'Behind the Veil of the Forest' in India

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THE rutted road, part paved, part dirt, was a border between two worlds. To the left, a patchwork of villages, farms and fields covered the fertile plains between the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. To the right rose the rugged, forested wilderness of the Shivalik Hills. Dehradun, the bustling capital of the northern state of Uttarakhand, was just 20 miles away, but felt much, much farther.

This October, I, along with a translator, Debopam Battacharjee, hitched a ride down that road on a dairy truck loaded with empty milk cans. When it stopped after about an hour, we continued on, hiking for another four miles. Then we turned right, up a rocky streambed, toward the hills and into the jungle. I was looking for some friends who live there, at least part-time.

They are a family of nomadic water buffalo herders. Three years ago, I had joined them on their annual spring migration from the low-altitude Shivaliks where they spend each winter to the high Himalayan meadows where they graze their livestock in summer. Their tribe, the Van Gujjars, has moved up and down with the seasons for about 1,000 years. But in 2009 their age-old migratory lifestyle was facing a serious threat: the ancestral pastures of thousands of Van Gujjars had been absorbed into national parklands, and park authorities were poised to enforce a policy banning the nomads from using them. I wanted to document the migration, partly to preserve a glimpse of their traditional way of life while it still existed, partly to raise awareness about their struggles. And, yes, partly because it just seemed as if it would be an amazing thing to experience. Through a small Dehradun-based nongovernmental organization called the Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities, I was introduced to a Van Gujjar family, who agreed to let me go with them.

Living and traveling together for 44 days -- moving as a caravan through busy towns and silent forests, sleeping on roadsides and mountainsides, crossing rivers and alpine passes, sharing the joys and tribulations of the trail -- we became close. I was awed by how deeply they cared for their animals; they thought it was hilarious that I would try almost anything that they did, whether it was drinking milk directly from a buffalo's udder or attempting and failing to lift the huge bales of fodder -- leaves or grass -- that their teenage girls have no trouble carrying. I stuck with them even though the migration lasted weeks longer than expected, as they decided en route that they couldn't risk going to their lands inside Govind Pashu Vihar national park but had to drive their herd to an unfamiliar meadow.

When I returned to the United States, I missed them with a surprising and lingering intensity. I went back to visit in 2010, and was glad to have a chance to see them again this year.

Which is how I came to be hiking up that streambed with Debopam in October. After a few miles we reached a hut of sticks, mud and grass. It sat in a clearing surrounded by trees, near a trickling creek, far beyond the reach of power lines, cellphone service and schools. Its one room, with a partial wall separating a mud-hearthed kitchen, sheltered the family of Dhumman, a lanky, bearded tribal leader known for his integrity and fairness, and his wife, Jamila, who manages the household with an eternal sense of humor, as she delegates tasks to their seven children, ages 6 to 23.

Like other members of the tribe, this family's world revolves around the care and feeding of their buffaloes, which they view not only as their essential source of livelihood -- they use and sell the milk -- but also as family members. Recently, when their favorite buffalo became sick, some in the family were too worried to eat.

We arrived as dusk fell. Only a few of the children were around, along with a group of buffalo calves. Everyone else was in the jungle, climbing tall sal trees and lopping off leaves for the buffaloes to eat. By the time the rest of the family showed up at the hut, it was dark. Our greetings were warm in a ghostly kind of way -- with one dim, battery-powered LED lantern as the only light, I could hear the voices I knew so well, but could barely see the faces they belonged to.

While two of the daughters cooked dinner, we caught up. The oldest daughter, who had left an unhappy arranged marriage just before the 2009 migration, still hadn't been able to finalize her divorce: her husband's family was demanding a ridiculous sum of money before they would officially end the marriage, freeing her to wed someone else.

I also learned that the previous summer, Jamila had suffered a stroke while the family was in the mountains. The entire right side of her body had become paralyzed. Dhumman managed to hike her out and get her to a rural clinic. Luckily, the treatment she received was effective, and, by the time we saw her over a year later, she had completely recovered.

While we sat on the floor, eating chapatis with hot curry and washing them down with buffalo milk, Dhumman told us that this past spring they'd had no problems migrating to their ancestral meadow inside the national park. The authorities, it seems, have begun to accept the fact that India's Forest Rights Act gives tribal people like the Van Gujjars rights to use their traditional lands even if they are inside a park.

But, he went on, there were new troubles facing the tribe right where we were, in the Shivaliks. Some villagers who live on the edge of the forest (which is public land) had decided to claim a swath of it for themselves, pressuring the Van Gujjars who made their winter homes there, including Dhumman's family, to leave or pay an exorbitant rent. A couple of weeks earlier, the villagers erected barricades in the streambed to try to prevent the nomads from returning after their summer in the mountains. When that didn't stop the Van Gujjars, the villagers threatened to burn their huts and use force, if that's what it took, to get the tribespeople out. So far, Dhumman said, no one had been hurt, and no homes destroyed. But the Van Gujjars were nervous. Last I've heard, things are still in limbo.

And there was yet another thing on everyone's mind: the wild elephants that had been roaming nearby, which can be quite dangerous. They had decided to tie up their dog, because if it saw an elephant it would attack it, then get hurt and come running for the hut -- with an angry pachyderm in pursuit.

Over the next couple of days, I helped herd the buffaloes through the jungle, urging them up a canyon with shouts of "Achch, Achch" and occasional smacks with a stick. I watched as they were milked, and joined a couple of the girls when they went even deeper into the forest to lop leaves, hauling back enormous loads over treacherous terrain to feed to the calves. I sat in on a meeting held in the rocky streambed as a group of men wearing lungis (sarong-like garments), buttoned-down shirts, and vests discussed how they should handle the threat from the villagers. And I hung out with the women and children, talking and laughing in the relaxed air that settles over the family when Dhumman is not around.

Some things had changed over the previous years. Around the house, I noticed that there were now two woven cots, when previously there had been no furniture at all. The children, of course, had grown: Salma, now 8, was doing chores like sweeping and washing dishes; Bashi, 15, had graduated from tending calves to milking and climbing trees; Goku, 17, was now a competent cook and had transformed from a cautious leaf-cutter into a human thresher.

One thing I love about spending time with my forest-dwelling friends is that it feels as if I've entered an alternate universe where televisions, computers and malls are part of some hazy dream. According to the anthropologist Pernille Gooch, Van Gujjars have long said that they live "behind the veil of the forest," which keeps them insulated from the rest of the world. But this veil is growing ever thinner as India changes around them and their traditional way of living gradually changes with it.

And, indeed, the forest was busier than I'd seen it before: more Van Gujjars were driving more motorbikes farther into the jungle than before, and more villagers were out cutting more wood than I'd ever witnessed, making their intimidating presence felt among the nomads. In 2009, Dhumman owned the family's sole cellphone; now, all of the older children had them too (despite the lack of connectivity and the limited opportunities to charge them); Sharafat, who's 19, even had some videos loaded onto his. This was an all-new intrusion by the modern world, and it struck me as a radical one, a puncture in the invisible membrane that separates their world from ours.

I wondered what would happen to the Van Gujjars over the following years: how long they'd be able to hold on to their life in the forest, how long they would want to, and what their options might be if they were forced, or enticed, to abandon it. As a writer and photographer drawn to issues facing traditional cultures, I try my best to value them without romanticizing them; to appreciate the many ways that their existence enriches humanity without wishing that they'd remain frozen in time; to see what is incredibly beautiful about the ways they live, and what is unimaginably hard. As the Van Gujjars are increasingly affected by the forces of modernity, and adapt to them -- or fail to -- I just hope that they have more rather than less control over their destiny.

I could spend only three nights with Dhumman's family this time, but it was enough to get another taste of a way of life that leaves me awe-struck, to track some of its changes and, most important, to reconnect personally with people I cared for. Our goodbye was like a heartfelt "see you later," since we knew we surely would.

IF YOU GO

The easiest way to get a glimpse of Van Gujjar life is with Sanjeev Mehta, who runs Mohan's Adventure Tours in Haridwar (mohansadventure.in). His five-hour trips to Rajaji National Park in the Shivalik Hills can include visits to Van Gujjar camps. Tours cost 1,950 rupees a person (about $37, at 53 rupees to the dollar), for groups of two or more; solo travelers pay 2,750 rupees (about $52). (The Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities is not involved in tourism.) Photos of the 2009 spring migration can be found on my Web site: michaelbenanav.com.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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