- The annual migration to high Himalayan pastures by the Bakarwal shepherds of Jammu and Kashmir is threatened by a changing climate and vanishing commons
- Through the summer months, the pastorialists migrate far with their flocks, covering the Kashmir Valley, Kishtwar, Zanskar and Spiti
Each year, as the snow melts, streams brim over and meadows return to life, Bakarwal pastoralists begin a long march from the lower reaches of Jammu to the alpine pastures of Kashmir.
These keepers of sheep—which is what their name translates to—remain on the move from May till autumn, when the wilderness is ablaze in hues of red, yellow and rust. Their “territory", if we could call it that, covers a host of different terrain—from the Kashmir Valley to the Kishtwar region, Zanskar and even Spiti. But the tribe that is divided by mountain passes during migrations is united by its lifestyle: living in makeshift shelters, fattening its flock for a winter many months away, while also protecting the animals from rustling and predation.
While their time in the high Himalayan valleys may seem like the perfect idea of a vacation, it’s far from it. Protecting the flock against wild animals, timing the move from one valley to another to perfection, treks over several days to restock rations, weathering everything the elements throw at them—the list of challenges is long. And yet, by compulsion or choice, it’s an affair undertaken annually, and completed successfully, thanks to the Bakarwals’ survival skills, honed over time and passed on from one generation to the next.
Today, though, new and more fearsome odds face this community. Roads run through many sections of the migratory routes and speeding vehicles often exact a heavy toll on flocks. Meadows that were once the sole reserve of Bakarwals have turned into hot spots where the only herds welcomed are those of tourists. The weather too, they say, and we know, is turning stranger by the year.
As the younger generation is weaned away, some through education, and others by the glitter and prospects promised by towns and cities, it will be only a matter of time before the meadows and valleys lose their zero-carbon footprint visitors, and we lose the indigenous knowledge they possess.
This truth isn’t lost on the Bakarwals but they refuse to mope about the future just because it looks grim. Their attitude stems partly from the hazards they face daily, and partly from a resignation to fate. And between these two truths, they are left with the option of adapting and hoping for the best.As Pervez, a Bakarwal elder, puts it: “We might as well enjoy the peace as long as we are able to."
Sankar Sridhar is a Delhi-based photographer and travel writer.