The nomadic life of the Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir, is strange and mysterious. One of the least reported and documented sections of society, the Bakarwals are the Gypsies who wander in search of greener pastures and move across the Himalayas. Reporter Afshan Rashid shares a brief moment with them during their short stay, in their ever moving lives.
Zulaikha, a nomad Bakarwal woman has been traversing all her life, from Rajouri in Jammu, to the beautiful mountain peaks in Kashmir. Although she does not know her exact age, because no one has kept any record of it, Zulaikha seems to be in her fifties. She does not know where she was born. She might have been just five years old when her mother passed away.
The wrinkles across her face reflect her life. Her life is a representation, a window into the lives of thousands of other Bakarwal women. As per Zulaikha, she was in her early 20’s when she got married to Younis Khan. Today, she has three daughters Hafiza, Nasira, Shahnaz and has a grandson Gulam Murtaza. Her only son passed away during infancy.
When asked about her relatively hard life, she gave a wide smile that deepened her wrinkles across her cheeks. “I am thankful to God for whatever He has blessed me with, as this is the way our Prophet (PBUH) spent his life, so for me this hardship is a blessing,” she said.
Her day starts at five in the morning by offering Namaz, preparing tea for the entire family and then the regular chores, preparing lunch and dinner. Zulaikha’s elder daughter Hafiza has a son and she lives in a nearby tent. Her second daughter Nasira was married recently and is now expecting a baby.
By the time of her delivery she will be up in the Himalayan ranges and without any medical assistance, her child will be born in the traditional way and will breathe in the fresh and clean air of the Himalayas.
The desire of discovering how they spend their life made me spend three days with Zulaikha. Even though the life of Bakarwals seems so simple at the first glance, but that is not the case once you get closer. The life of a Bakarwal is full of struggles at every stage.
Zulaikha has been travelling for more than a month now. As she unfolds her journey in front of me, she tells me, “It has been more than a month now that I am travelling with my family. Now I am familiar with steeps, terrains and plains that I have traversed all through my life.”
There I stopped her and asked, “don’t those high peaks scare you?”. Again, her sweet smile pops up and she replies, “No why should they? I have been brought up in their lap, I have played in their arms and they have given me space which we call home. My home has no boundaries like yours. Our life is just like those birds that keep on flying endlessly and explore every bit of nature.”
“Of course, there are problems we face while travelling. Particularly, when we have to pass through the city or some village, we face scarcity of water and there is no access to proper washrooms. But once we reach into the high mountains nature has a lot of space to welcome us and there is no dearth of water.”
“In the meadows, we have a small house made of mud and wood. We have made temporary washrooms there, so staying there is not a problem and we take a lot of food stock along and we mostly eat wild vegetables. They are pure, tasty and good for health.”
As she kept on describing how life really is like in the lap of nature, the thought of Nasira being pregnant stuck my mind. I was still wondering about how she would become a mother without any medical aid but I wish and pray that all would be fine.
It has been two days since I met them. Tomorrow, early in the morning they will be leaving and their next stay will be in Naranag. In these two days, I developed an emotional bond with Zulaikha, who I call, “Maayee”, and a soft corner for Nasira. I wanted to tell her how brave she was and I wanted to give her something so that she would remember me.
I took out my sweater and gifted it to her with the thought that it would keep her warm in the cold upper reaches. I made Nasira promise me that once they return she would meet me again.
This is the third and the final day. I met Maayee as she will be leaving today; I went early in the morning to see her off. The road was clear, no traffic, the air was fresh and I was moving towards them.
I could see they had wrapped their tents and had packed all their stuff and were loading it on the horses. As I reached closer, all of them smiled. I guess they smiled because they did not expect that I would really come in the morning or maybe by now they also had developed an emotional bond with me.
I had brought a Shawl for Maayee because I did not want to let her go empty handed. As I gifted it to her, she smiled. This smile was a different one, it was simple, full of emotions. I felt her smile was giving me a million blessings.
And now, it was the time for them to leave, and they started travelling. I accompanied them for a few miles after which I stopped as I had to take a right turn towards my home and they went straight. I waited and watched them till they disappeared.