Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Lost Mobility: Pastoralism and Modernity in Uttarakhand Himalaya (India)

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Lost Mobility: Pastoralism and Modernity in Uttarakhand Himalaya (India)

Article excerpt


The Bhotiyas and the Gujars are two well-known communities which practised transhumance in Uttarakhand Himalaya. Restrictions first began to be imposed on their mobility under a new forestry regime, which was introduced in the late nineteenth century. The Bhotiyas, who were itinerant traders, had to face the challenge of new market forces when the hills became better integrated with the lowlands under the colonial economy. For both communities, the practice of transhumance became very difficult as the areas available to them for grazing shrank rapidly in independent India. They were compelled to change their livelihood strategies under the impact of modernization. The Bhotiyas were quick to adopt modern education and take up new jobs, while the Gujars were slower and now find it difficult to adjust to the new situation.

Keywords: Pastoralism, transhumance, livestock, trade, modernity


Pastoralism was an important economic activity in nineteenth century Uttarakhand (See Figures 1 and 2). Subsequently, it lost its significance and people practising it began to sedentarize. We shall examine the factors responsible for this change.

A large number of people in Uttarakhand were pastoralists, agro-pastoralists or practised mixed farming. Rearing of cattle was central to the economy of the majority of the population. Some people, like the Bhotiyas and the Gujars, depended completely on livestock. The Bhotiyas were traders and kept large flocks of sheep and goats which they also used for carrying goods from one place to another. The Gujars came to Uttarakhand around the mid-nineteenth century. They were pure pastoralists and owned neither land nor permanent houses. They kept buffaloes and practiced transhumance. This article shall focus only on these two communities. To begin with, it describes their distinct practices of transhumance until the third quarter of the nineteenth century and then goes on to examine how numerous restrictions imposed on their mobility affected them. The article will also examine how the modernization process has changed their lives in recent decades.



Pastoralism in the Nineteenth Century

The Bhotiyas

The Bhotiyas were mainly a community of traders until the mid-twentieth century. (2) They were an important link in the trade that was carried on between Uttarakhand and Tibet. Commodities such as grain, cotton, sugar and clothes were carried from Uttarakhand to Tibet, and items like salt, wool, gold dust and borax were brought back. They carried their goods on pack animals and managing the herd was therefore an important economic activity. Not much land could be cultivated in the high reaches and only one crop was obtained annually. The Bhotiyas thus relied primarily on trade for their livelihood. (3)

The Bhotiyas occupied the higher reaches of the Himalaya, often near mountain passes that were above 15,000 feet (Traill 1851: 70-106). In the 1820s there were 59 Bhotiyas villages (roughly 1,325 houses) in the British controlled territory of Uttarakhand. The Bhotiya population at that time was estimated at about 9,000 (Traill 1851: 73-74). In 1881 the population of parganas (a small administrative unit) Juhar and Darma in Kumaun and Painkhanda in Garhwal was 21,937. These parganas were inhabited primarily by Bhotiyas (Atkinson 1982: vol. III, part I, 152).

The size of the family herd varied according to its economic condition. The rich families kept a large number of livestock and conducted an extensive trade. By the end of the nineteenth century, they were visiting distant markets in Delhi, Kanpur and Calcutta during winter. The poorer Bhotiyas, with fewer animals, limited their trade and often worked as herdsmen and labourers for the richer families (Atkinson 1982: vol. III, part I, 112). The average caravan of well-to-do Bhotiyas consisted of 100 to 125 goats and sheep, 10 to 12 mules and jibus (a hybrid between a yak anda cow) and about 3 to 5 ponies (Pant 1988). …

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