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The Nomads of India

Words and Photography by Matt Brandon

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If we assign our homes by the places we spend the most time, what does this mean for those who are constantly on the move? The nomadic Bakarwal Gujjar people give new meaning to the idea of living like a local.

Driving the roads of Jammu and Kashmir in early spring, it would be unusual not to be stopped by a flock of goats or sheep clogging the motorway as they are herded towards their summer pastures. In fact, the very roadway we are on follows the route that shepherds carved out centuries ago. These shepherds are a unique people called Bakarwal Gujjars, a transhumance people who travel seasonally from the relatively warm climates of the Jammu in winter to the lush green meadows of Kashmir in the summer.

In their own language they often refer to themselves as Khanabadosh, or ‘people with their house on their back’ — nomads. Bakarwal Guijjars have close cousins who are slightly less nomadic, called Pahari Gujjars. In the Jammu and Kashmir region of India both groups are Muslim and often share the same mountain meadows. The Pahari Gujjars live all year in the Kashmir Valley while their relatives, the Bakarwals, travel back and forth between the hot plains of Rajouri and Punch, close to Pakistan, to the high meadows of the Pir Panjal. Circling the Kashmir Valley, the Pir Panjal is one of the mountain ranges that make up The Himalayas.

The Bakarwal Gujjars’ herd has hundreds, sometimes thousands of goats and sheep, and they travel the same route by horseback and on foot year after year, camping in homemade patchwork tents along the way. Their traditional lifestyle is at risk, as the government of India has on several occasions tried to settle the Bakarwals into permanent communities. So far, these planned settlements have failed, but where the government has been unsuccessful, economics and modernity are making inroads.

A Bakarwal herds his flock over a an ice field to green pastures. Kolahoi, Kashmir, India.
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A Bakarwal herds his flock over a an ice field to green pastures. Kolahoi, Kashmir, India.

These Gujjars stay close to the fire to stay warm during preparations for a wedding meal. Pahalgam, Kashmir, India.
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These Gujjars stay close to the fire to stay warm during preparations for a wedding meal. Pahalgam, Kashmir, India.

At 3,900 metres a Gujjar woman makes salt tea in her hut on the slopes of Mt. Kolhoi. A shaft of light beams down through the smoke from the vent in her sod roof. Kolahoi, Kashmir, India.
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At 3,900 metres a Gujjar woman makes salt tea in her hut on the slopes of Mt. Kolhoi. A shaft of light beams down through the smoke from the vent in her sod roof. Kolahoi, Kashmir, India.

A Bakarwal, Gujjar mother and child sit together in their hut. Note the distinct hat and plaits on the mother. Lidderwat, Kashmir, India.
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A Bakarwal, Gujjar mother and child sit together in their hut. Note the distinct hat and plaits on the mother. Lidderwat, Kashmir, India.

A classic Gujjar face framed by his distinct turban and woolen shawl. Pahalgam, Kashmir, India.
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A classic Gujjar face framed by his distinct turban and woolen shawl. Pahalgam, Kashmir, India.

Green eyed Gujjar girl with a cup of salt tea. Lidderwat, Kashmir, India.
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Green eyed Gujjar girl with a cup of salt tea. Lidderwat, Kashmir, India.

Pahari and Bakarwal children sit in front of a fallen tree for their photo. Lidderwat, Kashmir, India.
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Pahari and Bakarwal children sit in front of a fallen tree for their photo. Lidderwat, Kashmir, India.

Gujjar men rest after a day of packing trekker’s camping gear through the mountains. Lidderwat, Kashmir, India.
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Gujjar men rest after a day of packing trekker’s camping gear through the mountains. Lidderwat, Kashmir, India.

Six Pahari Gujjar men take refuge from the snow under the eves of a barn. These men wear the Kashmiri, “pheran” or woolen poncho to stay warm. Pahalgam, Kashmir, India.
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Six Pahari Gujjar men take refuge from the snow under the eves of a barn. These men wear the Kashmiri, “pheran” or woolen poncho to stay warm. Pahalgam, Kashmir, India.

Published on July 5, 2015
Country: India ›
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