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Life of a Shepherd in Kashmir

Their lifestyle is simple and their work culture stuck to one aspect, which is their cattle and are not bothered about the complexities of the modern world

Post by on Wednesday, October 20, 2021

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The contemporary world has inhabited a speedy lifestyle, where everyone seems busy and in rush with their scheme of things and the restless life seems a normal aspect. Idealizing a contrary life seems a naive thing but to the dismay of this rush and competitiveness, life at a halt and away from this noisy world is still existent. Their lifestyle is simple and their work culture stuck to one aspect, which is their cattle and are not bothered about the complexities of the modern world, they are the shepherds (chopans) of Kashmir. 
The shepherds (chopans) of Kashmir make their seasonal migration towards the pasturelands, located in the Himalayas, which serves as their second home, along with the flock of cattle (sheep, goats & horses). They move into the wild pastures, cut from the modern world in terms of connectivity, (roads & communication) along with their family members from the onset of the summer season, bearing the harshness of fragile weather. The life on the edge is no one would ever aspire to. It is a journey that continues from spring, through summer, and until the end of autumn.
Their job is to ensure the safety of cattle of farmers, living in almost every village of the valley, which they are later paid for. They traverse across high-altitude mountain passes and different ranges of the Himalayas. The seasonal migration depends heavily upon the makeshift structures and shelters. During the summer months, they live in the roughly made stone, wood and mud huts commonly called ' koothas’ and no matter how severe weather conditions prevail, they survive it.  Living a nomadic life, very close to nature, these Shepherds are enough knowledgeable about various varieties of natural herbs and medicinal plants, which are found only in those meadows and mountainous valleys. Soaking themselves in the open sky all day, while keeping a vigilant eye on their cattle is their sole concern. The dogs, they own, are their faithful soldiers guarding their cattle day and night against the wild beasts and alerting them in advance from any foreign threat. Their capability of sensing an immediate threat is what makes them trustworthy and keeps the shepherds relieved. 
Recently I went for a trek where I met a Shepherd who in one hand was holding a typical Shepherd's stick while another one holding a hookah (smoking pipe), the puff of smoke was weaving away in the gentle breeze, donning a blanket outside his kotha with wrinkles evident from his face, welcomed us with special noon chai & delicious makki ki rooti. Enthusiastic about their lifestyle and different challenges, calmly and attentively I tried to figure out their experience of living in these remote pastures, close to nature which is their only source of livelihood, though that comes at greater risk and vulnerability. 
While he was sharing his experience the knowledge and acquaintance with the lofty mountain ranges and tough terrains was exciting as well as mesmerizing. It was evident that the tough terrains of the Himalayas have made them resilient and stronger, as living in the wild is not everybody's cup of tea. Their simple and down to earth nature resembles the beauty of desolate valleys, echoing everywhere. 
The vulnerability and threat looming on these shepherds and their cattle are not to be ignored. The threat to the livestock is always looming on their head, from wild animals or human theft and to avoid them, they have to risk their lives and this battle of life and death goes on continuously until they retreat to their homes in September. They have to guard their cattle even in the dark nights by lighting fire outside their camps, or by illuminating the rock trenches and dense woods or by continuously blowing whistles around every nook and corner. Some are heard reciting loudly the names of Almighty. The weather in these pasture lands is certainly nobody's friend. Thunderstorms, cloud burst and hailstorm also adds to their misery and worries. 

Another misfortune which encounters them is an outbreak of some communicable diseases, which enhances their woes, sometimes their hue and cry regarding the vaccination goes unabated and handing them a great loss in the form of death of their livestock, while sometimes the department wakes up by the whistles blown by some Activists which evades them from a bigger loss. 
Their grave concern in the education and health sector is a debatable issue, because they feel they are deprived of quality education which forces their children to leave it for once, Though some efforts for their education were made but not substantial. The thing that I was eagerly searching and waiting to hear was their respect and concern for nature and about the fragility/degrading ecosystems. They seem to be concerned with the continuous human Inhabitation, and the litter/ garbage that is left over by the people. They are of the view that the receding glacial levels & low account of snowfall are the greater concern and this tangible change is alarming for the future. 
In primitive times they used to collect anything like fodder, rice or oil In return for the services rendered, but due to the shrinkage of agricultural land, they charge now 500 to 600 per sheep for this grazing period. Some people, mostly the younger generation, have left their traditional profession and are working as day labours in construction sites or at other places. 
The hereditary job, which according to the shepherds is their only means of income, provides them satisfaction but at the same time worries them as they don’t want their next generation to follow in their footsteps. They believe while we earn in these remote mountains but that comes at the greater risk and at the cost of education of their children, which certainly is an irreparable loss.

(Author is M Tech in Mechanical Engineering and can be reached at mirbasit.mech@gmail.com)

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