The wealth of the Dhangars walks beside them, bleating occasionally.
It is not that they continue the sheep-rearing ways of their ancestors because they have no choice, Mahendra and his companions point out. The business is relatively easy to learn, it is lucrative and, with meat consumption on a constant upward spiral countrywide, it has proved immune to recession.
“Once a lamb is three months old, we sell it,” Mahendra explains. “Managing them beyond that point is hard and expensive.”
At birth, male lambs are marked for sale. They are made to suckle not only their own mothers but also others – the more milk they drink the healthier they become. A special diet of maize and wheat ensures quick, healthy growth. “The idea is to get them in the best possible condition for the market.”
A lamb sells for between Rs 2500 – Rs 3500, the variation depending on the condition of the individual lamb and on where the local market conditions along their route.
Their prosperity depends on finding the sweet spot between three different points of the pastoral economy: Selling off their male lambs when they are in their prime; maintaining their primary stock numbers intact; and ensuring that the composition of the flock is optimized for maximum gain. The Dhangars explain these variables with the particularity of a stockbroker discussing the nuances of portfolio management.
“We keep one in 20 males and sell the rest,” Mahendra says. “We keep the females; their role is to breed and grow our stock.”
Up until a few years ago, a female would give birth for the first time when she was around two – the perfect age as they are healthy, capable of producing good milk, and their lambs are strong and healthy. More recently, they have tended to have their first lambs when they are around one year old, and both mother and lamb tend to be weak as a result.
“It could be all these medicines and treatments we give them.”
Each female gives birth twice a year. When they get to about ten years old and thus past optimal child-bearing age, they are also sold.
Until not so long ago wool, which they shear twice a year, supplemented their income. With the prevalence of synthetic fibers, demand for wool is on the wane. Now it mostly serves to make their own shawls, mats and other domestic needs.
But even as the income from wool has ebbed, manure has emerged as an supplementary source of revenue. Organic manure sells at around Rs 100 per bucket-load. When in their winter camp at Dhawalpuri they collect and sell a truckload every three or four days. When they make summer camp in the Konkan, and during stretches of their annual migratory route, they collect a fee – one rupee per head – from farmers who want the sheep to graze in their fallow lands and fertilize them.
Their simple looks and minimalist lifestyle are deceptive. A Dhangar earns on average Rs 40,000 per month, comparable to an entry-level software engineer in Bangalore. True to their nomadic roots, they don’t burden themselves with the goods deemed essential in the ‘civilised world’, nor do they carry much currency on their person. Barter still powers their daily needs.
“Each week, we take a few lambs to the nearest village and trade them for rice, vegetables, other essentials we need.“
The most sought after commodity?
“Cell phone top-up!”