The Original Mountain Men and Women of the Western Himalayas
Ive had a childhood fascination for the Gujjars and especially the Bakarwals while growing up in Kashmir. Well they are almost the same thing except that nowadays the ones who live in fixed locations are called Gujjars while the ones which move up and down with their herds are referred to as the Bakarwals. Also as the name suggests it comes from the word Bakri, so a Bakarwal is also a keeper of the Sheep. These Bakarwals are the original Mountain men of our parts. . Especially in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. There isnt a single Region in this vast State which is not familiar with the congenial Bakarwals who flocked to the highlands with their Goat/ Sheep / Buffaloes / Horses/ Mules which they term as “Maal” as in “Goods”. That is the commodity that they deal in and a Bakarwal is judged by the size of his Herd. And then there were my favourite part of a Bakarwal entourage, the Shepherd Dogs also called by the same name Bakarwal or Bakarwali.
Most of these Bakarwals are now based in the Winter time mainly in the Poonch Rajouri areas of J&K where they form a majority of the Population. However they are distributed all over the Jammu Division as well as neighbouring Regions of HP like Chamba and places like Nalagarh in Punjab and moving further East even as far as Dehradun in Uttarakhand. Infact in parts of Jammu and Himachal Pradesh they share the pastures with the other Mountain Men, the Gaddis. The main difference being that the Gujjars / Bakarwals of J&k are Muslim while the Gaddis are Hindu.
From the Jammu side they usually move towards the higher Regions in the state in all the 3 Divisions of the state. They cross the Pir Panjals to get into the Kashmir Valley and head onto the higher Alpine meadows dotted around the Valley. In the Jammu division they move towards the Kishtwar side and spread over the different Valleys like the Padar Valley from where some even go towards Zanskar. There are others who go towards Marwah and Wadwan and some even cross over to the Suru Valley in Ladakh. Some go to the higher reaches in Kathua District like Sarthal where I happened to meet both Bakarwal and Gaddi shepherds.
While on the Machail Road on the way back we gave a lift to a Bakarwal who had just left his herd at somewhere beyond Machail, areas which are inhabited by Buddhists who came to the Region from adjoining Zanskar. And we gave him a ride till Gulabgarh and on the way he asked us how hot it is in Jammu and we said that down in the foothills the temperatures were over 40 C. Ah he said then Ill go to Srinagar. I asked him why ? Well its cooler there he said and told me he had another Dera somewhere near Shopian in the higher reaches on the way to the Pir Ki Gali.
Kashmir Valley itself has quite a strong Gujjar population and they largely inhabit the areas in the higher reaches above Ganderbal all the way to Zoji La. They are also spread in the more sensitive Border Villages along the LOC. They actually live on both sides of the Border and the area that we belong to, ancestrally was also a Gujjar majority area. So we have a kind of language affinity with them as well and we can almost understand each other when they speak Gojri and I speak our Punjabi. Thats another reason why I get along with them famously. Infact in the time of Grandfather all the main guys handling the tougher side of business like the Forest Leasee and other Construction work was handled by the hardy and reliable Gujjars. And I remember my favourite one was a guy called Sitara, who drove one of our Trucks. Typical handsome Gujjar with a flowing orange (henna dyed) beard. And of course we use love going for a drive in the Truck.
Anyways with modern times creeping into their lifestyles as well many of the younger generation are now looking for alternative, more settled ways of life. Taking the heards over the high Passes into secret Valleys and Dhars best known to their forefathers and all the associated Risks are just not worth it for the newer generation. And of course every Bakarwal father wants to give education to their children and of course this is good. And education leads to aspirations and being a Shepherd doesnt rate high on any work list. I am afraid the Bakarwals we see now are the last of the Generation and the time is not far when coming across a Bakarwal entourage would be a rare thing. Its getting rarer but you can still manage if you know where to go.
And here is an entourage that we met on the way from Kishtwar to Gulabgarh. The younger and fitter men had already gone ahead with the “Maal” and this was the follow up party of the older men, women, kids and their well dressed Horses and Mules. They were a riot of Colour. And of course the younger Bakarwalis (I mean the Dog breed) as the strong amongst them were on duty with the Maal. And it was quite a sight.
Background Music is a Bakarwali song that I got from Youtube and not sure of the origin. The beautiful Song talks about a Lady (Young) talking about its only companion a Crow that used to sit on a Mountain Top. And the lady yearns for her loved ones and keeps sending many letters to her Baba, Chacha, Mama and Lala. Well thats what I understood .Enjoy the Video and the song.
PS: We took permission from the main Elder before shooting the Video and the ever genial Bakarwal gave it when I broke into my Mother tongue.
Video from June 2019. On way from Kishtwar to Gulabgarh. Jammu Division. J&K