Van Gujjar Settlements In Uttarakhand

by | Jan 14, 2023

It was my third week at Living Lightly and second week at our Dehradun regional office. Somehow, it felt familiar and I was extremely excited to meet my role model Sanjeev bhai, also a founder of an architectural organization, working with local artists. I was going to meet him at WWI and couldn’t curb my excitement. The conversation helped me get a sense of my work here. It was to understand pastoral communities in the region, their culture and unique lifestyle. They are commonly known as Van Gujjar. I was to start by interviewing the community members.

The stories made home in my diary. While conducting interviews, I was accompanied by Arman and Suleman, members of the Van Gujjar community association. Their presence added to the insights while talking to officials and scientists. They have been a welcoming and heartwarming company.

The next part was to visit migrating pastors up in the Bugiyals (higher altitude grasslands of Himalayas) who were there for seasonal grazing and had started walking down to their homes in the hills. It was exciting to be here. Rehman, the working leader of the association and Aftab replaced Suleman and Arman on this trip.

Rehman is 29, has completed his masters and has worked with organizations like WWI. He knows the region really well. More important than that, he is open to listen, process, understand and react sensibly in any situation. His aura makes people connect with him. The best part was that he told me how Kumbh mela is where the Van Gujjars get their dry grass for the construction of thatched roof over their ‘Channs‘ (traditional homes).

They buy this grass at a discounted price as after the mela ends, people there have no use for it. He said, “If you look at the geographical location of all Van Gujjar settlements, they are near some or the other Devasthans since these are the places with more milk supply. The size of the islamic Van Gujjar settlement more or less depends on the popularity of nearby Hindu Devasthan.

On a road which was turning every 500 meters, I was sitting back looking at the path we were leaving behind. The rest of the visit continued with a lot of fun and information. I started noticing the codependency of two faiths for milk, farming goods, their similarities in family values and gathering. It helped me let go of my fear of unfamiliarity, an important step to accept that this is now my community, my people.

Until the age of 18, I grew up in a small town in Maharashtra and was raised to believe in every religion as well as respect all faiths. However, there have been multiple instances when I was asked to stay away from certain regions because a lot of people from other faiths live there. It adds to the fear of unfamiliarity and limits one’s world view. My experiences here broke all these barriers and let me be present with an open mind. I was able to walk past my fears and biases, and say yes to unexpected friendships.

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