Everyone might not care for the bagpipe’s piercing sound, which can be heard from miles away. But in the hills of Garhwal in Uttarakhand, Indian bagpipers are proud members of bands that provide the background score to weddings.

Bagpipes have a better known military history. No military parade is complete without the obligatory band that invariably has its own set of accompanying bagpipers.

In 1976, United Breweries acknowledged the instrument's military debt when it launched Bagpiper Whisky. One of the cheapest whiskies in the Indian market, Bagpiper is remembered for its square bottle and black label with a marching Indian bagpiper in resplendent military uniform.

This might explain why in 2009, the Indian military consumed about nine litres of alcohol per person.

The third Massed Pipe Band of the Assam Regiment practice their piping skills on an open ground.

Jason Busniewski, a Fulbright scholar from the United States who visited India for nine months in 2013, has been studying the influence and forms of bagpipe music for his PhD thesis, at Garhwal University, and in the process worked with two bagpipe teachers playing in the folk tradition and one in the military.

“I had played Irish music for a long time, and I wanted to go to graduate school for Indian music,” Busniewski told Scroll.in. “I thought it would be interesting if they could somehow come together.”

While researching these intersections, he came across the late 18th century Carnatic composer Muthuswami Dikshitar who wrote Sanskrit lyrics to Western tunes he had learnt from representatives of the East India Company. Bagpipes were present even in Afghanistan around this period. Garhwal, too, preserved the lingering remnants of colonial powers.

The British, who used bagpipes in their army bands, introduced the instrument to India in the 19th century. The Indian military style of bagpipe-playing, which is sonorous and set to Scottish tunes, draws directly from this tradition.

Folk bagpipers in Garhwal, however, have no such constraints. They use the same bagpipes, called mashak, to play their own style of music. Regular brass bands, Busniewski said, dominate urban areas, but in villages, where instead of the shehnai, a metal wind instrument, folk musicians rely instead on Scottish highland bagpipes, adapted to their local needs.

Bagpipes are rarely heard in isolation in these bands, but have to compete with the dhol or drum. Unlike other instruments, they are almost never played solo, and these bands almost always play set folk tunes, though they do have room for some improvisation.

A Garhwali band travels all the way to Delhi to play at a wedding.

The roots of folk bagpipers in the Garhwal hills are obscure largely because the region did not have a tradition of maintaining written or visual records. But the instrument appears to go a long way back. One piper Busniewski met had inherited his bagpipe from his family that was so old that he was unable to say which of his ancestors had first procured it. Whatever their Indian provenance, bagpipes remain popular today for purely practical reasons.

Andrew Alters, another researcher from the US who studied bagpipes in Garhwal cited three influences. One was its similarity to the already present shehnai. Another, he wrote in a paper on the topic, was military: because the British army recruited from the Garhwal region, many of them were exposed to and taught how to play bagpipes.

The last, and most practical, was geographical. “Wedding processions travelling through the Himalayas will often ascend and descend many hundreds of meters,” he wrote. “The sound of a mashak as part of an approaching wedding party can broadcast the processional intentions of the party across great distances.”

And, he adds, the bagpipe is easy to play. When climbing steep slopes, it is easier to play an instrument that requires less huffing and puffing than one that does not store air.

A piper from Kumaon, the district neighbouring Garhwal, plays a traditional tune solo on his bagpipe.

Busniewski observed that just as with any other folk musicians, the Indians had to modify their tunes to keep up with the times. “Bollywood tunes are now getting more popular, which is why brass bands are becoming more popular,” he said. “But recently, there has been a resurgence of bagpipes. At weddings, you might get a disc jockey, a brass band and dhols and you can barely hear the traditional ensemble. And at some weddings, bagpipers are there only symbolically, alone.”