The nomadic Gujjars and Bakerwals have been migrating to greener pastures every year to rear their sheep and cattle. For centuries they have kept their occupation and their lifestyle. Aliya Bashir reports
While grazing the flock in meadows of Yousmarg, Zarina sings in a low, soft voice. She has been coming to these meadows for years. Earlier with her parents, now with her husband. The nomadic Gujjar tribes rear cattle and sheep and goat for a living. And in summers they migrate to different high altitude meadows in Kashmir.
Thirty two -year-old Zareena of Rajouri district is accompanied by her husband and their five children and their extended family. They own 210 sheep and goat and ten horses and some dogs. Apart from doing household chores, she helps in managing the flock. Wearing a Tajikistani cap with a designed shawl, Sutthan (trouser), Kurti (shirt) and heavy artificial jewellery, she seems to be relaxed. However, she is still tired from the more than 300 kilometre migration over arduous mountains.
“When we reach temporary stops, we have to cook meals and then again pack our bags for the next destination. This goes on for the whole year, except for few months of rest period,” says Zareena.
The nomadic Gujjars and Bakerwals mostly live in Rajouri, Poonch, Doda, Udhampur and Islamabad districts of the state. In April every year nomadic Gujjars and Bakerwals start their migration towards upper reaches of Kashmir valley which usually takes them one and a half month.
They move with their baggage on horses and flock of goats and sheep guarded by ferocious dogs. “We are in Kashmir from last three weeks for our seasonal migration. As we have lot of families from the same district we belong, so we live in tented colonies as we always keep tents with us. Our journey is uncertain. Sometimes we roam around even during night, if we don’t find any resting place,” says Mohammad Arif Gujran, 35, of the Rajouri district.
The tribe have been rearing sheep and cattle for ages. They are happy in their business and reluctant to give it up.
Zaffar Ali Khatana, 52, of Daksum, Islamabad is known in his tribe by the name Sardar. He leads the caravans of more than ten families. Dressed in a Kurta-shalwar and a waist coat with a large turban he travels on a mule. Women and children and horses carrying tents and household items follow him. The young men in the caravan guard the flocks of sheep and goats from thieves and wild animals.
“Our women are very hard-working. But, we try to avoid carrying them along for the whole day. Thus we ask them to come to a particular place on horses,” says Khatana. Looking at his wife, he said, “If Gujjars and Bakerwals are known as king of jungles, they are our queens.”
The Gujjar women work hard from morning to late into the night leaving them tired.
“We are supposed to tend to herds throughout the day and walk long distances carrying our children and the baggage,” says Khatana’s wife, Rubina.
Rubina says that their community lacks access to healthcare and the women are the worst sufferers. Expecting mothers are at highest risk and the children denied of timely immunization vaccination due to their nomadic lifestyle, she says.
“In the Kafila (caravan), if a woman is expecting, she carries a dai (midwife) along. But many women have died while giving birth to their children (during delivery),” says Rubina. “Our family members are buried in forests and unknown places due to obvious reasons.”
The Gujjars and Bakerwals own small shelters made of wooden logs called ‘Dhokes or Margs’ in the upper reaches.
The Bakerwals, mostly rear sheep and goats for their livelihood, while Gujjars rear buffaloes.
The rains in March and April have delayed the migration of these nomads this year. Movement of herds and men is hampered as the mountain passes used by them get slippery. The nomads are a common sight in the valley as they move along various roads and highways. Sometimes leading to traffic jams.
“We are facing frequent traffic jams due to a lot of livestock moving along Jammu -Srinagar highway. There is no proper mechanism to regulate the huge number of herds which is causing traffic chaos,” says a traffic police officer, wishing not to be named.
There are other tensions, sometimes fights, between the passing nomads and locals in different villages. The fights break over the herds’ grazing in local grazing lands.
“Our cattle are not able to graze in the village grazing lands as the large number of migratory herds devour all the grass there. Many times this has resulted in fights between the villagers and the nomads,” says Abdul Hameed, a villager in Islamabad. “There should be some monitoring body to manage the grazing lands by reducing the intensity of grazing by the migratory herds.”
Living in remote areas, nomadic Gujjars and Bakerwals earn their livelihood by producing wool, milk and meat.
Javaid Rahi, Secretary, Tribal Foundation says, “Due to nomadic way of life the tribal groups mainly Gujjars are living in absolute poverty as they lack access to basic amenities such as clean water, healthcare, education.”
The nomadic Gujjars have suffered a lot over the last two decades of strife as army deployment has left many pastures out of bounds for them and their herds, says Sarfaraz Khan, whose family takes their herd to pastures near Gulmarg.
The main migration routes of the tribal Gujjars are -Peer Gi Gali (Mughal Road), Jamiya Gali, Gora Batta, Nanansar, Ropadi, Dharhal Pass and Banihal pass.