nomads in the forest
Appa and Salma inside their family's hut in the Shivalik Hills
Appa and Salma inside their family's hut in the Shivalik Hills
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.
Not long after leaving their camp, the tiny creekbed that Dhumman’s family was following merged with a much larger one. There, they met Dhumman’s older brother, Yusuf, who was waiting with his family and their buffaloes. From this point on, they would travel together, if not exactly as a single unit at least very much like a team. They headed north, deeper into the Shivaliks. Completely dry now but for an occasional trickle or puddle, the streambed was like an avenue paved with white stones rounded by the water that rushes over them during the monsoon. It was wide enough to clear a substantial swath through the jungle canopy, and the night sky glittered overhead, casting just enough starlight for this caravan – now eighty-six buffaloes, twenty-six people, two dogs and a handful of pack animals - to travel by.
Before they could work their way into the Himalayas, the families first had to climb up and over the Shivalik's southern flank and down its northern side. This day’s goal was to get as close as possible to Shakumbhari Pass, a notch in the ridgeline that’s like a gap between the crocodile teeth that the rugged range resembles.
As dawn lit the hills, it became obvious that much of the forest’s foliage had already fallen. The terrain rose around the streambed, and soon the families were winding through canyons, between sheer walls of exposed sedimentary strata and jagged hills speckled with brown grasses and bare trees. Every so often, they would pass other Van Gujjar deras, some already empty, some still occupied. From people who hadn’t yet left, Dhumman learned that his family had already passed the last of the water in the drainage. They wouldn't find any more until they'd emerged from the Shivaliks.
Dhumman had little choice – even though they hadn’t gone as far as they would have liked, they couldn’t go much further. They had to camp within striking distance of a water source.
Jamila, Appa, and Sharafat led their pack animals on for another few hundred yards, accompanied by Yusuf’s wife Roshni, her daughters Mariam and Khatoon, and daughters-in-law Fatima and Alkoo, plus their small children and their pack animals. Goku followed behind, carrying Yasin and keeping an eye on Salma. Everyone else led the buffaloes and calves off in search of fodder and shade.
Jamila and Roshni set up their camps in the streambed, about fifty yards apart from each other. The horses and bulls were unloaded, and the saddlebags, water jugs, food sacks and cooking pots were neatly stacked on the ground. Firewood was gathered, water was hauled, and Jamila got busy in the kitchen, making dough, rolling chapattis, and cooking them on a pan; they’d be eaten later, smeared with butter and spicy chili paste.
Appa and Sharafat went off up the hillsides to cut grass and haul it back, so the buffaloes could eat as soon as Dhumman brought them in to camp that afternoon. When Appa and Sharafat, soaked with sweat, returned with their bales of fodder, Jamila teased them sarcastically about their skimpy loads. Agitated by exertion and frustrated themselves at their poor harvest, Apa and Sharafat were in no mood for jokes; they protested that they’d done their best – there just wasn’t much to be found around here. Some sweet milky chai instantly improved their outlook, and they were off again in search of more grass.
It was only around 10 o’clock in the morning, and the heat already pummeled the canyon with crippling force. As noon approached, the young children wilted and dropped like leaves in the jungle, passing out in dappled pools of shade.
After a night bivouacked in the streambed, the families were again awake by 2 a.m., loading their pack animals while the morning tea brewed. In order to reach their next camp before the heat became too intense to travel, they would have to tackle Shakumbhari Pass at night. Once they set off, the canyon quickly narrowed. Turrets of rock towered above, gothic shadows against the moonless sky. Moving through the darkness, following the twists and turns hewn into the topography, Dhumman at last found the route that cut up and over the canyon walls.
The narrow trail traversed a cliff face as it climbed to the spine of the Shivaliks. The way was always steep - sometimes nearly vertical - and often treacherous. With much shouting to each other and at the animals, some of the nomads guided the buffaloes onward. Others tried to keep the heavily-laden horses and bulls from plunging over the edge as their hooves skated over the pathway of loose dirt and pebbles. At last, with great relief but little celebration, the caravan made it through the pass and over the range's main ridge. As they did so, they crossed from Uttar Pradesh (UP) into Uttarakhand – an invisible borderline that was drawn along the crest of the hills less than nine years earlier, when Uttarakhand (then called Uttaranchal) split off from UP to become its own state. In the moment, this movement between states was meaningless, but it would prove to be significant in the days and weeks to come.
Compared with what the families had just conquered, the descent down the northern slope was fairly easy. By the time they reached the flat expanse of forest at the base of the hills, the hazy glow of first light filtered through the trees. Here, the arboreal clock seemed like it was set a week or two behind the southern side of the Shivaliks; while leaves littered the ground, crunching under foot and hoof, plenty of green still blanketed the branches above.
To hear what it sounds like to migrate with the Van Gujjars, play this short video, which was filmed while walking out of the Shivalik Hills toward the Asan River:
After leaving the forest trails for asphalt, Jamila, Roshni and the rest of the crew that had been sent ahead with the pack animals traveled a narrow road through a small agricultural village and beyond, until they reached the Asan River. They turned left, marching west along its banks, sometimes splashing across where it looked most shallow rather than following its looping meanders. Though the Asan is the main drain for the Doon Valley – a basin between the Shivaliks and the Himalayas – it runs low in April, braiding into channels; in some sections, you’d barely wet your ankles, in others, buffaloes could stand shoulder-deep.
Jamila and Roshni stopped the caravan on an empty patch of floodplain that was large enough for both families and all of their animals. On one side, they had instant access to the water, while on the other, an embankment rose to a vast quilt of fields where the buffaloes could graze on the stubble of recently-harvested wheat stalks. Other Van Gujjar families who’d emerged from the forest over the previous few days were camped along the length of the river, resting their animals before moving toward the mountains. Normally spread out over many miles of jungle, here the nomads could easily meet to share news and gossip.
Once the horses and bulls were unloaded, cooking fires were started and tea and khichri (a one-pot concoction of rice, daal, and spices) were prepared – there’d been nothing to eat since dinner the previous night, before the climb over Shakumbhari Pass. Meanwhile, each family pitched a shelter made from black plastic sheeting. Years ago, Van Gujjars carried fabric tents with them, but switched to plastic because it is lighter and cheaper, even if it’s not as durable. There were so many tiny punctures in Dhumman’s tent that, when sitting beneath it during the day, it looked like the ceiling of a planetarium, pierced with countless constellations; the longer lacerations were like comets.
When Dhumman and Yusuf arrived a little later with the buffaloes and the rest of their families, they ate, then talked. No time seemed as sacred as mealtime, in a completely secular kind of way; more than sleep, even more than prayer, it was the one activity during the day worthy of uninterrupted focus.
When he finished, Dhumman said he thought it would be best if they planned on staying where they were for about a week. There were two crucial elements at play.
The first was something that Van Gujjars have had to reckon with forever: optimizing the timing of their ascent based on conditions on the ground. If they reached their meadow too early, it could still be covered with snow. But if they lingered too long en route, they would waste money buying fodder that they didn’t need. Of course, they also preferred to be in the mountains than on the road, to retreat once again behind the veil of the forest, so they moved strategically, aiming to get there as soon as grass had come up in the meadows.
This year, Dhumman was also trying to factor in the looming threat that the Forest Department would deny them permission to access their ancestral alpine pasture. He hoped that, given some time, the authorities would change their minds and let his family trek on up, as they had every year for longer than he’d even been alive, to the Himalayan meadow they thought of as their summer home.
Van Gujjars don’t own the land on which they live and graze; it’s common property administered by state governments, which manage its use through a permit system first introduced during the colonial era. The British issued each nomadic family a document certifying where their grazing range was located and how many buffaloes they owned, which became the number they were officially authorized to keep. Since then, every year, the nomads show their papers and pay grazing and lopping taxes based on the amount of livestock listed, in exchange for permission to access their traditional territory.
Problematically, however, the number of buffaloes assigned to each family permit has been fixed since they were first allocated generations ago. Even as herds grew over time - and even after India became independent - no updates have been granted. Permits may be split: a man with a permit for, say, thirty buffaloes, who had three sons, could divide his permit among them, but they would only be allowed to own ten buffaloes each. And if each of those sons had two sons, they could split their permits in half again, and so on….Meaning, as generations have passed, and permits were split and split again, most families came to have – and need to have – more livestock than they’re allowed. Even so, they were rarely if ever blocked from using their lands. The permits were merely a formality; the gates to the forests just required some grease.
For decades, corruption has been the lifeblood of the permitting system. Van Gujjars expect to pay bribes when it’s discovered that they have more buffalos than they’re officially allowed, or if something about their paperwork is amiss, or to avoid being fined or jailed for no reason at all. Because the laws are set up in such a way that the nomads inevitably break them - and can easily be framed for violations they didn't commit - they are vulnerable to the whims of those in power – including low-ranking, poorly paid forest rangers, who could certainly use a few extra rupees. Even so, there’s a certain kind of logic to crooked systems, and the Van Gujjars could always take some small measure of confidence in that.
That changed suddenly in the fall of 1992, when thousands of buffalo herders were blocked from re-entering their winter ranges if their camps were within the boundaries that had been drawn up nine years earlier for Rajaji National Park. In accordance with the environmentalist ethos of the time, and with Indian law, people were forbidden from living in national parks and using park resources for subsistence or profit. Thanks to a media stir and legal action, the Van Gujjars were allowed back in temporarily. But over the next fifteen years, most of the Rajaji families – 1390 of them – were evicted, forced to settle in government-built villages and abandon their age-old way of life.
Dhumman’s winter grazing land was west of the Rajaji zone, so his home in the Shivaliks was spared. But his summer meadow happened to fall within Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, which was created in 1990. Still, nothing much changed until 2006. That spring, the Forest Department in Uttarakhand announced that they might not let Van Gujjars enter the park. After delaying a decision for a couple of weeks, they finally relented and granted “the permission.” But in 2007 and 2008, the same situation played out all over again, with increasing severity and rising anxities, as the authorities kept the nomads in limbo longer and longer each year.
In 2009, the Forest Department was even more adamant than before that this year, and forever after, the park would be closed to the buffalo herders. If true, it would be devastating. Dhumman’s family and the others weren’t simply setting off on a summer holiday to the mountains – they had to get their herds to the highlands where there was abundant grass and water, or the animals could die and a humanitarian crisis could follow – especially because unlike the nomads evicted from Rajaji, those heading for Govind were not being offered any kind of compensation or alternative grazing lands for the loss of their meadows.
The Forest Department asserted that because these families spent winters in the state of Uttar Pradesh, they were not residents of Uttarakhand, thus the government of Uttarakhand didn’t have to take any responsibility for their welfare. The Van Gujjars were depicted as interlopers, as invaders from another state taking advantage of Uttarakhand’s precious resources (and Muslim invaders at that). The logic of the authorities paid no heed to the fact that these families spend about as much time in Uttarakhand as in Uttar Pradesh. And the story they spun about this invasion from outside conveniently ignored the reality that the migratory routes and grazing areas hadn’t changed in decades, in many cases centuries – that what had changed was the map of north India, when the state of Uttarakhand was created less than ten years earlier; before 2000, Dhumman’s migratory route fell completely within the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Even if the rationale of the Forest Department had been air-tight, their plans seemed to be in blatant violation of India’s Forest Rights Act of 2006, which guarantees the rights of “traditional forest dwellers” to live on and use the lands they have long relied upon for subsistence, even inside national parks. The only areas from which forest dwellers can be banned are zones designated as “critical wildlife habitats” – none of which were established in Govind.
Despite believing that the law probably was on his side, Dhumman had little faith that any court ruling would actually favor illiterate, marginalized, forest dwelling Muslim people over powerful elites. And even if it ultimately did, it could take time, and his needs were immediate. His buffaloes couldn’t wait on the justice system. They had to have grass.
Still, no one knew for sure how serious the forest officials really were, and Dhumman held out hope that they were bluffing, as in the previous few years. So, for a little while anyway, he and Yusuf would wait along the Asan River. And they would try to come up with an alternative plan, if the worst-case-scenario came to pass.
Their days along the Asan River moved to a steady rhythm. The buffaloes were milked in the morning, then led out into the nearby fields from which wheat had recently been hand-harvested by local farm laborers. As the beasts browsed on the remnants, Dhumman and Yusuf and a rotating crew of their children – from age five to thirty – stood nearby, holding their lathis. They were like a team playing zone defense, trying to keep the animals from getting into adjacent fields still flush with wheat. Usually, a quick burst of speed and a vigorous wave of a bamboo rod was enough to turn the buffaloes back, but sometimes they’d get a firm whack on their thick black hides.
Meanwhile, Sharafat and his cousin Hamju consolidated the milk their families had collected and carried it across the river and up a dirt lane to a major road that links Dehradun and Paonta Sahib. They’d hop a bus to Vikasnagar, where they’d sell the milk to a dairy shop. Sometimes, they’d bring Dhumman and Yusuf’s mobile phones and chargers, to plug them in for a while. If the milk was bought for twenty-two rupees per liter (about 35 cents), Sharafat would tell Dhumman that it sold for twenty, and pocket the extra as commission. He might use it to buy an ice cream bar, or he might give it to his sister, Apa, to keep for him. (Women in Van Gujjar families generally manage the money, which is one reason why, some people say, there is virtually no drinking or gambling in their culture.) When Sharafat was asked to buy a new phone charger for Dhumman, he reported that it cost two hundred rupees (almost four dollars) when he only paid about a hundred – though Sharafat justified this by saying he was actually saving Dhumman money in the long run, since if his father thought it was more expensive, he’d take better care of it.
At mid-day, temperatures spiked to the mid 40s Celsius (around 110 Fahrenheit). The buffaloes were often brought back to camp to keep cool in the river while the families took shelter under their tarps and dozed off in a heat-induced stupor. Later, the animals were taken out to the fields again. Though all this grazing helped, it still wasn’t enough to satisfy the herd, so each afternoon a handful of Dhumman and Yusuf’s strongest children would be sent to purchase fodder from a vendor about a mile away. They’d return carrying unimaginably gargantuan loads of grass on their backs, which they’d spread out on the ground for the buffaloes’ dinner.
After their own dinner – usually some kind of spicy curried vegetables with chapatti – the adults and some of the older children, would perform namaaz, chanting and prostrating beneath the sparkling night sky.
A week passed like this. Though the Forest Department showed no sign of backing down and Dhumman and Yusuf had not yet been able to get their grazing permits, they needed to continue toward the mountains, hoping, still, that they would be allowed up to their meadows.
They left one night, crossing the river at 2:40 am. When they reached the main road, Jamila and Roshni stopped with the smallest children; they'd wait there for a couple of hours for a bus that would drop them near their next planned campsite. The rest of the family marched on with the animals past dawn, until they reached the Yamuna River.
Hundreds of Van Gujjars were camped near the town of Kalsi, along the banks of the Yamuna River. A major nexus of migratory routes, many families converge here before heading upriver - into the Garhwal Himalayas - or crossing the bridge and moving toward the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh. Cradled by the foothills to the north, open to the plains to the south, this is the gateway to the high country, where the Yamuna first emerges from the canyon it carves through the mountains.
Unlike at the Asan River, where there was plenty of space between Van Gujjar camps, here families set their tents close together, leaving some open space for their animals to share. With few nearby fields in which to graze, the buffaloes spent most of their time lounging in the water, keeping cool during the absurdly hot hours of the day.
While Dhumman, Mir Hamza, and Goku were out watching the herd, Jamila and the kids who stayed at camp had fun looking at the myriad goods that hawkers, drawn by the crowd, were selling tent-to-tent. At the slightest expression of interest, everything from cloth to cookware to flashlights to nose rings were spread out for them to admire. Though they didn’t buy much, Apa and Bashi each picked out a new kameez.
Whatever else was going on, the issue of the grazing permits always lingered in the background. The day after reaching Kalsi, Dhumman, Yusuf and a number of other Van Gujjars camped there traveled to Dehradun to join a protest being held at the headquarters of the Forest Department. Organized by an NGO that advocates for the Van Gujjars, called the Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities (SOPHIA), about 80 nomads showed up to plead with the director of Rajaji National Park – who also controlled Govind Pashu Vihar – to change his mind and let their people go.
To call the event a protest is probably overstating it: there were no slogans chanted, no fists or voices raised, no signs or banners waved around. The men and women who had come from camps scattered along different migratory routes sat peacefully in the shade, talking quietly, chewing tobacco and smoking bidis, by their presence alone showing support for the small group of lambardars, including Dhumman, who went inside the forest office to speak to Director S.S. Rasaily.
For decades, “no people in parks” had been a widely accepted principle in the field of environmental conservation. Around the world - as nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, and national parks were created - tens of millions of indigenous peoples became “conservation refugees,” forced off of the lands that their tribes had lived on since time immemorial. The idea behind these evictions was simple: the best way to preserve fragile ecosystems was to keep people out of them (except, perhaps, as tourists). But as time has passed, as the cultural damage of these policies has reached disturbing proportions, and the people threatened by them have become increasingly empowered to speak out and be heard, many conservationists are beginning to step away from "no people in parks" as strict dogma.
In addition to raising provocative human rights issues, many conservation refugees – including the Van Gujjars – make an impassioned environmental case for their continued presence on their traditional lands. They argue that their people have been living in these areas for so long that they are, in fact, vital elements of their ecosystems; that removing them from these lands would alter the ecology more than leaving them in place. At heart is the question of whether human beings can be parts of natural ecosystems, or whether people should always be considered an invasive species. From the indigenous point of view, the bright-line distinction between man and nature, the premise that people don’t belong in the wilderness, is heavily skewed by a Western/Euro-American bias; in many other parts of the planet, they note, people have long lived out in the jungles or mountains or savannahs or deserts, completely immersed in the natural world, their age-old cultures - and their perceptions of themselves and what it means to be human - inseparable from it.
While many conservation refugees agree that wildlife habitat does need protection, they don’t think it needs to be protected from them. They point out that their own survival depends on the health of the ecosystems they live within and that its imperative to their own interests to use resources sustainably – the way Van Gujjars prune trees so they’ll regenerate each year. This, they say, is the fundamental ethic on which their cultures are based. And they note the irony that it’s their traditional territory that’s been deemed special enough, pristine enough, and home to enough rare wildlife to be worthy of becoming parks – which, they say, means they must be doing something right.
The forest world of the Van Gujjars, however, is not as healthy as it once was. It has suffered from a variety of factors, including legal and illegal logging; industrial, agricultural, and residential encroachment; wildlife poaching, pollution, and climate change. With all of that, the Van Gujjars feel like they are getting the bulk of the blame and paying the highest price for problems to which they, overall, are minor contributors.
Nevertheless, from a conservation standpoint, it is important to assess the actual impact that people like Van Gujjars are having on their ecosystems. It’s possible that today - combined with the effects of climate change, shrinking habitats and grazing ranges, and other factors - age-old practices that were once sustainable no longer are. As habitat has disappeared, as tribal communities and wildlife are restricted to smaller – sometimes island-like – areas of wilderness, can people who have been living in harmony with nature for hundreds or thousands of years continue to do so? Will their presence crash – or help save – the ecosystems they rely on for survival?
These questions can really only be answered on a case-by-case basis, depending on local environmental conditions as well as the specific ways of life of any particular group of people.
The Van Gujjars who spend summers in Govind Pashu Vihar National Park practice seasonal, rotational grazing, which is generally regarded to be environmentally responsible, and often beneficial, to meadow and grassland ecosystems. Since seasonal herders only spend part of the year in any one place, the land has a chance to regenerate when they’re gone, helped by the animal dung left behind, which acts as a fertilizer and seed-scatterer. In studies from around the world, this kind of grazing has been shown to keep aggressive plant species in check, allowing a wider variety of life to flourish and keeping biodiversity in balance. Despite this knowledge, it’s not unusual for grazing to be forbidden in the name of conservation.
Official reports on Govind Pashu Vihar itself, made by the State of Uttarakhand in 2009, say that human pressure on the park needs to be “urgently reduced” or it is “bound to suffer irreversible ecological damage.” In assessing the threats described in the report, however, it’s hard to distinguish how much of the impact is caused by the Van Gujjars and how much is caused by the year-round residents of the forty-two villages that abut and “fragment” the park. The loss of forested land seems mostly attributable to the villagers, who build wooden houses and granaries, cook over wood, and heat with wood throughout the frigid winter. But the report also says that the presence of livestock is what prevents the trees from growing back – which seems to point the finger at the nomads. At least until you do the math.
According to the report, an estimated 150,000 sheep and goats, plus another 70,000 head of “cattle, mules and horses belonging to the local inhabitants as well as migratory pastoral communities graze” in the park in the summer. A few, but not many, Van Gujjar families keep sheep and goats, so most of those probably belong to the villagers. As far as the larger livestock is concerned, if there are 100 nomadic families that use the park (as the report claims) and each family has fifty animals – which is more than either Dhumman, Yusuf, or Alfa had, and would be well above average – that would total just 5000 animal in Van Gujjar hands. And that’s surely an over-estimate. So, either about 65,000 cattle, mules and horses, plus some 1.5 lakh sheep and goats, belong to the families of forty-two mountain villages and would be responsible for the vast majority of any environmental damage due to grazing - or the figures in the report are less than accurate.
When I spoke with Dr. G.S. Rawat, a prominent biologist at the Wildlife Institute of India and one of the authors of the report, he had some sympathy for the Van Gujjars – he acknowledged, for instance, that they had nothing to do with wildlife poaching, and he was the only contributor to the report who suggested actually compensating the nomads to settle their land rights claims, rather than just slamming the gates to the park. But he firmly believed that the Van Gujjars herds were hurting the ecosystem and diminishing fragile wildlife habitat. Even more than grazing, he said, the biggest problem was that they trampled seedlings to death with their heavy hooves. He noted that there were more nomadic families bringing more buffaloes to the same places that they’d gone in decades past, implying that their increasing numbers had made their use of Govind’s bugyals unsustainable; they had to go.
But I also spoke with Nabi Jha, a scientist and former research fellow at the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development who specializes in mountain grasslands ecology. He believed that seasonal rotational grazing was often good for mountain meadows, and was firmly against the plan to evict the Van Gujjars from Govind Pashu Vihar, at least at this time. No one, he said, had ever determined the environmental impact of the nomads' herds, or how many animals the meadows in the park could sustainably support. “We need to measure the land’s carrying capacity against the buffaloes’ demands before we’ll know if there’s any reason to ban Van Gujjars or limit their numbers,” he said.
The director of SOPHIA, Praveen Kaushal, didn’t think that defending the environment had much at all to do with why the park authorities wanted the Van Gujjars out. “These guys are full of themselves,” he said. “They see the parks as their own private fiefdoms and want to show them off to other officials and foreign tourists, and they don’t want a bunch of poor Muslim herders around spoiling the view.”
When Dhumman and the other lambardars went into Director Rasaily’s office, they didn’t present the Forest Department honchos with philosophical or scientific arguments. They let Kaushal make the case that blocking the Van Gujjars would violate the Forest Rights Act, while they themselves pleaded for mercy for their families.
They got none. Rasaily would not be moved, neither by legal logic nor humanitarian compassion.
Dhumman and Yusuf returned to Kalsi. They still clung to a thread of hope that Rasaily would change his mind as pressure on him continued to grow. But they also worked to finalize the alternative plan they’d come up with at Asan.
The next morning their families were on the road again before dawn, trekking up the Yamuna and into the burly gorge it hews through the Himalayas.
Day by day, the families moved up the Yamuna valley. Around them rose the Himalayas' burly foothills, which would be mountains in their own right in just about any other part of the world. As they walked the road, contouring around the curves of the canyon, the river usually flowed on their left, perhaps ten feet below them, perhaps a hundred. High above, terraced fields of millet, wheat, hemp and some vegetables clung to slopes so steep and rocky, they looked like they might slide right off.
Dhumman had come up with a plan that would hopefully avert disaster for his family if they really couldn’t get permission to go to their traditional meadow. He'd managed to connect with a friend, named Kasim, who had been evicted from Rajaji National Park and forced to settle - but who had not yet relinquished the papers to his summer pasture, which didn’t fall inside any national parks. He gave Dhumman a copy of his documents and invited him to use the land, if he needed to, at a place called Kanasar. Dhumman still hoped to be able to go to his own territory, above a village named Gangar, as Kasim's meadow was much further, higher, more remote, and totally unfamiliar to him (though Yusuf had been there once before). Besides, he knew he wasn’t officially allowed to take his buffaloes there, which meant he’d have to risk going, then seeing if he could cut a deal with the local ranger to let his family stay there for the season.
For the first week of travel past Kalsi, the route to their summer pasture at Gangar overlapped with the route to Kanasar. But at the village of Naugaon, the ways diverged, with Dhumman’s usual route forking to the left, toward the Tons River, while the Kanasar route forked to the right, toward the mountains between the sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites of Yamunotri and Gangotri. They needed to decide which way they were going to go by the time they reached Naugaon, yet wanted to keep their options open as long as possible. Dhumman tried to get daily updates on negotiations with the Forest Department, calling other Van Gujjars and the SOPHIA office on his cell phone to see if anyone had any news.
A palpable sense of suspense grew within the family as each day brought them closer to the fork in the road. It felt like a clock was ticking in the background, marking the hours until a major decision would have to be made. But on the surface, life on the migration looked more or less as it always did.
Every morning, the families were up and moving well before daybreak. Dhumman, Mir Hamza, and Bashi, along with Yusuf, a couple of his sons, and maybe Mustooq (a nephew of Dhumman and Yusuf) would start off in the darkness with the buffaloes, which walk more slowly than the pack animals. Meanwhile Jamila, Roshni, and the rest of their family loaded everything on the bulls and horses, and followed. Eventually, the caravan would catch up with the buffalo herd and, often, everyone would arrive together at their next camp.
The earlier they could get off the road, the better: the greatest danger to life and limb was automobile traffic, which became heavier as the morning progressed. Some days, reaching the spot where they would spend the night did little to improve their safety, as they camped on the skinny shoulder of the highway – cooking, eating, and sleeping dangerously close to speeding cars and trucks.
The jobs that each person did on any given day were flexible; some roles were determined by gender, but many weren’t. Men and women together milked and herded buffaloes, hauled or lopped fodder, gathered firewood, loaded and led the pack animals, and shopped for supplies in the markets in the towns they passed through. Women generally did the cooking and were the primary caregivers for the young children – but men were demonstratively affectionate with the little ones, too. And, while fathers have the highest status in the family structure, the women weren’t shy about speaking their minds and telling the men what they thought. In some significant ways, gender relations among Van Gujjars defy common stereotypes about Muslim cultures, and are more liberal than many non-Muslim Indian communities.
For instance, the only time in her life that a Van Gujjar woman wears a veil is at her wedding ceremony. According to anthropologist Pernille Gooch, the women even have a saying that shows how they perceive the symbol of the veil: “Just because you wear a veil for your wedding doesn’t mean your husband can tie it around your neck.” What’s more, unlike many Islamic cultures, in which men may take up to four wives, Van Gujjar men have only one at a time. And women can divorce their husbands without bringing shame upon themselves or their family, and without being stigmatized or socially outcast by the community.
In fact, Apa had only recently returned to her family-of-origin after leaving her husband, with whom she was deeply unhappy. Like most Van Gujjar unions, hers was arranged by her parents and was part of a larger marriage deal between families. Since, as a rule, women go to live with their husband’s family, when a daughter leaves her parents, it creates a gaping hole in that family’s labor force. As a result, marriages are often arranged as exchanges, so as a girl from Family A marries into Family B, a girl from Family B is married into Family A; in Apa’s situation, she was promised to a certain boy as part of a multi-faceted deal, the main goal of which was to get a new wife for one of Dhumman and Yusuf’s brothers, who was a widower. Being single is not an option for Van Gujjars, as the amount of work it takes to survive in the forest is too onerous for one person alone. If you can't maintain your own household, you move in to a family member's dera.
It’s not uncommon for marriage exchanges to involve a complicated arithmetic of boys and girls or men and women between two families. And it’s not unusual for children to be married – though a girl who is married at a very young age will stay with her own family until her late teens or early twenties, when she’s deemed old enough to leave home.
Love matches, though, are not unheard of. Sometimes when a man or a woman knows that they’ve been betrothed by their parents to someone not to their taste, he or she may try to run off with someone else who they find more appealing before the scheduled wedding day. This is how Dhumman and Jamila came together. He’d been widowed in his twenties and she was set to marry someone else, but when they met, they fell for each other instantly and eloped. Such behavior is frowned upon since it throws the entire, larger marriage exchange between families into chaos – but it’s also understood, and once what’s done is done, the illicit wedding is usually accepted by the parents of the bride and groom. The soap-opera-like intrigue around engagements and weddings and elopements and divorces is, naturally, a hot topic for gossip and one of the Van Gujjars' main diversions.
Many arranged marriages encounter substantial turbulence, and it’s fairly common for women to return to their own families for periods of time. When this happens, the effects often ripple out beyond the couple itself. In Apa’s case, for instance, the wife of her brother, Mir Hamza, happened to be her husband’s sister. Since Apa returned to her family, her husband’s sister was recalled by her own family to compensate for the loss of labor. So Mir Hamza had to do without his wife, possibly until Apa officially settles her divorce.
Unfortunately for her, divorces, whether initiated by husband or wife, must be mutually agreed upon, which – in her case – gives her husband the elephant’s share of the leverage. Knowing that she can’t re-marry until the split is finalized, her husband’s family demanded an exorbitant sum of money to sign off on it. While negotiations dragged on, Apa was stuck in limbo, unwilling to return to a husband she disliked, yet unable to take a new one and start a family of her own. For their parts, Dhumman and Jamila both felt terrible about how things worked out for their daughter, and seemed committed to letting her choose her next husband. As soon as she gets the chance.
Apa’s husband belonged to one of those families that had been evicted from Rajaji National Park and settled in one of villages the Uttarakhand government had built for them, called Gandikhatta. Since she had gone to live there, she had missed the previous two spring migrations, and was thrilled to be heading up to the mountains once again. Summers in the lowlands were unbearably hot, and “living in the village is like being in prison,” she said.
It’s not unusual nowadays for matches to be made between forest families and village families, though these are often problematic. When wives move from village to forest, they struggle with the physical demands of life in the wilderness; village life is simply easier, and a settled women who is married off to a forest dwelling husband rarely has the strength or the skills that her new life requires. Aside from feeling, at least for a time, like she’s been exiled to a jungle labor camp, she may also feel useless, like she isn’t being helpful to her husband’s family. Even worse is when her mother-in-law agrees.
On the other hand, when women move from the forest to a village, as Apa did, they often chafe under the constraints of settled life. They have far more freedom in the wilderness, partly by virtue of the equality of the work they do, and partly because the forest really does serve as a veil, allowing them to live with a greater sense of autonomy and privacy than is possible in the village communities, where more people live more closely together and where more conservative religious beliefs have taken root.
Traditionally, Van Gujjars practiced a loose interpretation of Islam. Not long ago, they were also known to believe that ‘Allah’ was just a name, and that God and Nature were synonymous. Very few knew the Koran, and prayer was performed sporadically. This wasn’t because they were ideological rebels or lazy worshippers – they just didn’t live near any mosques and had no religious instruction, so their faith was shaped by what made sense in their world.
Things first started to change in the 1990’s. As the Van Gujjars’ struggle to stay in Rajaji National Park shined in the media spotlight, this group of forest dwellers became much better known, and mainstream Muslim preachers made contact with them, sometimes even going into the forest to teach them more about their religion.
Once the Van Gujjars from Rajaji were settled in villages, they were easy to access, and conservative imams went in. Mosques were built with outside money, and Van Gujjars, who wanted to be good Muslims, attended prayers and sermons. Some became convinced that they needed to eat meat on certain holidays, despite their own traditions against it and their personal distaste for it. And, gradually, some of the freedoms that Van Gujjar women enjoyed in the forest have began to erode – including how they are expected to act and dress in the presence of men from outside the family - though they still don’t veil their faces.
Some of the conservative ideas and attitudes taught in the villages have filtered into the forest dwelling families, particularly around devotional practices, but the realities and isolation of life there have softened their impact somewhat.
For Apa, a combination of factors contributed to her joy at being on her way up to Himalayas for the first time in two years: being away from her husband and his family; being out of the confines of the village; and being back with her family, including her favorite cousins. But perhaps most of all, she simply loved their summer camp. It was where she was happiest in the world. As each day traveling up the Yamuna passed with no good news, she just hoped that they’d be allowed to go there.
As each day’s trek alongside the Yamuna brought the families closer to Naugaon, where they’d have to make what felt like an epic choice, the tension increased. Dhumman was distracted, keeping one eye on events in Dehradun and the other on the progress of his friend Firoz, whose family was also heading to Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and was a week or so ahead of them on the road. They would be first to truly test the Forest Department’s resolve.
The signals, at this point, were mixed. The chief minister of Uttarakhand visited the town of Mori, not far from Govind Pashu Vihar, and had met with Firoz and others who were already nearing the park boundary; at the meeting, local villagers voiced their support for the nomads, saying that they’d been coming to the area longer than anyone could remember, never caused trouble, and should be allowed to go to their meadows. Besides, the villagers added, it was good for them to have a plentiful source of buffalo milk.
Meanwhile, in Dehradun, SOPHIA had gotten the National Tribal Welfare Department involved, which wrote a letter to the Forest Department insisting that it respect the Forest Rights Act. But Director Rasaily not only refused; he took out advertisements in newspapers saying that he would never allow the Van Gujjars into Uttarakhand’s parks, and wanted to keep them out of the forests there altogether, to protect the citizens of the state. He depicted the tribe as a threat from outside, and seemed to be trying to sway public sentiment against the nomads by playing on latent prejudices about Muslims. Journalists, however, were generally sympathetic to the Van Gujjars.
As the sides vied with each other in Dehradun and in the media, the migrating families were out on the road anxiously contemplating their fates.
The last camp before Naugaon was just past the village of Bornigad. By the time Dhumman and Yusuf’s families got there, their cousin Alfa and his family had joined up with their caravan. If the park was closed, they’d need to find somewhere else to go, too, and their best bet was to travel toward Kanasar and try to piggyback on the documents Dhumman borrowed.
The families camped on the dusty shoulder of the road, but they were able to keep the buffaloes down the hillside along the riverbank. It was one of the nicest places yet to watch the herd: a bridge overhead provided plenty of shade and the water flowed cold and clear. It was the perfect escape from their troubling situation, and most everyone tried to spend as much time by – or in – the river as possible.
Early in the day, Dhumman and Alfa had taken a shared jeep north to Purola, where they could get the latest updates from the ranger station there, and where they could meet with Firoz and talk to him personally.
The news they returned with was discouraging. Firoz’s family had been stopped at the forest gates and barred from entering the national park. They were camped on the road, waiting, in a place where there was little fodder available to scrounge or to purchase. If they headed up to their meadow, they could reap unlimited fines or face arrest and have their herd confiscated. So they stayed where they were, stuck in limbo.
On one hand, Dhumman reasoned, if he and Yusuf and Alfa stuck to their usual route and joined Firoz, their combined presence might be enough to pressure the Forest Department to let them all into the park. But if it wasn’t, if the parks director still wouldn’t budge, their combined presence would deplete any of the already scant resources in the area four times faster, hastening the arrival of disaster for them all. Neither choice was a good one, nor a clear winner.
In the end, fear of the consequences of being shut out ultimately swayed their minds. They simply couldn’t risk going to Gangar; they could lose everything. So, they would turn right at Naugaon and aim for Kanasar, where, despite the difficulties involved, they felt more confident that they’d be able to get their buffaloes to grass.
With this decision made, the families pitched in and hired a cargo truck to carry all the buffalo calves and the young children to their next camp, which was up a long, steep section of road. Knowing that before long they’d have some unavoidably strenuous days, the adults didn’t want their little ones – human or bovine - to overdo it now, especially since some of the children were already sick.
The truck came at about 2 a.m., and once the back was filled with animals and the front was packed with kids and a couple of moms, it groaned up the road toward Barkot. The rest of the family followed behind, walking with the herds, toward unfamiliar terrain. As they moved through the night, they sang together, for longer and with more passion than on any other leg of their trek.
Bashi, Salma, and Mustooq, in the Dunda Mandal HIlls
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…
Karim gets his milk from the source
A number of Van Gujjar families were camped on a terraced plot of land just off of the main road on the outskirts of Uttarkashi. Every caravan whose summer meadows were up ahead halted here first, waiting until after midnight to walk their herds through the normally bustling market town.
For Dhumman, Jamila, and their family, along with Yusuf’s and Alfa’s, this would be the last stop before the forest barrier at Gangori.
If they were going to be turned back for using the paperwork of someone who’d been given land, they knew that's where it would probably happen. If they were allowed to pass, they'd have a very long trek to the next camp, so Dhumman considered hiring a cargo truck again, to shuttle the kids, the calves and all the bags on ahead, then follow with the buffaloes, as they had done once before. But when he couldn’t find a driver to take them for less than 1000 rupees (about $20), he decided it was too expensive.
Everyone would walk – including their white bull, whose feet were now in such bad shape it was now wearing booties made of burlap scraps tied up with pink ribbons. So they waited through the day, and watched as other families loaded their calves and children into a truck.
Then, around 1 a.m., they set off themselves, marching through the tunnel in the mountainside that led to Uttarkashi, past the dormant bus and taxi stands, up the road and finally across the bridge into Gangori. When they reached the small ranger post where the forest gatekeepers were stationed, the night was still pitch dark.
It was almost 4 a.m. when the three-family caravan arrived at the forest checkpoint at Gangori. While Dhumman and Yusuf went inside to show their borrowed papers to the rangers on duty, everyone else continued driving the herd up the road, as though acting like they were doing what they were supposed to be doing would convince the officers to let them pass. It seemed to work. Dhumman and Yusuf emerged from the small office with word that everything was okay, for the moment anyway. They were told a ranger would go over their paperwork more thoroughly later, at a more decent hour, at their next camp. Still, simply getting beyond the checkpoint was a victory, and a wave of quiet relief swept through the group. They quickened their pace and didn’t look back, afraid that doing so might invite the rangers to change their minds.
They trekked for hours more, following the twists and turns of the tarmac alongside the Assi Ganga River, a small tributary of the Bhagirathi that sluiced between rocky, pine-forested slopes. At last they stopped on a flat, grassy spit of land at a bend in the river and set up their tarps among a few cedar trees.
The weather was fickle throughout the day. Once, it started hailing so hard that Dhumman gathered the buffalo calves and sheltered them under the tarp with the family, people and animals pressed together beneath a sheet of black plastic until the fury of the storm passed.
When the ranger arrived, he inspected the documents that had been borrowed from Kasim, and declared that Dhumman and his family had no right to be where they were. Kanasar, he said, was part of a different ranger district, and they were not allowed to graze their animals in this one. Dhumman explained that they were just passing through and that they'd enter the adjacent district designated in the paperwork as soon as they could. This wasn’t good enough for the ranger, who said that the entire caravan had to get out of his jurisdiction immediately or face arrest.
Thus the bargaining began. When it was over, Dhumman, Yusuf, and Alfa had secured a handshake deal to move through the district to Kanasar. The ranger walked away with 2000 rupees (about $40), seven liters of milk and three kilograms of butter, plus a promise of five more kilos of butter over the next few days.
The following morning, the families woke and started off later than usual. Now that they were truly in the Himalayan foothills, around 4000 feet (1220 meters) above sea level, they didn’t have to contend with brutal daytime temperatures, and now that they were no longer traveling along a major road, there was far less traffic to worry about. They hiked nearly to the end of the road, just shy of the village of Sangam Chatti - where Dhumman, Alfa, Mir Hamza, and a couple of Yusuf’s sons went in to pick up supplies from a handful of shops, while the rest of the caravan left the road and struck out onto a footpath into the forest.
While in the village, Dhumman placed a call to Dehradun. Whispers of rumors he'd heard for the past couple of days were now confirmed: the Forest Department had opened Govind Pashu Vihar National Park to the nomads. Firoz, the Van Gujjar whose family had been stranded on the road for about two weeks, had reached his meadow. Dhumman was glad to hear it – but he knew it was too late for his family to turn back. At this point, they were a hundred percent committed to Kanasar. Sometime over the next few weeks, Dhumman, Yusuf, and Alfa would have to go over to the Gangar area to pay their annual grazing taxes, even though they weren’t using their meadows there this summer. It was crucial, they felt, to make it look like they had been there, if only on paper, so park authorities couldn’t later accuse them of voluntarily abandoning their traditional pastures.
Sangam Chatti was the end of the road. From there, they would travel by trail to Kanasar. Still following the Assi Ganga valley as it curved sharply to the east, the families were once again immersed in the forest. Their route would take them some 20 miles (30km) deeper - and 8000 feet (2450 meters) higher - into the mountains.
Since there was a well-used recreational hiking trail etched into the northern slope of the river canyon, the nomads stuck to the rarely-traveled paths on the southern side. They walked high above the Assi Ganga itself, since the terrain closer to the water was simply too sheer to cross. Eventually, where the topography mellowed out temporarily, they descended to the river, crossed it, then climbed toward Dodi Tal, a small lake popular with trekkers, which is said to be the birthplace of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati.
While everyone was glad to be behind the veil of the forest once again, conditions soon became difficult. Progress was slow. A series of storms settled over the mountains, flinging rain, hail, and snow. The steep dirt paths became slick with mud, which was hard on the Van Gujjars but even harder, perhaps, on the pack animals; some were so worn down that at times they’d be relieved of their saddlebags – which would then be carried, fully-loaded, by people. The days when they craved shade or plunged into a river to escape the heat of the day seemed like the far distant past, as they now crowded around fires and bundled up in wool shawls for warmth. They lingered for days at some campsites before moving on, waiting out the weather and grateful not be at Kanasar yet, where the exposed meadows were surely getting hammered even harder by the elements.
The plastic shoes that they wore were falling apart, so they cut up the most damaged ones and used their pieces to patch those that could be repaired. As they moved further and further away from shops where they could buy flour or rice or anything else, food was strictly rationed (to about three or four chapattis smeared with chili paste each day, plus milk and chai), and everyone lived with pangs of hunger. At one point, a crew of the older children hiked about 10 miles (16km) back to Sangam Chatti to purchase supplies, then returned to camp the same day, each carrying between 25 and 40 kilograms (55 to 88 pounds) apiece of flour, rice, sugar, tea, and other goods. This was much more difficult than their usual migration to Gangar, and they felt it, but generally handled it with patience and humor.
In all, they took ten days to travel the 14 miles (22km) between Sangam Chatti and Dodi Tal. From there, just one more day of trekking would take them to Kanasar. But they’d spend some time camped near the little lake first.
Over 10,000 feet (3050 meters) above sea level, surrounded by towering rocky slopes, the families of Dhumman and Yusuf were camped in a patch of forest on the fringe of the treeline, a little ways above Dodi Tal. Alfa and his family had stopped below the lake, before the trail reached the water, the small temple, or the few shack-like shops where trekkers can buy hot chai, Maggi noodles, or whatever kind of candy happens to be in stock. From there, Alfa would split off in a slightly different direction, taking his herd to a spot just south of Kanasar, so as not to overgraze the meadows.
Kanasar was just six miles ahead – but to get there, the family would still have to climb some 2500 feet (770 meters) or more, up and over a mountain pass. The ascent would be challenging, especially considering the condition of most of the pack animals, but could be done in a one-day push. If the weather would ever let them go. They had to wait until conditions became safe enough for high alpine travel, and were stuck at Dodi Tal for days.
One day, Dhumman took advantage of the delay to run down the trail to Sangam Chatti, where he caught a bus all the way to the main bazaar in Uttarakashi, in order to buy some materials that the family would need once they got to Kanasar, including sheets of plastic to cover the roof of the old hut – called a chappar – which he knew would need extensive repairs. He was due to return the following day. While he was gone, the accident happened.
Swirling gray clouds swallowed the mountaintops. A cold rain fell in surges, hard and heavy one minute, a light patter the next.The three tents of black plastic sheeting, propped up with sticks, were worn and tattered and, at that moment, leaky. Underneath, fresh pine needles had been spread, making a clean floor and a bed softer than the bare earth. The cooking fire just outside the tent sputtered and smoldered, giving off more smoke than flame.
Early that morning the skies had been clear, raising everyone’s hopes that the bad weather they’d been besieged by had finally broken. If they were lucky, they’d be able to tackle the final leg of the journey the next day. Since the bulls and horses were too worn out to carry full loads over the high pass that loomed ahead, it made sense to take advantage of the sunshine and send a small advance team to shuttle some of the family's belongings up to the meadow, then return. Carrying as much as they could on their backs and in their arms, Gamee, Apa, and Sharafat followed the trail up a creek, through a tight, rocky canyon and out into a treeless bowl at the base of the path up to the pass. Then the clouds moved in. The risks of being caught in a Himalayan storm, exposed on a bare mountainside, had consequences too grim to ignore. They cached what they were carrying among some bushes, intending to pick them up when they trekked by them the following day, and hustled back down to camp through a thickening mist, arriving just as the rain really began to fall.
After lunch, nearly everyone went out to watch the herds. Huddling together under umbrellas or beneath trees, they tried, unsuccessfully, to stay dry. Their plastic shoes filled with water; their woolen shawls were soaked. But they endured the storm with stoicism and even laughter, their own comfort less important than the safety of their animals. There was too much rhododendron around - which buffaloes find delicious, but which can be fatally poisonous - to leave them unattended.
Under the tent, some of the women were watching over the youngest children. Akloo, whose dark eyes and sculpted cheeks were loosely framed by a green-and-purple headscarf, cradled little Hasina. Apa, in a yellow polyester sweater over a green kameez, brushed out Salma's hair. Mariam was lying down, wrapped in a brown fleece blanket, resting but awake enough to giggle and joke with her sister-in-law and her closest cousin.
Their easy banter was abruptly severed by a scream so panicked, so distressed, there was no doubt it was provoked by genuine terror.Apa and Mariam turned to each other and, with fear in their faces, simultaneously said, "Bashi!"
Leaping up without bothering to put on their shoes, they dashed toward the source of the shriek, while Akloo stayed under the tent with the children.
Up the canyon they ran, along the muddy trail, leaping from rock to rock to cross the churning creek, and sometimes wading through it. The sound of the rushing water was amplified by the walls of the narrow gorge into a wild roar. After about two minutes, they met Bashi, who was sprinting towards them in tears. She could barely speak through her sobs, her whole body shaking as she tried to explain what happened. As soon as Apa and Mariam got the picture, they bolted up the trail, while Bashi continued running down to camp.
She had been tending to the calves, like she usually did. They were a few minutes uphill from the camp, on a high bank in the creek-carved gorge that funneled runoff down from highest ridges. At the base of a sheer cliff, the animals clustered together, hiding from the weather, instinctually seeking cover under an overhanging rock, though not all could fit beneath it. Bashi huddled in close with the calves, knowing her presence helped calm them - and taking comfort from them as well. When the downpour temporarily tapered off, she crossed the creek to fetch a bundle of grass for her four-legged friends to munch on.
Suddenly, the storm surged back to life. Thunder shook the canyon. Rain exploded from the sky. At the top of the rock wall, some fifty feet directly above the young buffaloes, the water rose in a small ravine. Swelling fast, it swept downhill, pulling a dead tree from its brittle roots and flinging it over the cliff's edge. Plunging to the ground, it smashed into five of the calves.
Hurrying back with a load of grass in her arms, Bashi saw the whole thing. Her scream was so loud, so full of every ounce of her being, it carried all the way down to the camp. She was lucky she wasn’t crushed by the tree herself, but that didn't cross her mind. Her only thoughts were for the calves. Afraid they would die, she turned and ran for the tents, her bare feet splashing through frigid puddles while she cried hysterically, yelling for help. Her brothers, sisters, and cousins were already on their way.
Within minutes, seven of them had reached the site of the accident. The rain had paused. They surveyed the scene, taking in the size of the tree that lay splayed on the ground, then looking up to the top of the cliff and tracing its fall with their eyes. For a moment, they seemed frozen by disbelief, which quickly thawed into a devastated grief; as their attention turned to the buffalo calves, their stunned silence was broken by heartrending wails and sobs and shouts of protest directed at the clouds.
After a minute or two of chaos, Gamee – the eldest of his generation - took on the role of incident commander and organized his brothers, sisters, and cousins for action. Though they were focused and efficient, even the men wept as they triaged the animals, sorting the wounded from the well, checking the injured, and building a bonfire to keep the calves warm.
The five victims were large yearlings. Two were obviously okay, their tough black hide only scraped by the tree’s branches. Another two suffered blows to their bodies and seemed like they might have had internal injuries, but it was hard to tell whether or not they were seriously hurt. The fifth was in the worst shape. Its left front leg was crushed. A shattered bone stuck through her flesh, and the hoof beneath it flopped around like it was held on by a rubber band.
Mariam warmed a burlap sack over the fire, then spread it over the back of the broken-legged yearling. Lying on the ground, it was too hurt to struggle even as Gamee, Chamar, and Hamju tried to straighten its leg - which was bent at an unnatural angle - and wrapped the wound with a shirt and scarf. Blood dripped from the corner of its mouth as it sank into deep lethargy. It seemed like she might be dying. And the rain started falling again.
After about fifteen minutes, Yusuf arrived. His pointy orange beard leapt in the wind as he asked what happened, his tone at once demanding and desperate. The injured buffaloes were his. While listening to the story, he dropped his umbrella, knelt on the soggy ground, and examined the yearlings. Upon seeing the broken leg, he slapped his hands to his forehead. Facing skyward, he ranted in anguish, uttering short, tormented outbursts, each of which ended with a pained howl, seared by despair.
A few moments later, Jamila and Roshni appeared. With calm confidence, the two women took control of the situation. They ushered their children away, sending them back to camp or to the herds of adult buffaloes temporarily left unattended. Their silver bracelets jingling, they mixed milk and turmeric powder together in a stainless steel jug then, through a green plastic tube, poured the concoction down the throats of the three wounded yearlings to fortify them and deter infection. Jamila stoked the fire while Roshni re-warmed the burlap sack that was draped over the hurt buffalo's back.
Suddenly, the sky crackled and hail began to fall, violently, in balls the size of cherries. Jamila and Roshni ran for shelter under the rock overhang. With their scarf-covered heads tilted to the heavens, they watched with distressed eyes as millions of ice pellets streaked through the foggy air, the drumroll of countless tiny impacts echoing off the canyon wall. Taking it as proof that fate was truly against them, Jamila and Roshni keened in high-pitched tones, plaintively praying to Allah with their whole souls, pleading for mercy yet willing to accept whatever His hand had written for them.
That evening, Hamju and Sharafat returned to the calves with blankets and food for themselves. They would spend the night there. They concluded that the two buffaloes suspected of having internal injuries only had some bruises and would be fine. But things looked bad for the yearling with the broken leg.
Back at the tents that evening, the storm still sat on top of them and, between keeping an eye on the buffaloes and keeping the fires going, people were too preoccupied to wallow in emotion. Earlier, Bashi had been devastated by what she'd seen, and felt horribly guilty that it had happened on her watch, but by dinnertime she was clearly feeling better, the comfort given by her family quickly - if not completely - repairing her world.
Dhumman returned later that night from his mission to Uttarkashi. Exhausted, he listened to the story of the accident while he silently ate the chapattis that were reheated for him on the fire. Finishing his chai, he quietly asked a few questions. Then he went to see Yusuf.
Sitting by the fire at Yusuf's tent, the two brothers talked for a long time. By the end of the conversation, they'd reached a decision about the yearling with the broken leg.
They were going to try to save her.
The morning was sunny and warm, the sky pure blue. Dhumman, Jamila, Yusuf and Roshni fine-tuned their plans, figuring out what supplies would need to be brought up to the injured calf. Jamila would stay at camp, while the other three, along with a few of Yusuf and Roshni's sons, would head up the trail and try to splint the buffalo's leg.
When they reached the calves, Bashi was already there watching them. She sat by the wounded yearling's head, petting and kissing it, while Dhumman fashioned a splint from six thin pieces of wood and some rope, which he then put to the side.
Chamar, Gamee, and Hamju lay across the young buffalo, holding it down with their bodies. Yusuf poured turmeric powder into the hole in its leg, then he and Roshni pulled gently outward on the hoof, applying traction as Dhumman jimmied the bone back in and positioned it correctly. The buffalo tried to recoil, but couldn't move.
Working slowly and meticulously, Dhumman bandaged the wound and wrapped a cloth around it, neat and tight. At last, the wooden splint was secured over the yearling’s leg as snugly as possible. The whole procedure, including fashioning the splint, took about an hour. It looked perfect, and could hardly have been done better in an animal hospital.
Of course, there was one problem. They young buffalo still couldn't walk, and a 2500-foot pass still stood between the family and the meadow.
The following day, they rose before sunrise. They were always efficient, but on this morning they packed up with extra enthusiasm, since it was the last time they would have to do it until October. There was a buzz of excitement in the frigid, pre-dawn air, as everyone was eager to finally set eyes on the meadow.
As the sky grew light, they walked up through the narrow canyon just above camp. With the loaded horses and bulls, they moved slowly, crossing the creek a number of times and navigating a tricky trail around massive boulders that choked the gorge. They passed the spot where the accident had happened - and where the wounded calf remained - at last emerging in the clearing where, two days earlier, they'd turned back when trying to shuttle supplies over the pass.
The buffaloes had been moved here the previous afternoon and were waiting, munching on leafy bushes. They would take up the rear. Looking ahead, the trail zigzagged up a steep, grassy chute between two rocky ridges. The higher it rose, the more acclivitous it appeared, until it finally veered out of view far above - but still well below the pass. Anticipating the trouble that the pack animals would have reaching the top, their loads were reduced and divided among the family.
And so they started up, carrying children and cooking pots and milk cans, followed by an armada of big, black, horned beasts, each step bringing them closer to the sky as the jewel-like peaks of the 23,000-foot (7000 meter) Gangotri Group emerged behind them, gleaming on the jagged horizon.
The trail was narrow but in surprisingly good condition. The weather was perfect. Despite the incline and the thinning air, they kept a steady pace. Individuals paused for breaks here and there, to catch their breath and give their thighs a few seconds to stop throbbing, but the group as whole kept moving forward, snaking up the mountainside. With one final push over a nearly vertical slope they cleared the pass, then sat and rested, tired and happy. From there, it was a relatively easy traverse to the spot where they would stay for the summer, just a couple of miles further on.
The view from the meadow was staggering. To the north, the gleaming, snow-clad Bandarpunch massif, some 20,700 feet (6316 meters) high, filled the panorama. Below it, a river tumbled through a dramatic canyon with waterfalls cascading down its walls. Alpine grasslands surrounded the camp and unfurled around the side of a mountain, laced with fresh streams and fringed by evergreen forests.
After unloading the animals, the families went to inspect the two tattered huts that stood there, which Kasim’s family hadn’t used in a couple of years. The larger one had a solid frame of logs and tree limbs, but needed some substantial repairs. Just like any family might when moving into a fixer-upper, this one lingered inside, imagining what the kitchen would look like when it was finished - in this case, how they'd rebuild the hearth with mud and rocks, sculpting in some shelving to hold their cookware. But the first priorities were rebuilding the walls - which had gaping holes - and the roof - which had bare rafters. Once it was renovated, Dhumman's family would move into it.
The smaller hut, its manure-packed floor proof that it had been used to shelter buffaloes at some point in the past, was more intact, needing just a bit of roof repair and a good cleaning inside. Too little for a whole family, Gamee and Akloo and their two kids would live in it.
Yusuf's family would have to build their own hut from the ground up, which caused some grumbling among his sons, since they would be expected to do the bulk of the work on what would be a major construction job.
For now, however, both families would continue living under sheets of plastic. They quickly got to work setting up their tents, collecting firewood, and hauling water, preparing for lunch and for any weather that might move in. Giant plumes of cumulus swept over the meadow like a fluid shroud of clouds, white and grey and gold, sometimes fraying just enough for beams of sunlight or views of the mountains to flash through.
Despite the meadow's Shangri-La-like setting, something just didn't feel right. After forty tough days on the trail, their brief moment of triumph at reaching their goal faded into a palpable mood of disappointment.
Sitting beneath the lip of the tent, brewing a pot of chai, Apa summed it up: "It is more beautiful here than at Gangar, where we usually go," she said, "but it isn't our home." It was much colder here, she continued, and higher, and there was so much work to be done before they could even move into the hut. It felt strange to be so far from a village in the summertime - and especially from the villagers whose families had been friends with her family for generations. "I love it there." She paused. "This just doesn't feel like home."
Of course, everyone was also exhausted, physically and emotionally, from the journey. Now that the migration was over, it started to sink in a little bit.
What's more, one member of the family was missing. The fate of the injured calf, who'd been abandoned down below, was weighing on everyone's mind.
But Dhumman and Yusuf hadn't forgotten about it. And they had a plan:
That evening, two of Yusuf's sons retreated down the mountain to spend the night with the calf. Early the next morning, Dhumman, Mir Hamza, and two more of Yusuf's sons went to meet them. When they reached the wounded yearling, they lashed her to two poles cut from slender tree trunks. With two in front and two behind, they hoisted the litter onto their shoulders and carried the animal back up and over the pass. It was a labor worthy of Hercules. The buffalo was so heavy and the trail so steep that the men had to work on a rotation system, allowing some to rest their backs while others carried. A few times, they simply had to stop, lay the yearling down, and catch their breath before continuing on.
They weren’t doing this because the yearling was worth much financially; they did it because they love their buffaloes. They did it out of the intrinsic sense of responsibility they have for their animals. They did it because they are Van Gujjars.
Hours later, upon reaching the meadow, the yearling was clearly relieved to be back on the ground. With a little bit of help, she stood, and even hobbled a few ginger steps. By the time they would descend in the fall, Dhumman said, her broken bone should be healed enough for her to walk down to the lowland jungles on her own four feet.
Heartened by the success of the rescue mission, grateful to have their baby buffalo back with them, a wave of optimism rippled through the camp. Perhaps their luck had turned the corner and they would have a good summer after all.
After such a physically strenuous and emotionally nervewracking journey, people were tired. Reflecting on the migration, Dhumman and Jamila both took a big-picture perspective. Their future, as best as they could see, looked like it would be awash in anxieties.
Like most Van Gujjars, they had always wholeheartedly rejected the idea of leaving the forest and settling in a village. They would lose too many things that they loved in their lives, from their sense of freedom to their intimate connection to the natural world to their herds of buffaloes. Their friend, Mullah Noor Alam, whose family had been evicted from Rajaji National Park and settled in the village of Gandikhatta, explained it this way: “In order to be Van Gujjar, you must live in the forest, keep buffalo, and take them to the mountains in summer. We don’t do any of that; we are not Van Gujjars anymore.” “Sometimes,” he continued, “I remember the freedom of the forest. Here, you have to be more diplomatic, more careful, where in the forest we were behind a curtain, so we could be ourselves. But I’ve adjusted, and now that I’m here I feel I should just accept it and not remember the old life.”
Despite how much they cherished their nomadic way of life, Dhumman and Jamila were having second thoughts about it. All sense of security had evaporated from their world. They didn’t know what would happen next year: perhaps they’d be able to return to Gangar, or perhaps they’d be barred from Uttarakhand completely. This lack of stability, with disaster as likely an outcome as survival, drove them to conclude that if the government offered them a deal to leave the forest and settle, they would probably accept it.
Their preference, they agreed, would be to stay in the wilderness, if they could move freely and easily like they once did, without threats by the Forest Department. But with that looking less and less like the kind of future they imagined, and their survival in the balance, they had to be realistic. “Settling in a village, sure, we would lose a lot,” Jamila said. “But at least we would know where we are.” As much of a reluctant compromise as that would be, it was also something of a fantasy, since no one had ever offered them any kind of deal at all – and it didn’t look like anyone would. The park authorities wanted to ban them from their meadows, but weren't interested in giving them any kind of compensation at all.
Apa, the only one in the family with actual experience living in a village, still resisted the whole idea. “Our people have been going to the mountains forever,” she said. “We’ve always done this. Gangar is our home! No one should be able to stop us from going there.”
What would they do next year? “Where it is written, we will go,” Jamila said. She meant “by Allah,” but could have been talking about the Forest Department.
The following winter, the park director was again threatening to ban the Van Gujjars from Govind Pashu Vihar in the summer of 2010, and seemed at least as serious as he had in 2009. Dhumman and Jamila felt like he really might mean it this time, and didn’t want to end up going to Kanasar again, so they – along with Yusuf - made a deal with a farmer near Kalsi to purchase fodder in bulk and use his fields from April to October. It proved much easier, they said, than the previous year’s migration, but not nearly as nice as going to Gangar; the heat at Kalsi was intense, and thanks to their expenses, they made even less money than usual. Also, they found that when they moved back into the Shivaliks – after months of staying in one place - that neither they nor their buffaloes were as strong as usual, and they had some trouble getting back into the groove of climbing trees.
As it turned out, the new chief minister of Uttarakhand stepped in and smoothed the way for the Van Gujjars to enter the park, so Dhumman’s preemptive action proved unnecessary. In 2011 and 2012, Dhumman, Yusuf, and Alfa all went back to Gangar, as the Forest Department appeared to accept that India’s Forest Rights Act applied to their state. But the government insisted it was acting only out of humanitarian concern, not because they were compelled by law to let the nomads into the park – they even declined to issue receipts for the grazing taxes that the Van Gujjars paid (which serve as proof that official permission was granted), refusing to acknowledge the herders’ legal right to be there. Despite a couple of seasons of minimal hassles, these families are too guarded to hope that the freedom of the old days had returned. They know that their fate is completely in the hands of people and agencies that they fundamentally can’t trust to implement policies that prioritize the needs of Van Gujjars.
We'll be updating this section with new information very soon!
Huge thanks are owed to a number of people who helped make this project possible. First and foremost, of course, are Dhumman and Jamila and their family, Yusuf and Roshni and their family, Alfa and Sakina and their family, and the other Van Gujjars I encountered during the migration and in the Shivaliks and the Himalayas. They - especially Dhumman and Jamila and their kids - opened their home and their world and welcomed me into it with a warmth and patience and friendship beyond anything I could have hoped for when embarking on this adventure.
Crucial to this project have been the people at the Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities (SOPHIA) - especially its director, Praveen Kaushal, who helped set this entire thing in motion and made it all possible, including connecting me to Dhumman and Jamila. I can not thank him enough for all of the support, in all of the various ways, he so generously provided. Also at SOPHIA, Munesh, Nazim, Joshi and others were a big, big help. More information about SOPHIA is at their website, www.sophiaindia.org.
My translator, who has asked to remain humbly anonymous, was absolutely instrumental in this endeavor - without him, all I'd have are a bunch of photos but not much of a story.
The works of Dr. Pernille Gooch, who spent years reseaching Van Gujjar life and culture, were essential to my background understanding of this nomadic world - particularly her doctoral dissertation, At The Tail of the Buffalo: Van Gujjar Pastoralists Between the Forest and the World Arena (Lund Monographs in Social Anthropology, 1998). In addition to her papers, I thank her for the time we spent talking in person in Dehradun. Along with Praveen Kaushal, she is the true outside expert on the Van Gujjar way of life.
On the home front, I'm incredibly grateful to Lucas Vidgen, who devoted his time, energy and expertise to creating the 3-D and 2-D Google Earth/Map interface that was originally such a huge part of the way this project was experienced - and then adapting it once we needed to change the format.
And of course I want to thank the donors to Traditional Cultures Project, who have helped fund both this web-based project and the presentation of slide shows in schools. In order to continue creating projects like this, TCP needs your help - please go to our Support TCP page and contribute today!