Sunday, March 26, 2017

#StoriesfromSpiti: Shepherding in Paradise

(It begins..)

At 9am every day, the village of Demul stands witness to a special commotion. The clatter of soft bells marks its beginning. Then the dust begins to rise and the earth quivers as mobs of horns and hooves begin to pour out of every home. The air resonates with the sounds of them mooing, bleating and bawling. The mob slowly moves forward as members continue their bellowing and new groups keep assimilating into the larger herd as they progress through the narrow streets of the village.

One fine day, I decided to join them on their daily sojourn to the highland meadows. I was very excited at the prospect of being a shepherd for a day. It had been a childhood dream for me to walk the high hills with a long stick in my hand and a thousand livestock animals ahead of me. Finally the day had come. I had been waiting for the mob to show up and like always at 9am, the streets began to come to life and I quickly joined the group. As we were passing, the villagers came in with their animals and suddenly one of the elderly men handed me a long stick, patted my back and said “Kisi ko khone mat dena”. I was elated beyond measure. It was like being christened a warrior by the king. I was good to go!

(The mythical Yak Devta of Demul enters regally.)

In our party, we had churus( a local species of domestic cows adept at surviving in the harsher conditions of these areas), calves, yaks, sheep and their lambs and a few goats. We also had menacing donkeys that kept fighting with each other. Walking behind the animals was like walking through a dust storm and I was regretting not bringing my face mask with me. 

 (Onwards, we trod, as we step out of Demul onto the highlands..)

I met the three men who were going to be my comrades on this mission. They welcomed me heartily and asked me I was feeling okay. I smiled and said “all good to go, boss!”. Soon we got out of the dusty lanes of the village and began the intimidating ascent to the meadows. I had walked much so much since coming to Spiti and yet it didn’t seem to add up and every time was like the first time; ten steps, out of breath, ten steps, out of breath.  I managed to keep walking somehow out of the fear of slowing the whole group down and after forty five minutes of toiling hard we finally stepped on the flat meadows. 

It was worth it as undulating hills gave way to large meadows full of green grass set against the glistening blue sky dotted with puffy clouds. It was like a dream. 

 (And we enter into the vast meadows..)

(This is what the heaven must look like)

There’s a definitive system of shepherding in the villages of Spiti. In Demul for instance, two local men are chosen every evening in an orderly fashion to join Mr. Naveen Kumar, who is the head shepherd. He is called the Lugzi locally which means shepherd in the local language. It was pleasantly surprising to hear that Mr Naveen who originally hails from Nepal has been coming to Demul for the past seven years to perform his duty as the head shepherd of the village.

(Naveen Kumar shows me his kingdom as his faithful subjects carry on with their daily work in the back ground)

Mr Naveen has a very enticing personality. He carries a calmness around him which is both intriguing and comforting at the same time. He is, you can say, a professional shepherd who can tell you the possible movement of the herd just by looking at them closely. He instructs the men coming with him to move into various directions in order to keep the herd together.  He carries a heavy lasso rope which when he swings and swipes, cattle turn back even when they are hundred metres apart.  Even the menacing donkeys are afraid of his lasso. 

 Naveen bhaiya is respected deeply by the villagers for the job he does and the person he is and it was evident by the ardency with which Angdui bhaiya and Chhuldim dada, the local shepherd for the day were following his instructions. 

 We spent about an hour in preventing the animals from straying away from meadows and essentially running back to the village. It was a tiring task as cows kept running higher up on the mountains and sometimes out of sight and sheep kept following them foolishly. At one moment, Mr Naveen hurriedly rushed downhill and came back 10 minutes later with four cows that tried running back to the village. While I stupidly tried redirecting the sheep running behind the hills by running after them screaming ‘hee-haah’, It took only one swing out of Naveen bhaiyas’ lasso to do the work. 

After the animals finally got busy grazing, We gathered near a small dilapidated rock hut. Angdui drew out a sooty saucepan from the hut and Chhuldim kaka went about and returned with some dry bushes to start a fire. It was then I realized why all of the three men were carrying bags. Fooood!

(Collecting dry twigs and bushes for making tea )

Angdui opened up his bag and took out a lunch box containing loafs of tirik and cooked spinach. He’s had also brought along chutney! Chhuldim kaka opened up his bag to produce a tea bag set( that too Taj Mahal!), a box containing sugar and a bottle of milk. In about twenty minutes, the tea was ready! Everybody peeped into their bags and withdrew a glass each. I just looked stupidly into my bag half expecting to find a glass. Haha. I shared the glass with Angdui. All of us started chatting with tea and sumptuous combo of tirik and spinach. I curiously asked ‘what do we do next? To which Naveen bhaiya replied ‘We just straighten naughty cows and do this again! And again! It’s a good life’. All of us laughed wildly at this. 

(Of conversations made while waiting for tea to be ready..)

(The little pleasures of little life..sipping tea at 4400m above sea level with best people for company!)

After some hearty breakfast and conversations, it was time to get back to work. Angdui worked his way up for the higher grounds. Naveen bhaiya had a feeling that some sheep and cows had traced their way back in the direction from which we entered the meadows, so he went that way while I held guard around sheep on the flat meadows around us with Chhuldim kaka. 

Herding the livestock is very exciting at first; the animals pay special attention to you because you are an outsider and you look weird but after some time they become accustomed to your presence and don’t give a rat’s ass to your gimmicks and hee-hahs. It’s fun nonetheless. 

After some time, we gathered again for another round of tea and tirik.  It was 1:30pm and the sun shone brightly above with no clouds to provide respite from its heat. After tea, it was time for me to go. There was going to be a pooja in the village and the coordinator, Tenzin Takpa had invited me to be a part of it as a spectator to which I had happily said yes. I felt sad at not staying until the end that is until 5pm, when we would have grouped all the animals together. As I bid bye to the men, I promised Naveen that one day I would come back for the full day, although I didn’t fulfil the promise in the coming days. I hope to do that next time. 

(Walk with me on these pathless ways..)

Shepherding in the highlands meadows seems like one of the best jobs in the world and in many ways it truly is. The feelings that you experience as you walk through unchanging landscapes painted in suave earthen colours and blue skies, with wind caressing your skin and birds leading your way into the vast meadows can’t be described in mere words. No photograph can portray the true scale of the beauty and the vastness. You have to be there to experience it.

(The watchful gaze)

But it has its own challenges. It’s not so easy to keep track of all the animals under your watch and time and again, churus and sheep stray away to farther lands and must be ushered back to safety. Sometimes, they even get lost for days and get preyed upon by predators like snow leopards and wolves (during early summers). In recent times, stray dogs have moved out of villages due to lack of food and become wild and readily hunt down sheep in large numbers when they come across strayed individuals or an unprotected herd. Sometimes, while moving through narrow areas beside cliffs, sheep and lambs fall to their death accidentally. So the Lugzis’ job has to be always alert to avoid any unfavourable circumstances. They also have to mediate herd’s movement through narrow areas and ensure that the entire herd stays together.

One of the Ecosphere’s great initiatives in the highland villages is to be support the herding practises among the villagers and lugzis. So as part of this initiative, Naveen Kumar is paid 14000rs annually by Ecosphere in addition to money paid by the villagers. It’s a very healthy exchange. Over the years, Naveen bhaiya has been coming back to Demul and other villages around the area and his expertise in shepherding has helped local men get a better grip at the whole process which is by no standard easy!

 (Chhuldim kaka has the most contagious laugh and the best sense of humour in Demul!)

(The shepherd don’t carry water bottles with them because mother nature has always has water for those are thirsty in her various pristine mountain streams!)

 (This one time, I was hiking around the highlands in Demul following a herd of blue sheep. While I returning to the village at sundown, I ran into a small group of churus and sheep which looked lost. I thought they must have got separated from the Demul group while coming back and people must have been looking for them. This was it. This was my chance of use the shepherding skills I had learnt on my sojourn to the meadows, so I began ushering them back to the village and was doing a pretty good job. We had just travelled some distance when a teenage girl came running from the village of Mulchay which was on other side of the highlands. It turned out that this group actually belonged to Mulchay and it was actually taking them in the wrong direction. I readily apologized for the mistake and made my way to Demul. I couldn’t stop laughing throughout the way back.)

So, when you go to Demul or any village, do try your hands at shepherding with the locals. Look out for Naveen bhaiya and join him next day! You’ll not regret it and he’ll have another comrade to assist him in straightening the naughty Churus. :D 

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