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
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
On the stream it rains,
We will go to the hill
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 Chanchalos
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 Gaddis 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
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 Gaddis 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 farmers 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.