By Janaki Lenin 0

An old relationship between mountain shepherds and villagers features new tensions. Janaki Lenin is witness to the changing dynamic between Kinnaura shepherds and Spitian villagers

Photographs by Janaki Lenin

Photographs by Janaki Lenin

Everyone was Tense. Three shepherds—Tarachand*, Gopichand and Indrasen—sat against the wall on one side of the room. Tarachand’s eyes were glued to the television that was playing an India vs Zimbabwe cricket match. I couldn’t tell if he was watching the game or figuring out what to say. Sonam Tobgail, our host, sat across from the men. They avoided looking at each other and were as mute as the television. Sonam’s face, normally relaxed with a smile, was pinched and stern. Who would broach the subject and when, I wondered.

The shepherds from Kinnaur were in Sagnam, Spiti. As they did every summer, they had arrived with their flocks of sheep and goats to graze them in the mountainous pastures. This year’s numberdhar, the person in charge of managing the village’s affairs, was Sonam. Normally, Kinnaura shepherds met him as a gesture of courtesy before heading up to their pastures. But this meeting was more serious.

The winter had been mild and rivers ran free and fierce. The shepherds had heard an ice bridge that provided access to their pastures was gone, and they wanted the numberdhar’s permission to go through the village and use the iron bridge across the Pin river. Sonam knew what they had come for, and the shepherds knew from his body language that their request would be rebuffed.

All our heads turned as the women entered the room. Sonam’s wife brought tea in ceramic cups with red and gold Chinese motifs balanced on a stainless steel tray, and her daughter carried a thermos. The men slurped the hot tea in chorus. Padma, Sonam’s son, and Chhering, a neighbour, arrived and took their seats.

After a few sips of the milky tea, Tarachand took the plunge, “So tell us. Will you give us permission or not?”

“How can I give you permission?” Sonam stuttered. “If I did, the villagers would not leave me alone.”

“How will we reach our pastures then?”

“Same way you did in previous years.”

“But the ice bridge isn’t there.”

“What can I do?”

“Yaar, you are the king of Sagnam,” Tarachand tried again in a conciliatory tone. “If you say so, everyone will listen.”

“I can’t do anything. I’m an elderly man living a retired life. I don’t need this headache.”

“Please help us. We’ll reimburse the village for any damages.”

“I can’t take this decision. All I can do is call a village meeting and let them decide. That much I can do.”

I looked out the window. The moon was high in the clear blue-black sky. The villagers would be home eating dinner. Would they stir out into the cold night to decide the fate of the shepherds’ flocks?

Tarachand with his uncle Vidya Singh in Spiti

Tarachand with his uncle Vidya Singh in Spiti

Urged by Chhering and Padma, Tarachand agreed. He had no choice. His flock was outside Sagnam, and he had to find a way to feed more than 1,000 animals by morning. Gopichand and Indrasen’s flocks were a day’s journey behind. Tarachand took his leave and the other shepherds followed him. Even the home-distilled barley moonshine that the women brought out couldn’t tempt them to stay.

For 11 days, the men had walked more than 150 kilometres from their village in Rupi valley, cresting the steep 4,900m Bhabha Pass. Donkeys laden with rations and blankets had slipped and skated on their backs down the icy slopes, and had to be helped as they plunged into thigh-deep snow. The shepherds had lost several sheep and goats along the way. Food at the deras was meagre—rice or rotis with potatoes or kadhi. Sometimes, dal and mutton provided protein.

The deras were a semicircle of roughly piled boulders, and all the shepherds had to do was spread a tarpaulin sheet over it to create a shelter. At night, freezing wind flapped the plastic noisily over the shepherds’ sleeping forms as they snuggled together under coarse goat hair blankets. Even though they walked all day, they took turns to keep watch, investigating every dog bark. If they didn’t, leopards, bears and wolves could take their animals. The travel-weary men longed to reach their pastures where they could finally rest.

Retracing the journey so soon after arrival would give neither the animals nor the men time to recuperate. The animals had lost weight and were in poor condition from the long march. In normal years, they would feast on the nutrient-rich forage of the high-altitude desert for three months before descending to the forests of Rupi.

Sheep grazing on sodden grass

Sheep grazing on sodden grass

Eshe, Padma’s wife, started cooking while Sonam and I cleaned geer, the weeds that she had spent the day pulling out of the family’s fields of green peas.

I asked Sonam what the villagers of Sagnam gained by leasing pastures to shepherds from Kinnaur. As farmers tilling poor desert soil, I expected they must hanker for the rich livestock droppings to fertilise their fields. Across peninsular India, this reciprocal relationship—pastures for manure—between cultivators and pastoralists allowed both to make the best use of the land.

The pastures were far away from the village, replied Sonam dismissively. Tarachand’s pasture in Khamengar, for instance, was a two-day walk away. They’d have to camp overnight and haul the manure back on donkeys or tractors. Some villagers frequent the nearest meadows at Noor and Kameng for dung, but most had adequate droppings from their horses, cows, yaks, donkeys and cow-yak hybrids to nourish their fields. If not manure, then what did Sagnam gain?

Eshe took some of the cleaned plants and threw them into the pot. As they sizzled, the fragrance of frying leaves filled the room. On an adjacent stove, she made rotis that puffed up round and proud.

A rough path led from Sagnam to its extensive pastures. When flocks a thousand strong pass through, they damage the trail. “It becomes unusable and we have to repair it,” piped up Chhering, who had been silent until then. The shepherds paid a tax called lumdin, Rs 2,500 per group, to fix the path. Besides, every three years, the villagers drew lots, and the few chosen families received three animals from each shepherd group. About ten years ago, the village felt it was a sin to slaughter animals. So they now received changdung, as this payment is called, in cash.


“We began doing well only in the past 30 years,” Padma said. “Before that people went hungry. My grandfather used to say people pretended to their neighbours that they had full bellies by tying dry dung patties to their bellies under their clothes. Some sprinkled sattu [barley flour] around their mouths to show they had just eaten. When people didn’t get enough to eat, meat was a big thing.”

Meat. This explained why the villagers had leased their pastures for what seemed like a pittance.

The village could not renegotiate during the lifetime of the lessees, called tolls in Spiti. In earlier times, these shepherds brought their stock to graze these pastures. Now, none of the eight tolls owned large enough flocks. Instead, they sublet their rights every year to other shepherds like Tarachand and Gopichand. These herdsmen then collected flocks from others for a fee. Tarachand had only about 100 animals of his own and the rest belonged to his fellow villagers who paid him to take their animals to Spiti. Sagnam villagers called such animals phaltu. Sonam said, in the old days, a flock of no more than 400 grazed on a pasture. But today each meadow hosted more than a thousand. This caused over-grazing. Worse, the shepherds ran their animals outside designated areas, ruining those lands as well.

“One toll called Baliram died two–three years ago,” said Padma. “But he had stopped coming to his pasture about five years ago. Nothing grazes there and that area is lush with good forage compared to all the other pastures.” In their own way, Sagnam’s residents assessed the quality of pastures. The villagers’ yaks and horses used the same lands so deteriorating pastures hit them too.

“The village doesn’t benefit much from the shepherds,” concluded Sonam. “In fact, they are more of a problem.” The others nodded their heads vigorously.

“Doesn’t their presence reduce bear attacks on your animals?” I asked. Kishan Kumar, another villager, had said that their free-ranging horses and yaks were buffered from predator attacks by the nomadic livestock. By steering the conversation to the benefits, I thought I’d get a more balanced view of the relationship between the two peoples.

“They do to a degree,” agreed Sonam. “But most attacks occur in September and October, long after the shepherds leave. That’s the harvest time, when people have no time to go check on the horses and yaks.”

I figured if this conversation were replicated in other households, the chances of Tarachand gaining access through the village were low.

The generations-old relationship between Sagnam villagers and the transient herders wasn’t always uneasy. Kinnauras doted on the lamas from Sagnam, who staffed the Buddhist temples in Kinnaur. Village devtas (deities) from Pin Valley and Kinnaur visited each other every year until recently. In the days of trade conducted by mules, the shepherds traded sattu for salt that Spitians bartered with the Changpas of Ladakh.

Many Buddhists like Chhering abhorred the slaughter of animals for food. Their diets were vegetarian most of the year, but when the Kinnaura shepherds arrived, they could eat the meat of sheep and goats that died naturally.

The relationship was also personal. Chhering’s family had a long connection with the shepherds. When he was a lad, the Kinnaura men frequented his house since his father ran the only grocery store. The men stocked up on supplies and spent the night socialising with their buddies before heading back to their remote camps in the mountains. Gopichand was his mother’s dharambhai, a unique tradition among Kinnaura pastoralists of adopting unrelated individuals as members of their family. The bond between the adopted was so strong that they attended family functions in each other’s households.

“Don’t you have a dharambhai?” I had asked Tarachand once during the trek.

“Everyone in Sagnam is my dharambhai,” he had replied theatrically.

During the trek from Kinnaur to Spiti, he had expressed nothing but respect for Spitians and he developed a bond with Padma and Chhering, who accompanied us. The two Spitian men cooked and cleaned, gathered firewood, and loaded and drove the donkeys. Gopichand, the doting uncle, visited the dera often to check on Chhering.

With such close relationships, I expected Chhering to be sympathetic to the shepherds’ cause. Besides, the tradition of hosting shepherds at his home continued even now, long after his family’s store closed.

“If they are in a group, they get drunk,” Chhering said. “Then they start arguing and fighting. Sometimes, my wife has to stay up awake until 2 or 3 am, serving them food. Their fighting can become boisterous. My living room has been trashed several times. But we still put up with them because where else can they go?”

If they felt so strongly about the shepherds, why did they entertain them? I quietly posed the question not in so many words to Zangpo, Eshe’s wise older brother. I didn’t want to fuel the discontent, especially when Tarachand’s access to his pasture was at stake. But Zangpo saw right through my circumspect question.

“Leasing the pastures to the shepherds is helpful in one way,” he replied. “People are scared that banning them would affect their own access to pastures. A ban would only strengthen the Forest Department’s hands.”

Some pastures fall within the Pin Valley National Park that was notified in 1987. The Forest Department has been trying to gain control of these lands by offering alternative sites or cash to the villagers but they weren’t interested. Despite their opposition to the shepherds, the villagers saw them as allies in dealing with the Department. If they had common interests, couldn’t they work out a satisfactory deal with each other?

In the old days, villagers used to visit the pastures to gather firewood, and while they were at it, checked the tags of the shepherds’ livestock. Each shepherd marked the ears of his animals with distinct cuts. If a flock had more than one kind of tag then the village fined him for bringing someone else’s animals.

Sonam complained that the younger generation wasn’t invested in the fate of their pastures since they were doing well cultivating green peas. “Nobody goes to check the pastures and the shepherds do what they want,” Sonam said before hurrying off to call the villagers one last time for the meeting.

Tarachand cares for a newborn lamb

Tarachand cares for a newborn lamb

As Chhering and I left Padma’s house to attend the village meeting, I thought Tarachand’s case was hopeless.

“What does your mother think of this problem?” I asked Chhering.

“An individual’s opinions don’t matter when the entire village is being affected,” replied Chhering. “Everyone recognises that the shepherds are taking advantage of us.”

Kishan Kumar joined us in the dark alley. “Do you think the villagers will give access?” I asked him.

“It’s not the shepherds’ fault that the ice bridge melted,” he replied. “I would argue that the village should give access in the name of humanity.” He said those words with such forcefulness, for the first time I felt the decision could go either way.

At the centre of the village, in front of a store, nearly 20 men had gathered. No women participated. Tarachand stood with the two other shepherds on the periphery, lit by the light shining from an open window. He had gone from house to house pleading with each family to attend the meeting as his livelihood was at stake. Sonam walked up and down the alley hollering for more people to join in. It didn’t look like any more were going to attend the meeting.

Tarachand made his case and stepped back. The villagers went into a huddle in the dark, debating volubly. It was hard to follow what was going on as they were speaking Spitian, a dialect of Tibetan. Chhering couldn’t translate as fast as the arguments flowed and I had to be content with brief disjointed statements The participants were divided in two vocal, opposing camps. Many were undecided and appeared to agree with whoever talked. Those who didn’t want to allow the shepherds through the village repeated the same complaints I had heard at Padma’s house.

Someone suggested another solution: the shepherds walk up a steep mountain and cross the stream at its narrowest. All didn’t seem to be lost.

“It’s risky,” said Chhering. “The trail is not very wide and the animals will have to walk in single file. If they tried to rush, some animals are certain to lose their footing and roll to their deaths.”

He left to consult with others. Even as I struggled to understand which way the wind was blowing, a couple of drunks wouldn’t leave me alone. I retreated hastily. I’d discover the outcome the next morning.


At dawn, I rushed to Chhering’s house, hoping to catch Tarachand before he left. But he had left. “The villagers didn’t give him permission,” said Chhering, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.

The meeting had gone on till 3am. When the tie between the two opposing sides couldn’t be broken, someone suggested looking in the village register for a precedent. While poring through its contents, they discovered that about three years ago, the village had decided to impose another tax on these three shepherds. It wasn’t clear what this additional tax was for. Later, when I asked, neither Tarachand nor any of the villagers could explain. The numberdhars hadn’t collected this money since, and the total now amounted to Rs 52,000. The villagers demanded they pay these arrears. Tarachand gave Rs 10,000 and sought more time to pay the rest. Even though he had abided by the village’s decision, the villagers weren’t well-disposed to him. One by one those who had argued for him switched sides until the majority turned against him.

“What will he do?” I asked with dismay.

“He’s going up the mountain to try the other route.”

Two weeks later, I got a call from an upbeat Tarachand. He had walked his animals up the mountain and across another ice bridge without losing any of them. He was in Sagnam to stock up on groceries. He’d eat his fill and drink with his friends. Life was good.

*Name has been changed on request. This story was supported by grants from the Foundation for Ecological Security and Earth Journalism Network.

This essay is published in April-June 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue is The Himalaya and writer Stephen Alter is the guest editor of the issue.


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