The Gujjars are a tribe who rear livestock and earn
a living by selling milk and other dairy products. They are totally
pastoral and unmoved by the desire to either hold or cultivate land.
So deeply imbued are they with the nomadic spirit that an elderly
Gujjar once declared, If you are settled, you are like a stone.
The origin of the Gujjars
is traced to the Huns who came to India in the third century AD.
Gujjars are also identified with the Kushans of Yuchi, a tribe of
Tartars. Yet another source traces their descent from the Seythian
tribe, those nomadic conquerors and skilled horsemen of ancient times
who marched into India and established themselves in Kashmi, Punjab
and parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Most likely, present day Gujjars
are the progeny of intermarriage between early Indo-Aryans and local
There once used to be a
flourishing Gujjar kingdom in North India. But the raids of the
Afghan, Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century AD, the
Pathans, and later the Mughals rang the death knell of this kingdom.
Most of the Gujjars converted to Islam and many left their homes. A
Gujjar wave moved southward alongward along the Indus and settled
down in the plains. But more colourful by far was the wave that moved
northward to Kashmir and the foothills of Punjab. Now known as
Ban(forest) Gujjars, these are the ones living in the hills and
committed to a nomadic existence. Most Ban Gujjars are Muslim, with
strong mystical leaning. Those settled in the plains are Hindus.
In the course of time,
Gujjars migrated from Kashmir to Chamba, in present day Himachal
Pradesh. An interesting story is told about this phase of the
migration. It is that once the Maharaja of sirmaur visited the
kingdom of Punchh and went into raptures over the taste of the milk
served at the palace. On being told that the milk was supplied by the
Gujjars, he requested that a few families to lie in Sirmaur as a
gift. From Sirmaur, the descendents of these families spread to other
areas of Himachal.
Today the Gujjars inhabit
the foothills of the Dhauladhar range. Come winter and they cross
over some of the lower mountain passes to the floor of the Ravi
Valley in Chamba district. Others move as far as Kangra, Kullu, and
Manali. At the time of the Indo-Pak partition many Gujjar families
moved to Pakistan. But they soon returned to India because round the
year facilities for grazing were not always available.
Gujjar move with the
seasons. Since they live entirely off the sale of dairy products it
is important for their herds to have plenty of grazing. Winter in the
plains is ideal because after the monsoon, the pastures are green and
the cold is well within the tolerance level of the cattle. But summer
compels them to move up into the lesser Himalayas where the snow has
melted into fresh young grass and one can forget about the searing
heat of the plains. Gujjars keep to low mountain pastures, within say
10,000 feet above mean sea level.
The home of the Gujjars
can be anything from shack, to a tent, to a patch of grass under the
wide open sky. A permanent dwelling is rare. Gujjars live and move in
joint family groups and set up temporary settlements where the
grazing is good. Generally this happens to be on the outskirts of
forests because the grass is greener within. Armed with a formal
permit the men attend to the grazing while women milk the cattle,
make butter and help carry both to the market. Or else they sell
these to passing pilgrims and tourists.
Ban Gujjars have
maintained their separate identity and do not generally mix with the
local population. The well built and hardy men are recognized by
their typical carelessly tied turban, tehmed(sarong), and
short beard. Some wear colourfully embroidered waistcoats. A folded
sheet on the shoulder, a stick in hand, and the pictures is complete.
The woman wear a long kurta(shirt), curidar(tights)
pyjamas, and jackets, much like the women of Kashmir. But they do not
always observe purdah(veil).
Gujjars speak Gujjari a
dialect of Hindi. Many speak Urdu,Kashmiri, Pahari or Dogri as a
second language. They are a monogamous and patriarchal society where
a son is always more welcome than a daughter and, following a
marriage, a wife goes to live with her husbands family. Divorce
and remarriage is permissible for both men and women. Old traditions
relating to religion, marriage, birth and death are strictly adhered
to and superstition is rife. But all said and done, Ban Gujjars are a
simply peaceful lot. Milk and cornmeal are their staple food and they
are generally strict vegetarians. Indeed they consider
non-vegetarians. Indeed they consider non-vegetarianism and alcohol
to be the evils of urbanized society.
However the lot of
Gujjars has always been a cause for concern. Their nomadic lifestyle
does not permit any security, financial or otherwise. They are often
riddled with debt. While they possess sound insight into various
aspects of conservation and animal husbandry, they are vulnerable to
and open to exploitation simply because they are illiterate. In other
words they stand marginalized.
Recently the cause of the
Ban Guijars in Uttar Pradesh had been espoused by the Dehradun based
Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK).
Teaching the tribe was no
cakewalk. For one thing, the Gujjars dwelt in small groups spread
over a vast area and much of the terrain was far from hospitable,
being at once rugged and remote. It was difficult to get Gujjars to
collect at one place, and equally difficult to get teachers to walk
freely in an doubt of the dense forests. Under the circumstances, the
Gujjar elders themselves came up with a solution, suggesting that the
teacher volunteers stay with them in their deras (forest
homes), and they would be looked after as well as possible.
Hard going, but it paid
off. Today the same Gujjars are in a position to maintain accounts.
The capacity to write ahs made it possible for them to lodge written
complaints with the police, and to air their grievances in the press.
As a sequel to the
literacy drive an advanced programme aimed at sharpening the recently
acquired skills has been launched. The programme aims at teaching the
basic of issues like health, sanitation, immunization and solving
problems related to natural resource management and animal husbandry.
With enlightenment the
Gujjars are now organizing themselves to ask for the right to live in
and to manage the forests that have been their home for ages.