The present day the Kinnauras do not constitute a homogenous group and display significant territorial and ethnic diversity. For a better understanding of ethnic and cultural distribution, the Kinnaur District may be classified into three territorial units.
Lower Kinnaur comprise area between Chora at the boundary of the Kinnaur District with Rampur Bushahr and Kalpa including Nichar and Sangla valleys. The people of Lower Kinnaur are primarily of the Mediterranean physical type. It is difficult to distinguish them from the people residing in the adjoining Shimla District with whom they have some affinity. The people of lower Kinnaur are mostly Hindus though the ethno-historical factors have resulted in some Buddhist influence.
The middle Kinnaur is the area between Kalpa and Kanam including Moorang tehsil.
The people of middle Kinnaur are of mixed racial strain. Some have marked Mongoloid and others marked Mediterranean features. In some cases there is an admixture of the above two in varying degrees. The inhabitants are Buddhist as well as Hindus. Many people have faith in both the religions. The upper Kinnaur comprises of remaining north-eastern part of the district i.e. the area between Pooh and Hangrang valley extending upto international border with Tibet.
The predominant physical type of upper Kinnaur in the Mongoloid though a few persons with Mediterrean features are also seen in the area around Pooh. Some persons show the blending of Mediterrean and Mongoloid elements in varying degrees. However the people of Hangrang valley are almost universally Mongoloids. They mostly follow Mahayana Buddhist religion.
The Kinnaur society is divided into two broad occupational groups- peasants and the artisans possibly of diverse ethnic origin. These groups are represented by Kanets (Rajputs) and Scheduled Castes.
The Kanets comprise the main cultivating community of the area and use honorific surname Negi. Among the Kanets there are three grades. In the first grade Kanets there are as many as fifty sub-castes, in the second grades there are seventeen sub-castes and in the third grade who work as potter have three sub-castes. Waza Kanets belong to the third grade and are considered inferior among Kanets.
The Scheduled castes include Chamangs and Domangs. Chamangs traditionally make and wove clothes. The Domangs are primarily blacksmiths. There is a third caste called ores. The main profession of Ores is carpentry. In social status the Ores are equal to Domangs. Among the Scheduled castes blacksmiths and carpenters i.e. Domangs and Ores considered themselves superior to Kolis or Chamangs.
The people of district dress mostly woolen clothes. There clothing is well suited to the climate and is artistic too in its own distinctive way.
Head dress: of men and women is a round woolen cap called thepang in the local dialect. It is generally of light grey or of white colour with a colour velvet band on the outer fold. Band of green colour is most liked. Crimson blue, yellow etc. may also be worn.
Men wear woolen shirts called chamn Kurti made of woolen cloth and tailored in the village. Another type of dress which the men wear is Chhuba. It is long woolen coat somewhat resembling an Achkan. A sleeveless woolen jacket worn outside the Chhuba. Men wear woolen churidhar pajama.
Women wrap up a woolen shawl like garment called dohru. The first wrap of dohru is on the back with embridered border displayed throughout its length up to the heels. Darker shades of colours are preferred for dohru. Besides beautiful coloured shawls are also worn by them over their shoulders. Choli a sort of full sleeves blouse is worn by the women. Some of them have decorative lining also. However, now a days wearing of cotton/synthetic salwar, kameez, pants and shirts have become popular among the young Kinnauras.
The traditional footwear worn by the Kinnauras were made of wool and goat hair with sole of goat hide. However, with the passage of the time the indigenous shoes have almost disappeared and wearing of readymade shoes is in vogue.
Houses and Equipment
The housing pattern of upper Kinnaur is different from that of lower Kinnaur.
In the lower Kinnaur the houses are two storeyed and built of stone and wood. These are either slated roofs or having flat roofs made of layers of bhojpatra (tree bark) covered with earth. The door are often folding and open inwards.
In upper Kinnaur the houses are usually built of stone. These are flat roofed and covered with earth. They are ill-built on account of the scarcity of wood. The houses are two storeyed and doors are small. The ground floor is used as cattle shed and upper storey for living purposes. The size and plinth area of the house depends upon the site available for construction. The houses are white washed in lower as well as upper Kinnaur. Besides these traditional houses, now RCC houses built in modern designs are also coming up.
Usually the households have some wooden chest for keeping grain and dried fruits. In addition most of the houses have separate wooden grain storage structures locally called ‘Kathar’. Khayarcha is a mat used for sitting purposes, which is made of goats hair. Pakpa which is skin of sheep or goat or some wild animal as often placed on khayarcha for sitting. Traditionally the people used to use utensils made of brass, bronze and aluminum. However, now a days with the increased outside contact they are fast adopting the china crockery and utensils made of stainless steel.
The staple food is wheat, ogla, phafra and barley which are local produce. Besides these kankani, cheena, maize, chollair and bathu are also taken. The principal pulses consumed are peas, black peas, mash and rajmash. The vegetables usually consumed are cabbage, turnips, peas, beans, pumpkin, potato, lady finger and tomato besides some locally available wild green vegetables leaves. They relish rice too which is imported from the plains. Taking a salted tea called cha in the morning and evening is very popular among the Kannauras which is usually taken along with sattu made of parched barley flour.
They are non-vegetarian and relish goat and ram’s meat. Taking of alcoholic drinks in their day to day life and also on the ceremonial or festive occasions is quite common among them. Alcohol is distilled at the household level. It is made out of fruits like grapes, apple, pear etc. grown locally and of barley. The Kannauras are very fond of music, dance and singing.
Generally, Kinner houses have storerooms for keeping grain and dried fruits, and separate wooden grain-storage structures, called kathar. Pakpa, a piece of sheepskin or yakskin, is often placed on the khayarcha mat.
Traditionally Kinners use utensils made of brass and bronze. Modern influences have included the introduction of Chinese crockery, and utensils made of stainless steel and aluminium.
Clothes are mainly of wool. The thepang, a grey woollen cap, is worn with a white velvet band. The Tibetan chhuba, a long woollen coat
which resembles an achkan, is worn as well, with a sleeveless woollen jacket.While men wear woollen churidhar pajamas, and tailored woollen shirts such as the chamn kurti, the women wrap themselves up in a dohru. The first wrap of the dohru is based on the back, with embroidered borders displayed throughout its length, which stretches to the heels. Darker shades of colours are preferred for the Dohru, although other beautifully coloured shawls may be worn, usually draped over the shoulders. A choli, another type of full sleeved blouse worn by women, may serve as a decorative lining as well.
The Kinners are classified mainly into two castes: lower and upper caste. Again both of these categories are divided into sub classes. The caste system is more prevalent in the Lower and Middle Kinnaur regions.
As stated above, the people of lower Kinnaur are mostly Hindus, though some references of Buddhism is also evident. Their most important gods and goddess are Durga or Chandi, Bhairon, Usha or Ukha, Narayan, Vishnu, Badrinath and Bhimakali. The Chamang and Domang in addition have their favourite deities such as Nag Devta. Besides each village has its presiding deity. The inhabitants of middle Kinnaur are Buddhist as well as Hindu. In the northern area Buddhist influence is stronger. The important deity of middle Kinnaur are Chandi,Gauri Shankar, Kansa and Narayanjee. There are some monasteries besides the temples. The village god at Kanam worshipped by people of Buddhist faith is Dabla who has certain features associated with the earlier Bon religion. The image of Dabla is installed alongwith those of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche (Padma Sambhava) in one of the monasteries at Kanam.
The religion of upper Kinnaur is mostly Buddhism, having the institution of Lamaism. They mostly follow Mahayan Buddhism religion. Almost every village has a monastery with Lamas and jomos, who are recruited from amongst the Rajput (Kanet) only. A major part of the district is inhabited by people professing Lama religion. Though venerated by the inhabitants of Nichar and Sangla tehsils, Lama faith does not have a strong hold in these areas.
There are Buddhist temples in many of the villages of these areas yet the followers of this faith do not form a significant group. In Kalpa, Moorang and Pooh tehsils Lama are consulted and their services utilised in performance of many religious ceremonies. In Nichar and Sangla people do not necessarily consult Lamas on these occasions. In the absence of Brahman priests the people perform ceremonies themselves
Kanet boys, who learn the Tibetan scriptures and are well versed in Buddhist doctrines, are called Lamas. Similarly the Kanet girls, who do not marry, but devote their time to the study of Tibetan scriptures are called Zomos or Jomos. They live in nunneries. The two principal nunneries are at Kanam and Sunnam and in these a great numbers of Zomos live. Besides this, almost every village had few Zomos. The Lamas live in the monasteries and are looked upon as very holy.
In fact they are the priests of all the Kanets.There are several monasteries of these Lamas in Kanam, Sunnam and other villages. Lamas are either Gyolong or Celibate like the Brahmchari or Dugpu, who marry but never shave. The head Lama is consulted with regard to important undertaking
A number of dialects are spoken by the inhabitants of district Kinnaur which came under ‘Kinnauri’ or ‘Kanauri’. According to classification of languages made by the Linguistic Survey of India, ‘Kanauri’ comes under Tibet-Chinese Family of Languages. It has further been classified as language belonging to Western Sub-Group of Pronominalized Himalayan Group belonging to Tibeto-Himalayan Branch under Tibeto-Burnab Sub-Family (Census of India 1961, Vol. 1 India, Part II-C(ii). Languages Tables.P.CL.XVI). In Shimla Hill States Gazetteer, 1910, there is mention of three dialects spoken in Kinnaur. These are Hindi, Kinnauri and English Also there are as many as nine different dialects used by various sections in district Kinnaur.
The villagers on the Tibetan Border speak Tibetan dialects of western Tibet. The extent of spoken Tibetan is limited to the village of Nesang, Kunu and Charang adjoining Tibet. Jangram dialect is spoken in Jangi, Lippa and Asrang villages of Moorang tehsil. The Shumceho dialect is spoken in the villages of Kanam, Labrang, Spilo, Shyaso and Rushkalang of Pooh tehsil. A Kinnauri-Jangram mixture is the language used in Rakchham and Chhitkul villages of Sangla tehsil. The Scheduled castes speak a language which is closer to that of certain parts of the adjoining districts of Kinnaur. Besides these dialects the educated people of Kinnaur can speak Hindi also. Both men and women, specially in Sangla and Kalpa valley can speak English in addition to their mother tongue and Hindi.