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Pastoralists in the Modern World

Pastoralists are people who move from place to place along with their herds of sheep, goats, camels and cattle. They are the marginalised groups in modern society rarely being noticed. There are many pastoral communities in India such as the Gujjar Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir, the Gaddi shepherds of Himachal Pradesh, etc.

The Gujjar Bakarwals live in mountains. They live in mandaps made of ringal, a hill bamboo, and grass from the Bugyal. The mandaps are built at a height of about 10,000 to 11,000 feet because with cattle (buffaloes), it is not easy to climb higher. This is also a work place for the Gujjars as they make ghee for sale. By the end of April, they begin their northern march for their summer grazing grounds. Several households come together for this journey, forming what is known as a Kafila. By the end of September, the Bakarwals are on the move again, this time on their downward journey, back to their winter base. When the high mountains are covered with snow, the herds are grazed in the low hills.

Gaddi sheperds of Himachal Pradesh spend their winter in the low hills of Siwalik range, grazing their flocks in scrub forest. In the month of April, they move towards north and spend the summer in Lahul and Spiti. A similar cycle of seasonal movement between summer and winter pastures is typical of many pastoral communities of the Himalayas, including the Gujjar Bakarwals, Bhotiyas, Sherpas and Kinnauris.

To the East, in Garhwal and Kumaon, the Gujjar cattle herders came down to the dry forests of the bhabar in the winter, and went up to the high meadows––the bugyals––in summer. Most of them were originally from Jammu and came to the U P hills in the nineteenth century in search of good pastures.

This pattern of cyclical movement between summer and winter pastures was typical of many pastoral communities of the Himalayas. All of them had to adjust to the seasonal changes and make effective use of available pastures in different places. When the pasture was exhausted or unusable in one place, they would move their herds and flock to new areas. This continuous movement also allowed the pastures to recover, to prevent overuse.

Dhangars were an important pastoral community of Maharashtra. They stayed in the central plateau of Maharashtra during monsoons. During monsoons, the semi-arid region became the grazing ground for the Dhangar flocks. After harvesting bajra, they moved towards west, that is Konkan.

The Konkani peasants welcome the Dhangar flocks. After the Kharif harvest, the fields were fertilised and made ready for rabi harvest. Dhangar flocks manured the fields and fed on the stubble. The Konkani peasants also gave supplies of rice, which shepherds took back to the plateau where grain was scarce. The Dhangars, with the arrival of monsoon, left to their settlements on the dry plateau.

In Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the Gollas herded cattle. The Kurumas and Kurubas reared sheep and goats and sold woven blankets. In the dry season, they moved to the coastal tracts, and left when the rains came. They lived near the woods, cultivated small patches of land, engaged in a variety of petty trades and took care of their herds. These are different from the mountain pastoralists. The mountain pastoralists moved to other places because of cold and snow, whereas the plateau pastoralists moved from one place to another because of the alternation of the monsoon and dry season.

Banjaras were another group of grazers. They are found in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. In search of good pasture land for their cattle, they move over long distances, selling plough cattle and other goods to villagers in exchange for grain and fodder.

In the deserts of Rajasthan lived the Raikas. During the monsoons, the Raikas of Barmer, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Bikaner stayed in their native villages, where pasture was available. By October, they moved out in search of other pastures and water and returned again during the next monsoon. One group of Raikas known as the Maru (desert) Raikas herded camels and another group reared sheep and goat.

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