Home/ Mint-lounge / Features/  A journey with Gaddi pastoralists

For the first time in three days, I exult. I see them drift over mountain flanks like rain clouds—masses of fleece and feet moving to tinkling bells and baa-baa bleats, egged on by whistles and barks. The sheep are here.

As the nights get longer, the days colder and the landscape grows partial to white, the highest pastures of Himachal Pradesh witness an exodus, as Gaddi pastoralists guide their flocks to merciful altitudes.

A Hindu tribe, the Gaddis hail from motley castes—Brahmin, Rajput, Khatri, Rana, Thakur—and trace their ancestry to Delhi and Lahore. They are considered to have descended from the persecuted escapees of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s reign; many, though, swear lineage to Greek king Alexander and his roving army.

Semi-nomadic, the Gaddi migrate with their livestock during summers and wait out winters in their homes, mostly in the Chamba and Kangra districts. Since their farms yield little, they depend on selling sheep, wool and goatskin to traders, often exchanging meat for foodgrain in the villages they pass during migrations.

My dream of being part of one such migration took me to Duppu, a three-day walk from Manali on telltale sheep-running routes criss-crossing hilly flanks.

“So you want to come with us to Bara Bhangal?" asked the lithe, hawk-nosed Gaddi, who introduced himself as Jagan. A Gaddi, he said, could cover the distance from Duppu to Bara Bhangal in three days, but the grazing had not been good this year. “The weather is going crazy. Good grass is hard to come by. We have to cover the last stretch quickly," he said.

I attributed the changing weather to global warming. Jagan blamed it on the temper of Lord Shiva, who, according to legend, uses this region as his summer abode. Jagan’s way of appeasing the god was simple: making offerings of ganja (weed). I didn’t see the sense in that, but joined Jagan anyway.

Heady and warm, I helped him build a fire and tried milking a goat. My success with both ventures was celebrated over tea and a dinner of warm milk and roti.

A lot can be said about the thrill of spending a night under the stars with dogs on vigil. But that isn’t a Gaddi’s main worry. A more immediate concern is the survival of the tribe’s ways, threatened by government policies and the modernity that is beginning to reach villages.

Books describe a Gaddi team as a father-son duo, or a couple of brothers. But Jagan’s partner was a hired hand. He said his son, Balak, preferred guiding tourists to tending sheep. “It’s good," he said. “Officials tell us which route to take and how long we can spend at pasture. The forest department taxes us for each sheep. Balak will be saved this harassment."

That night I dreamt of a faceless Gaddi herding trekkers up a particularly precipitous pass and saw sheep in khaki tax them.

Santosh carrying newborns on a horse.
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Santosh carrying newborns on a horse.

Next morning, as I packed up, Jagan and Santosh, his apprentice, got their flock ready. The dogs were at work, nipping at the late risers and dashing in and out of the flock, forming a single file. Jagan handed me some ground barley: breakfast. It would resurface again as lunch. I gulped it down with water, sharing my chocolates with them. “It will be a long walk," Santosh said. A shrill whistle fractured the stillness of dawn. Our march had begun.

Each Gaddi family has its own route, the trail and permits handed down from father to son. Some routes led as far as Lahaul and Spiti. In earlier days, some went into Tibet. “This route," he said, “will fall silent once I’m gone." On many others, there are sounds of a different kind. Roads have been built and buses use them now; sheep on those routes are now a nuisance.

We walked all day, stopping where the grass grew green and thick. Jagan inspected the grass closely—some of it was nutritious, some poisonous. The adults know, but the young don’t. Jagan had lost five animals during his four-month migration.

That night, several goats went into labour. Jagan and Santosh, alpha males for so long, became midwives, cleaning the lambs and wrapping them in blankets. There were 13 births in all.

With the Kalihani Pass, at an altitude of about 4,700m, to cross the next day, Jagan was worried. The strenuous walk would mean dry mothers. And, possibly, death by starvation for the lambs. Plans changed quickly. We would begin our march up the pass at 5am, cross it and follow the shortest route to the meadow, where the sheep would rest. The newborns, placed in pouches, would be carried on horses. Gaddis have saddlebags sewn from gunny sacks for accidental births.

We started before first light. A light drizzle had Jagan worried. Sheep can’t handle snow more that 3 inches thick. It would be disastrous if the snow on Kalihani Pass was deep. In 1993, three Gaddis and 80 sheep had perished on the nearby Thamsar Pass. “Follow the trail of droppings and you won’t get lost."

Jagan’s flock was sure-footed, possibly from years of traversing the trail. On the pass, it was as Jagan feared. The snow was too thick. Luckily, a couple of Gaddis had been waiting there. While Jagan waited with the sheep, the group and Santosh marched on, beating a path through the snow that the sheep could follow.

A 4-hour dash downhill led us to greenery. With the weather worsening, all five of us squeezed into a stone shelter meant for three. The night was rough. Water dripped through the roof, and the plastic sheet I used to keep myself dry made me more uncomfortable. My sleeping bag was wet. For the Gaddi, though, it was no problem. The weave and weft of their woollen shawls make these waterproof.

Dheeraj, a Gaddi the writer met along the way.
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Dheeraj, a Gaddi the writer met along the way.

The next morning, Jagan decided on undertaking the long haul to Bara Bhangal. In 6 hours, we were at the last bend before the village. Terraced fields stacked with hay—fodder for winter—lined the walk downhill. For the Gaddis, I realized, this was just a cold, harsh interlude. As the snows melts and the meadows are reborn, they would set out to greener pastures at Lahaul, Spiti and beyond.

I spied people standing on the verandas of their village houses. Jagan pointed out one. “That’s my wife" he said. “She’s why I couldn’t wait to get home."

The Gaddi Lineage

The facts surrounding the life of the Gaddis

■The Gaddis live around Himachal Pradesh’s Dhauladhar range, mostly in the Bharmour region of Chamba district and Riva and Budhil valleys. Some live near Dharamsala.

■The Gaddis derive their name from the name of the land they live in—Gadheran.

■In Gaddi society, the work is marked out. Men look after migratory flocks, plough and sow. Clod-breaking and weaving is done by women.

■Gaddi life has been hard since the Indian Forests Act of 1865 was passed. This was followed by land settlement in Kangra from 1865-72, which introduced reserved and protected forests. Authorities earmarked grazing areas and fixed the herd size.

■In 1972, the state again issued orders to regulate flock size, branded goats as an ecological threat and began charging the Gaddis a grazing fee of Re1 per sheep and Rs1.25 per goat. The prices still apply; they also need to renew the permit every year.

■There are tales of the Bara Bhangal village being named after a local king, Bhangalia. The word for cannabis is ‘bhang’, and ‘bara’ means ‘big’ or ‘a lot’. Since cannabis grows like grass here, the name could have meant “place of much cannabis".

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Updated: 07 Oct 2016, 11:02 AM IST
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