Two days after forking right at Naugaon, Dhumman, Yusuf, Alfa and their families – now traveling together, with over 120 animals – left the Yamuna gorge and headed east, over a network of dirt trails that took them into and over the Dunda Mandal Hills. This was a deliberate long-cut, which would add many kilometers to their route but which, all things considered, was the best way to approach Kanasar. It would have been much shorter if they continued following the Yamuna River north, then turned east near Hanuman Chatti, but a couple of factors combined to make that a bad idea.
Since Kanasar was about 1000 meters (3280 feet) higher than their traditional meadows near Gangar, they’d have to wait longer than usual before ascending, to be sure all the snow had melted and grass had begun to grow. The problem with lingering along the Yamuna was the yatra – or pilgrimage – season, which was just getting underway. Over the next few weeks, perhaps tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims would travel to the temple at Yamunotri near the source of the river, which is not far beyond Hanuman Chatti. They would come and go in buses, cars and vans hurtling recklessly along the narrow two-lane road that hugged the mountainside. Aside from the danger this traffic would pose to life, limb, and livestock, the whole area would be over-populated, and Dhumman knew that they’d have to pay high prices to locals for places to camp and keep their herds.
So, instead, they would leave the Yamuna valley, traverse the Dunda Mandal Hills, and drop down into the Bhagirathi River valley. There, they might have to contend with some early yatra traffic to Gangotri – the source of the sacred Ganges River – but only for a day or two before they turned up a small road along a quiet tributary, which would lead them to open forest where fodder was plentiful and free and they could meander as slowly as they needed to before making the final push to Kanasar.
For four days, they traveled through the hills. The climb to the pass was long and strenuous – much more physically demanding, though less exposed, than their hike out of the Shivaliks had been. As they gained elevation, the light became gauzy and seemed to hang between the trees like a translucent amber curtain, given density from forest fires burning on nearby slopes. Water was scarce, and had to be hauled over a mile uphill from a spring to their highest camp. Still, everyone was glad to be off the road. They camped on earth rather than asphalt, in peaceful groves of slender pines. The animals could wander and graze, with no worries about them devouring a farmer’s crops or being struck by speeding vehicles.
Though they all would have preferred to go to Gangar, the simple fact that a decision had been made lifted some of the tension from the caravan. Dhumman, in particular, seemed more relaxed, and some, including Sharafat, were guardedly excited about having a chance to see new places.
Jamila, however, had some serious reservations about their plan. While she agreed that they couldn't head to Gangar this summer, she wished they’d found a different alternative. Kanasar, she thought, was simply too far, too high, too cold, and too remote, especially with so many small children in their caravan. Since the family who traditionally used it hadn’t been there in a couple of years, she knew they’d have to rebuild the old hut, or perhaps construct a new one from scratch. And they weren’t even sure if the forest rangers would let them in. She thought that Yusuf may have persuaded Dhumman that Kanasar was a good option because he believed that milk prices would be higher near there than in some of the other places they might have tried to go. But she didn’t think a few extra rupees would be worth the risks and hassles they'd surely encounter.
Weighing on her mind as much as these immediate logistical concerns was the outlook for the future. Having abandoned Gangar this year, what would happen next year? Would they be allowed back in then? If not, would they try Kanasar again, or somewhere else? And would the Forest Department move to keep them out of Uttarakhand altogether? It was all downright unnerving. The age-old rhythms and patterns of her tribe’s way of life had been disrupted, and Jamila didn’t know what, if anything, they’d be able to rely on in the years to come. Except, of course, that it would all unfold according to the will of Allah, which gave her some sense of comfort - as did another aspect of her religion.
Perhaps because they have long been a marginalized people, Van Gujjars see themselves as the spiritual heirs of Esau, eldest son of Isaac and brother of Jacob in both the Bible and the Koran who, depending on your interpretation, either gave up his birthright or had it stolen from him. The Van Gujjars revere Esau as a saint, and relate to him as one who is outcast - especially, perhaps, now, as they contemplate the possible loss of their own birthright: the right to migrate and use their ancestral lands.
Jamila knew that many mainstream Indians looked down on Van Gujjars for their nomadic lifestyle. “Many people think that we are fools for not settling in villages,” she said. “But look at what we have here! We go with the weather, so now we are where it’s cool, where you can get a good night’s sleep, when down below it is hot. We go where there is plenty of water, while down below people will be fighting for it. We don’t have to deal with mosquitoes or malaria or scorpions or snakes or many other problems. What’s good for the buffaloes is also good for us. Does this sound like the life of a fool?”
If the people in the families had to adjust to the realities of their new route, at least they understood what they were doing and why. The buffaloes, on the other hand, were totally confused. They knew the way to Gangar by heart and never had to be directed or steered. They led the way and the people followed. Heading towards Kanasar, however, they strayed from the path, paused randomly, and had to be led and prodded forward, dawdling with no sense of purpose.
The water buffaloes that the Van Gujjars herd are different than those normally kept by farmers and dairymen in India. They are a bit smaller, and a lot tougher, than other domesticated breeds, and are closely related to the wild buffalo. Mustooq said that regular domestic milk breeds would never be able to endure a journey like this, but that Van Gujjar buffaloes were built for it. They might give less milk under optimal circumstances, he conceded, but they were much hardier, and would continue to give milk even when stressed.
What's more, he continued, Van Gujjar buffaloes have an innate ability to survive in the wild. Aside from thriving on all sorts of foliage, they knew how to fight with predators and worked together to protect their calves from attack. They were also much smarter, he said, than the horses and bulls that carried the bags.
The families emerged from the Dunda Mandal Hills and onto a road that ran alongside the Bhagirathi River. Further downstream, the river would merge with the Alaknanda to become the Ganges – the holiest river in Hinduism. At its source, the waters emerged from a glacier above the temple at Gangotri, where Lord Shiva is said to have caught the river in his long matted hair as it fell from the heavens, cushioning its impact so it didn’t destroy the earth.
Upon reaching the Bhagirathi valley, the caravan traveled a short way before stopping and making camp on a sliver of roadside shaded by a few pine trees. Below them, fields covered a narrow floodplain, where the buffaloes could graze.
The anxieties that had temporarily dissipated in the hills seethed once more, and not just because the families had to contend with vehicles again. A friend and fellow Van Gujjar, named Noor Ahmed, reported that migrating families were being screened at every forest entry checkpoint, and those who had been given land in the Rajaji Park compensation deals were being blocked from entering. Of course, neither Dhumman, Yusuf, nor Alfa owned any land – but Kasim, whose papers they were hoping to use to reach Kanasar, did.
The forest gate was beyond the city of Uttarkashi, at a village called Gangori (not to be confused with Gangar, or Gangotri). If they were not allowed to pass, they'd have a serious problem, since they had nowhere else to go. “I think we’re doomed,” Dhumman said, glumly. But they couldn't stop where they were. There was nothing to do but move forward and hope that the forest rangers on duty could be reasoned with…