The Van-Gujjars are a nomadic tribe originally from Jammu & Kashmir that have spread out across the Himalayas in search of rich forests and meadows for their cattle. Every year, as the snow start melting in the mountains, it is their time to start walking.
In May, I followed a family from this community who were going to the upper Himalayas. I could see excitement in everybody’s eyes – especially the children and women as we began the trek. Salma, just fifteen, said, “Once we reach the meadows, it’s like heaven. We leave our cattle to graze. Then we rest, we sing, play and relax for the season.”
They were very welcoming to the idea of me following them, but at the same time very doubtful if a girl from a city would be able to survive the journey. For me, this journey wasn’t just about documenting these people’s life but to test my mental and physical strengths. Find my connection with nature, if there was any.
I remember as a kid seeing Gujjars and their families from a distance or in a photograph with my father from his trekking days. But for the first time, I was the part of them, could actually see how world look at them and how they see the world. It seemed many parallel worlds within the same space.
For next 18 days, we walked through different landscapes crossing towns, villages and dense Himalayan forests. I was carrying three pair of clothing, a sleeping bag and my camera kit.
We all would sleep in the open. I could feel the earth below me, and the sky above my head. Every morning, I would get up, with the sound of churning butter and it became my alarm for rest of my trip.
I was amazed by the fact that the work was divided on the basis of age not by the gender. Each family member had a role to play, adults would walk with the big buffaloes and horses, children would walk slowly with the calves. Each kid had their set of animals and had names for them.
Some adults in the family would discuss with me that they want their children to study and go to school. But, since they don’t stay at one place, it is tough for them. Others would say all they want to learn is be able to read and write so that they can use it while they are doing business. Gujjars earn their living by selling milk and other dairy products. Once they are settled in their summer home, they will make ‘Mawa’, which is used in Indian sweets and every week walk down near by towns and villages to sell that product.
Gujjars have been accused of destroying the ecology of the region. Safi Mohammad, the eldest in the family with which I traveled, told me that if this were true then these forests wouldn’t have survived at all since they have been living there for centuries. During the journey, 200 kilometres from my home in Rishikesh – where the nomads come to camp in the forest hills – to the Matya Vhugyal meadows in Uttarakhand, I saw that the tribe took almost nothing from nature in spite of living so close to it. Their gait, pace and posture, their daily habits, responded with sensitivity to a close and continual perpetual monitoring of the country through which they pass and which offers them sustenance.
Twenty years ago almost all Gujjars would make this arduous and dangerous walk from the plains to the hills, that takes a little less than a month. When they would leave their winter home in the forests in April the guards of the Forest Department would tear down their huts and sell the building material. When they would return in September they had to reconstruct their homes from scratch.
Apart from having to bribe forest guards, the tribes must come to terms with settled communities along the migratory path. In recent years, many forest passes have become paved roads. Heavy traffic at high altitudes makes walking with buffaloes and bulls hazardous. This has forced the Gujjars to cover certain stretches at night to avoid accidents. Moreover, there has been change in the ecology of the forest. Some spices of trees and plants are not found, which makes even more difficult for Gujjars to find food for their animals and to sustain this lifestyle.
And yet, staying in one place is a more of a threat than a promise of safety. Saying goodbye to a life centered around movement means bidding farewell to the buffaloes, companions in their walk and their way of existence. The intrusion of urban realities has also affected the aspirations of the youth among the Gujjars. Many of them have difficulty in taking pride over their nomadic traditions and want jobs in the cities. Irfhan, 22 youngest son of Safi Mohammad said” If we get settle down, we don’t have to do this. I shall buy a small truck and will drive that. What is this life! Our children are not getting any education. We are stuck in a cycle. Isn’t our lives miserable?”
Up in the mountains, their summer- house was a sight for the sore eyes. With light monsoon mists, veiling the settlement, raindrops dripping through the trees and smell of burnt wood smoke, that place looked like a pastoral painting – colorful caravans , women and men going about their chores ,beaming faces of children and smell of burnt wood wafting through the air. In them, I found a kindred spirits. Away from the fast pace and the burdens of a modern life, the technology and the sheer boredom of a world which looks increasingly homogeneous. The place is a like a balm on our cynical souls.
Once I started to settle down in that place, many thoughts started running in my head. Kind of restlessness creped in me thinking, when will my phone get signals, what about the internet, my camera battery and myriad other problems over things we civilized humans are addicted to.