By PRADEEP SINGH
Just as birds that flew over the Doon horizons left no footprints in the skies, the Van Gujjars made no tracks in the forests as they chose to walk on the gravelled beds of the network of streams that lay across the Siwaliks.
The main source of all material wealth of the Van Gujjars was their herd of water buffaloes. These buffaloes are recognised as an indigenous breed which was a cross of the Nili and Ravi breeds which are even today famed for their high quality milk. In their physical make up, too, the Van Gujjar stock of buffaloes displayed characteristics that were not found in other buffalo breeds especially not in the ones that were kept purely for milk by dairy farmers and which were fed in stalls from prepared feeds. The Gujjar buffalo was a hardy animal that was capable of great feats of stamina and strength. It also had a high degree of courage.
Life in a dera in the khols of the Siwaliks is a lesson in adaptation of, both, the man and his beast to an environment that is unique to them. Both lived their lives removed from human civilisation and remained within the confines of their forest habitat. The Van Gujjars stayed in the deras in the Siwaliks from around early October till end of March. During this period, the Siwalik ranges on the southern part of the Doon are resplendent with fresh foliage and plenty of fresh water sources, both, of which are a prerequisite for the pastoral way of the Gujjars. During this period, the individual khols were the source on which the Gujjars and their buffaloes depended heavily for their sustenance. The khol was subjected to the generations old traditional methods of the Van Gujjars. Each tree that had valuable foliage was assessed by experienced elders and then the younger males and also, at times, the Gujjar girls clambered up to the highest branches to lop off juicy leaves that fell down on the forest floor below. Lopping was done in the afternoons till late evening and when the buffaloes from the dera were let out. The Gujjar buffalo knew in which corner of the khol the lopping was on and the herd would find its way there. Only rarely was there a need to lead them there either by a Gujjar or by calls of the tree loppers. The buffalo herd fed on fallen leaves for the duration of the night and returned to the dera in the early hours of the morning. Traditionally, the trees furthest from the dera but within the allotted khol were lopped for fodder. And with every passing week the lopping grew closer to the camp and by the time summer heat approached the herds travelled the least to reach their forage. An inbuilt and intuitive knowledge acquired over generations made the Gujjars lop only those trees that had the best nutritive foliage for milch buffaloes. Also it was ensured that only those trees were lopped that were about to shed their leaves in the coming weeks hence ensuring a sustainable relationship with the Gujjars.
With the approach of summer, the Gujjar dera was abuzz: the cattle were listless, water was drying up in the khols and the temporary dammed streams for wallowing of the buffaloes were not sufficient and drinking water for the family was also down to a trickle, threatening to stop soon. This was the beginning of the most testing and stressful period for the whole dera. The annual migration to the high altitude pastures and grazing areas was about to get underway. Much like the individual khols in the Siwaliks, in yesteryears, the Gujjars had their pre-identified summer “chhaans” in the upper reaches of Garhwal in present day Uttarkashi, Chamoli and Rudraprayag and some other places, too. These summer camping grounds of the Gujjars and their buffalo herds were under snow till late spring and by early summer the meadows were covered with fresh grass.
It was a test of a Gujjar Numberdar to assess the right time to move his dera from the khol to the higher meadows. Reaching too early meant the snow would not have given way to grass, which resulted in having to buy costly fodder for the herd from local sources enroute. Thus, each stage of the halt (padav) had to be accurately planned or there would result hardship to the family and the animals, alike, besides being a drain on their meagre resources. The men and the buffalo herd left a few hours after midnight as their pace ways slower. The women and children moved later in the morning but on ponies and other pack animals carrying the household, by which time the men would have reached a suitable resting place.
This annual movement to the higher grazing grounds took up to three weeks at times and the Gujjar household was relieved of its worry of finding fodder for their buffaloes for the next six months, when it would be time to go back to the forlorn khols and dera once again, which would have by then become refreshed and verdant once again after the monsoons. The summer grazing on the best grasses strengthened the herd and milk was aplenty for the Gujjars, also to produce ghee, butter and the like for selling and earning good money. Ghee and butter were also traditionally used for better relations with the forest department officials for the Gujjars were always at the receiving end of any transaction with them and their whimsical ways, which sadly have reached a point of extinction for the Gujjars as a viable social group with a unique livelihood. But in the good old days things seemed manageable and life went on somehow.
An acquaintance and familiarity with the Gujjars across a few generations has made me recall the life and times in bygone days. The Gujjars of those days were a hardy and straightforward, stalwart men and women, simple yet dignified enough to strike a picture in any setting. Their ways were frugal to the point of self denial. Their staple diet was mere corn (makki) rotis that was had with plain butter and some chilli paste along with a bowl of fresh unboiled milk. Today, makki rotis and saag are an expensive gourmet dish, but the Gujjar chose makki flour because in those days it cost half the price of wheat. The men rarely had an anna or two if ever for all money earned was given to the females for safe custody and the purse was their domain. Liquor was unknown to them as was gambling. Vegetarianism was a way of life and their buffaloes were their family to be cherished or mourned like a dear member, never to be sold or slaughtered.
Today the Van Gujjars are a pale shadow of their forefathers, and a long shadow, too, not unlike that cast by the tall Sal trees in the setting sun in their Siwalik homeland that with time is becoming a memory for the current generation of the forests’ children.