Nomad’s Land

By Sankar Sridhar 0

The ground beneath their feet is shifting—literally and metaphorically. Sankar Sridhar documents the changing lives of the Bakarwal community of Kashmir

For close to two decades now, I have spent a fair amount of time with some of the nomadic communities of the Himalaya, following them during their migrations to document their lives and lifestyles while on the move. A trekking project that began with the intention of moving away from well-worn routes grew in ambition and scale when I realised the swift and sweeping changes overtaking almost all these communities. Roads were killing many of the migratory routes. Newly carved national parks and sanctuaries were robbing shepherds of traditional pastures. Government schemes promised them a better, more sedentary life, and the younger generation wanted nothing to do with the hard lives they saw their parents living.

While there are many aspects to this narrative, the bottom line is that, for better or worse, these pastoralists’ lifestyles are on the verge of vanishing. My objective now is to document the hazards and highlights of a life on the move, which I think holds valuable lessons in sustainability and human virtues.

My journeys with the Bakarwal ranged across the Rajourie and Poonch sectors of Kashmir, swathes of the Meena Marg area across the Zoji-la, and close to Drass and Kargil. These migrations, partly over highways and partly through alpine forests and across the high passes, presented their set of unique challenges—and drove home a point that I have valued ever since I began this personal project: One man’s adventure is all in a day’s work for another.

Mushtaq and his son Mateen warm themselves while waiting for dinner. Kashmir’s forest cover allows these nomads the luxury of not stocking up on firewood. Unlike other pastoral communities, Bakarwals almost never camp high above the tree line.

Mushtaq and his son Mateen warm themselves while waiting for dinner. Kashmir’s forest cover allows these nomads the luxury of not stocking up on firewood. Unlike other pastoral communities, Bakarwals almost never camp high above the tree line.

Horses and mules are the backbone of Bakarwal families. These pack animals ensure safe transport for every family’s rations, necessities and belongings. Unsurprisingly, they are showered with much love and get extra care and treats. The mark of a good Bakarwal, Mushtaq told me, were horses that didn’t stray from camp even when they are free to roam at night. Mushtaq is seen here rounding up his horses—which had strayed less than 12 hours after he said this to me.

Horses and mules are the backbone of Bakarwal families. These pack animals ensure safe transport for every family’s rations, necessities and belongings. Unsurprisingly, they are showered with much love and get extra care and treats. The mark of a good Bakarwal, Mushtaq told me, were horses that didn’t stray from camp even when they are free to roam at night. Mushtaq is seen here rounding up his horses—which had strayed less than 12 hours after he said this to me.

A Bakarwal brings up the rear as his flock travels along the highway leading to Zoji-la. As roads plough deeper into the mountains, the Bakarwals’ run-ins with vehicular traffic increase. Neither heavy vehicles nor cars carrying tourists are willing to suffer delays on account of sheep. The Bakarwals suffer the greatest losses to their livestock on such stretches of road.

A Bakarwal brings up the rear as his flock travels along the highway leading to Zoji-la. As roads plough deeper into the mountains, the Bakarwals’ run-ins with vehicular traffic increase. Neither heavy vehicles nor cars carrying tourists are willing to suffer delays on account of sheep. The Bakarwals suffer the greatest losses to their livestock on such stretches of road.

The sheep’s thick winter coat is trimmed immediately after spring sets in. Not unlike hairdressers, there are specialist shearers in the Bakarwal community who offer their services for a price. A master shearer can handle as many as 40 sheep a day. The Bakarwals sell wool at about Rs 60 a kilogram.

The sheep’s thick winter coat is trimmed immediately after spring sets in. Not unlike hairdressers,
there are specialist shearers in the Bakarwal community who offer their services for a price. A master
shearer can handle as many as 40 sheep a day. The Bakarwals sell wool at about Rs 60 a kilogram.

A shearer at work. A good shearer is also expected to be a sheepwhisperer, capable of keeping the sheep so calm that the wool is trimmed not in clumps but as a single large fleece.

A shearer at work. A good shearer is also expected to be a sheepwhisperer, capable of keeping the sheep so calm that the wool is trimmed not in clumps but as a single large fleece.

There’s nothing called a day off for the Bakarwals. Here, two brothers hunker down to wait out a storm above Lake Tarsar. Making a Bakarwal abandon his sheep is near-impossible, in part because they depend on them for survival, and in part because of the strong bond they share with their livestock.

There’s nothing called a day off for the Bakarwals. Here, two brothers hunker down to wait out a storm above Lake Tarsar. Making a Bakarwal abandon his sheep is near-impossible, in part because they depend on them for survival, and in part because of the strong bond they share with their livestock.

While development may be slow to come to Kashmir, logging proceeds apace. Amina has seen this in many of the lower meadows. Her six-year-old granddaughter, however, struggles to recognise a place she is told she has been to before.

While development may be slow to come to Kashmir, logging proceeds apace. Amina has seen this in many of the lower meadows. Her six-year-old granddaughter, however, struggles to recognise a place she is told she has been to before.

Men take turns guarding their flock through the night against predators like bears and leopards. “But that we are well prepared to handle,” says Pervez (left, seated). “What’s more dangerous is guarding the sheep against the rustlers we often encounter when we are camping on the outskirts of small towns in the lower valleys.”

Men take turns guarding their flock through the night against predators like bears and leopards. “But that we are well prepared to handle,” says Pervez (left, seated). “What’s more dangerous is guarding the sheep against the rustlers we often encounter when we are camping on the outskirts of small towns in the lower valleys.”


This article was published in April-June 2017 issue on The Himalaya. The issue is guest edited by Stephen Alter. 

Elsewhere in this issue, Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar explore the unsung heroes among the climbing Sherpas and Bhotias of Darjeeling, Mamang Dai gets nostalgic in her lyrical reminiscences about the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh, Martin Moran is equally wistful writing about the pleasures of pioneering in the smaller peaks of the Himalaya. Janaki Lenin explores the oscillating relationship between the villagers and shepherds of Kinnaur.  Gautam Bhatia’s sardonic drawings of the imagined ruins of Delhi make us laugh—and cry. While Anurag Banerjee’s unobtrusive camera captures stolen moments and intimacy in public spaces in Mumbai, Stuart Freedman’s photo essay on the Indian Coffee House evokes an era fast disappearing. 


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