never would have witnessed a cash economy found themselves exchanging coins minted by Wilson at the local stores.
More than a century ago, apple plantations were first introduced in Uttarakhand by Wilson and the variety was named after him. The fine alluvial soil deposited by the snow-fed rivers of the Himalayas supported the endeavor well, and the introduction of rajma followed. The Wilson variety of apple is still a choice of many for its crispiness and long shelf life, and his venture continues to form the basis of livelihood for hundreds of families thriving on apple and rajma production – the economic backbone of the Harshil valley.
Wilson died in 1883 and was buried along with his first wife Subeda in Mussoorie, while his second wife Raimata was laid to rest in Mukhwa. Wilson lived a life that was the envy of many kings, but he was a defeated father. His three sons squandered his wealth and are believed to have met drastic ends – though no one knows exactly what happened. Perhaps Someshwar’s curse came true.
I can’t help but wonder what the upper Taknore valley would have been like, had it remained unmarred by the Britisher. I guess that question will remain unanswered as deforestation continues to ravage the north and the valley flourishes on apple and rajma production. Nevertheless, in contrast to Someshwar’s curse, time hasn’t forgotten Wilson’s life in this region, glimpses of which can still be seen in the folklores, traditions, songs, stories and lives of people.