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Backerwals - Gentle as the Sheep

These sturdy-looking yet gentle people who migrated from Afghanistan to the western Himalayas, lead a pastoral life that they are unwilling to relinquish even in light of education and other developmental facilities made available to them.

It was Tagore’s Kabuliwala who came immediately to mind the moment I met Farid Namaste he said flashing a warm smile in reply to my Adaab. Tall and handsome, Farid belongs to the Backerwal tribes that migrated to India from Kaagan in Afghanistan, some 300 years ago. Sensing out interest he informs, in chaste Urdu, how his ancestors, covering high-mountain passes, would travel all the way into India during the winter and get back to their vatan (home-town) for the summer months. But that was until they decided to make this mulq (country) their own and, the Backerwals today, residing in the mountainous regions of Jammu and Kashmir, number about 14,00,000.

Driving towards the idyllic environs of Lake Mansar, near Jammu, one comes across several of the Backerwal tribe who seem to almost revel in their existence with nature. And as we get off occasionally to exchange a few words with them and take photographs, they pose bemusedly for our cameras arranging their turbans, straightening their kurtas and standing proudly next to their flock. But it is towards Farid’s dear (settlement) that we head, since his invitation for us to come and visit his home and family seemed too tempting to resist. We spot him easily from a distance as he stands waiting for us. A cobbled path on which we walk balancing ourselves precariously, courtest our city shoes, takes us into his world.

With no land to claim as their own, the Backerwals are khanabadosh (landless wandering tribe) who believe that the entire world is theirs. An existence that they allege has not only been dated back to about 101 BC, but also mentioned in the Mahabharata. Referred to as the blood brothers of the Gujjars, the Backerwals are different from their well-settled brethren in that they eke a living out of a pastoral way of life. In fact, it is because they look after sheep and goats (bakris) that they have come to be referred to as the Backerwals.

Boasting a martial sportsman-type physique, the Bakerwal men may, at first glance, appear rather rugged and perhaps aggressive. But only a few moments after meeting them, one realizes that they, on the countrary, are a very simple, peace-loving lot, who have over the centuries, carved a romantic, pastoral existence for themselves. And it is their unquenchable appetite for a life of adventure and of course fun and laughter that keeps them going even in the face of adversity.

Many of the Backerwals have given up their summer home Kashmir, so for now, the idyllic areas around Jammu serve as their summerabode. Often the long journey takes about two months, for the Backerwals have to move slowly, cautiously, since they carry with them their entire home, its belongings and their huge herds. Camps are setup for the night that serve as sleeping apartments for the ladies, while the men prefer sleeping under a natural star-studded canopy.

However, upon once reaching their destination, the Backerwals live in simple huts called Kullas made of straw, mud and stone. Spacious enough, these, besides allowing enough sleeping space or women and children, also have a special corner with its chullah and some seating space close to it where the family sits together for meals that generally comprise rice, corn-bread, dal or a simple vegetable. Meanwhile, a nod from Farid and steaming hot makki-ki-roti appear for us to be had with huge glasses of milk-a combination that incidentally forms their staple diet. We believe in simple eating and living, says Farid, adding that it is this diet together with lots of fresh air and exercise that enables them to keep absolutely fit and healthy. That is why perhaps, he reasons, about 85 per cent of the Backerwals have no health problems. We can even unhesitatingly fight tigers should a chance arise he says recounting his own encounter with a feline recently. This sher had eaten some of our animals and was on the verge of attacking the children when, with the help of two of my brave, ferocious dogs, I intervened and after quite a scuffle threw him down in a deep ditch.

As mentioned earlier, looking after sheep and goats forms the mainstay of the Backerwal way of life. Their herds are their most precious possession providing sustenance for everyone. Besides providing milk and its products, they also help bring in sufficient money and give the Bakerwal a unique profession. At an appropriate time, the entire herd is taken to a river for a thorough bath and washing. Once dry, their clean, gleaming hair is sheared and sold to the Government Shearing Board. While men remain busy with all this, the women also chip in their bit-by working on the charkha, spinning wool, knitting rugs and embroidering them in gay colours.

Despite the vicissitudes of life, the Backerwals remain a simple, god-fearing lot for whom following the rules of the Shariaat comes naturally. Come what may, the Namaz has to be read five times a day. Even little kids, trained right from an early age, do so with devotion writ large on their faces. Rozas (regular fasting-period before the festival Id) have to be observed by everyone. Anyone found missing them has to pay a jurmana (fine) by giving food and clothing to 60 poor people! And then, as the day dawns for Id, the Backerwals rejoice celebrating the festival with saiviyan, sweets and other exotic meals.

Besides the festivals, it is at weddings that the Backerwals enjoy themselves thoroughly. The applying of mehndi holds much significance since its bright colours signify luck and good fortune. And as traditional songs are sung, the bride gets ready for the big event of her life in a beautiful dress and hair plaited in numerous braids. Then, as everyone waits for the baraat to arrive, a procession is seen in the distance, accompanies with lots of lights, music-especially the dhol and sword and stick dances.

Upon reaching the bird’s house none is supposed to enter-until somebody, the groom’s brother or friends, the groom’s brother or friends, volunteers to first pick up a huge boulder (deliberately placed) that lies blocking the passage, on his back. This show of strength earns him much accolades and of course money, for after all, it was a matter of izzat (prestige) of the entire baraat.

Married according to Islamic rites, the groom has to fix a meher-price, at the time of the nikaah itself. The bride’s parents in turn offer many precious gifts (not dowry, says Farid) given only for their daughter’s security-to fall back upon in times of need.

Most of the young men and women choose their own life partners from any of the deras around and the parents just give their consent. But the Backerwals are rather conservative about divorce. A lot of time is given to the estranged couple to come to a reconciliation but if all efforts fail then the utterance of the word talaaq thrice in front of a Qazi annuls the wedding. Remarriage, on the other hand, especially for widows is encouraged. Men who give sahara to such women by marrying them, are believed to earn merit in the name of Allah.

Life, till recently, was one big compromise for the Backerwals, who sometimes have had to even share the same drinking water with their animals. But now with the Government’s intervention, clean, filtered water is being made available. Besides this, mobile schools for the Backerwal children upto the primary level have been introduced. For grown-up children, both boys and girls, hostel facilities and education in various subjects and languages like Hindi, Urdu, English and Arabic is provided that makes them ready to face the world. But it must be reiterated that despite this awareness and exposure, the Backerwal children do not seem keen to give up their pastoral way of life-they want to continue living as their ancestors did-in the lap of nature.