Pastoralism in the Himalaya: Tarachand’s last walk?

JANAKI LENIN

back to issue

HIS knee seemed to have healed. Tarachand* walked without a limp as he followed the mountain trail from his home, a village nestled deep in the Rupi Valley, Himachal Pradesh. This may be the last time he set off from home for the summer pastures in Spiti. ‘I’m getting old. I can’t walk anymore,’ 50-year-old Tarachand had declared six weeks earlier, rubbing his knee with one hand and stroking a newborn lamb curled on his lap with the other. ‘This is the last time I’ll go to Pin Valley.’ One evening, at his camp in the winter pasture near Rampur Bushahr, his large muscular dog, Badshah, had smashed into his leg while fleeing blindly from a leopard. ‘I’m done,’ he said with finality.

Before the arrival of the summer monsoon, shepherds like Tarachand leave their families in the valleys of Rupi, Bada Kamba, Chota Kamba, and Bhabha in Kinnaur and set off with their flocks of sheep and goats, donkeys, and dogs for Pin Valley, Spiti. They spend the entire summer in remote pastures with only their animals for company. At the first sign of autumn, they trundle back home over the Great Himalayan Range. This tradition of escaping from the monsoon in the foothills, while exploiting the seasonal richness of a mountainous desert, is centuries old. In winter, they migrate to lower elevations, grazing their animals in the village commons and forests.

Now that he could walk, Tarachand seemed to have forgotten his decision. After two hours of rapid descent, he arrived at Burang, a remote road head, where a few men struggled to keep hundreds of bleating sheep and goats from scrambling up and down the slopes. Tarachand went from group to group, examining each animal and removing a few that he felt were not fit enough to make the journey. He wrote down the number of livestock against each man’s name in a tiny notebook. He would take these sheep and goats belonging to fellow villagers along with his own into the mountains for the summer. For his services, he charged a fee of Rs 100 per animal. It was dark by the time he was done.

Tarachand wondered if the weather would be good in Spiti, and if there was enough moisture for forage plants to grow. Or would it be better to stay put? There was no turning back now. Every year, he had left at the same time, around the 5th of June. The men took turns controlling the large flock through the night while the others slept in a room rented from a defunct hydel power project. At dawn, Tarachand performed a quick puja. The flock of 1,100 sheep and goats, dogs, five donkeys, and ten shepherds set off. A donkey foal skittered along on its first trek over the mountains. The biggest threat to its young life wasn’t the arduous journey but snow leopards and bears.

Until they reached the main road, the shepherds stopped frequently to let their animals graze. With the highway wide enough for two automobiles to pass each other, the men had to be vigilant. If the sheep spotted a green bush across the road, they would run towards it. The men whistled and made guttural sounds to control the flock. The threat of losing sheep and goats to accidents kept them on their toes. When the animals couldn’t resist the lure of filling their stomachs and disobeyed, the men ran after them, screaming oaths and waving their staffs. Newborn lambs and kids jostled in canvas backpacks as the shepherds walked and ran. They arrived at a campsite just off the highway at nightfall.

 

One shepherd Tukaram, the designated cook, had a hot meal of rice and dal ready. While the men rested from their long walk, Tarachand reunited the bleating kids with their anxious mothers. He checked on the flock, making sure none were sick or missing. One goat bled profusely from its horn, smearing blood on the long white coats of others in the vicinity. It had been hit by a falling rock. Tarachand thought the bleeding would stop in time. Despite the strenuous walk all day, the men couldn’t rest. They took turns keeping a watch on the animals. If they didn’t, they could lose them to thieves. Although they had dogs, the flock was too large and the sheep tended to wander off in the dark. These canines were guard dogs, not herding dogs. All night long, sheep and goats sneezed, snorted, and bleated, while dogs barked.

Shepherds sharing an early morning smoke before setting off. Janaki Lenin

At dawn, Tukaram got the fire going while a couple of shepherds milked a sheep. The men mixed handfuls of barley flour into the sweet milky tea, stirred with a piece of twig, and gulped it down. Two men deserted the group, saying they had work to do at home. ‘They got scared and ran away,’ Tarachand commented wryly. As he had predicted, the injured goat had stopped bleeding during the night and seemed none the worse. Six men and dogs set off with the flock. Tarachand and Tukaram broke camp, packed everything into gunny sacks, and strapped the cargo onto the donkeys. Unfettered, the foal eagerly raced ahead.

The flock eating salt at Mulling. Janaki Lenin

 

Two days later, the group reached the end of the road at Kafnu in Bhabha Valley. Tarachand’s acquaintances from the village came to greet him. They chatted late into the night, drinking rum and eating Tukaram’s spicy mutton curry. ‘I spend a lot on entertaining people, even more than I spend at home,’ said Tarachand quietly. ‘Last summer, I bought 80 kg of wheat flour and 285 kg of rice. If my wife found out, she’d scold me. But I have to negotiate with them for pasture and the right to pass through. If I look after them well, they won’t create problems.’ Kafnu was the last village and the last chance to buy rations for the trek. There would be no more worries about vehicles and road accidents. But the men would face other challenges ahead. In five days, they would climb from 2,400 metres to the 4,900-metre Bhabha Pass.

 

The trail ran parallel to the Bhabha River. The colours of the landscape were vivid – the blue sky, snow-capped mountains, green foliage, and the blue river with white foam. By evening the men and animals had emerged above the treeline. The scenic meadows of Mulling at 3,200 metres looked lush, but the animals didn’t nibble on most of the plants; they were inedible. The men tossed fistfuls of salt onto rocks, and the sheep and goats immediately crowded around. They licked the white powder fast. Some had a fine dusting on their snouts that they wiped clean with their long tongues. Now the cargo was four kilograms lighter, but the men had to stock up on firewood. There would be no firewood higher up, and they had to gather enough to last several days.

 

The original plan was to spend a couple of days at Mulling. But Tarachand had heard at Kafnu that other flocks were expected the next day, so the group pushed on to Kara. Before leaving, the men hunted behind every rock for animals. It was easy to leave some behind. Until Kara, the men hadn’t bothered to pitch tents. They slept with the tarp spread over them like a blanket. However, at Kara, they had a dera, a low wall of rocks set into the slope. It even had an entrance and a fireplace. The men stretched the plastic sheet over the wall and weighed down the edges with rocks. Although it provided some protection from the wind, the men crammed next to each other, drinking tea and smoking beedis. They seemed to barely notice the smoke blowing into the dera.

Cooking time at the dera in Kara. Janaki Lenin

For seven months of the year, these nomadic pastoralists in the Himalayas live in tents that barely protect them from the elements. ‘If the weather turns bad, we go with no food, water, fire, or even dry clothes,’ Tarachand said. ‘We deal with ice, rain, and rock slides. It’s not a job for everyone. Only one man in 1,000 can live like this. Sometimes, I’m so sick of my lifestyle. I curse my stock to go to hell.’ They suffer deprivation so their animals gain nourishment and stay healthy. They cuddle the lambs and kids like pets, nurturing them as they grow older. Yet, at the end of the day, it is a meat economy. When the time comes, they sell their animals for slaughter, bargaining over every ounce. British colonials dismissed pastoralists like Tarachand as being lazy, filthy, and uncivilized. By closing access to forests, they sought to force these nomads to settle. The Indian state continues to belabour under the same prejudice.

 

That afternoon, Tarachand slaughtered a sheep. It had been paralyzed by a rock dislodged by livestock walking in the higher reaches. He performed it so swiftly that none of the other animals realized what had happened. He offered a prayer to the gods, dripping blood from a leaf that he held high above his head. The men skinned and butchered the animal. Only when the dogs gathered around did the sheep and goats move away but continued to leap from the boulders and butt each other without concern. The mutton curry offered a respite from rice and watery kadhi made from goat milk that the men ate at every dinner. The good meal put Tarachand in a cheerful mood. ‘I enjoy being in Pin Valley,’ he said. ‘I pray a lot. Just being there washes off a percentage of my sins. Down below, there’s too much noise. Even God can’t hear prayers.’

The group stayed a day longer, eating three meals, resting, gaining strength, and acclimatizing to the high altitude. From here, it would be a steady push upwards for another week. At Fushtirang, Tarachand chose to camp on a slippery scree slope, just below the pass. Throughout the afternoon, other groups arrived, occupying the deras below. The advantage of reserving the highest dera meant Tarachand’s group would be the first over the pass. They stayed awake late in the night, making puris, a potato side dish, and a semolina pudding called kaluwa. They would offer these to the gods at the pass the next day. Since leaving Kafnu, the shepherds had been on their own: Should anything happen, there was no help. No cell phone signal to call anyone for assistance. They had only themselves to rely on. They couldn’t afford to twist their ankles, break their legs, or fall ill. Crossing the pass would be the most dangerous section of the journey.

 

Streams of goats and sheep scrambled up the slippery slope effortlessly. The donkeys weighed down by their loads had a rougher time. A couple of men pushed them up when they had trouble. Colourful Buddhist prayer flags festooned the icy pass that was marked by numerous rock cairns. The shepherds offered their prayers and headed downhill over the pass, one of the Great Himalayan gateways into the Tibetan Plateau. A few animals lost their footing on the ice and tumbled down. At the base of the slope, they stood up, shook themselves, and joined the flock.

The donkeys, however, had more trouble. Two slipped and slid down the slope, their legs up in the air. The bags had been lashed well and didn’t slip off. When they stood up, their hooves sank into the soft ice and they couldn’t lift them. The men helped them take one step at a time. The going was slow. This was a new experience for the donkey foal, but it gamely stuck close to its mother. The men had to watch out for crevasses obscured by fresh snow. A couple of trekkers followed the shepherds’ trail. This was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them, but for the pastoralists, crossing the pass was an annual undertaking. It was midday when the ice gave way to scree. The hungry animals plodded on. Many were veterans of this trek and knew rich forage awaited them.

 

By afternoon, they reached their camp at Bada Balder. A couple of men took the animals to a pasture above the camp to graze until nightfall, while the others set up camp. Khichdi bubbled on the fire, while thimbles of tea passed from one tired hand to another. ‘When we return home in two months, we have to cross over four passes,’ Tarachand said. By then, streams would be raging with melted snow and would be impassable. The shepherds would walk along the ridges. ‘Instead of walking along the road from Bhabha Valley, we’ll descend over the mountains directly into Rupi.’ What about the year after? ‘I’ll herd as long as I can,’ he replied, the vehemence gone from his voice, ‘until one of my sons decides whether he wants to do this.’ Only Lokender, his youngest who was in school, had shown interest in his father’s way of life. If Lokender didn’t wish to pursue this as a career, Tarachand would sell his flock. His oldest son served in the army and another studied in college at Rampur.

 

Over the next two days, the group made its way to Mud (rhymes with ‘food’), a large village in Pin Valley. The path was graded and smooth, an aborted attempt at building a road from Spiti to Bhabha Valley. The landscape seemed barren and brown, not green and lush. Tarachand insisted it was great forage. Chumurti horses grazed high up on the slopes, chewing off herbs that had popped up after the snow had melted.

Goats having a last look at Bhabha Valley before cresting the Great Himalayan Range. Janaki Lenin

Tarachand was buying groceries when he met an acquaintance that gave him the grim news: An ice bridge that spanned the River Pin had melted in the winter. Access to Tarachand’s pasture was gone. If he couldn’t cross the river, the enormous effort to reach Spiti was a waste. Worry kept him awake that night. The only other way across was Sagnam’s bridge, but would the residents allow him to drive his flock through the village? The next morning, he left for Sagnam. His talk with the village representative, the numberdar, didn’t go well. The man didn’t want to make a decision. By then two other shepherds with their own flocks of livestock joined him. They shared his predicament. The number-dar called a meeting of the entire village. It was dinner time and Tarachand hadn’t had anything to eat all day except copious amounts of milky, sweet tea.

 

Huddled in a dark alley in the midst of the village, the men debated how to present their case. The more he talked with the other two, the more pessimistic Tarachand became. Time wore on. The moon hung low over the western horizon and the only light streamed from windows of nearby houses. ‘This is it. I’m not coming back,’ he swore softly. ‘This is the last time I’m making this trek. After this, I’ll sell my animals and sit at home and enjoy life.’ He rose to his tired feet and went house to house, pleading with the men to attend the meeting to decide his fate. About 15 men finally gathered and debated whether to give access to the shepherds. There were two camps: one in favour and one against. The majority vacillated between the two. At midnight, someone suggested looking in the village’s register for a precedent. While they flipped through the book under torchlight, they discovered something else.

The hungry livestock cross ice and scree on their way down to Pin Valley. Janaki Lenin

 

Three years ago, the village had decided to levy a separate fee on these three shepherds. But the numberdars of the preceding years had not collected it. The villagers demanded the shepherds pay this sum that now totalled Rs 52,000. Although taken aback, Tarachand didn’t argue. He said he only had Rs 10,000 that he’d pay now and bring the rest later. But would the villagers let him pass through? By then, many of the men were so drunk that they could barely stand. A few sober ones took charge of the meeting. They argued back and forth until 3 a.m. when they decided they wouldn’t allow the shepherds to use the bridge. Tarachand pleaded with them but they had made up their minds. The shepherds had no choice but to head home. They squatted on the edge of the alley debating what to do. A couple of villagers suggested they climb uphill along the river. There may be another ice bridge further up. But the trail was no more than a ledge and the animals would have to walk in single file. If they tried to rush, they’d drop several hundred feet to their deaths.

 

The graziers had already been 10 days on the road, walking nearly 60 kilometres. The pasture was a two-day march away. This detour uphill could add a day or more. Men and animals were exhausted. They had two choices. One was to take the gamble; the possibility of access to their summer pasture was attractive. The other was to cut their losses and go home. No one knew how far up the ice bridge was. The chances of losing animals were also great. The men decided to sleep on it and headed to a house where they had made arrangements to spend what remained of the night.

At the crack of dawn they were up, their eyes bloodshot. They decided to take their chances with the ice bridge. Tarachand would go up with his flock first. The other two would follow after a delay of a day or two. By the end of the day, Tarachand found the ice bridge and hadn’t lost a single animal. He needn’t have worried. The pasture would sustain his flock for two months at least. Throughout the trip from his home to Sagnam and back, he lost between 15 to 20 animals, an estimated loss of Rs 1,50,000. Now that he had made it, was he still serious about not returning next year? ‘Why! Of course, I’ll return,’ he said forcefully. As if the thought hadn’t ever crossed his mind.

 

Notes:

In summer 2016 Janaki Lenin travelled with a group of pastoralists from Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, on their summer migration. Her travel was supported by grants from the Foundation for Ecological Security and Earth Journalism Network.

* Name changed on request.

top