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.

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!