Before eviction drives would uproot nomads from the jungle last year, a trip to Shopian slopes amid Covid curbs recreated the old world trek. But now, when nomads are about to return, will their summer home be the same?
Home captives were yet to go for a retreat in mountains—where forest guards would play jungle police with them—when I began my 70-kilometre-long Srinagar-Shopian journey through stern security covers and covid barricades last year.
Embarking on an escape route felt like a runaway drive for an urban weary going to seek solace in a southern sanctuary known for the man-wild conflict.
A year later, when covid is yet again hanging over our heads like a Damocles sword, all I recall is an idyllic life tucked on a precipice.
I trekked from the only established hut in Dongi Marg, an outbuilding owned by Forest Department. Starting off the journey through the skidding sand of mountains, I had a hand on my heart swearing not to come back to this place, again.
On such betraying slopes, there live families who are the persistent inhabitants, trained to walk on acute slopes with ease and perfection.
Many ‘Bahaks’ (dwelling place made up of wood and rocks) could be found on the mountain tops and on the slopes, living distant from each other.
And if the threat of wild animals is more imminent, they tend to become neighbours living closer to each other. The common thing they’re persistent upon is sharing except for one thing and that is their grazing fields.
They’ve established the demarcations on land delineating clearly the concept of ‘mine and thine’ while the entry of other’s cattle and sheep are taken as transgression and shooed-off in an instant.
The rumour has it that if a cow enters ‘mine’ territory, it’s leashed as a punishment until the owner apologizes and ensures that it won’t enter again.
The people with traditional laws between mountains and mountains, contained by the range of pir panjal.
Abdul Aziz Khatana, 60, lives with his family on one of the mountain slopes in Hirpora wildlife sanctuary in his summer days.
His nomadic tribe come to graze their cattle every summer fighting off the wild. And then in winters they go back walking over mountains to Kathua after transhumance.
“Our forefathers used to travel scores of miles in search of pasturelands, and then settled here with their cattle to breed them and fatten them. This is my dwelling place now,” Khatana said pointing towards his ‘Bahak’ inherited from his father, where his family of three daughters and his wife are taking care of the household and, two sons go out herding the sheep.
Khatana has to deal with wild animals every now and then.
Sometimes, a black bear comes to attack his flock, he said, forcing the tribe to come out with sticks. They shout to bar bear from belligerence.
“Shouting confuses them,” Khattana said, “and the bear goes back.”
Sometimes, the leopard comes to seek food and they deal with him in the same way.
“This place is of caution and I can’t blink an eye,” he said. “If I do, my survival is at stake.”
Khatana’s two sons had tied their shepherd dogs saying that they’re too young to deal with the uncertainties of wilderness.
“If we leave them untied they might die out there in the jungle,” the younger son described.
The wildest thing to encounter was a dog, an unleashed one, seemingly more wild to me, than all the unseen wild animals out there. He came across from nowhere, out of blue, yapping with cheeks hanging and falling tongue. The sight of it was too horrible to reimagine. I sat down trying to diffuse tension between us and he stopped. Maybe to embark upon me all at once, but Khatana came right at the climax saving my flesh.
This incident was one of the three horrible back-to-back events. And every time the shepherd dog wanting to chase was halted by one of his own people.
“You’re a strange man to them and they will chase you if you beat the path of our territory,” Khatana unwittingly expressed after saving my life.
“Our half a dozen dogs can spook a bear and make him run for his life.”
Khatana bid me a welcome to his ‘Bahak’ which smelled of sheep and cow. He offered a tea, which smelt tea indeed.
While I took it to my stomach, I acquainted myself with what his 14-year-old daughter looks for in future. She answered me proportionately with her shy silence, and I understood without any delay, that they look for marriage in future.
A place where nobody knows the recent developments of the world, where frequencies of networking do not impair the pristine air, where education is not that a priority, sometimes just a to-do work, and life is spent in thinking around what surrounds us, makes it hard for them to cultivate goals outside the purview.
Khatana’s son, Javed, is a sample of this simplistic living.
At the tender age of 11, Javed wants to increase his livestock quantity, and become a rich person with the most livestock. But he also says that education is a must for him. He wants to study but only to rear sheep in the end.
Javed whistles to vibrate his livestock into order, and shudders his shawl down in style to refix it and, carry on with sheep rearing, sometimes overblowing his throat to bring them in strict order. He refuses to let them be strewn.
There’s a hoard of juniper tree branches outside their dwelling place for culinary purposes. And foresters visit them advising not to take the trees out, for it being illegal. And sometimes they get angry and charge them with penalties.
“Without firewood,” Khatana said, “how can we survive?”
He travels more than 5 kilometres in search of it and collects it for a week. He has a mule to carry the firewood, others carry it on their shoulders.
They eat from nature. The greens they call ‘handd’ grows beyond reckoning and they cook it.
“All of the ‘Bahaks’ are self-sufficient,” Khatana said. “We drink milk from our own cows, make ghee and butter of the remaining.”
All these years, they’ve had bouncy grass and rich greens, but last year had made their herding difficult.
“Rainfall has decreased drastically and our worries are intact,” Khatana distinctly talked of climate change and its impact on his livelihood.
“We move miles away to pasture our livestock in search of healthy grass but it’s the same, everywhere.”
A wildlife sanctuary known to be in an operation for conservation of Markhor is bereft of the animal and the locals say back in the days they would see them roaming around here and there on the high altitudinal mountains.
But now, they’re seldom found, although Javed has seen a Markhor ghosting over that mountain across the aisle, but his father denies any such sighting.
“We used to have a frequent encounter with Markhors but since the construction of ‘Mughal Road’ they aren’t there,” Khatana said.
“Either they’ve disappeared or like some are saying that, they’ve gone beyond the peak of ‘Zaznar’. They roam on those precipices, but that is unlikely, mostly they have disappeared.”
Khatana waved me off as I had to part my way to reach Jhadi Marg, some 10 Kilometers away from Dongi Marg. The trek was over the never-ending mountains, rocky and sandy, from damp to grassy, all variety of earth touched my feet.
Mountains were clouded, anything that would come after a mountain was a mountain but not this time.
It was a cave on a mountain and soon I spotted two more caves. They were the resting places of saints, as they say, ‘Kashmir was the place of mystics’.
But things have changed. It’s all about empty caves now. And sometimes about trekkers too who explore the caves and tell the stories.
While walking to Dhongi Marg, I came to know about a flora that grows in the higher altitude of Hirpora.
Jogibadhshah is a herb that grows only at a place where the sound of the barking dog doesn’t reach.
And once it’s revealed to the eyes of a woman, it loses its effect.
It’s dealt with care, and used as a medicine mostly a remedy to diabetic patients.
The fauna to be seen was too little but the stories surrounding them were too many and too long.
Seeing the beauty and satisfaction in nature changes a man to such an extent that he invariably becomes the passionate advocate of preservation, and realising the dependence on nature makes him believe that there is family beyond the little home of ours, the trees, wilderness, the grass that soothes the skin, the open sky that opens up the mind to the moon, the stars that flash upon us.
They all penetrate the heart so deep, that it influences our decisions towards nature into precision to protect it, conserve animals out there, and preserve whatever is left with us.
But many moonless nights after my starry sanctuary visit, forest eviction drives started in the jungles of Kashmir.
I thought of Khatana, his father’s ‘Bahak’ and his son, Javed’s dream of livestock rearing.
With summer around the corner, will their shelter be the same again in the sanctuary, where even native animal has long disappeared!
Badar Bashir is a Srinagar-based scribe who writes about travel and tribes.