Home India News The fighting fit journey of Kashmir’s Bakerwal goatherds

The fighting fit journey of Kashmir’s Bakerwal goatherds

By F. Ahmed, IANS,

Srinagar : The seasonal migration of the Bakerwals from the highland pastures of Kashmir Valley to their homes in the warmer Jammu region has begun and will see the hardy goatherds travel over 300 km across the Pir Panjal mountains with their flocks of sheep and goat. Undertaken on foot every year, it is a journey of grit and fitness.

The men, women and children of this tribe can these days be seen moving along the highways of the valley at a snail’s pace, carrying tents, household goods, foodstuffs and cooking gear laden on horses and watched by alert shepherd dogs.

“The better off Bakerwals have sheep and goat flocks of over 1,000 while the less affluent like me have a small flock of around a few hundred sheep and goats,” said Nazir Ahmad Bujard, 36.

He is going back to his home in Rajouri district after spending over four months in the green pastures around the north Kashmir hill station of Sonamarg.

The lifestyle of these tribal people is so difficult and demanding that even the toughest among other races would think twice before adopting it.

The to and fro annual journey of the Bakerwals from their winter homes in the Jammu region to the pastures in the valley means covering hundreds of kilometres on foot.

“These tribals live on high fat diets like milk, butter and ghee and yet they are physically so fit. Very few of them report incidents of heart disease, high blood pressure or cholesterol compared to others in Jammu and Kashmir who apparently seem more health conscious and avoid fatty diets,” a prominent doctor here said.

“It seems the physical challenges presented by their traditional lifestyle and carefree existence is the reason for their comparatively better health.

“It is interesting to note that problems of surgical intervention during childbirth among Bakerwals are the lowest. The Bakerwal women carry the newborn on their backs and move on immediately after a day’s rest following the childbirth,” said the doctor, who is a gynaecologist.

“It is a research subject suggesting that women with the highest level of physical activity face the least medical problems during childbirth.”

While the tribals use hardly any medicine except when absolutely necessary, the doctor also said antibiotics and other medicines produce wonderful results among these tribals in comparison to other races with whom self-medication has virtually become a vice.

In the pastures, the fierce shepherd dogs of Bakerwal families keep a watchful eye on the flock to ensure that predators like leopards and bears are kept at bay.

“Two such dogs are enough to keep even a fierce predator like the leopard away from the flock,” said Niyaz Ahmad Khatana, 43, another goatherd who is busy taking his family and flock back to Poonch district in the Jammu region.

Despite being less educated with apparently unhygienic lifestyles – most of them are seen wearing sweaty clothes for days on end, the secret of their wonderful health and lean bodies being the physical exercise they get.

The way they live helps avoid heart ailments, blood pressure and high cholesterol – common problems that plague the urban elite and the middle classes in India.

“I have never been to a doctor all my life,” said Nizamuddin, 78, a Bakerwal who still moves on foot with his sons and their families, tendering the livestock over treacherous mountains.

“We are sending our children to school now and the government has also set up some mobile schools that move with us so that our children do not suffer because of our highly mobile lifestyle,” the elderly Bakerwal said.

If health and happiness were the only real riches of human life, then thousands of families of these tribal people are wealthy indeed.

“The smiling faces of their children and the straightforward outlook on life are ample proof that these people have understood life better than all of us, despite the fact that we are educated and live with all the modern facilities,” said Nisar Hussain, 59, a retired chief engineer as he negotiated his car out of a flock of sheep on the busy Boulevard Road in summer capital Srinagar.

(F. Ahmed can be contacted at [email protected])