India is blessed with a large number of “animal cultures” whose lives revolve around the welfare of their livestock. We are fortunate that this book by Michael Benanav provides an intimate insight into the way of life and situation of one of them. An American photographer and writer with a penchant for nomadic people, Benanav, in 2009, joined an extended Van Gujjar family as they migrate from their winter camp in the Shiwalik Hills to their summer pastures in the Govind National Park in Uttarakhand. It is a deeply personal account that allows you to participate in the enormous hardships and insecurity that these buffalo nomads experience. Their customary grazing circuit puts them into conflict with the Forest Department that does not seem to have clear rules, so that the nomads are not sure by which route they will be able to reach their pastures in the mountains.
As is the rule throughout India, the authorities neither officially prohibit nor grant permission to migrate to, and use the pastures, taking money for grazing fees but without issuing any receipts. For the Van Gujjars, this creates enormous hassle and uncertainty. But move they must because the buffaloes cannot survive the hot summers in the lowlands and have an innate urge to migrate. The Van Gujjar are basically just following them and in order to ensure the welfare of their herds, they tolerate the enormous physical stress and constant exposure to the elements.
But besides the trials and tribulations, there is also joy, as expressed by Jamila, one of the protagonists: “Many people think we are fools for not settling in the villages. But look at what we have! We go with the weather, so now we’re heading where the air is cool, where you can get a good night’s sleep, when down below it is too hot. We go where there is plenty of water while down below people will be fighting for it. We don’t have to deal with mosquitoes or malaria….. we believe what is good for our buffaloes is also good for us…”
Especially moving are the passages about the close and intimate relationship between the people and their buffaloes. The Van Gujjar love their animals and look at them as family members — they never eat them and traditionally do not send them for slaughter. This relationship is illustrated beautifully by an inset of spectacular colour photographs, one of them showing four Van Gujjar men carrying a buffalo yearling with a broken leg up the mountain, like a queen on a palanquin. Michael’s photographs provide evidence of this human-animal relationship that is in such stark contrast to factory farming and that reminds me of the close relationship between the Raika of Rajasthan and their camels.
Adapting their lives to the needs of their buffaloes, the Van Gujjar, like many other nomadic pastoralist groups in India, manage to produce food in tune with nature and without requiring any of the usual agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, fuel and machinery. It is sad that this is not being recognized by policy makers, and forest officials continue to violently oppose the idea of livestock grazing, even refusing to implement India’s Forest Rights Act. Animal husbandry officials, on the other hand, pursue western visions of livestock development that will ultimately lead towards factory farming and lack appreciation of the kind of natural and ecological livestock keeping customarily pursued by India’s animal cultures. As nomadic livestock keepers such as the Van Gujjar actually produce a vast proportion of the country’s milk and meat, it will undermine national food security if all of them are made to settle.
Himalaya Bound is a travelogue in the real sense, but also much more. It is an important testimony to a way of life — and a way of interacting with animals — that is unfortunately under a lot of pressure not only in India but in many other countries in Asia and Africa. I wish there were many more books like it! Don’t miss this unique and immensely readable tale about people at India’s margins that do more for animal welfare than anybody else.
Ilse Kohler-Rollefson is the author of Camel Karma, Twenty Years among India’s Camel Nomads. She is @IlseKohler on Twitter
Himalaya Bound: An American’s Journey with Nomads in India