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Meet…The Bakarwals of the mountains

I would have loved to have spent a few quiet days after the trek.


Any trek gives you time to think during those long walks alone, ensures that you engage with a number of strangers, share experiences, have conversations, all of which need a little time and space to process and reflect on.


However, occasionally plans are made which don’t give you that luxury.


Scarcely had I briefly rested my sore muscles and hastily scribbled a quick post on the trek ( replete with some horrifying grammatical errors made while making some last minute changes ), than I was on a flight to Kenya for a phototrip that was planned long back.


To places I have never been before and experiences that were so heady ( and exhausting ) that the trek seemed to be something that happened ages ago.


One evening, I listened to a brief but evocative speech by the manager of the resort we were staying at, who thanked us for staying there and mentioned how our stay will help the local Masai tribes. Thinking about how the Masais have been trying to manage the balance between their rich culture and the changing world, made me think of the Bakarwals.


This was one of those uncommon treks where you meet absolutely no one during the entire period. No other trekker, that is. We kept running into the rugged, Bakarwals, who would mutter a diffident, “Kaise ho?” as they pass us or simply give a half smile, unsure about our reactions.

All of them were quite comfy to pose for the camera

I was fascinated by the creases on their faces...even the relatively young had them


My abiding memory would be of that person lying on top of a small hill, framed against the clouds, perfectly at home in these surroundings, with nothing else to do but gaze down at us trekkers as we struggled past him. It could have been any of us, looking down at the street below from our bedroom window.

There is much about this pic , that is enviable


The Bakarwals are the nomadic group that is spread across Pir Panjal and Zanskar in the Himalayas right upto the Hindukush mountains of Afghanistan. They are mainly goatherds and shepherds with lives split into two halves – summer months in the valleys of Kashmir and the winter months in the plains of Jammu and since we were towards the end of summer, we kept running into a number of Bakrwals.


Once, a father and daughter, came down to watch us navigate, what to them would have been a stream that could have been skipped across. Dressed in a traditional clothes, enjoying the warmth of the midmorning sun, they perched themselves on a rock, while us city slickers with multiple layers of clothing, tried to figure out if we need that extra rock to step on, and if there were helping hands to hold on to while we balanced on those treacherous stones !

They really seemed rather enthralled by the heavy weather we were making of crossing a mere stream



We would often see large herds move across the slopes on the other side of the river, herded by men who would run across the slopes with enviable ease and energy. They nonchalantly stood on cliff tops overlooking the gushing river below, they brought down chaotic herds down narrow paths with elan, pausing to give you a swift smile, the sun shining off their hennaed beards. One morning, I saw a young man run at full pace alongside his horse, leap up on it and go galloping away.


Looked perfect. Meets all the romantic stereotypes you have of dashing, rugged men living in rugged environments.


But.


Life is changing. One of us, was once invited home by a young lady, who over the course of a cup of tea, said – “ Didi, yahan se nikalna hai.” ( I need to escape from here ). She was studying in college in Jammu and was spending her summer holidays helping the family. Maybe, life in the cities seemed a lot more attractive to her.




One late afternoon, as we rested in our dining tent after a gruelling days walk, an old Bakarwal , Shauqat Ali, walked in with a hearty wave and sat down for a chat. We had just done a few river crossings and we were asking him about the normal water levels and he narrated us a tale.


Just two days earlier, he said, the water levels were higher and a mother along with her seven year old son, were crossing the river on horseback. Now, the current of these waters are really strong and at some place, the horse stumbled and fell.


The mother and kid got swept away, the mother was seen holding on tightly to the child while people on the ran alongside, shouting for help, trying to figure out how to help them. A few minutes later, they saw the mother come up alone. A little further downstream, they were able to get her out of the river and initially thought that they had lost her, but thankfully, she regained consciousness a few hours later.


The morning when Shauqat Alit met us, he had found the body of the child wedged between two rocks further downstream.


We sat numbed by the story.


The very next morning, as I turned around a bend, I saw some of our group sitting on a blanket along with a Bakarwal couple, with a few more Bakarwals hovering around. They were the parents. They had just concluded their rituals for their son and as per their customs were planning lunch for the community and wanted us to join them at least for a cup of tea.


When they invited the first of us, they might not have figured out that a larger group was following but that didn’t appear to faze them and soon the rest of them were collecting cups from every tent to make up the numbers. We sat in uncomfortable silence with the parents, sipping tea, in breathtaking surroundings, with the sound of the gushing waters below, usually a lovely sound, but today serving a grim reminder of what had happened.


I wondered, how much of their rations got over giving us tea, but that most certainly didn’t seem to bother them. As we stood up to leave, a young Bakarwal came upto me and told that they are making gosht ( meat ) and would love us to stay for lunch. As I explained our inability to stay, I once again reflected on the willingness to share. Our group was almost as large as theirs.


I shook hands with the father, pressed his shoulder in an awkward hug – a stranger trying to communicate his insufficient commiserations to a father who has just seen the worst tragedy that a parent can experience.


It’s a tough life for sure. The most common request we faced was for medicine, especially for headache. Shauqat Ali told us that his one year old grand daughter was suffering from diaorrhea and if we had any medicines that would help.


Headache. An upset stomach. Pretty basic stuff.


Yup. There definitely is another side and one that doesn’t give you a pretty picture.


When we heard the story of the young girl who wanted to escape from this life, one of us commented a tad wistfully, of how a culture, a way of living could get lost over time. The very next day, we got a first hand perspective on how tough this life could be and why city life could be perceived by some to be more comfortable than the rough living in the mountains ?


Where would the Bakarwals be over time ?


Would they be able to continue their nomadic lives, timeless as the mountains ? Or would they also be swept away in the overpowering gush of ‘development’ ? Or would there be a happy via media that is possible ?


Sadly, the last option seems the unlikeliest.

What does the future hold for these people of the mountains ?

 

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Guest
Sep 23, 2023

Lovely narration Ashok. Always enjoy reading your posts. Feels like you are talking to the reader in such a simple way that one gets a feeling of being with the Bakarwals in the mountains. ❤️👍

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Guest
Oct 02, 2023
Replying to

Thanks a lot...that is such a lovely thing to say :) - sorry for the delay in my reply...for some reason the notification of a comment never came up. Need to check that :)

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