It was a hot day in May this year when my wife, Naumi, her brother, Shiven, and I left Dehra Dun on a trip to Chakrātā. Our driver was a cheerful Jaunsāri, well known to Shiven, had many stories to tell us about his family and the region. After a drinks break at Shiven’s mango orchard in Herbertpur, we stopped at Kālsī which is about 45 kilometers northwest of Dehra Dun.
Kālsī is famous for the only Aśokan Edict in north India, and it also has remains of an altar constructed for a royal Aśvamedha rite performed in the third century. Situated at the confluence of Yamuna and Tons rivers; beyond it to the west is Himachal Pradesh. Tons is the larger river at the join, and many have theorized that it is the Vedic Sarasvati which, in ancient times, flowed parallel to the Yamuna, meeting it much further down in Haryana.
The edict is inscribed on quartz rock which is 10 feet high, 10 feet wide, and 8 feet deep at its base. Like most other edicts, it is in Prakrit, written in Brahmi script, and it appears to have been issued somewhat before 250 BCE. It describes Aśoka’s policies, reforms and injunctions for good citizenship. The prescriptions mentioned include self-control, purity of mind, gratitude, service to parents and ascetics, alms to brahmins and śramaṇas, proper behavior towards friends, relatives, and servants, and concordance in religious matters. The edict also speaks of the lands in the south and the west where Aśoka has sent his embassies to spread the message of dharma.
After seeing the edict and a stroll in the bazar, we drove another fifty kilometers north through mountain road to Chakrātā, which is at 7000 feet (2,200 meters). The climb begins just beyond the town and after crossing a couple of ranges, much climbing and many twists and turns, Chakrātā appears to float from afar as a shining city on the top of the mountains. But it takes much more driving up steep hills before one arrives.
The area is inhabited by the Jaunsār and the Bāwar people, who claim descent from the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas, respectively, and speak Pahari. As in many other Himalayan regions, polyandry is a common custom to keep the population in check. This practice, in which brothers marry one wife (like Draupadī of the Mahābhārata), is something I knew of in Ladakh during my boyhood years I spent there. In Ladakh, the unmarried girls were packed off to the monastery to train as nuns; in Jaunsār-Bāwar, the polyandry of the poorer people was somewhat balanced by the polygamy of the richer folk.
Chakrātā was established as a cantonment by the British in 1869. With soldiers came the need for alcohol, and the Imperial Gazetteer of 1909 speaks of a brewery with 30 employees and production of 88,000 gallons. Then, its population was 1,200; now it is three times as much.
Chakrātā is a hill station for the quiet traveler, with many trails for the trekker, and it feels like a less busy version of Mussoorie. The bazaar, which mercifully is only for pedestrians, reminded me of the bazaars of small towns in the Jammu and Kashmir of my childhood. As a regiment town, the shops are well stocked with all kinds of things for the soldier and his family.
From what we saw, SUVs appear to be the main transport for the locals. But we saw many that were frightfully overloaded with some passengers sitting on the roof. Accidents do happen from time to time with much loss of life.