There are no roads, no electricity and no fixed addresses on this journey that takes them across high plains, treacherous passes and picturesque Himalayan valleys. Like for their ancestors before them, life for the nomadic tribe of Van Gujjars, is all about survival and perpetual movement. Originally from Jammu and Kashmir, the tribe has over time spread out across the ranges of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in search of rich forests and meadows for their cattle.
The lives of the Van Gujjars are centred around caring for and finding food for their animals. Winters are spent in the wilderness of the Himalayan lowlands, the Shivalik range, where the lush foliage provides plenty of fodder for the buffaloes. Aware that the amount of milk produced by the buffaloes, along with its flavor, is determined by what they eat, the herders themselves climb up trees to chop off the best varieties of leaf-laden branches for their buffaloes.
The annual spring migration, called transhumance, starts when summer hits the northern hemisphere in the months of April and May. With the temperatures soaring above 45 degrees Celsius, leaves wither and creeks run dry in the heat. With nothing left for their buffaloes to eat or drink, the Van Gujjars load up all they own and start the long trek with their herds up into the cool mountains.
Each family gets a permit from the forest authorities to live in a particular forest for six months. From children to the elderly, entire families trek with their herds up into the Himalayas. While on the trek, camps are set up within striking distance of water sources.
There are two things that the Van Gujjars have to reckon with to optimize the timing of their ascent. If they reach alpine grasslands too early, the meadows will still be covered with snow. But if they linger too long en route, they will waste money (earned by selling milk on the way) to buy fodder and food they don’t actually need. So they move strategically, analysing the ground conditions, aiming to reach the meadows as soon as the grass comes up.
Each member in a Van Gujjar family has a well-defined role (based on age) with the animals: the adults walk with big buffaloes and horses while the children follow at a slower pace with the calves.
A Muslim community, Van Gujjars have their own dialect called Gujjari, which is a linguistic fusion of Dogri (a Kashmiri tongue) and Punjabi. For most of their history, the nomads were known as Gujjars. They only added the word Van (forest) to their tribal name in the late 1980s. This was to distinguish themselves from the other Gujjars in India, a very different community with whom they may or may not share distant ancestral roots.
Buffalo milk is the main (and often only) source of income and the staple food for the Van Gujjars. With the well-being of every Van Gujjar family being completely dependent on the well-being of its herd, it’s no wonder that caring for the water buffaloes is the axis around which the tribe’s world revolves. The tribe’s water buffaloes are different from those normally kept by farmers and dairymen in India.
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