Nature Without Borders

Life on the move

The Dhangars are always on the move and, twice a year, they make a 500km long migration across central India. This is the story of their journey

Kalyan Varma
Environmental Photojournalist

The feast

The sun rose bright and fiery, its heat radiating off the vast plains surrounding us.

The somnolent atmosphere of just the day before transformed into one of furious activity.

The people came from everywhere—traders, farmers, butchers, army officers… a democratic gathering with a single purpose: to celebrate the imminent march of the Dhangars, the last of India’s truly nomadic tribes.

Sheep are the lifeblood of the pastoralists; in their growing numbers lies economic security. Yet, on that day, lambs were being slaughtered with seeming unconcern. For every dozen visitors who trickled in, a fresh lamb was pulled from the pen and butchered.

The acrid stench of blood hung thick, mixing with the tang of cooking curry and the sharp smell of wood-smoke from the many fires that burned under the cooking pots.

The Dhangar men greeted their guests and made small talk; the women bustled around in a swirl of chatter as they tended to their pots. Sheep bleated their alarm at the smell of the blood of their own; every now and again, a horse neighed its protest at the tumult that was contrary to the peace of pastoral existence.

The feast began in the early afternoon. Vast quantities of mutton curry and rice were consumed amid a cacophony of conversation and convivial laughter. The guests, all from different strata of society, were united in rapport with the nomads, who they would not see for the next six to seven months—until the monsoons arrived.

It was very late into the afternoon before the guests took their leave to a chorus of final farewells and promises to meet again soon. And then the Dhangars got down to the real business of the day.

The Tribe’s elderly priest, who with his assistant had arrived earlier in the day, created a small shrine for the three godheads of the nomads: fresh-cut grass, a horse, and a dog, the trimurti the nomads rely on for their survival and that of their sheep.

As the sun eased down to the western horizon, a small fire was built and stoked to red heat.  Gowri, the wife of Mahendra Kathal, leader of this clan of Dhangars, stepped forward to take the oath on behalf of the women of the tribe.

Without a flinch and to the chant of the priest and the beat of the drum, she walked through the fire and vowed that she would always be there to look after her family, who in turn would care for their sheep. She also made a promise to the dieties—to plant a neem tree and also look after the water sources

It was a strange mood in the Dhangar camp—not joy, not sorrow, for none knew what the days ahead would bring.

It was a mood of acceptance of the certainty that change would come with the morning.

More drums were brought out, and passed around among some of the Dhangar men. The rest—men, women, children—gathered in ordained formation.

And then, to herald the change that was now upon them, they danced the steps that mark the beginning and the end of each chapter of their migration.

It was late in the evening of the previous day when I reached the Dhawalpuri grasslands after a pleasant three-hour drive due west from Pune city and across the heart of Maharashtra.

The route was through a large swathe of grassland that the Indian army uses as a firing range. The closest village is Dhawalpuri, hence the name for the region. The setting sun had bathed the vast grassland in orange tints as I reached the Dhangars’ monsoon campsite.

Mahendra Kathal, who I had first met two years ago and with whom I had since become good friends, greeted me with a warm smile and tight hug. We went into his hut and caught up over tea, thick with milk and sugar, served in battered steel tumblers.

It was two weeks after Diwali. The festival is the usual cue for Dhangars to pack and migrate towards their summer home in the west, close to the Konkan coast. But 2014 had witnessed unusually heavy late monsoon rains followed by Cyclone Hudhud; this had resulted in fresh growth of grass.

The Dhangar migratory cycle is predicated on availability of good grazing for their sheep. The fact that this monsoon cycle was more than usually rich prompted Mahendra, on behalf of his group of Dhangars, to stay back rather than risk the unknowns the annual journey was fraught with.

An aerial view of the Dhangar settlement as they pack for the migration ahead.

That extended time had run its course. The Dhangars were now ready to march to their summer home amid the rich pastures a few hundred kilometers away, across the Deccan plateau.

Though the mood in camp was festive, with much bustle and preparations for the feasting ahead, there was a palpable undercurrent of apprehension. It had been a good winter—moderate rains, low incidence of disease among their sheep and goats, and very few losses to wolves and other predators. There is a comfort in status quo, but now they had to face a month-long trek through fast-changing, often inhospitable, terrain.

The Dhangars are among the last remaining pastoralists of India, and unique in their epic annual migration.

When I first met him, almost accidentally, about a year ago, Mahendra and I had discussed the nomadic lifestyle, which to the layman is rootless, shiftless, pointless.

“You will never understand unless you live our lives, join us on the march,” Mahendra had said to me then.

Two years later there I was, on November 1, 2014, to join the Dhangars and to learn, at first hand how their life on the move unfolds.

The day of the journey

We didn’t sleep a wink that night.

The sickly-sweet stench of blood from the slaughter of the feast still hung in the air, a magnet for hyenas and wolves whose proximity prodded the guard dogs into a frenzy of barking that lasted through the night.

The predators failed to catch any of Mahendra’s penned-in sheep, but did sneak away with two lambs from a neigbouring pen.

The teeth-jarring screech of dozens of chickens finally made me give up my attempts to doze. The Dhangars migrate with a complete menagerie: sheep, goats, horses, dogs, chicken… For five months now, the chicken had roosted comfortably in one place. They were in no mood to be caught and shut into their cane baskets—a task four grown men and six little children were engaged in when I wandered out of the hut—and were registering their protests at ear-splitting volume.

The chickens were not the only ones being rudely yanked out of a lazy lifestyle. The horses of the Dhangars live the high life when the group is camped, with nothing to do but graze and sleep and graze again. Now, they were about to be put back to hard labour.

The horse is key to life on the road. The packed belongings of the community are a hefty load that is distributed among them. Additionally, the young lambs, which have already been separated from the main flock in preparation, will hitch rides on their backs. The health of the lambs is key to the Dhangar fortunes; making them walk long distances is therefore not a good idea.

Mahendra made the rounds of his livestock. To me, observing from a distance, it seemed like he knew every individual member of the flock personally—which one was limping, which hadn’t been eating well, which one was fighting with which and therefore needed to be kept apart, which one hadn’t drunk sufficient water…

His smooth efficiency made me think of an Air Traffic Control station—here was the same combination of positional awareness of the whole coupled with granular awareness of each independent component.

By early afternoon, the men had brunched and set out on the trail with their flock of sheep. It was up to the women to clean up camp, complete the final packing, load the horses, and set off for the designated night camp.

What does it take to pack *all* your belongings, after staying put in one place for five months? What does it mean to unpack everything at the end of each day, repack it all the next morning, and keep up this punishing schedule for the next thirty days, maybe more?

Some parts are easy, some are hard.

Gathering up personal belongings is easy: the Dhangars live a minimalist, mobile life and own very few personal possessions.

However, taking down their tent-homes, packing them away along with the poles and other paraphernalia of camp, loading the lot onto horses, then loading the lambs on top of the pile—that takes some doing. The women work with the easy efficiency of long practice—this is the life they are bred to from almost the moment they take their first steps.

The belongings of Mahendra's and his family

As they settled down to their task, I left with Mahendra and his fellows, and the sheep. We would be taking the long route to the night camp.

“People think we are a jobless bunch, just hanging around all day with our sheep, doing nothing,” Mahendra said. “Come, let me show you what it takes.”

We trekked up to the ridge of the hill, Dongar, and then walked along the contours of the plateau. He never seemed to want to sit, to rest, to catch his breath and he kept up a steady pace—not too fast, not too slow, just right to keep the herd moving forward—while giving the sheep time to graze and to drink water at need.

They migrate twice a year—in November, to their winter and summer home near the Konkan Coast; for the monsoons, the same route in reverse. The patterns and pauses of the march are ingrained in him and his fellows: when to set out, what pace to set, where the next suitable campsite is…

The needs of the flock determine the route. There has to be sufficient grass for the sheep to graze. There has to be at least two natural water sources between one camp and the next. The pace of the march is calibrated to reach the first water body by noon.

We talked as we walked and even as he spoke, his eyes were on his flock. He maintained a running visual check, alert to the danger of predators.

Mahendra’s trusty black guard dog, ‘Kaalu’, walked beside us. He cannot fight off the wolves that stalk the trail; his job is that of a canine early warning system, his aggressive barking when he smells predators is the signal for the menfolk.

It was hot and getting hotter. Kaalu struggled to cope. He would walk a hundred yards, then stop to rest in the shade of a bush. He would catch up with us again as we marched on. When there was no bush, I was the surrogate; my moving shadow was his umbrella. Occasionally, he wagged his tail at me in tired thanks.

Just past noon, Mahendra noticed a pack of six wolves on the horizon. He ran towards them with his slingshot (gophan). The wolves looked fat, healthy, and well-fed. That, he explained later, was because of all the sheep around. Once the Dhangars had migrated out of here, food would become scarce and the wolves would become thin again, he said.

Having chased the wolves off with his yelling and his slingshot, Mahendra did a quick check of his flock.

We marched on.

By 4 in the afternoon I was exhausted—the heat, the humidity, the steady march, had taken toll. I had not eaten since the morning and was hungry, and I was running out of water.

Mahendra laughed at my discomfort. Two more hours to go, he told me. We walked on.

Time passed. As if on collective cue the flock began bleating, loudly, persistently. I scanned the horizon, assuming they had been spooked by predators. It is not that, Mahendra explained; the sheep want to go back home, back where they had started from.

They needed to be persuaded not to turn back en masse and retrace their steps. This kept Mahendra and his fellows busy for a while.

Around 6 pm, right on schedule, we reached the edge of the Dhawalpuri grasslands, the farthest boundary of the army area. There was a small patch of fallow land, which Mahendra had identified as night camp.

The women, and the horses bearing the community’s belongings, arrived half an hour later. The young lambs were unloaded from the horses and reunited with their mothers.

Some of the horses had not taken well to the trek. They had become used to a life of idleness over the past months, and had grown unaccustomed to carrying loads.

Mahendra decided to stay at that spot for the next two days and nights, to give the horses time to rest and recoup.

He busied himself with the task of organizing camp and ensuring that his flock was properly penned in. As he worked, he continued to talk to me, to explain, to make me understand the point of their lives. I had gotten to know him well over the past two years—beneath his words, I sensed an undercurrent of sadness.

Five months of bountiful, peaceful living had come to an end. Their march would soon bring them in contact with urban India, which is changing at a pace faster than he can comprehend, or knows how to cope with.

I sensed the discomfort growing within him.

The word ‘Nomad’ suggests someone constantly on the move. The mindset of true nomads such as the Dhangars is the exact opposite—there is a method to their movement.

Nomadic life revolves around livestock. When they find adequate grazing and water, their instinct is to set up camp rather than move on and run the risk of encountering inhospitable conditions.

It was day three of the migration, and Mahendra had decided his group would not move camp that day. There was good grass in the vicinity for his sheep and horses; there was a water source nearby. There was no good reason to move, particularly when moving on meant imposing a burden on his tired horses.

It is the sort of everyday decision-making that is central to the nomadic lifestyle. Today, this place is good, it is kind to us; tomorrow is time enough to decide about tomorrow.

The younger members of the group wanted to move on; they looked forward to contact with the outside world. But in every group of Dhangars there is a leader, and his word is final. And so they stayed.

Staying put does not equate with idleness, with ease. The wellbeing of the flock is paramount. The Dhangar men decide to move their sheep to a different part of the landscape, where the grass is literally greener and the grazing, better.

Dhawalpuri Chappals

There is a romance about grass.

Running on grass, bare feet reveling in the feel of soft turf, toes involuntarily curling to the tickle, the damp of dew adding a layer of pleasant sensation… it a romance that feeds on nostalgia; it takes us back to childhood, to a time of innocence.

It’s a wonderful feeling—until you actually have to do it. I had been at it for a week, trekking through grasslands alongside the Dhangars, and thinking with each successive day that ‘romance’ was not what I felt underfoot.

Under the deceptive softness of the grass, sharp-edged rocks shredded my footwear. Thorny shrub and the razorlike blades of mature grass slit the soles of my feet—a thousand blades inflicting a thousand cuts that seared and bled.

Maybe that is why they call them ‘blades of grass’.

A Dhangar walks on average 15 km every day, most of it on grass and rock. That is over 5,000 km a year. The big footwear brands, the likes of Nike, Adidas and Reebok, don’t produce gear that can weather such demanding terrain. Covered shoes don’t work either—they bake your feet in trapped heat. The Dhangars need something special in footwear, something that suits their way of life.

There is in Dhawalpuri village a cobbler who understands these needs and specializes in footwear for the nomads. He makes chappals able to withstand the rigors of walking in all kinds of conditions—“Dhawalpuri Chappals.”

 

The base is fashioned from the hide of cows. The sole is made of rubber salvaged from old airplane tyres. The straps are of leather from the buffalo.

A pair weighs around three kilos. I tried one on. It felt like my feet were encased in lead. I have no idea how they manage to walk—with easy grace, for long periods at a stretch—in those.

I examined the chappals Bapu, Mahendra’s brother, had on. They were over two years old. With some nails to hold its various layers together, he said, they would serve him for another year.

Water

Aap itna Bottle kyun lete ho?”, Mahendra asked with amusement as he watched me fill three one-liter bottles and stick them in a backpack already loaded with camera and lenses and stuff. 

I need lots of water to ward off dehydration, I told him, and my stomach, softened by city living, was not immune to the germs possibly lurking in some random stream. 

His question struck me as odd. Water is the lifeline of the Dhangars. Its availability is central to the decisions they make. Why would he be so casual about my stocking up on water?

The Dhawalpuri grasslands is in the heart of the Deccan plateau. As it is leeward of the Western Ghats, very little precipitation reaches this area, making it among the hottest and driest places in India outside the deserts of Rajasthan. 

For the nomadic Dhangars, access to water is the key to their journey. They are aware that as they move west, available water sources are likely to be contaminated because of the factories lining the route. Their only access to water is the few seasonal streams, scattered village wells and the odd irrigation canal.

 

This awareness was what prompted Mahendra’s decision to pause after just one day on the move. He had access to two freshwater sources in the vicinity and was thus assured of water for the families and, equally important, for the flock of 2000-odd sheep and 50 horses.

 

His instinct dictated that they stay put rather than risk moving west, although one stream had already thinned to a tiny sliver of water running over a rock bed. Mahendra knew he would have to move on, soon, find the next water body to camp beside.

The children are usually entrusted with the task of scouting for water. They find natural sources, or sometimes depend on a bore-well, or irrigation pump, or even little pockets of seepage.

They collect this water and cart it back to camp, where it is boiled and stored for use.

Around noon we reached a stream. The goats and sheep lapped up the water, but Mahendra told me it was not fit for us to drink as it flowed downstream from a village, and could be contaminated by refuse. 

We marched on for another couple of hours and reached another stream. The sheep rushed ahead, taking their cue from a distinctive whistling sound Mahendra made. He, however, kept right on walking for another half kilometer or so, till he came to a rock overhang under which the stream seemed to originate.

He stretched himself prone on the ground, lowered his face to the water, and drank. He needed neither utensils nor even cupped hands. He just lay there and lapped up the water to the accompanying soundtrack of thirst.

On a whim, I followed his example, lay flat on the rock and lapped at the water. It was the sweetest I have ever tasted. 

Twenty-four hours later my stomach showed no sign of rebellion, but my mind was full of half-formed feelings of guilt. Being with the Dhangars and seeing how precious water is changes your attitudes, it makes you rethink some of the things you take for granted in your life—like the ten-minute showers I luxuriate in when I am at home.

Each evening, as we returned to camp with the sheep, his daughter Julie would run out to greet us. Our daily diet, except for the occasional special days when lambs are sacrificed for a feast, was bajra roti (Bhakar) and dal with raw onions on the side.

Julie is five years old, and loves to cook. She made a dried-fish dish for us.

The move or not to move

Early the next morning, Mahendra got a call.

Nomadic life is a gamble, a daily wager that you can predict the unpredictable and trump the unforeseen. 

When a group decides to stay put in an area where there is water within reach, they gamble that the resource, however tenuous, is better than what they will find on the road ahead.

They are making a bet that their sheep and goats will have time to graze and drink and grow fat; that their horses will have time to recoup; that the womenfolk get a break from the hard labor of packing camp each morning only to unpack it all at the end of a long day’s trek.

 

The Dhangars however don’t move en masse. They are broken up into small groups, each group bound together by familial ties. Each of these groups operates to its own rhythms and makes its own decisions, though they stay in touch and exchange information.

Thus, while Mahendra’s group decides to stay put, another might decide to march on, to stick to the normal migratory route and timing. Their bet is that any hardships encountered along the route will be compensated for when they get to their eventual destination, close to the Konkan Coast.

There the water will be plentiful; the grass will be green and fresh. As the first to get there, they will get their pick of choice camping spots. They can settle down; their livestock can thrive.

Such are the gambles the Dhangars make, year after year – big bets, with lives and livelihoods at stake.

Mahendra took the call. It was from Gopal, the leader of another group, and the message was not good.

Gopal’s group, comprising eight families, had decided to stick to the normal pattern. They had left Dhawalpuri just after Diwali, and trekked over the Western Ghats. They were nearing their final destination near the Konkan coastline. 

The area had not received the usual amount of rain, Gopal warned Mahendra. The land was dry and grass was sparse.

Gopal and his companions had gambled, and they had lost. Mahendra had bet against the odds when he decided to stay back, and he had won. 

Now he had decisions to make: How long could they possible hang on to the temporary haven they had found, when to resume the march, what route to take… When to hold, when to fold, an existential game of poker with Nature holding the ace in the hole.

“We will stay in this area for now,” he told his group that day.

“For now” could mean a few weeks, maybe even a month, Mahendra told me later. “I need to figure out the best route to reach our summer home. The usual route we take is dry, Gopal told me.” 

This is the latest that the group has stayed back in its history, he told me. Normally, he and his group would also have left immediately, and could have been nearing their final destination.

 

“I wanted to show you the mountains, but unfortunately we will not reach them for a while,” Mahendra said.

He headed over to where his elder brother Bapu was seated, to discuss options. The next day, they decided, Bapu would hire a vehicle and lead a small team to scout the terrain ahead. They would locate the best sources of water and grass, and try to figure out the best route to get the flock across the Ghats and to the Konkan coast. 

Listening to the two brothers plan was eye-opening. I had assumed that the annual migration was a matter of simply picking a date and marching off in the pre-determined direction, till they got where they were going.

Goodbye

Shepherd migrations are not that simple, I learnt. The lives and welfare of Mahendra’s extended family, and of his sheep and goats and horses, depended on tactical planning that approximated military precision.

 

Underlying this planning was the detailed knowledge of the land, of its geology and ecology, of the weather of the day and what it would be a week from then, or a month.

I listened to them talk, and realized I was eavesdropping on tribal wisdom accumulated over a thousand years.

My time with the Dhangars had come to a temporary end. I had joined them with some notion of doing an experiential story and, in the process, learning what it took to handle a few thousand sheep on a long trek.

I left with much more—with a granular understanding of the complex inter-relationships that linked the shepherd and his sheep, the sheep and the grasslands, and all of that with the predators that call the region home.

I left anticipating the shower I’d take when I finally got home—a short one, in honour of the Dhangars and of the water that is their sole lifeline.

8 thoughts on “Life on the move”

  1. Incredible, incredible stuff. I particularly marveled at how beautifully your lens flits between the Dhangars and you. I am particularly fascinated by narratives where the reader looks through the narrator’s lens for the most part but has to crane his neck to look at the narrator himself for richer context.

    What a life-changing experience this must have been. Thank you for writing this.

  2. This was one of the more evocative pieces I’ve read in a while. Beautifully written, observed and pictured. Reading it on my phone over breakfast in the office canteen, I couldn’t stop till the very end.

  3. sanjeev kotnala
    May 22, 2015

    This is dramatic and yet so natural. Lot of leaning and listening within the episodes that seems so natural yet filled with the drama of a corporate leader. Wow.

  4. Such a wonderful journey. Almost felt like I was there with you walking with the Dhangars. Looking forward to more pieces from you.

  5. Anjali R
    May 25, 2015

    kalyan, your writing and photographs are so evocative and when I look at each of the photographs, I can feel for the plight of the Dhangars. I hope this will help in some way or the other. Do do think they will be doing this few years down the line?

  6. Venkat Satish
    June 6, 2015

    A great Post Kalyan, explains in detail how important it is to live in tune with Nature. Urbanization is sure taking a toll on the natural water sources and ultimately affecting even those who are not part of the cities.

  7. Kalyan, you star! Loved the style. Takes one through the travails (and travels?) of the Dhangars and weaves the reader into the story as a witness. Excellent narrative – this is the stuff!

  8. Krishnaraj Rao
    August 25, 2015

    Boss, as a fellow-journalist, I am hugely impressed by your work, and your insightful writing. Kudos, and more power to your camera and pen!