Shepherds of Kashmir: Medieval living in modern times

Kashmir also was known as Cashmere is a region in the northern part of India that is traversed by the Himalayas and the Karakoram ranges as also the Jhelum and Indus rivers.

These geographical elements have enabled industries like fruit- growing, animal husbandry and woolen industries to flourish at a steady pace.

When one travels to Kashmir they will notice a number of shepherds walking along with their flocks of sheep that number 500+ to and from city limits. These people are known as Gujjars or Bakharwals. They are as fit as the livestock they tend and spend most of their life traversing pastures in search of fodder for their flock.

Summer months will see these tribes coming to the mountains till the winter sets in, after which they head back to the city. During their time in the mountains, Bakharwals tend to mostly everything, ranging from childbirth to deaths. Unlike city folk, minor ailments don’t confine these people to beds and you can see them tending their folk with enthusiasm that’s not to be seen anywhere else. Children and women too, play a vital role taking up tasks like milking, counting sheep/goats, collecting firewood as also making food. The huge flocks of sheep are kept in line by the continuous barking of ferocious looking shepherd dogs that are bred by the tribe. These dogs play an important role whilst protecting the flock and their masters from predators like bears and leopards.

Bakharwals also build log cabins that usually house two or three families. The cabin is made using pine wood that is easily obtained in the forests. Stones and mud are used to build walls while pine logs are used to fabricate the structure and roof. Roofs of these dwelling as usually covered in sods which help to keep the area below cool during summer months. These cabins are mostly 10 feet+ in length and 7 feet in breadth, height varies from 4.5 feet to 6 feet. There is a cooking place (chulla), an area for sleeping, dining as also a receiving area within these dwellings. When one visits these dwellings they will be treated to steaming hot cups of namkeen chai or Lipton chai. Kawa, another hot beverage is also served at times. The chai is accompanied with locally made biscuits, chot (Kashmiri roti) or thin rotis made using maida. Though at first you will not be used to the taste of namkeen chai it will slowly grow onto you.

Bakharwals are a tough and hard people, but they also have a soft corner for visitors and will graciously invite you into their homes if you come a-calling.

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