The Van-Gujjars are a nomadic tribe originally from Jammu & Kashmir, now spread out across the Himalayas in search of forests and meadows for their cattle. Every year, as the snow start melting in the mountains, it’s their time to start walking.
Gujjars earn their living by selling milk and dairy products. Once they settle in their summer home, they make mawa, which is used in Indian sweets, and sell it in nearby villages and towns every week.
In May, I followed a family from this community who were going to the upper Himalayas, moving to Matya Vhugyal meadows of Uttarakhand.. I could see excitement in everybody’s eyes—especially children and women—as we began the trek. Salma, 15, said, “Once we reach the meadows, it’s like heaven. We leave our cattle to graze. Then we rest, sing, and play for the season.”
For next 18 days, we walked through different landscapes crossing towns, villages and dense Himalayan forests. We would sleep in the open. The summer homes look like a pastoral painting: colourful caravans,women and men going about their chores, beaming faces of children and smell of burnt wood.
Work is divided on the basis of age, not gender. Each family member has a role to play. Adults walk with the big buffaloes and horses, children walk with _calves. Each kid had their set of animals and had names for them.
Some adults in the family say they want their children to go to school but it’s tough, since they don’t stay at one place. Others think it’s enough to learn to read and write.
Gujjars have been accused of destroying the ecology of the region. Safi Mohammad, the eldest of the family with whom I travelled, told me that if this were true, the forests wouldn’t have survived at all since they have been living there for centuries. The tribe takes almost nothing from nature in spite of living so close to it.
Twenty years ago, almost all Gujjars made this nearly month-long arduous walk from the plains to the hill. The number has come down today. They leave their winter homes in the forest in April, after which Forest Department guards tear down their huts and sell the building material. When they return in September, they have to rebuild their homes from scratch.
Apart from bribing 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, so they cover certain stretches at night to avoid accidents. Moreover, there has been a change in the ecology of the forest. Some species of trees and plants are hard to find, which makes it harder for Gujjars to find food for their animals and sustain this lifestyle.
Urban realities have affected the aspirations of the youth. Many have difficulty in taking pride over their nomadic traditions and want jobs in the cities. Irfan, 22, youngest son of Safi Mohammad, said, “If we settle down, we don’t have to do this. I shall buy a small truck and drive that. What is this life! Our children are not getting any education. We are stuck in a cycle. Aren’t our lives miserable?”
Noor wanders outside her house, looking for their horses. She says, “My family does not let me go anywhere when we live near the city, but here in the jungle, there is no fear.’
A child plays in the house. Children help with household work from an early age in the Gujjar family setup.
Gujjars have been accused of destroying the ecology of the regions they pass through. Family elders deny this, saying they have been walking this way for centuries.
One of the Gujjars with their horses. Every child in the family has his or her own set of animals to look after.
One of the makeshift structures that will form their summer home from April to September.
The Gujjars are forced to pay bribes to officials of the forest department, to preserve their homes once they return from their summer movements.
Safi, the eldest of the family. He says that their identities are tied to their buffaloes, and without buffaloes, there are no Gujjars.
Fifteen-year-old Salma’s marriage was fixed by her parents when she was eight. She will probably be married in a couple of years, once her parents find a bride for her older brother Irfan.
A traditional ritual where when a female buffalo is born, an incision is made on the baby buffalo’s ear as a sign of good fortune.
Children play with a ball made of old fabric and socks.
This family’s mountain home. Each family gets a permit from the forest department to live in a particular forest for six months.