Bakarwals on their way to the mountains

Bakarwals are a nomadic tribe in Jammu & Kashmir UT in India. They’re roughly known as Kashmiri Bakarwals or Bakarwal nomads of Kashmir. They’re one among many nomadic tribes of north India. They belong to a pastoral community of nomads that keep cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, horses and donkeys as cattle and most of the time of the year they keep traveling with their cattle in search of grasslands and meadows, mostly in the Himalayas. The people of this community are called Bakarwals in Kashmir, Changpa in Ladakh, Gaddi in Himachal and Gurjars in Uttarakhand.

With the Bakarwal family

During my India tour on bicycle I camped with the Bakarwals in Kashmir in the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas. In April, 2021 when I was on my way to Ladakh via Kashmir, I decided to take the old Mughal route that crosses over the Pir ki Gali pass. On the way to a hilltop Dera ki Gali it started drizzling and the sun was about to set, on my left on the riverbank I saw a big tent, a few animals around it and a family outside it, I went to them and asked if I could camp next to them and they welcomed me happily. I introduced myself and they told me that they were the Bakarwals and they’re headed to the upper regions in Kashmir as the summer had arrived.

The Bakarwals, as I’ve mentioned, keep multiple animals as cattle and they keep wandering from place to place grazing their animals. They’ve been following this profession since centuries, they’ve a place to return called home in the foothills of Pir Panjal where they stay only during the winters. They pack their luggage, camps and food and leave with their cattle to the mountains as soon as the summer arrives. They stay up in the mountains and forests throughout the summer and rainy seasons until it starts snowing in the upper regions. Their children also travel with them. They always have 2-3 dogs with every group because the dogs keep a watch on their cattle during the nights and protect them from the wild animals in the forest. The Bakarwals themselves eat rice but they cook bread twice a day to feed the dogs as they’re an important part of their cattle.

Bakarwals on their way to Kashmir

The life of Kashmiri Bakarwals is not an easy one, it is full of hardships as it is very difficult to travel with so much luggage and animals and also carrying the small children with them through forest and mountains where the weather can change anytime and also the risk of wild animals. Sometimes a bear or leopard take away few of their sheep or goats which is a big loss to them. Traveling with small children for months is quite challenging I feel, but I saw their children didn’t show a sign of discomfort or fatigue. The children grow up in a nomadic lifestyle and they adapt to it quite early in their life. There was a little girl named Amreen with them who had beautiful brown hazel eyes just like mine and she was very fond of one of the calves. This understanding and love for the cattle is developed in the children of the Bakarwals while traveling with them. When I asked about the education of the children, they told me that earlier a mobile teacher employed by the government used to travel with them and he used to teach the children and they would take the exams when they return in the winter, so that way their education never got affected by their nomadic lifestyle. But in last few years the mobile teacher facility has been stopped and they’re helpless about it.

Tea time with the Bakarwal family

Their lifestyle and ancestral profession is already in danger due to political issues, changing world around, incessant construction and climate change, upon all this depriving them of their basic support, especially for their children, will only increase their problems and eradicate this centuries old nomadic culture from the Himalayas. They’re very kind, generous and hospitable people, living in accordance with Mother Nature, grazing their animals in the mountains and the state and central governments should lend more and more support and opportunities to these people.