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The Nomads

Man, Animal, Nature


R. S. Negi

Human evolution is a success story of adaptation of the genus homo over a span of nearly two million years. Of these human ancestors subsisted as hunter-gatherers for all but the last 10,000 years, till they learnt domestication of animals and plants, leading to sedentrization. So, almost 99.5 per cent of the history of genus homo was spent as hunter-gatherer nomads. As such nomadism is the primal adaptation of the hominids and is deeply rooted in human ancestory.

Domestication of plants was the beginning of agriculture, but it did not put a complete stop to nomadism, since domestication of animals, simultaneously, made possible a new adaptation, which was mobile pastoralism. Historically, pastoralism is considered an offshoot of mixed agricultural and herding subsistence complexes in adaptation to the grasslands not so suitable for cereal plants. There are still some human populations in different and remote areas of the world who have maintained a nomadic way of life which to some extent may be similar to that of the earlier hominids. The present-day nomadic way of life is mainly of two kinds: one being hunting-gathering, the first adaptation of the hominids, and the other pastoral nomadism having a history since the Neolithic times. Both these life ways are adaptation to different ecological situations. This chapter studies pastoral nomadism as a special adaptation pattern in the Himalayan region of north-western India, particularly the Garhwal Himalayas.

Pastoralism as an adaptive strategy is based upon the three main resources of animal herds, pasture lands and water. Animals are usually available, and it is access to pastures and water, which requires seasonal migration of the herd and the herder, known as transhumance. The seasonal migration is often between two sites, which are predetermined and well-marked for the availability of pasture land and water sources. Transhumance, thus, is a special form of nomadism requiring special adaptive measures on the part of the transhumant population, and it is somewhat different from the nomadic hunter-gatherer who are constantly on the move and do not return to the earlier sites in a cyclic manner. The transhumants, though nomadic, move in a cyclic manner, returning to earlier sites which more or less become permanent, seasonal bases. The pastoral transhumants in their cyclic movement allow time for regeneration and preservation of resources. They also have the option of drawing upon ‘unearned resources’ as in the case of the hunter-gatherer nomads, to some extent. The seasonal cyclic movements and utilization of resources in a rotational manner has placed the transhumant populations in a situation where they are nomadic on the one hand and transitionally or marginally sedentary on the other.

The Garhwal Himalayas support a number of transhumant populations, chief among them being the Bhotias, Gujars and highland shepherds. The Bhotias raise sheep and goats and combine trading with cultivation, the highland shepherds raise sheep and goats and are agro-pastoral. The Gujars mainly raise buffaloes and are pastoral. An attempt has been made here to study the Gujar lifestyle so as to have an insight into the pastoral nomad’s perception of the relationship between the herder and the herd and the resources, that is, man, animal and nature.

The Gujars, who have got their name from the Sanskrit gurjara, were once a dominant population in western India. The territory is now called Gujarat. It is believed that earlier ancestral stock may have migrated from the central Asian region and they have been identified with the Kushans or the Yuchis by General Cunningham.1 Later, for some unknown reasons, the Gujars migrated from Gujarat, spreading all over north-western part of the Indian sub-continent and to some pockets in central India. The present-day distribution of the Gujars is in the States of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The Gujars were mostly Hindus, but from time-to-time sizeable sections of them got converted to Islam. At present there are both Hindu and Muslim Gujars in north-western India, but, curiously, while the Hindu Gujars inhabit the plains and are settled agriculturists, the Muslim Gujars inhabit the Himalayan region and are pastorals. In some areas, such as Garhwal Himalayas, they have been completely nomadic till very recently.

In western Uttar Pradesh, the Gujars have set up winter camps in the Shiwalik region. With the onset of spring they prepare to migrate with their herds to high altitude pasture lands, known as bugyals, in the Garhwal Himalayas. The journey is through the middle altitude region along the river valleys; and the migration, also termed as vertical transhumance, is seasonal between fixed sites, through fixed routes and according to more or less fixed time table. Generally, they spend May to October in summer camps, in high altitude pastures, and November to April in winter camps, in the Shiwalik region. The outward and inward journeys take fifteen to twenty days. Thus the actual camping in the winter and summer camps is nearly for five-and-a-half months each. The mode of migration has undergone some change over a period of time. Till about fifty years ago, the journey each way took longer as there were no modern means of communication through middle range valleys, and also the local population was less hostile towards the migrants. In earlier days the migratory Gujars and their herds were able to travel in the day time also, camping near villages where fodder and water were easily available for the herd. Besides, transactions would take place between the local populations and the Gujars. Buffalo herds of the Gujar were considered a good source of manure for the fields of the local population. In recent years the Gujars have begun to utilize modern means to transport. They travel with the herds mostly during night. This change in the mode of migration is an adaption response to the changing human and ecological conditions. The migratory routes and journeys have now been reconditioned by the availability of grass and other fodder, and water for the herd, and the necessity of secluded camping places away from the roads and villages.

The Gujars live in groups of families called deras, which are generally organized on the basis of kinship. The neighbourhood relationship is also maintained both during migra-tory journeys and the encampments. Each family or dera maintain on an average 30-40 head of buffalo, a few cattle and horses and ponies, for transportation of household effects.

It is reported that over the years the number of buffaloes per dera is on the decrease. This trend is considered to be a dangerous signal by the pastoral nomads. Since the subsistence of the pastoral nomads is totally dependent on the herd, decrease in the number of animals adversely affects the survival strategy of the population. However, in case of Gujars, the reported decrease may or may not be real, depending on extraneous factors as well as change in the survival strategy itself.

The Gujars have been in the Garhwal Himalayas for the past 100-150 years. It is said that they migrated to this part of the Himalayas from Jammu region through Himachal Pradesh, where there are Gujars in sizeable numbers. The main reason for their migration was depletion of resources to maintain the herd. In the Garhwal Himalayas, Gujars were allowed to take their herds to high altitude pastures, on the basis of a specific amount of fee per head of buffalo, paid to the forest department. The grazing fee is for the winter camps and has been periodically increased. The increase of fee per buffalo-head is one of the reasons for the reported unreal decrease in the number of buffaloes, as the Gujars would like to keep the amount of fee payable low by reporting lesser number of buffaloes.

Earlier, the Gujar dera migrated with all the animals from the winter camp in the Shiwalik to the high altitude bugyal. But recently the trend has changed and fewer deras migrate to the high altitude pastures. At the same time the deras do not migrate as a whole, but leave behind some members and buffaloes in the winter camps. This has resulted in more horizontal transhumance as well as partial sedentarization. In the Shiwaliks, in the vicinity of camp sites there is a gradual reduction in the grazing area and the drying of water sources with the rise in temperature, and therefore alternate grazing grounds and water holes are to be looked for, where the herd can be taken. All these factors also affect the milk yield of the buffalo and the economy of the Gujar.

In the case of transhumants, when they go to the high altitude bugyals, the Gujars find conditions changing year after year. Earlier, the herd could find grazing ground and water in the vicinity of high altitude villages, which is no longer the case now. The Gujars have to take their herds higher to where grass is available but there are not enough water holes for watering the buffaloes. Besides, the higher pastures have been the grazing grounds for the goats and sheep of highland shepherds. The presence of buffaloes in the higher pastures has created a situation of conflict. The sheep and buffaloes cannot share the same grazing ground as sheep do not touch the grass grazed by other animals. Therefore, the highland shepherds do not want the Gujars to take their herds to these pastures.

The Gujars would like to continue their transhumant adaptive strategy. They are very dependent on their buffalo herds and would like to take them to good pastures. They also recognize that their herds are conditioned to move to higher altitude pastures and cooler climate in summer months as the animals start becoming restive when the temperature goes up. There is thus an interdependence between the Gujars and their herds and a dependence of the herder and the herd on the pasture lands and water resources, both in the Shiwaliks and the high altitude regions. Up to a certain level this relationship can be symbiotic. But there is obviously an optimum level beyond which an imbalance is bound to occur due to some recognizable factors such as increase in the human and animal popu-lations and depletion of resources. The depletion of resources in itself can be due to over-utilization — a direct consequence of rise in human and animal population and some natural causes. The Gujar is aware that the optimum level has been reached and an imbalance has set in, because though man and animal are still in symbiotic relationship, their relationship with nature has turned parasitic instead, which is indicated by over-grazing and, drying up of water holes. Change in human relationship due to competition between sheep and buffaloes for the pasture land is also contributing to the imbalance that has set in.

The pastoral Gujar has perceived the change in the relationship and has begun to readjust the adaptive strategy. One is by reducing the number of migrant deras, and, consequently, lowering number of buffaloes. The other is by the process of sedentarization. Though the Gujar is reluctant to give up the pastoral nomadic mode of subsistence, he is aware that it is no longer a successful adaptive strategy as it used to be and needs to be either modified or given up altogether.


1. Crook, W., The Tribes and Castes of North Western India, vol. II, pp. 439-54.


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