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The nomadic Bakkarwals of Kashmir

The nomadic Bakkarwals of Kashmir
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Anita Sharma travelled with the Bakkarwals of Jammu and Kashmir to tell the world how this nomadic tribe lives

Sonia Jabbar
September 18 , 2014
01 Min Read

If you are driving down a country road in Kashmir in autumn, you may find yourself in a bit of a jam. Nothing as banal as trucks and cars, but great herds of fat-tailed sheep and long-haired goats will resolutely block your way. Lean men with great curving noses bark and whistle and drive the huge flock to one side, but it takes a while for the road to clear. While you are waiting, you observe the men with their turbans and kohl-rimmed eyes, the women, lean and handsome with braided hair and embroidered caps, and their children — the older ones holding large, fierce-looking sheep dogs, the younger ones perched atop ponies already laden with pots and pans and tin trunks. They make a curious, exotic, anachronistic sight, these nomads.

 

Besides the odd piece of news of a Gujjar or Bakkarwal becoming a guide for the militants, or becoming a member of the government-sponsored militia, little else appears about them, which is odd considering they constitute 18 percent of the state’s population. Anita Sharma has attempted to address the lacuna with her book, The Bakkarwals of Jammu and Kashmir: Navigating through Nomadism (Niyogi Books; Rs 1,250). It is handsomely produced and lavishly illustrated with the author’s own photographs. Those who splurge on decorating their coffee tables may be tempted to buy this volume to go with their tome on The Lost Tribes of New Guinea, but beware and despair — this book has text. Lots of it.

 

Conversely, there will be people who are genuinely curious about the lives and stories of these nomadic tribes who may, like me, be stopped in their tracks by the very first sentence: ‘The Bakkarwals live in tents and subsist on maize, rice and goat milk; they also gather wild vegetables and fruits.’ In the 21st century, this curiously antiquated style is more suitable to a study of orangutans, or P3Ps. But press on and you may be rewarded. Sharma spent a considerable number of months travelling with a kunba, sleeping in their tents, sharing their stories. Some, like her encounter in the middle of the night with the police in search of terrorists, are truly engaging.



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