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Gaddis - Footloose and Fancy Free

At home amid the rugged snow-covered mountains, tending their flocks of sheep and leading a life untouched by the cares of the world, these hardy shepherds are echoes of an ancient culture with few clues to their origin.

Free as the air, with a lifestyle as colourful as a rainbow, these wanders of the mountains are, perhaps, the last of their of their kind in the world. All through the changing seasons, the Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh roam across some of the most spectacular, the most awe-inspiring terrain.

Shepherds by vocation, the Gaddis and their flocks of sheep and goats are equally at home amongst the great, snowy heights where only the Himalayan vulture with its wing span of nine feet dares to soar-and among picturesque low-lying valleys and meadows which have inspired many a poet, writer and artist.

Distinctively clad, they carry with them an aura of romance wherever they go. The moving love story of Kanju and Chanchalo-folk heroes of the Gaddis-has been importalized in their evocative folk songs.

On the hillside there is sunshine,

O Kanju,

On the stream it rains,

We will go to the hill top,

O Kunju,

On the hill top we will build a bungalow…

Kunju used to visit Chanchalo, his sweetheart, secretly at midnight, braving dangers. He had to cross a raging, torrential stream and then pass through a dark forest where wild animals lurked. In the end, the rivals of Kunju, armed with guns, proved to the more dangerous than wild animals or rushing waters. Today, the dreams of many Gaddi boys and girls still spring from the qualitative elements of Kunju and Chanchalo’s romance:

I the husband dies,

One may wander,

If the lover dies,

How can you live?

If a blanket is torn

One may put on a patch,

If the sky is torn,

How can you sew it?

There are a number of plausible theories about the Gaddis, which is a generic term. It is widely accepted that the last ingress of Gaddis to their present homes took place in the late seventeenth century, during the reign of Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor. Refusing to embrace Islam, the Gaddis left Lahore (now in Pakistan) and found a sanctuary in the forest of the majestic Dhauladhars-the Range of the White Mountains. The earliest recorded mention of the Gaddis in their present, enviable environs dates back more than then centuries, to 920 A.D.

There is a question mark over whether shepherding was always their calling as records reveal that the Gaddis were, at different times, soldiers, mercenaries, and even political advisors to hill chieftains and rajas (rulers). But there is little doubt about their Aryan descent, and the fact that they have always been held in high esteem by the local populace.

How is it that the Gaddis have been able to defy the passage to time and retain not only their highly distinctive individualities, but also the wefts of an unusual pattern of culture? Like the intriguing questions that hang over their past, the question of how they have kept, and continue to keep time at bay is not an easy one to answer. Perhaps the startling self sufficiency of the life they lead contains part of the answer. When a Gaddi wants to make tea, for instance, he simply opens up his hairy goatskin sack- made from the skin of one of his own goats which was probably slaughtered at a Gaddi feast or as an animal sacrifice, pulls out the tea leaves which have probably been obtained in exchange for wool from his own sheep. Then, the Gaddi nonchalantly collects dry pine cones from the mountain=side, places them within two stones, lights the cones, and has a stove going. Back to the goatskin sack-and a gleaming copper pan is pulled out, to be filled with water from a sparkling, snow fed mountain rill or spring close by. The last act in the Gaddi’s tea-making ritual is astonishing-both in its simplicity, and its unexpectedness. A goat which has recently delivered a kid is singled out from the mixed herd of sheep and goats, and milked near the crackling pine cone fire to provide fresh milk for the tea!

The idyllic beauty of their surroundings combined with the rugged challenges of the seasons and the deceptively beautiful terrain is also perhaps part of the answer to why the Gaddis continue with their pastoral way of life. In summer, the Gaddis, with their flocks numbering anywhere from 150 sheep and goats to almost a 1,000 make their way from winter pastures at roughly 5,000 feet towards the high mountains above 12,000 or 13,000 feet-towards Lahaul, or towards the legendary lake of Manimahesh with Mount Kailash mirrord in its water… towards Gaddi destinations of unsurpassed beauty.

Blizzards, snow and rain, thunder and lighting- the Gaddis take these in their stride. Often, when they are on the move, a sheep begins to ewe. The Gaddis stop, and one the eweing is complete, tuck the new-born lamb into the pounch of a chola (traditional dress of a Gaddi) and move on the typical leisurely pace with the rest of the flock. Sometimes, a leopard attacks the flock during the night, and it repelled or chased away by shaggy Gaddi sheep dogs wearing spiked collars as a protection against leopard attacks. Once in a while, the leopard succeeds in carrying away one of the flock.

During the day, a Gaddi who has reached the chosen pastures will find some shade to rest-perhaps an overhanging crag-while his flock grazes contentedly. Seen from the valleys below by those who are uninitiated, the sheep high on a mountain-side appear as mysterious specks of white against a dramatic blue green back-ground. At night, the glow from Gaddi fires-against precipitous rock faces perhaps-tug at the imagination. To while away the hours in solitude, a Gaddi will often pull out his flute and fill the glades and valleys around with melody as sweet as bird song. It is on ceremonial occasions that the Gaddis play the drums, trumpets and sometimes, bagpipes.

What do the nomadic Gaddis do for shelter during cold winter nights? All Gaddis do, of course, possess dwelling-and pretty substantial ones at that. Generally, the larger a Gaddi’s flock, the more palatial his family mansion. Few outsiders are aware of it, but many of the charming hamlets between Palampur and Baijnath, in Kangra, Chamba and a few other places are in fact Gaddi villages.

But when a Gaddi is on the move, small rock caves in the mountains are his abode. If he has to camp out in the open, and it becomes too cold during the night, the Gaddi simply pulls a few live sheep over himself to keep warm. While their menfolk tend the flocks on the sheep runs, Gaddi women, known as Gaddans or Gaddinis, keep the hearths warm and spin and weave wool. Both Gaddis and Gaddans wear the dora-lengths of black woolen rope entwined round their waists. The Gaddis wear a loose frock of white wool (the chola), with a high peaked cap over their heads. Gaddans wear a woolen frock and a printed petticoat.

On festive occasions, there is music and dancing, and a liberal consumption of lugri (rice beer). Gaddis dance while Gaddans, laden with jewellery and ornaments clap and look on. Gaddis are worshippers of Shiva, the destroyer in the Hindu Trinity. Brahmour, which the Gaddis regard as their home, as fascinating today as it must have been in ancient times when it was a glorious capital, is also called Shiv Bhumi of the Land of Shiva. Besides Shiva, the Gaddis also worship the spirits of the mountains and the forest and the rivers and streams. Cairns decorated with flags are often set up near a high pass when a crossing has to be made. These cairns represent the abode of a Gaddi deity who must be appeased to ensure a safe crossing.

Sheep shearing time is as important for a Gaddi as worship, and the prices of wool and meat are as vital to his existence as the prices of wheat, rice or potatoes to a farmer’s prosperity. The Gaddis entire way of life is built around the welfare of their flocks-their main source of wealth. Yet, matters of business are never allowed to directly dominate the Gaddis inimitable mode of living which enables them to savour at will the rare joys of a free, untrammeled yet challenging lifestyle amidst some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world.