Tribes of India: The Bakarwals From the Valley of Shepherds

Located on the banks of the Lidder River in Kashmir, is the beautiful little hamlet of Pahalgam. To tread your way towards this sleepy little village is to stumble into a quaint world of folklore & culture you never knew existed.

Pahalgam — the Valley of Shepherds — almost seems to be frozen in time, hardened by socio-political situations of the area and a general antipathy to outsiders. Once you drive out of the capital, you are hit with a landscape stripped of almost everything except eucalyptus groves on either side to give you some semblance of company.

In the valley itself, the experience is nothing short of a human safari, where people and not wildlife are the attractions, provided you can ignore the odoriferous attack to your olfactory senses and evade the local guides (always on the lookout for a gullible outsider). The moment you step into this idiosyncratic place you would be greeted by the sight of these sheep-rearing tribes (also known as the Bakarwals) of the region, their faces breaking into a wide grin as soon as they see you.

The Bakarwals paint yet another facet of the different tribes of India that would make you believe in the unique diversity of this amazing land. The significance of this ethnic group goes beyond just their visual appeal. This cattle rearing tribe of Transhumants share a common ancestry with the Gujjars of Rajasthan and Punjab and are decidedly not indigenous to the Pir-Panjal area. In fact, they might not be indigenous to the Sub-continent either.

One interesting theory of their origin claims they migrated from Georgia (Gurgia) and made their way to the Sub-continent through Central Asia before settling down in Gujarat. What pushed a fraction of the tribe towards Northern India is supposedly a severe drought condition affecting Gujarat and parts of Rajasthan during the 5th or 6th century AD.

The Bakarwals are generally a content lot, inspite of the seemingly arduous and hermitic life that they are prone to live. They speak Gojri, which closely resemble the Mewari dialect of Rajasthan, and observe Ramzan, Idul Fitr, Idul Zaha, Nauroz and Baisakhi…. a direct amalgamation of centuries of cultural infusion from different regions of the Sub-continent. The men and women dress up in Shalwar Qameez (ethnic clothing consisting of a long shirt that falls just above or somewhere below the knees coupled with pajamas) with Chadri (shawl) to keep warm during the chilly winter months. Chipri (dupatta), Kasawa (scarf) and Lachka (cap) are the few other adornments worn by the Bakarwal women. The simplicity of the Bakarwals reflect in everything, be it their clothing, food or even their nature.

These transient folk migrate from the lowlands of Pahalgam to the higher, pine-covered valleys during the summer, where they take up their temporary abode in makeshift huts made of stones and logs. Minimal kitchen utensils and basic furnishings are all they have got going in those primitive quarters, known as Kothas & Bandis. If you are an anglophile, you are sure to be transported back to Hardy’s Wessex where you are surrounded by a tranquil bliss of vast green pastures and the outlines of snow-capped mountains silhouetted in the distant horizon. While you sit sipping Noon Cha (a uniquely flavoured salted tea typical to the tribe) you might be left wondering if paradise can get better than this.

But seemingly, even paradise has got trouble brewing. These simple folks of the mountain are heedless of civilised society at large, by whom they are conveniently forgotten. They have little or no access to education or medicines and their semi-nomadic lifestyle have obscured what little scope they had of earning livelihoods outside their primitive occupation. Children have almost no exposure to literacy and usually the people of the tribe are often hard pressed to procure even commodities necessary to everyday life.

Despite all their troubles, there are little touches of magic everywhere in their life. The warm smile that the Bakarwals wear on their faces is a soul-stirring experience for anyone and inspite of all their hardships, there is something inherently sublime in their nature that can’t be traded or bargained for. If you wish to see a lesser known India, pack your bags and head for these hills, that would indisputably take you far away from the madding crowd.

Originally published at on June 24, 2015.

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