It was just before 2 a.m. when Dhumman knelt and prayed, facing west, toward Mecca. The mud-plastered walls inside the hut glowed in the flicker of a kerosene lamp. His eldest daughter, Apa, churned milk into butter while keeping an eye on a pot of tea brewing over a crackling cookfire. The youngest children, still asleep on the floor, were prodded awake by their siblings - it was time to pack the bedrolls. It was time to go.
Their mother, Jamila, tucked the last of the family’s belongings into saddlebags of thickly woven horsehair, which were then carried outside and loaded on to the waiting pack animals - two horses and three bulls. Dhumman interrupted his prayers to give his sons instructions, reminding them to make sure the bags were properly balanced and well secured.
In the darkness of the Indian jungle, cowbells clanged, crickets chirped, and monkeys howled in the trees.
The mood in the hut was charged with the same kind of tension and excitement that every family feels just before leaving on a trip. But this was no ordinary trip. Dhumman closed his devotions by asking Allah to help and protect his family and their forty water buffaloes on the journey on which they were about to embark. And with good reason. He feared that, beyond the myriad challenges that they normally faced during their annual spring migration, this year – 2009 – would be more difficult than most.
Dhumman and his family belong to a tribe of nomadic water buffalo herders called Van Gujjars. They live in the wilderness - in the jungles and mountains of northern India - grazing their livestock on the vegetation that grows there. Winters, from October to April, are spent in the Shivalik Hills, a rugged, densely-forested range that isn’t very high but is serrated like a set of crocodile teeth. There, each Van Gujjar family settles into its own base camp, often in the same spot for many seasons in a row. They might be a few hundred meters or perhaps a kilometer away from their nearest nomadic neighbors. Every day, from their huts of sticks and mud, they roam over gnarled sedimentary topography, through a tangle of deciduous trees and shrubs, feeding their buffaloes on the abundant foliage.
But by mid-April, the springtime heat bakes the Shivaliks like an oven. Temperatures soar near 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). The creeks that snake through the range run dry. Hillsides turn bald as the greenery that covers them withers and dies. With nothing left for the buffaloes to eat or drink, they have to move elsewhere.
The Van Gujjars load up all they own and trek their herds into the Himalayas, where high alpine meadows laced with gurgling streams are flush with grass throughout the summer. By late September, winter announces its imminent arrival. Temperatures in the mountains plummet and early snows may start to fall, signaling that it's time for the Van Gujjars to descend once more to the Shivaliks – which will be bursting with life, regenerated over the previous months by the moisture delivered during summer monsoons.
This migratory pattern - up in spring and down in autumn - has been practiced by nomadic pastoralists in this part of India for countless generations.
It’s believed that the first Van Gujjars came to the Shivalik region, probably from Kashmir, some 1500 years ago. No one knows exactly when or exactly why, but some in the tribe say their people were invited to these hills by the local raja; he’d been traveling in Kashmir and was so impressed by the Van Gujjars, their buffalo herds, and the high quality of their milk, that he asked them to come live in his kingdom.
Other Van Gujjars may tell you that they themselves are of royal blood. Once upon a time, they say, a prince fell in love-at-first-sight with a beautiful woman who was herding buffaloes in Punjab. He asked her to marry, and she moved to his kingdom, bringing her animals with her. But when winter turned to spring, the buffaloes couldn’t tolerate the smothering heat: they fell ill, and some died. Alarmed by their suffering, the new princess did what her family always did during summers – she led her herd into the high mountains to escape the swelter. When the prince begged her to return, she refused, choosing her animals over her husband and his riches. The prince, however, couldn’t bear to be without her, so he gave up his throne and joined her. From then on, they lived together in the wilderness where the buffaloes – and the princess – were happiest.
Their descendants, the story goes, are one of the largest clans of Van Gujjars. Today, there are a roughly estimated 30,000 in the entire tribe today. They still speak their native dialect, Gujjari, which is a linguistic fusion of Dogri (a Kashmiri tongue) and Punjabi. Though changes are now beginning to penetrate into their secluded forest realm – with severe conseqeunces in some places – the essence of their traditional herding lifestyle has remained largely intact through the centuries. One thing that has changed is the way they identify themselves: For most of their history, they were known as 'Gujjars' and only added the 'Van' - meaning 'forest' - to their tribal name in the late 1980's, as a way to distinguish themselves from the other, mostly Hindu, Gujjars in India, with whom they have nothing in common, and with whom they may or may not share distant ancestral roots. They are the Forest Gujjars.
The care and feeding of their water buffaloes is the axis around which the Van Gujjars’ world revolves. It’s why they live in the wilderness, it’s why they migrate, it’s what occupies the bulk of their time and energy on any given day. Often, it seems like the people are servants to their buffalo masters. And for good reason: with buffalo milk as their main – often only – source of income and their staple food, it’s no exaggeration to say that the well-being of every family is completely dependent on the well-being of its herd.
Despite their total reliance on the milk their herds produce, Van Gujjars relate to their buffaloes as much more than mere resources. Like the princess of legend, they have deep emotional attachments to their animals. They think of them as family members, naming each one and caring for them with genuine devotion. If a buffalo becomes ill or injured, its owners fret with concern; once, when one of the favorites in Dhumman’s herd was sick, the family was so upset they could hardly eat. When a buffalo dies, the loss felt is more personal than financial; the buffalo is buried and mourned almost as though it was human. Dhumman and Jamila's son, Sharafat, once said he didn't understand why anyone would have a dog for pet, since "buffaloes are smarter, more loyal, and more affectionate!" The family did keep a mutt to guard against intruders, but no one bonded deeply with it; it was never even given name, but just called kuta, Hindi for ‘dog.’
Largely due to their relationships with them, Van Gujjars would never dream of eating their buffaloes or selling them for slaughter. Even male calves, which are obviously useless for milk production, are sold to farmers in nearby villages as beasts of burden for pulling carts and plows. Despite being Muslim and having no religious taboos against consuming meat, the tribe is traditionally vegetarian. They don't normally hunt, and though they share their range in the Shivaliks with tigers, leopards and wild elephants, it’s exceptionally rare for Van Gujjars to kill them out of fear for their own safety.
In early 2009, Dhumman and Jamila and their seven children were living in the Shivaliks in a rectangular hut made of sticks and logs lashed together with vines. Long grasses layered over wooden beams formed a four-sided pitched roof. Inside was a single room, with a partial wall separating the kitchen area. There was no furniture. At night, everyone slept on bedrolls made from rice sacks stitched together and thinly stuffed with grass, which were laid directly on the hard adobe floor. Cooking was done over fire in a hearth built of rock and mud.
The hut had a large doorway - but no door - and wide window spaces - but no glass. Their home was always open to the sounds, smells, breezes – and sometimes even the wildlife – of the forest around them. Made completely from natural forest materials, the hut felt like an organic part of its surroundings. There was no electricity or plumbing, no phone service, no motors or machines, and no road leading to their place. As a crow flies, they were perhaps 18 miles (30 km) southwest of the busy city of Dehradun, but it seemed light years away.
Their camp, called a dera, was set in a little clearing on a small, flat floodplain at the bottom of a canyon walled by steep, tree-covered slopes. In the narrow creekbed, Dhumman had dammed a shallow pool for his buffaloes to drink from; the family fetched their own water at a spring that trickled out of the hillside. About fifty meters from the hut was a penned area with a shelter for the calves, which are separated from their mothers for most of the day so they won't drink all the milk. Nearby was a patch of dirt shaded by a few trees, where the adult buffaloes liked to lounge.
As often as not, though, the animals were away from the camp, grazing out in the jungle. Well aware that the amount of milk produced by the buffaloes, along with its flavor, is determined by what they eat, the herders control which types of leaves they feed on. The best varieties grow on trees, rather than bushes or shrubs, but without the anatomy of giraffes, the buffaloes can't reach them by themselves. In Dhumman's family, it was usually the job of his older kids to bring the fodder down. His daughter, Apa, and sons, Mir Hamza and Sharafat, scurried up tree trunks, clambered out onto the limbs, and lopped off leaf-laden branches, which fell to the forest floor. They climbed barefoot, with no kind of safety equipment, maybe twenty feet, maybe eighty feet above the ground, swinging a wooden-handled tool with a curved steel blade – called a patal – that’s like a cross between a hatchet and a sickle.
With strength and agility, they worked fast, deftly popping holes in the jungle canopy. But they never took all the leaves from a tree. The last thing they wanted to do was kill one: they need the trees to live, so they can regenerate during the monsoon and provide ample buffalo fodder year after year after year.
Goku, who was about fourteen years old, went with them like an apprentice, pruning some of the smaller trees as she gradually built her confidence for this risky job. Despite their acrobat-like abilities, Van Gujjars sometimes fall from substantial heights. Every year, bones break and people die. Even Sharafat, who had more or less mastered the arts of climbing and cutting, said that tumbling from a tree was one of his two greatest fears – you could never be sure when a branch might snap beneath you or when you might simply make a mistake. His other main fear: elephants, which roamed the forest and were known for unpredictable outbursts of aggressiveness, crashing through Van Gujjar camps, smashing huts, and sometimes trampling people. Van Gujjar dogs only made things worse: after an initial surge of bravery, they become terror stricken, turn tail, and run - usually straight into their owner’s hut - with an aggravated elephant in hot pursuit.
Sharafat, who was sixteen, had an obviously keen intellect. The previous autumn, his father had been persuaded to take the very unusual step of sending him away to a boarding school in a small village about eight miles away. But after a couple of months, Dhumman called him back to the forest, needing his help with the buffaloes. Sharafat loved school, loved learning, and was deeply disappointed that he’d had to leave it. But neither of his parents, and indeed very few Van Gujjars at all, knew how to read and write, and while Dhumman sensed there’d probably be some abstract kind of value in it if Sharafat was literate, it wasn’t deemed crucial to his success as a buffalo herder. Sharafat said he would rather go to school than herd buffaloes, but he wasn’t about to leave his family and his world and strike out on his own in search of an education. Such a move would be unthinkably radical.
But neither of his parents, and indeed very few Van Gujjars at all, knew how to read and write, and while Dhumman sensed there’d probably be some abstract kind of value in it if Sharafat was literate, it wasn’t deemed crucial to his success as a buffalo herder. Sharafat said he would rather go to school than herd buffaloes, but he wasn’t about to leave his family and his world and strike out on his own in search of an education. Such a move would be unthinkably radical.
Dhumman, like typical Van Gujjar fathers, was the undisputed head of his household. His ideas could be questioned, but once he made a decision, it was to be obeyed. He captained his family firmly but gently; everyone understood his expectations and followed his rules, at least while he was present; when he wasn’t around, a relaxed mood settled over the children, and even Jamila, who was more naturally easygoing than her husband. Dhumman was known among Van Gujjars as a thoughtful, reasonable, and honorable man, and had been selected to be a lambardar, a tribal leader who is part a council that mediates disputes and tries to resolve problems. Lambardars don’t inherit their positions, but are chosen by the community based on their personal characteristics. (All of them, however, are men.) The only apparent perk that comes with the title is the white turban that they alone, among Van Gujjars, are allowed to wear.
Dhumman did consult with Jamila when weighing issues that related to their family and he valued her opinions. She was sensible, kind, and incredibly competent at all aspects of forest life, from managing the children to milking the buffaloes to swinging a patal to making sure that each meal the family ate was tasty and ready on time. And she did it all gracefully; even when under pressure, as she would prove on the 2009 spring migration, her laughter was never far from the surface.
As early April arrived, temperatures in the Shivaliks were skyrocketing. The creek in front of Dhumman and Jamila’s hut was reduced to a dribble, and the forest foliage was rapidly beginning to fall. The older buffaloes, which had migrated each spring since they were calves, knew it was time go to cooler climes and were getting impatient to hit the trail. The family was preparing to leave by the middle of the month.
In the days leading up to their departure, Dhumman, Mir Hamza, and Sharafat shored up the roof of their hut, adding more grass and tying long vines over its peak and down its sides, securing it against the monsoon rains that were sure to pour down in their absence. Jamila sat outside in the shade, reinforcing the seams of the horsehair saddlebags that would hold the bulk of their belongings during their trek into the Himalayas. When she finished with a set, she’d give them to Apa, inside the hut, who packed them with clothing and blankets while keeping an eye on Salma, her five-year-old sister, and Yasin, her two-year-old brother.
The day before they left, other Van Gujjars came to the camp to say goodbye. They, too, would be leaving the Shivaliks soon, but there was a good chance they wouldn’t see Dhumman and his family until they all returned in October, as they spent the summer spread across the high mountain meadows of two states, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. More than just a casual “see you in a few months,” there was a ritual element to these farewells.
Sitting in a circle, men and women together, Dhumman and Jamila and their visitors apologized for any way in which they might have wronged each other, even unknowingly, and asked for forgiveness. Outstanding debts were paid and collected. Words of blessing and good will were exchanged. And, in 2009, these gatherings usually closed with conversations about the topic that was on everyone’s mind: the troubling news that government authorities were planning on blocking some Van Gujjars from migrating, including those heading for the area where Dhumman’s traditional summer pasture was located. It was a terrifying possibility, one which could destroy their lives, and over which they had little control. They would simply have to start off and see how events played out.
That night, before the family went to sleep, all of their lathis – bamboo rods, which they used as herding sticks – were lined up against the wall, right beside the doorway, so they could be grabbed easily on the way out. The pack animals, which usually roamed freely, were hitched to trees just outside the hut. Everything was as ready as it could be.
They woke in the wee hours past midnight. After Dhumman had finished praying, Jamila had finished packing, Apa had finished brewing tea and churning butter, the boys had loaded the family’s belongings on their horses and bulls, and Goku had leashed the dog, it was time to go. Jamila double-checked to make sure they’d remembered everything. She couldn’t quite shake the feeling that they were leaving something behind. Later, she laughed at herself, saying, “We hardly own enough to forget anything, but I still worry about it!”
Then, with a jingling of bells, the stamping of a couple hundred hooves, and a whole lot of dust in the air, the family set off down the trail in the dark.