photo of Indian woman Garwhal and Kumaon
India glossary


(INDIA 27)






former pastoralist


Dhanras village, Tons valley, Dehra Dun


December 1996



Section 1
What's your name?
Mir Ali.

How old are you?
More than 45 years [later revealed that he is 73].

Where did you come from?
From Jammu, but long ago. From Jammu we settled down in Himachal. From there we kept going to the plains and mountains, with buffaloes and other animals. But we were exposed to great hardship. The buffaloes would become ill and die. If a few survived they were not sufficient to provide us with a living. I could not educate my children so they remained illiterate. On account of all these difficulties, in between I had to sell some buffaloes to buy land. Our people bought small plots of land to survive. We got nothing from the government. All this land that you see here was bought by us. We are surviving because of this land. There is no school here. There are schools far away where there are only three or four teachers to teach the children. We can't spend so much on our children.

Is Samata an institution?
Yes. It's a local institution started by some Christian. He employs teachers, but we bear the expenses.

What is this place called?
The name of this place is Dhanras. This comes under village Utad. I have been living here for last 20-22 years. I bought this land myself. The government did not settle us. I bought this land from these pandits (priests) and it is too little. People have ten, five or even less bighas (one bigha is equivalent to 0.676 hectares) of land [which is] not sufficient even to make huts. People do labour, or service to bring up their children.

How many are you in your family?
We are 14. I have five sons. They have five wives.

When you had no fixed place to live, did you travel up and down? Where did you stay?
In the plains we lived in Dist. Bijnaur and while in the mountains we lived in Himachal in the Jhanjhpur forest.
Section 2
What were your various sources of livelihood?
I had 10 or 12 animals. 10 of them were buffaloes. I had two to three bullocks and horses and we carried our things on their backs. I carried all the goods like that - including bedding and food. While travelling up to the mountains we depended on the forests. We used to abandon our temporary camps and they used to remain undisturbed. Of course, if there was a forest fire then they used to get destroyed. But in the plains the forest department used to sell us the camp space, and each time we went to the plains we had to make the huts again. We faced a lot of problems, collecting thatch and wood all over again for construction. If we cut or collected wood we were fined heavily.

Would you prefer living in the hills or in the plains?
We would naturally like to live in the hills since we have been living here for the past 20-22 years.

What is the average age for marriage among Gujjars? What were your marriage customs 40-50 years ago?
Earlier the customs were wrong and even now some are bad. But society is changing, Gujjars are watching others, listening to others, and they are getting wiser. Now they understand that one should get married at a later age. Earlier children of five or six years used to get married. But the girl used to go to the groom's place only when she became a young woman (after puberty).

What was education like in Gujjar society 40-50 years ago? How many people were literate?
There was no arrangement for education. The question did not arise. Nobody was literate. A few people knew a little Arabic but had no knowledge of Hindi or Urdu. We used to teach a little Arabic to our children. Now they are learning Hindi. Now children below three are also attending school. I have one child in Class III and one in II. There is no government school here. This school is run by Samata.

Were women literate earlier?
No. Now we feel that it is good to educate them. But I can't educate my grand daughters since I cannot afford the expense.

What is your source of income?
We Gujjars rear cattle and we do have some land for agriculture. We buy some food stuffs from the market. We also do labour jobs but we are not paid well. The major share is taken by the contractor.

What was the social system 40-50 years ago?
We had good relations with others. We used to help each other. If anyone faced difficulties we helped them to overcome their problems. If somebody's hut caught fire in which everything was destroyed, people used to help the family by giving clothes, utensils and money. It is so even now.

Which is better, the past days or the present times?
Both are good. Earlier times were also good. Our ancestors died doing this work only. But life was very tough. There was no education and knowledge. Child marriages took place. They were nomads and disliked settled life - they had no place to settle down in anyway. We are here due to the kindness of these pandits. We have taken some land from them. The government has not given us any land or help. Since 1947 not even 10 paise (100 paise = 1 rupee) worth of help has been given to us.
Section 3
What problems did you face while going up and down?
There were so many problems. We had to walk with our animals the whole day. There were highway robberies. If an animal entered someone's field and Rs1000 was demanded in place of 10, we had to pay it. I narrate an incident to you - once while travelling one of my buffaloes ate something from a field. It was a ginger field and the plant had eleven stems out of which the buffalo had eaten only three, but I had to pay a fine of Rs 300.

Do you want your sons to pursue your profession or do something else?
I want a small piece of land, a pair of oxen, a buffalo, that is enough. And that the family should get an income through hard work. If the government offers jobs then we can get into those professions. We are skilled in cattle rearing and we can earn a living from it. But we have no animals now. The hill buffalo costs Rs20,000. A Gujjar could work for 20 years but still would not be able to pay such a price.

What did the Gujjar economy depend on?
Cattle rearing. Everyone did it. We knew nothing else. We did not even know how to sell milk and ghee (clarified butter). We used to give milk and ghee to the traders to sell. My grandmother who died at 150 years of age used to narrate an amusing anecdote. Once the traders came to buy milk but had forgotten to bring the weights. They had brought mules to carry ghee. There used to be so much milk and ghee that it had to be carried on mules. He told my grandmother, “Never mind, Nambardarni, put the ghee tin on one side of the scales and I will put my leg on the other!” He said that the weight of his leg was the equivalent of one container! Those were the olden days. What could be more innocent than that? The people did not know what was trade and business. Traders used to come from far to buy and sell. In spite of giving them so much ghee and milk we used to be in debt and owed them money. If you enquire in the plains, each Gujjar probably owes one or two lakhs (1 lakh = one hundred thousand) to the Banias (caste of trades people/money lenders). But we may be poor, hungry but not in debt.

How did the debt to the Banias begin?
It was like this. If we gave a tin of ghee to the merchant, in return we would keep buying rations, tea etc. The traders used to tamper with the accounts and in place of Rs1, they used to write Rs10. Now the Gujjars have become smarter. Now there is not so much exploitation. The new generation is getting the Gujjars released from these merchants. Kaushal Sahib of Dehra Dun (Avadesh Kaushal) has started a big campaign against all this. He has started a big project for the Gujjars. You can find out about the debts from him. He is taking the milk to Dehra Dun in his vans, and supplying it directly. He does not behave like those merchants. Now we are free of all debts. We work hard, and if we get Rs20 we save Rs5 out of it.
Section 4
How were disputes sorted out among your community?
We did not know anything about tehsils (administrative units), police, police stations or anything. We sorted things out between ourselves. Nobody was scolded. If there was a big hue and cry, the wrong doer asked everyone's pardon.

Do people drink in your society?
Nobody drinks alcohol in our society. Maybe one out of 100 gets into this bad habit. We believe that consuming alcohol is bad. God has kept us away from drinking, dacoity (banditry), robbery, gambling. We would rather be hungry than do any of these things. We have not done these things till now. The Quran (Muslim holy text) also prohibits these. Whoever indulges in these is declared an outcast.

How did you learn the art of agriculture? What do you grow?
We learnt it from the local people and followed whatever they were doing. No expert taught us, nor did the locals help. We do call them for help though, when we are sowing unfamiliar seeds. Earlier, farming was very difficult but after some years we started enjoying it. If we grew our own food grains, we just had to grind salt and have our meals with it. Now we have started growing vegetables as well as a variety of pulses. We have no irrigation facilities but we are growing barley, masoor (lentils), wheat, coriander, etc. If irrigation facilities are made available we could get really good crops.

Where do you get drinking water from?
We get it from springs. We have not got any water connection or electricity as yet.

What are the fruit bearing trees found here?
Pears, plums, apricot, almond, apples, and other fruit trees.

How much expense is incurred on marriages and how do you manage to spend that much?
Earlier it was very little, but it has started increasing now. We give a few things to the girl. Earlier the food served was simple, but not any longer. We slaughter goats to eat their meat.

What festivals do the Gujjars celebrate?
We have only two Ids - that is all - just two festivals.

Do you have any festivals related to forests?
No, apart from reading Namaz (prayers), we performed no prayers in the forests. If there was an elderly person in the family then only Namaz was offered otherwise nobody even knew how to do it. Now more and more people have learnt to offer Namaz. We had no knowledge of it.

When you used to travel up and down did you have fights with other villagers?
Oh, yes! Quite a lot. When we went down to the plains, the mainland locals used to pick fights with us. They used to uproot and carry away trees from our forests (forests for which we had permits), trees like sheesham (a broad leaf deciduous hardwood), khair (acacia tree), etc. and the Gujjars were blamed for that. We had to produce lots of evidence to convince the officials that we had not done it. We used to save our skins with great difficulty. And the Gujjars had to pay all the fines. Our sheep and goats used to graze in the forests. So we used to have conflicts with the graziers living there. They would not allow us to graze our buffaloes. The government used to charge us Rs12 per buffalo. In Himachal the charges were Rs12 for a big one and Rs8 for a small one. There used to be shortage of grass and the locals charged grazing fees. They became greedy and we used to have fights, occasionally beat each other up. But the more experienced used to intervene and sort the matter out. The party, which was in the wrong, asked pardon. So it saved us from police stations and police cases.
Section 5
What animals did Gujjars have earlier?
Mainly two kinds, buffaloes and oxen. We kept very few cows. Now they even have horses. We keep good milk yielding cows too. Some people even have two to three horses. I have only two or three buffaloes.