Present day Garhwal is inhabited by people from many ethnic back grounds. They can be divided into the following groups or castes:
The Rajputs of Garhwal are believed to be of Aryan origin. They came as waves of settlers either from the south or from the adjoining tracts of Himachal Pradesh, where they had come from the Hindu Kush through Kashmir. Later Rajput settlers to Garhwal aIso came from Rajasthan to escape from the invasions of the Muslims/Mughals. These people fought and subdued the Kols or Koltas or Doms, who were living in Garhwal at that time. Initially, the Rajputs took to settled agriculture as they had brought new skills with them. Later on, they took to other professions. They also joined the armies of various kings of Garhwal in large numbers. At present, the Rajputs can be found in most professions-agriculture, business and government service. Many Garhwali Rajputs are in the Armed Forces of India, particularly in the Army.
The Brahmins of Garhwal are primarily considered to be the descen- dants of the priests who migrated from the plains or the Brahmins who came to visit the religious places in Garhwal. As a matter of fact, those Brahmins, too, are settled in Garhwal, who came during the migration of the Rajputs or even later.
Both, the Rajputs and Brahmins penetrated into the valleys of Garhwal to escape the rule of the Muslim invaders in the plains of India. There they founded villages or colonies, most of which were named after the places from where they had migrated. Some examples are:
- Ajmer patti and Udaipur patti, and
- Telangi after Telangana.
In other cases, the people still retained their surnames or named themselves after the place from where they had came. Some examples are:
- Karnatak and Telang after Mysore (Karnataka), and
- Rawat and Joshi of Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
The tribals of Garhwal live in the upper, e.g. northern tracts. Some are of mongoloid origin and have a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life. However, now-a-days, most of these people have taken to a settled life and are engaged in animal husbandry, agriculture, trade and other occupations. Important tribes of Garhwal are listed below:
- Jaunsaris of Jaunsar-Bawar
- Jadhs of Uttarkashi
- Marchas of Chamoli (Mana and Niti valleys)
- Van Gujars
4. The Bhotias
The Bhotias are businessmen and born mountaineers. The Bhotias of Uttarakhand claim descent from the Rajputs, who came from Kumaon and Garhwal and settled in the higher valleys.The Bhotias are to be found all along the Tibetan border from Nepal in the east to Uttarkashi in the west.
Those living close to the Mana pass near Badrinath and those by the Niti pass are known as Tolchas and Marchas, respectively. The people living by the Untadhura pass are Joharis and Saukas. To the south of Johar are the Bhotias or Jethora Bhotias, who are cultivators.
Bhotias are worshippers of the peaks of Nanda Devi, Pancha Chuli etc. and those who are inclined towards Hinduism worship Gabla ( the Weather God), Runiya and Suniya gods, protect their animals from disease, and Sidhuwa and Bidhuwa gods, who help them find lost animals.
The Jadhs are a tribal community inhabiting the cold dry tracts of Uttarkashi District. There are two main villages – Nelang and Jadhang — both situated at an elevation of about 3,400 m. The entire community used to migrate from these high altitude villages in the winter, some families staying back at a settlement called Dunda, while the rest of them moved onto the forests around Rishikesh.
This community has close social and economic ties with the people living in the adjoining tracts of Himachal Pradesh and other parts of Uttarkashi. Most Jadhs considered themselves to belong to a superior caste and the task of weaving was left to the Kols, who were considered to be of a lower caste. The Jadhs have typical Mongoloid features and speak a Tibetan dialect. They also speak Garhwali and Pahari.
Jaunsar – Bawar forms the northern half of Dehradun District and the people living there are called the Jaunsaries. They are probably of very pure Aryan stock. This area had links with the ancient cultural waves, which swept over the northern part of India, particularly during the Vedic, Mahayan, Kushan and Gupta periods of ancient Indian history.
The people follow many of the old customs even today, distinct from their compatriots elsewhere in Garhwal, Kumaon and Himachal Pradesh. Even the art and architecture has its unique features, with profound use of woodwork. The most important festival of the Jaunsaries is the Magh Mela. During festivals, they wear the Thalka or Lohiya, which is a long coat.
Thangel folds like tight-fitting trousers. Digwa or the cap is the traditional Jaunsari head dress made of woolen cloth. Women wear the Ghagra, Kurti and Dhoti and are fond of ornaments.
The Jaunsarie still practice polyandry, which are said to be the conse- quence of their having had a close association with the legendary Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata, who had a common wife, Draupadi.
7. The Van Gujars
This is a tribe of nomadic Muslims, who are believed to have come to Garhwal as the dowry of a princess of Sirmaur. This tribe extends along the Himalaya from Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh to Garhwal. They retain many of the cultural practices of the time before they were converted to Islam. They are purely vegetarian, living basically on milk based products to supplement their consumption of cereals. They practice transhumance, migrating in the summer to the high mountain meadows, with their herds of buffaloes and cows, and withdrawing to the forests of the low lying tracks in the winters. Much of the milk supply of the hills during the pilgrimage season is provided by them. They are well-known for their command over forest lore.
All tribal communities have tremendous knowledge of traditional medicine systems and herbs.