Status: Read from Apr 7 to Apr 8, 2018
My rating: /5
Author: Michael Benanav
For forty-four days, Michael Benanav, an American writer and freelance photographer for The New York Times, lived and travelled with the Van Gujjars, a forest-dwelling tribe of nomadic buffalo herders in northern India, on their annual spring migration to the Himalayas. He went to document their traditional way of life, but there was trouble on the trail: the Uttarakhand forest department threatened to block nomadic families, whose ancestral summer meadows are within Govind National Park, from the pastures they rely on for the survival of their herds.
A fascinating account of life on the road with nomads, this book tells the story of one family’s quest to save its buffaloes, and itself. More than a rare glimpse into the hidden world of a tribe of vegetarian Muslims who risk their lives for their animals, this is an intimate picture of the hopes, fears, hardships and joys of people who wonder if there’s still a place for them on this planet. It’s an important exploration of the relationship between humankind and wild lands – and a tale of friendship that bridges two very different cultures.
Van Gujjar are nomadic water buffalo herders, who are still able to practice their traditional way of life. They live year-round in the wilderness, grazing their livestock on the vegetation that grows in the jungles and mountains of northern India. The tribe spends winters, from October to April, in the Shivalik Hills – a low but rugged range that arcs through parts of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. In the month of March, however, heat begins to sear the Shivaliks. By mid-April, temperatures soar to 45 degrees. With little left for their buffaloes to eat or drink, the Van Gujjars pack their entire households onto horses and bulls and hike their herds up to the Himalayas, aiming for high alpine meadows that are flush with grass throughout the summer. They stay in the mountains until autumn. Then, with temperatures plunging and snow beginning to fall, they retreat back down to the Shivaliks.
Michael met one of the Van Gujjar family in 2009 with the help of SOPHIA (Society for the Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities), a small Dehradun-based non-profit organization that works with the Van Gujjars. He travelled with them for 44 days, on their annual spring migration to the Himalayas and documented their traditional way of life and culture, the hardships in the jungle and the treats from the forming of national parks.
Today, its estimated, 30000 Van Gujjars dwell in wilderness, moving seasonally between the Shivaliks and the Himalayas, speak their native dialect, Gujari, which is a linguistic fusion of Dogri and Punjabi. Van Gujjars, though Muslims, are traditionally vegetarian. Some scholars suggest that this may be a cultural remnant from the days before the Mughal period, when the Van Gujjars probably converted from Hinduism to Islam. But Van Gujjars are say they think animals as fellow living beings and they normally don’t hunt.
Michhael also highlighted the treat the Van Gujjars are facing from the Uttarakhand government due to establishment of National Parks. They fear that their seasonal migration would cease, and their traditional way of life would fade away. In the name of protecting wildlife habitat, these nomads are pressured to abandon the wild lands on which they had lived for countless generations, to settle in villages and give up their buffalo herds. National Parks are meant to preserve things that are fragile and endangered, and in this case they would also be threatening the Van Gujjars’ unique culture.
The books gives an deep insight on the lives of these mountain dwelling nomads, their love for their animals and also brings into light the threat these buffalo herders are facing since 1992. The book is a fast read and brings in the lively picture of the life, culture and hardship of these forest dwelling vegetarian Muslims, where men and women share the work equally. Also gives an ample information of various organizations, national and international, who are trying to preserve this unique culture of Van Gujjars and brining into light how the seasonal migration of these herders helps forest to regenerate balancing the ecosystem. The family tree and the map provided in the beginning of the book are very helpful to understand the members of the Gujjar family and the path they traversed to reach the Himalayas. The book is a good mixture of travelogue and cultural/social life of nomads. The pictures only shows how these people are very compassionate towards their animals.
About the Author:
Michael Benanav is a writer and photographer whose work appears in The New York Times, Geographical Magazine, Lonely Planet Guidebooks, CNN.com, and other publications. He is the author of two previous, critically acclaimed books: Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold, and The Luck of the Jews: An Incredible Story of Loss, Love, and Survival in the Holocaust. He lives in a small village not far from Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the southwestern United States. He visits India frequently.