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Kumaon is the little patch of the Himalaya tucked up where today, India, Nepal and China all meet just to the Northeast of Delhi. The contrast of this landscape of green hills, plunging valleys and icy peaks to the awesome flatness of the adjacent North-Indian plains is profound. Indeed, the contrast is so extreme that, despite the two spaces physical proximity, they had remained politically, economically and culturally distant and distinct during the pre-colonial era. Kumaon was not part of India in pre-colonial times. Rather, it was part of Willem van Schendel’s Zomia.
In 1815, the East India Company wrested Kumaon from the similarly expansionary Gurkha Empire that had overrun Kumaon a generation earlier. In doing so, the Company took its empire into a space that was very different to everything they knew from the plains below. The formal governmental practices the Company used to maintain its empire—the regulations—were written on the palimpsest of the conditions of the plains. Recognizing the distance and distinction of Kumaon, the Company chose not to apply the regulations in this mountainous space. Kumaon would be an Extra-Regulation Province, a space beyond the letter of the regulations. In this alternative space, the meeting of local custom with the Company’s formal governmental practices played out very differently to the parallel meeting in India’s heartlands. My thesis brings to light the story of this forgotten encounter.
Mark is a final year PhD candidate with the Pacific and Asian History Department – College of Asia and Pacific, Australian National University.