A Foot Pilgrimage

10 Days Through Mountains with
Bakarwals

By Aakash Hassan




It was the early 90s. Abdul Rahman was on his annual migration from Jammu towards Ladakh with his livestock, making his way through forests, dangerous cliffs and impossible crevices. He met two strange men on the way who requested him to take them along till they reach Kashmir.

Rahman was reluctant at first, but the two young men just wouldn’t listen. Eventually the herdsman gave in to their demand and the trio started their journey. But the two men were no ordinary travellers. They were carrying guns.

After travelling for five consecutive days, the trio passed through a road near Charar-e-Sharief in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, where the Army confronted them.

Rahman, now a frail, white-bearded man in his sixties who ties his traditional turban loosely over his head, was in his early thirties when the incident happened.

The men in uniform asked the trio to show their identity cards, as was the routine in Kashmir back then. The valley had just witnessed a large-scale armed rebellion and daily violence was a norm. Pakistan was sending armed guerillas into Kashmir through various mountainous routes.

The herdsman showed his identity card to the soldiers, but the two young men struggled to prove their identity.

But that wasn’t it. The soldiers then took one of the boys from a group of herdsmen. Minutes later Rahman heard a few gunshots.

“The soldiers took all of them a few steps aside and shot them dead,” Rahman recounted, his eyes turning moist.

Twenty-eight years later, as we trekked 160 km on foot with the family of Rahman, trying to understand the lives Bakarwals live, there were also some questions that only this nomadic tribe had answers to, the most important among them all: have their lives changed after the heinous gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl in Kathua this year?


NIGHT CAMP

The first leg of the trek started with the family of Rahman camping at a hillock overlooking Rajouri area of Jammu.

Rahman and his family members unloaded their horses and gathered the cattle after a hectic trek through narrow paths, crisscrossing several mountains. Rahman's wife Aisha Begum (60) and niece, Misra Bibi (40) are with him. The other family members are Bibi’s husband, Mohammad Ismail Khatana (50) and their five children.

The group has been travelling for the last five days with their cattle of nearly a hundred goats and five horses from their village in Jandi Tada, about 100 km east of Jammu in Rajouri district. Rahman’s family was moving towards Gurez valley, which is 300 km away in the north, near the Line of Control (LoC).

Yasmin, daughter of Misra Bibi, struggled to light the wood her father had collected. The nine-year-old fetched water after making a half-an-hour trek to the other side of the mountain with her grandmother Ayesha Begum.

  • Yasmin, daughter of Misra Bibi, preparing dinner for the family. (Photo: Hashim Maqbool)
  • The sky was clear and Yasmin was preparing dinner for her family. Her mother Bibi was breastfeeding her one-year-old daughter, Nawreen. The cattle left to graze had spread over the sloppy terrain. Everyone was gathering around the fireplace to protect themselves from the chilly winds that blew occasionally.

    The surrounding mountains were illuminated with orange dots— fires lit by other Bakarwal families resting nearby for the night.

    The dinner was the traditional pink salt tea, known as noon chai in Kashmir, served with baked corn-flour bread.

    While most of the family slept under the open sky, Khatana and Rahman were awake looking over the cattle.

    “There is the danger of thieves,” said Khatana, who was walking around in bone-chilling cold with a woolen cloth draped over his shoulders.

    THE JOURNEY RESUMES

    The sun was yet to rise from the hills and Rahman’s livestock started grazing around, their herders directing them with squeals and whistles.

    After breakfast – traditional salt tea, corn bread and meetha chawal (preparation of jaggery and rice mixed with butter or oil) – the family was again on the move. While on travel, the Bakarwals mostly have tea.

    “It was a piece of cake that we walked through until now,” Khatana explained to us much to our astonishment. “Until now we were travelling the regions where the temperature remains relatively high. Now it will be cold and the jungle ahead is a challenge.”

    The caravan was mounting the hills. The two kids, Shazreen (3) and Sheeraz (4), were riding horses, a scarf tied around their waist for safety. But Mumtaz (6) and Yasmin (9) walked on their own directing the cattle.

    We were following Rahman. He said, "I wanted to live a different life."

    I have seen the worst of the things. - Abdul Rahman
    In the early 90s, Rahman fled from his home and went to Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh to study at a madrassa. For six years he studied there and returned home as an Islamic cleric. He began teaching children of his village for some time but then had to shift to the ancestral profession due to the meagre income he earned as a maulvi.

    Known as 'Maulvi Chacha' among locals, Rahman said, “I keep murmuring prayers while we are travelling. I have seen the worst of the things.”

    To explain his point, Rahman recounted an incident.

    In October 2000, his father, uncle and younger brother were in the forests of Wangat, Rajouri. “During the night as they were keeping vigil, thieves came, overpowered them and murdered all three.” Later, he said, six people were arrested by the police from the nearby locality.

    “Our cattle are our only property and they’re vulnerable to not just weather, diseases and other animals, but to humans as well,” said Rahman.

    Most of the family camps under the open sky, braving bad weather and wild animals. (Photo: Hashim Maqbool)


    WHO ARE BAKARWALS?

    Bakarwals are a tribe within the state's Gujjar community. The word 'Bakarwal' means goat shepherds. In 1991, Scheduled Tribe (ST) status was given to Bakarwals and reservations were extended to them both in state and central government jobs.

    Some among them have just a few dozens of goats and sheep but some posses thousands of farm animals.

    For the past few years the way of herding has been changing. Not all Bakarwals move their cattle around on foot. “Most of the Bakarwals, load cattle in the trucks and move their families in other vehicles,” Mohammad Khan, 53, said, while he was loading cattle from his village in Thana Mandi Rajouri. Khan is travelling with his family in a load-carrier. “It costs us 100 to 150 rupees per goat,” he explained. “It becomes cheap and easy for us. We cover the journey of weeks in hours.”

    The on-foot travel is tiresome. To reach their destination in time, a Bakarwal family has to walk for at least six hours every day. And sometimes even when they want to, the family can’t move forward an inch.

    THE HARD LIFE

    As Rahman’s caravan started its descent towards dense woods, it began to pour. The family pitched a small plastic tarpaulin tent, which was just enough to cover them and their stock.

    There's not much choice for the Bakarwals. Men and women both look after the cattle, collect and cut wood for the fire, and later take part in other chores like cooking and washing.

    The weather is another challenge for them. “It is our worst enemy,” said Misra Bibi while pulling a blanket over her children.

    The families carry very few belongings. A pair of dress for each, basic utensils, ration for four to five days—particularly flour. Also, everyone wears rubber shoes.

    As the rains continued, the tent was soaked and began to leak from a few places. The family spent the day inside the tent, around the fire, lit at the entry.

    The weather in the jungle is unpredictable. Here, it can rain or snow anytime.

    At least one member of a Bakarwal family now posseses a mobile phone, some even have smartphones. The family I am travelling with, Khatana had a phone, but he was not sure if it was working.

    “Its battery is probably exhausted. I will have to find a place to charge it,” he said.

    Extreme weather can bring with it, diseases. Bakarwals, who still live at the mercy of nature, continue to die of some very treatable ailments in the absence of any medical help.

  • Bakarwals have to brave heavy snow while corssing intor Kashmir (Photo: Hashim Maqbool)
  • Khatana told us that when his daughter fell ill after two days of travel he sold a goat and took her to the nearest health centre. But he is always worried about a medical emergency that could strike his family members when they’re traveling through dense jungles.

    “We rarely visit a doctor and prefer to treat maladies with homemade remedies,” he said. Khatana’s wife has delivered six children and she has never consulted a doctor during her pregnancy.

    “I delivered all the babies at my home,” said Misra Bibi. She said that even during her pregnancy she had to walk for a month with her cattle.

    Not just humans, even the cattle are prone to diseases during bad weather. The Bakarwals are sometimes forced to sell their weak or diseased cattle for a pittance to visiting merchants.

    “The other threats looming are the wild animals,” said Rahman. But every Bakarwal family has a dog. The dog with Khatana is always vigilant. They keep the dogs untied in the night. “No one will dare to come close to our cattle in presence of the dog,” he said. “The dogs raise alarm on finding danger and even fight with wild animals.”

    Long and soft feathered, burly dogs kept following the cattle. “Our dogs are like our family. They grow with our cattle and their breed passes on,” said Rahman. “Our dogs have been living with us as far back in time as we can think. For many centuries possibly. The only thing loyal to a Bakarwal, on this earth, is his dog.”

    The ever-mobile Bakarwals also conduct their trade en route.

    Mohammad Ziya Ul Haq, a 40-year-old cattle buyer, bought thirty goats and a few sheeps from a Bakarwal after much negotiation. “The stock is weak and we will have to feed them for a few months. Then we will sell them in Kashmir,” Haq said.

    The rains continued for two more days. We just had to keep waiting for the clouds to clear.

    The ever-mobile Bakarwals also conduct their trade en route. (Photo: Hashim Maqbool)


    THE GHOSTS OF RASANA

    Farooqa Begum (40), mother of six daughters, was travelling with her family for the last one week starting from her village, Muradpur in Rajouri. Farooqa was restless during her travel.

    “Other than the usual problems, I fear for the safety of our daughters as things are getting bad,” she said referring to the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl in Kathua in January this year.

    The incident shook the entire country and revealed the fault lines in the Jammu region, which is dominated by the Hindu Dogras. Investigations revealed that what happened in Kathua was planned for over a month aimed to terrify the Bakarwal community.

    “I don’t want my daughters to travel on foot to Kashmir, but who has the money to hire a vehicle?” she said. Draped in a shawl, Farooqa said she feels alone now.

    “If I had a son, he would have been such a support,” she said.

  • “Other than the usual problems, I fear for the safety of our daughters as things are getting bad.” (Photo: Hashim Maqbool)
  • Farooqa's eldest daughter (20) is married. But, she is worried about the fate of her other five daughters, the youngest among who is just a year old.

    “In Kathua, it was zulum (atrocity). My daughters also take goats, horses to the jungle. Every time they are out I wait in fear; what if anything bad happens with them?” she said, as the evening spread in the dense woods and her two daughters, five and eight years old, were with the cattle. In the distance, the daughters could be heard whistling and directing the cattle joyously.

    Farooqa said she felt less safe in Rajouri than in Kashmir. “There are Hindus in Rajouri and I am always worried about the safety of my daughters.” She wished to stay in Kashmir for the entire year.

    Her daughters had begun going to schools in Rajouri but left their studies eventually.

    The official data revealed that the literacy rate among Bakarwals is just 1 percent.

    The government has come up with mobile schools for Bakarwal students. These schools move with them. In 2018, 25 such schools enrolled 801 students—410 boys and 391 girls, according to government officials.

    “Our children walk with us the entire day, they are so tired that they cannot attend to these schools even if they exist,” said another Bakarwal, Mohammad Khan.

    Throughout our journey though, we couldn’t find even a single school, mobile or otherwise.

    ONWARD WE MARCH

    The weather cleared up the next morning, and the Bakarwals started moving as soon as they spotted the first ray of light.

    We were moving with the family of Khatana, passing through a village and reach Mughal road. The 84km-long road connects Poonch district of Jammu to Shopian district in the Kashmir valley. It starts from Bafliaz, a small town nestled under the mountains, and passes through the mighty Pir Panjal mountain range at an altitude of 11,500 ft (3505 m).

    This road was first proposed in the 1950s. Its construction was halted due to the volatile political conditions of Kashmir and upon being built was destroyed several times during militancy in the 90s. A new, macadamized road was laid on the old road in March 2007.

    Bakarwals have been walking on this stretch much before the Mughal emperors marched on it to conquer Kashmir in the 16th century.

    This historical route was used by Akbar to conquer Kashmir in 1586, and his son emperor Jahangir died while returning from Kashmir on this road near Rajouri.

    Near Behramgalla village the family was asked to produce their passes before being allowed to cross an Army post. These passes are issued to the Bakarwals from the district magistrate's office and have to be renewed every year.

    Passing through the road is another challenge. Due to the movement of the cattle, there are long traffic jams and sometimes tragedies. “Just a few days ago, a truck drove over a flock of sheep on this road killing over 50 of them and injuring dozens,” a local said pointing toward the bloody remains on the road.

    The most challenging task is to cross the Pir Panjal range. Bakarwals get ready to dash through them in just a single day. This is called the death zone. (Photo: Hashim Maqbool)


    After travelling on the Mughal road for two hours we reached Chandimarh. There was a small market, the last resting place of Bakarwals before they start for the Pir Panjal range.

    There are several dhabas, ATMs, and grocery shops in Chandimarh. Khatana stopped to shop. He bought flour, salt, cooking oil, pulses, jaggery and few more items from the shop of one Mansoor Gojri. The shopkeeper said that four to five Bakarwal families shop each day from him. But he is unhappy as his clientele is constantly decreasing.

    “Earlier Bakarwals would stay for days here and feed their cattle but now most of them move in trucks,” said Gojri.

    The most challenging task is to cross the Pir Panjal range. Bakarwals get ready to dash through them in just a single day. This is called the death zone.

    THE SETTLED BAKARWALS

    Before starting the journey with the family of Khatana, I met with the family of Abdul Haq Bajran in Kurrah village of Kalakote area.

    Bajran, a government teacher, is a Bakarwal who has stopped rearing cattle. “I studied with great difficulty and became a teacher,” said the 38-year-old postgraduate.

    Bajran said their ancestral profession has not yielded anything for their community.

    “We have remained backward. This is a tiresome job and our people who are into it don’t know anything about the world,” he said. Father of three children, Bajran said he is ready to spend everything on the study of his children. “I can also move out of here. Getting education is the only way towards progress,” he said. There are a lot of people in Bakarwal community who are now settled like Bajran.

    He said, "it hardly matters for Bakarwals what is happening in Jammu or in Kashmir. They are caught in the daily travails of their own life."

    Back on the Mughal road, Khatana shared his experiences during the spell of militancy in the 90s.

    “We have seen a lot of gun wielding, bearded men. They would sometimes ask us for a sheep. We had no option but to give them whatever they demanded,” he said.

    THE FINAL PUSH

    The temperature started plummeting. Khatana was sweating though cold winds were blowing, as he lifted the foal on his shoulders. We started climbing through an edgy, narrow and boulder-ridden path. A slip here would mean plunging to certain death in the deep gorge.

    The crisscrossing path led to the top of one mountain that was covered with fresh snow. There appeared a pointed structure far away. “It is Peer Ki Gali,” explained Rahman who was directing his cattle.”

    The way was so narrow that only one goat could walk at a time. The path appeared as an unending queue leading towards the only single structure visible in this whitewashed land.

    The winds blew faster as we cautiously moved our steps on this sloppy path. After four hours we were on the top. In front of us was a wide-open field covered in snow. The structure was the shrine of Saint Baba Abdul Karim. The altitude was 3490 metres, the highest spot on Mughal road. This was the place of worship. The Bakarwals say whosever passes through here pays his respect to the saint.

    Khatana, who was visibly tired, paid his tributes.

    The shrine of Saint Baba Abdul Karim was at an altitude of 3490 metres, the highest spot on Mughal road. (Photo: Hashim Maqbool)


    The rishis (caretakers) at the shrine are from Heerpora Shopian and they say that their ancestors have been taking care of this shrine for over a century. The vehicles stop near the road as the commuters come to pay their respects. The prayers are followed by the milk-less salty tea, poured hot from samovars by the rishis.

    In the rear side of the shrine is a small graveyard. Those who die on the way are buried here. The tombstones are carved with names and dates.

    A few makeshift stalls have been set up at the Gali. These are run by the locals from the villages of Shopian. They mostly sell barbeque and dry fruits.

    There was a queue of trucks and load carriers. Some Bakarwal families loaded their cattle in the trucks. Others started walking. They began descending along the road. After an hour the green patches appeared. The was the entrance to Kashmir valley. Down there, vast meadows were spread in the Dubjin.

    This is our life and we are satisfied with it, this is what our ancestors have been doing. - Khatana
    The families of Khatana and Rahman were joyous. They made it safely. The sun was about to set and it was time to pitch their tents. The cattle spread across the vast green belt. Smoke rose from the canopies and the whistles of herders echoed through the valley.

    Next morning, the family will pass through the jungles again and reach Charar-e-Sharief, a small town in the central Kashmir known for its old shrine of Sheikh-ul-Alam, a great mystic poet. After few days' stay they will start moving again towards north into the Gurez valley, through the high altitude Razdan Pass (3300 m).

    The journey will take another 20 days. It is going to take them more twenty days. They will finally settle in their Dokha, a stone and wood-made structure in Tulail area.

    Khatana and Rahman will rear the cattle in the vast meadows. Yasmin would take care of household chores and with autumn they will again start their journey, back to Rajouri, through the same route.

    "This is our life and we are satisfied with it, this is what our ancestors have been doing," Khatana said. "We don't understand other complex things. We live in our own way."