Gujjars – The Gypsies of the Himalayas

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Taken from the book The Splendour of Himalayan Art and Culture By Dr Ashok Jerath – Buy this Book

GUJJARS – THE GYPSIES OF THE HIMALAYAS

It is really a feast for the eyes to see the flocks of cattle-sheep, goats, cows and buffaloes trotting by the roadside escorted by some ferocious dogs to the tune of the whistles of their masters. Masters are elegantly clad with beautifully embroidered garments. These are the gypsies of the Himalayas, popularly known as Gujjars who are always on the move.

Several books on the cultural heritage of Gujjars have been published so far but their place of origin is not established yet. Most of the historians stress upon the fact that they came from the Middle Asia and reached India in search of green pastures and meadows. Some of the researchers believe them to be a section of the valiant clan of the Huns while others claim them to be true Aryans who established their colonies in the northern part of this country spreading up to the plains of Ganges. Gujjars have been mentioned in several epics and in a number of classical books with myriad noun forms-Gujjar, Gujar, Goojar, Goojjar, etc. In Harshcharita by Bhan Bhat, there is a reference that during the reign of Prabhakar Vardhan there were some powerful domains of Gujjars. We find mention of these Gujjars in the diaries of foreign travellers that there were several powerful kings of Gujjars who used to assist the more powerful kingdoms and thus were the deciding factors in tilting the power from one kingdom to another.

There are still some Gujjar settlements in several middle east countries which point to the fact that once they were settled there and established their kingdoms. Several such families are still there in the ravines and at the base of Hindukush which speak Gojary language similar to that of the language spoken by the Gujjars of this part of the world. Gujjars reside in several cities and the localities of Attak, Peshawar , Jhelam, Rawal Pindi, Gujranwala, Sialokote, Lahore, etc. in Pakistan.

They believe in Islam. Gujjars living in India are having secular outlook. Most of the clans of Gujjars living in U.P., Gujarat, M.P., Haryana, etc. are Hindus but those who go about the Himalayas along with their flocks are the believers of Islam. Most of their castes are the same as those of Rajputs Chauhans, Khatana, Kasana, etc. Most of them have been converted long long ago. There are three distinct clans of Gujjars. Those who are permanent settlers in the rural or suburban area depend upon cultivation though a few of them are educated and are in service. Those who rear the cattIes especially buffaloes and depend upon selling their milk are Dodis. They are the most handsome Gujjars, the Image By DR B C Khanna representatives of the real Aryans. The third clan of the Gujjars is of nomadic nature.

They are the Bakarwals who are always on the move. They rear sheep and goats the flocks of which move during the changing seasons along the roadsides and in the pastures and meadows. It is really a feast for eyes to see thousands of sheep and goats escorted by Gaddi dogs which hound the animal in their fold whenever there is a trespass. They are the guards of the flocks and understand the language of their masters. Bakarwals are always on the move. During summer months they move from the plains to the Himalayas especially to the valleys in Zanskar ranges where they get huge pastures stretched miles together. Gumery and Dras, the coldest parts of Ladakh are rich in greenery during acute summers. At the start of winter they start moving towards lesser heights and plains. Thus right from the base of the Shivaliks to the highland valleys of Ladakh is the do- main of these nomads.

Gujjars-of-the-himalayas

In addition to their flock of sheep and goats they carry with them ponies and horses on the backs of which household goods are kept. They include tents, utensils, clothes of daily use and other articles of use in the travel. In fact, all their assets are carried on the horsebacks. Wherever there is a place to spend night they settle down and form a dera with open tents to accommodate the family members. They may stay there for more than a day provided there is enough greenery for their flock.

Social Milieu

These nomads are hardworking people. The male members of the clan are tall having broad shoulders with cute cuts. They are having open milky visage, however, a few of them are dark in colour too. The elders are bearded. They wear long shirts and salwars of dark colours. Jackets of black or dark colour are always in use but pattu coat is in vogue during winter only. They use white turban in the style of Turks. Big leather shoes are in vogue which are nailed heavily at the soles. The females are thin and tall. Their attire is almost similar to that of their male counterparts. They are very fond of braiding their hair. Numerous small braids divergently appear from the upper part of the forehead and convergently slide down to a single braid of hair at the back. They usually wear a dark coloured cap on their head covering the turning point of the braids. They carry their younger kids on their back in cloth cradles fastened around their backs. Sometimes young lambs are also cradled. Newly born lambs are always carried on the backs to lure the sheep mothers. The free hands are always busy prompting the young lambs to move ahead and the ‘mother sheep’ to follow. Bakarwals are expert in whistling the tune which is understood by the sheep, goats and the dogs. They change the direction of their journey with the tune of the whistle of their masters. However, there are some naughty animals which do not pay heed to these whistles. These animals are controlled by the hounds. They are hounded back by the big canines. Of course the dogs are the most disciplined animals of the whole lot. Most of the work of these people is done by these dogs. During the night halt, the newly born lambs are set free so that their mothers take charge of them and suckle their young ones. Dogs are let free to guard the whole flock and they are always alert to push back any intruder whosoever it may be; even the beasts are tom apart if they happen to attack the herd.

Gujjars-of-the-himalayas

Women folk at once start making the dera look like a house. Kitchen is made in the open unless there is rain when they try to get the shelter under the protruding rock or in a natural cave they get on their way. The hearth for cooking the meals is always in open, arranged temporarily with stones; twigs of wood are used to lit fire. They are fond of maize bread which is prepared from the flour made out of powdering the maize grains. Vegetables especially the green leaves of various herbs, potatoes and sometimes dal and curry are also used with a bit of chillies and raw onion. They are also fond of mutton. Ghee and shakkar are their best delicacies. While the ladies prepare the food, menfolk enjoy on hukah or gossip near the hearth to get the warmth during winter season. They lit torches during the night to shun away the wild animals. The next morning they pack their luggage on the backs of horses and ponies and start for the next halt. The process goes on until they reach the green pastures where they stay for pretty long time until they feel that their flock has taken enough. The rituals and other celebrations are very simple. Almost every celebration starts with the distribution of ghee and shakkar among the poor and the kith and kin’s followed by the chanting of the folk songs. At the time of new births and also during marriage ceremonies hilarious folk songs are chanted. They are generally the love epics popularly known as Masnavis. Thus Masnavis like Saifal Malook, Heer Ranja, Laila Majnu, etc. are recited accompanied by folk music instruments like bag pipe, algoja, mattian, flute and drums.

Marriages are very simple. They are ceremonised without any vanity or show. Marriage procession comprises of horse riders. After the ceremony is over the bride is brought on the back of a horse. Marriage parties are received with ghee and shakkar distributed among all the persons accompanying the barat. They are given a feast of delicious food including sweets, rice with several types of curries, mutton and fruits. Generally the marriages are arranged by the family members but sometimes there may be mutually agreed marriages between the bride and the bridegroom. Occasionally, there may be a number of young lads opting for a most beautiful girl of the clan. When there is a competition, the cattle’s are offered in lieu to the parents of the girl. The bidder giving the highest bid wins the battle, of course the will of the ‘girl is always sought by the mother of the girl confidentially. Once it so happened that a young Bakarwal gave away his whole herd of animals only to get the hand of a beautiful damsel. Other members of the community offered him some animals in gift and to some extent he was compensated.

Marriages are conducted by the priests of the mosques generally in Niquah style. Both the sides are asked about their consent followed by the recitation of Ayats from Quran Sharif. The Bakarwals are the scholars of nature. They know the seasonal flowering, grasses and medicinal herbs of various kinds. They are the doctors of their herd and apply the medicinal herbs to the cattle’s whenever they are sick. Some of the Bakarwals collect medicinal herbs during their travels which are sold in the market at handsome price. Milk, curd, butter, ghee, etc are the ingredients sold by these nomads to make their both ends meet. They also sell raw wool which is cut once in a year in case of ordinary sheep but twice in case of Australian breed which they rear now. The cutting of wool generally takes place in the summer months. They are rich persons having thousands of animals in their herd.

Now-a-days they have opened their accounts in the banks also and a few of the rich parties possess lockers too. Since they are always on the move their children cannot study in traditional schools. Considering the fact J&K Govt. has introduced the process of mobile schools. Teachers especially Gujjars and Bakarwals are arranged to move along with the caravan of herds. They are the mobile schools. Teachers selected for these schools are the educated Gujjars and Bakarwals.

Democratic Set-up

Bakarwals always move in groups. A single kabila may consist of several families together. Each family used to have a head of the family and all of these heads combine together to elect their leader. Generally it is unanimously decided and the most active one or the most powerful and rich is elected to perform the duties of a leader. This headman of the herds is popularly known as Mukadam. These Mukadams were, once upon a time, the most powerful persons who used to decide the fates of the feudal lords. Even now they play an important role in deciding the trend in the general elections in the area. All the quarrels of the families are settled by these headmen of the clan. Even the major disputes between the clans are solved mutually among themselves. The deciding person used to be the Mukadam whose verdict is supposed to be final. Bakarwals seldom go to courts for getting justice. It is only when they are forced that they knock the doors of the courts.

Generally these disputes are extra-territorial, i.e. they do not concern with the clans only but the state is also involved. Then the Mukadams are helpless and they have no option but to go to courts for the cause of justice. Generally these cases are against the forest department and revenue department. Such disputes arise when they are not allowed to graze their cattles in a particular locality. These people are fed up with these legalities as they are so prolonged that it becomes rather impossible to have justice in a few sittings. So they try to avoid such proceedings.

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