Home Feature Bygone Doon: Van Gujjars, the “Lesser People” – I

Bygone Doon: Van Gujjars, the “Lesser People” – I

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 By PRADEEP  SINGH 

The Doon Valley and its Himalayan hinterland for over two thirds of its undulating length and width were clothed in forests of varied flora and fauna. The geomorphology and ecology was unmatched in its beauty, enriched by the boon of two mighty and revered rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna, and delineated in the south by the verdant Siwaliks. Its charms were legendary as they were enchanting. Memoirs of travellers to the Doon Valley are studded with descriptions of the unique grandeur of its wilderness. In the summer of 1835, Captain Trower crossing the Doon Valley penned his observation: “I cannot describe the mingled emotions of awe and delight which thrilled me as I came up, through these magnificent mountains. I have endeavoured to give an idea of the kind of scenery but pen and ink cannot convey the effect.”

The swathe upon swathe of forested Siwaliks and foothills of the upper Doon Valley while pleasing to the eye were nevertheless not very hospitable to the needs of everyday existence for most. The verdant Sal forests of the Siwaliks lush for nine months of the year were dry and dessicated throughout the summer months and the water courses became trickles and a mere shadow of the torrents that otherwise rushed over the bouldered beds of these numerous streams.

While the town of Dehradun and its suburbs attracted both the British and well off ‘natives’, the Siwaliks hosted in its depths a social group that many are unaware of till date.

The Gujjars, who are now referred to as the Van Gujjars, have for generations found the Siwaliks to be their home and hearth, to which they were deeply attached. They were unique, being perhaps the only Muslim group that lived exclusively in the forests and made a living out of the forest resources that they alone understood and used for sustenance. Living primarily in the jungles away from villages and townships, the Gujjars were not schooled in the ways of the world and were therefore not worldly -wise, and for that reason too they restricted their movements and activities as far as possible within the confines of the forests.

The sole source of livelihood for the Gujjars was their symbiotic relationship with their herds of buffaloes. Though pastoralism is a way of life that is pre-biblical and even prehistoric and continues to be practiced even today in several parts of the world yet the way of the Van Gujjars is distinctly removed from that of nomadic herders. While nomadic herders roam constantly in search of fresh pastures, the Van Gujjars have adapted to transhumance which sees them making seasonal migration from their deras (homes) in the Siwaliks to the high altitude pastures with all their belongings and their buffaloes and pack animals like horses and a few bulls.

The coming of the Gujjars to the Siwaliks and more particularly to the Doon Valley is shrouded in mystery. Nothing official or recorded is available about their migration to the Doon. Legends of course always come forward where the historian has struggled to throw light on such events. Ethnically, the Van Gujjars hail from the western most extension of the Siwaliks that lies in the Jammu region. If you go by popular legends then it came to pass that the marriage of a royal princess of that region was solemnised with a prince of Garhwal and a hundred Gujjar families were sent along with the bride to her husband’s dominions, where they have since resided. Nevertheless, the Gujjars find presence in the records of the forest department which was created by the British when they came in possession of the Doon Valley after the Anglo Gurkha War of 1814-15. Thus, the colonial period accords a structured recognition of the Van Gujjars and their limited rights as forest dwellers whose peculiar lifestyle was to be managed as a part of forest management by the colonial rulers giving credence to the pre-colonial existence of Van Gujjars in the Doon Valley.
One of the abiding principles of the colonial administration was that, so long as its primary interest of profit making was not endangered, then the administrators were quite willing not to interfere in indigenous traditions, lifestyles and religious practices. Thus the presence of the Gujjars in the forests of the Doon Valley was not objected to. On the contrary, a system was evolved to see that the Van Gujjars remained in the forests albeit with well delineated area assigned to a family unit and of course a grazing tax levied on each buffalo of the Van Gujjar family. The number of buffaloes allowed to each family was fixed and the head of the family enjoyed a title of “Numberdar”. Further, some guidelines about the usage of forest for fodder and protection of certain species of trees of commercial value like Sal, Shisham, Teak, etc., were to be adhered to by the Van Gujjars. The dera of each Van Gujjar family was located in a designated area of the forest and called a “khol”. The khols were spread over many hectares of forest land and the trees in a particular khol were for foraging of a particular Numberdar exclusively. (To be continued)