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Shepherds of the High Himalayas

The end of summer is nigh; the parched valleys are shrouded in a white haze and the merciless sun whips up dust storms which rage through sleepy towns and dress them in brown cloaks. Weary eyed pilgrims crouch beside the road, searching for the elusive shade and water to soak their hearts. The hills anxiously await the arrival of the grey clouds rolling past the plains of India; they pine for the soothing caress of the cold showers on their charred backs. The snow-capped mountains sweat as the sun beats relentlessly day after day; swelling the rivers with gushing foamy water. The high-altitude bugyals (meadows) shed their white blankets and don the sombre green; countless flowers of unimaginable colours dot this green landscape.

A sturdy man wakes up to a bright young morning; tomorrow he shall leave his village for a journey to the hidden valleys protected by daunting passes, through jungles where wild beasts roam unhindered, in rain and hail and wind for four months forsaking all worldly ties. In the lap of the indifferent Himalayas, he is the guardian of humanness; he is Bahattar Singh in Osla, Shaitaan Singh in Wan, Dewan Singh in Ransi and Lacchi Ram in Namik, he is the Shepherd of the lofty Himalayas.

It is five in the morning and Bahattar Singh or Bathru, as he is commonly referred to, is walking to the village Seema where he hopes to find jaggery and potatoes in Thakurji’s shop. The icy cold waters of the Tons River bound down the slopes in leaps and bounds breaking the silence of the morning. Bathru finds Thakurji stoking fire for the morning tea lazily puffing on his hukkah; after being assured of the ration he requires he hastily scurries back to his village Osla. His daughter waits with the flock of sheep and they follow a trail to the meadows overlooking the Tons valley; the imposing Kalanag glistens in the morning sun flanked by the Swargarohini peaks. Bathru leaves the trail and like a mountain goat scrambles to the hidden ravines in search of green grass; he leaves tomorrow and needs to stock enough for his cows. This time tomorrow he will be across the river on the trail to Ruinsara Tal; beholding his home for the last time for a long time.

His parents had named him Bhagwat; as a child he was often caught loitering in the jungles during school hours or stealing oranges from Masterji’s garden, One day, when he was five, he had followed a trekking party heading to Bedni Bugyal for a couple of kilometres ; he received a sound thrashing from his father and was rechristened Shaitaan Singh. Today is a busy day for Shaitaan Singh; it is already eleven and after repairing his homespun woollen garments he needs to visit all the households in Wan which own sheep and goats; this year he expects at least a hundred animals to accompany him to the bugyals. He has done this drill for the last 10 years; count all the sheep and goats, identify the ones who will probably not survive the arduous journey ahead, account for the ones who will deliver young ones in the next four months and haggle over the price which must be paid to him once he returns. This he records meticulously in his little black book though he proudly claims that he knows all the animals in his care and can associate them with their rightful owners. He has never lost an animal in his ten years of sheep herding.

It is five in the evening; a blanket of shade covers the Madhmaheshwar valley as the sun slips behind the daunting Chaukhamba. Dewan Singh is seated in his verandah with his fearsome shepherd dogs, Rani and Sheru. With charcoal black fur and thoughtful dark eyes these beasts are the best friends of a high-altitude shepherd; their loyalty is unquestionable and their courage formidable, it is known that a pair of shepherd dogs can pose a challenge to a leopard looking for prey. Dewan Singh is preparing to leave for Sinar Bugyal, a lush green meadow overlooking the villages of Ransi and Gaundhar. His ration is in sewn hemp bags which the bearded goats will carry; his tent and other essentials are neatly packed and his flock is idling around the ancient Rakeshwari Devi temple. Young boys from the village follow the procession to the village limits where they halt and lovingly pat the stream of passing sheep. Dewan Singh will camp in Sinar Bugyal for the night and then head along the ridge to Kanara Khal and Dwara Khal and finally to the hidden Mandani Valley. His wife watches silently till they disappear behind the bend in the hill and then retires to the kitchen to prepare dinner.

Lacchi Ram is woken by the howling of the shepherd dogs; dawn is breaking as the horizon turns orange. The dead silence of pre-dawn is broken by the roaring waters of the Ramganga and the jingling of the bells tied around the neck of his sheep. The temple bells toll in the distance and soon his village Namik will spring to life; farmers will head to their fields, women will tend to their cattle and kids will assemble in the school playground and recite the Morning Prayer. But he is no longer a part of this life; he must climb high to the nondescript corners of the Himalayas riding on winding ridges, through dense jungles, across chilling streams and over back-breaking passes. He will witness the Namik Glacier give birth to the Ramganga, watch the first rays of the sun illuminate the Panchachuli peaks and hear the roar of the angry leopard during a lonesome dark night. And when the evening chill returns in the fickle autumn he shall return to his village and go to the Dussehra fair in Bageshwar with his kids. He is no longer a father, a husband, a son or a brother; he is now the Shepherd of the lofty Himalayas.

All the places mentioned here are in Uttarakhand and a few lie on the popular trekking routes in the state.

The article was first published at The Alternative

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