Many people must be aware of the term ‘Kandali’ which is a plant that causes itchy rashes when it comes in contact with the skin. During childhood days, when we used to create nuisance our smart mums would use this plant as a tool for giving punishment, by just rubbing it against our skin which made us scratch our back like an ape. Undoubtedly, that was a very harsh punishment indeed but getting back to the topic Kandali is also a lively festival of Uttarakhand which many of us are not aware of. This festival is celebrated when Kandali (Stinging Nettle) plant that grows in Chaudans region of Pithoragarh bear flowers. The flower of kandali plant blooms once in every twelve years (last in 1999) precisely between the months of August and October.
The Kandali festival is celebrated in the hinterlands of Chaundas Valley in the Dharchula tehsil of Pithoragarh. This remote valley lies between the colossal Kali and Dhauli rivers. The unique Kandali festival lasts for a week and is celebrated with utmost gaiety by the Shauka or the Rung community to rejoice the defeat of Zorawar Singh’s army which attacked Ladakh in 1841. This auspicious festival begins with the puja of a Shiva linga, made out of barley and buckwheat flour mixture. The locals decorate the courtyard of their houses and enrapture in festivity.
After the puja, a community feast is given to the locals. People dress up in their traditional attires, adorn their precious jewels and encircle around a holy tree. They tie strips of a white cloth around the tree and raise a victory flag. After that, a grand procession is taken out which is led by a woman armed with a ril (an instrument used for compacting carpet on the loom). Children and men also participate in the procession who are well equipped with the swords and shields.
When the procession reaches near the flowering kandali plant, war tunes are played and the valley echoes with the battle cries. The women destroy the kandali bushes with their rils and men also help them by hacking the bushes with their swords. The troops uproot the bushes, victory cries are made and rice grains are cast towards the sky for appeasing the deities. The people of Chaundas Valley pray to god that they may always be victorious over their enemies.
There are several legends associated with this festival which showcase the martial tradition of the Shauka tribe. There is a tale which goes, once a boy who was the only son of a widow died by tasting the poisonous flower of the kandali plant. Another story states that the kandali flower is the symbol of famine and poverty. While the third tale tells that long ago this region was attacked by the enemies when the males of the village had gone away for trade. The women then took control and destroyed the kandali bushes where the enemies were hiding. Hence, this festival is celebrated to commemorate the brave act of the women of this region.
The Kandali festival unites the distant relatives and the family members residing in the other parts of the country. People return to their native homes for taking part in the procession. An assembly is also held known as ‘Savdhoomo-sabha’ in which fruits, sweets and liquor are consumed by the people. The deities are worshipped and people dance to the tune of the melodious folk songs.