Gujjar is an ethnic group spread all over India in states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. The Gujjar of Pahalgam, Kashmir are also known as Bakarwals and they are semi-nomadic, shepherd-community living in the lowlands of Pahalgam in winter and migrating to higher valley and mountains in summer, in search of food for their cattle. They travel all the way to their makeshift huts on the mountains where they go back every year. These huts are shabbily made of stones and logs and are shared by four to five families, sometimes they even have to live with their livestock in the same house.
These huts are basic without a bed or even a separate kitchen. Most huts have a fireplace at one corner and family members sit and sleep on carpet of pine leaves strewn on the ground. The Gujjars are avid tea drinkers and can gulp down 4-5 cup of tea at a go. They drink namkeen chai. Animal rearing is their common occupation and they earn by selling dairy products.
A particular hut that I had entered, had around 40 members sharing a small hut. They were not from the same family but relatives and friends from the same village. They were amiable and easy going in nature. They invited me for tea and even asked me to share their meal. Meeting people is one of the most exciting aspects of travelling.
Living on beautiful mountains has its own benefits and disadvantages. They wake up to the lovely sight of the valley and the pine covered mountains, topped by snow peaked mountains at a distance. They literally live in a paradise but on the hindsight they live too far from civilization and their daily commodities are sparse and are hard to come by. Most of the Gujjars I met stopped by to ask for medicines. I was taken aback by this but I came to learn that their most urgent needs are medicines. They lacked most of the basic needs of day to day life. That is something they have to trade to live in a world that looked like a paradise but is hardly accessible.
Living on such rough and difficult terrain, though their body adapt to environmental conditions but at the same time it also takes a toll on their health. They have a lot of walking and climbing to do all day long. Kids have little time for childhood and have a tough task of looking after their cattle to help their parents. They look after their cattle and their cattle look after them in return. It is like a win-win situation. Their nomadic journey begins in the lowlands. Once the grasses have been grazed to the earth they began looking for a fresh pasture. By September or October they move uphill just beneath the foothills of snow peaked mountains, grazing their cattle as far as they could go. When the cold winds started blowing down from the mountains, they would migrate back to their villages.
I had so many questions on my mind when I met these people. What do they eat? Do their kids go to school? Do they really own houses? A semi-nomadic lifestyle doesn’t seem to support all of these assumptions. To my surprise I found out that most of them really do own houses and paddy fields in their villages. They do the planting and sowing before their cycle of migration begins, so that when they go back in winter they have enough to eat. Most of the kids dropped out at early age. Their lifestyle is not conducive for studies. Six months of wandering around and six months of confinement don’t seem to go anywhere with these kids. When they grow up they are most likely to take up their parent’s profession of rearing cattle and continue the nomadic way.