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On my first drive into the Banni grasslands back in February, I had a hard time believing what the ecologist next to me was saying. At the time, we were on an empty highway heading due north. On either side of us the land was flat, brown and stretched out endlessly, scattered with a few tufts of dry grass and a lot of a small, hardy looking thorny tree species. I wondered idly why people called it a grassland. There wasn’t all that much grass in sight.

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“It looks brown now,” he said, “but wait till it rains! The grass comes up and all the land you’re looking at turns into a marsh. It’s just water and grass, as far as you can see.” Another co-worker said, “Just wait till it rains, Banni turns into a golf course!”

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I was skeptical. Even more so a few months on, when the summer heat hit Kachchh in earnest and Banni turned into a giant duster with towers of it scudding across the landscape. After every visit I went home with an unavoidable fine layer of grit embedded on my skin and in my teeth. Wait till it rains, they said. Word on the street was Kachchh might have another year of drought.

Banni is the subcontinent’s largest natural grassland, but it doesn’t always look that way. People who knew the area thirty or more years ago reminisce fondly about the height to which the grass would grow, the way it would be hard to spot a buffalo walking through it. It’s a difficult vision to conjure for those of us encountering Banni for the first time today. The spread of Prosopis juliflora, or Gando Baavar (Crazy Weed) as it is locally known, has been devastating. Fiercely invasive, Gando Baavar is everywhere. While there is grass, quite a bit of it, in the dry months a first time visitor would be forgiven for thinking they’d ventured into a particularly barren stretch of thorny forest rather than a grassland.

For 500 years or more, this region has been home to pastoralist communities, the Maldharis, who keep buffaloes and cows and graze their herds across the expanse of the land. What happens to your livelihood when your grazing dries up? Resourcefulness is a quality found in abundance here, from the structure of virdas, local water harvesting systems, to the buffaloes themselves, who are well adapted to their harsh environment and invariably find something to chew on.

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Regardless, whenever there is good rain in some part of Banni, word spreads quickly and people move out with their herds. The communities living in the region of good rain never begrudge the presence of these travellers, and grazing is shared equitably. In Banni there is never any doubt that community welfare trumps the individual rat race, and the welfare of the animals is the ultimate priority. Wherever you go, you are welcomed, you are fed, you are family.

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In September it rained for a week. There was lightning and thunder, downpours and flooded homes. In Bhuj, the lake overflowed prompting two days of public holidays. In the eastern belt of Banni though, where 300 families had migrated to avail of the grazing provided by earlier, sparser rains, things were difficult. A Maldhari friend who was there told me later that the water had been as high as his chest. Over 100 buffaloes drowned. “It’s not so hard for the maldhari with 30 or 40 buffaloes,” he reflected as we talked about the flood, “but what about the man who lost his only milk producers?”

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That man, and others like him, will pull through. Their community will see to it that they do. Rain brings immense optimism to this water bereft land, and it is infectious. It’s hard not to look at the bright side. I find that my skepticism has dissolved and Banni is indeed a golf course.

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On the way to a meeting in Banni the other day, we came upon a few Maldharis leading their buffaloes home from the eastern belt. We hopped out of the car to walk a while with them, till our paths diverged and we went on to our meeting while they turned toward their village. Despite recent events, the mood was calm, untroubled. In Banni, they had always known that the rain would turn up this year. But how?

“The buffaloes had the right body language,” one Maldhari said. “If the rain wasn’t going to come, they would have known.”

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It is the sunny season in Kachchh and the air is dry as ever. In the middle of the dryland somewhere in Western Kachchh, there lies a big pond where camels, we are told, stop for their mid-day drink. It is here that we wait for Ahmed-bhai to arrive with his herd of camels, and to my amusement, his two little girls!
01Ahmedbhai
Ahmed-bhai is a “maldhari”, a herder who breeds and looks after camels. A nomadic lifestyle keeps him and his family constantly on the move both within and outside of Kachchh. His family belongs to the Jat community whose forefathers are believed to have fled from Haleb in Baluchistan about 500 years ago. Following a feud with the King, the Jats sold all their other animals and replaced them with camels to prepare for their long journey traversing Sindh to eventually settle in Kachchh.
Mainland Kachchh has always lacked fertile soil. Just down south of the Great Rann of Kachchh, lies however Asia’s largest grasslands called the Banni. This led to a dependence on pastoralism, with camel breeders, sheep and goat herders, cow and buffalo breeders inhabiting the region for over five centuries.

02Camels arrive
03Sitting around
A little while later, the camels arrive and move slowly towards the water edge. Within a couple of minutes we are surrounded by 40 thirsty camels. As if by ritual, the camels are milked and fresh camel milk is offered to us. “Start with a little if it is your first time.” they say to me. I slowly take a sip, I have never tasted such salty milk before! They call me to the pond and offer clear water collected from inbetween a few rocks, “Drink! Aren’t you thirsty?”
I take a large sip again.

04Milking

05Drink it
To be a nomadic pastoralist is to lead a life of discipline guided by the principles of nature and animals. Pastoralists have always lived in complete harmony with their surroundings. They had formed unique bonds with the other communities from the region. Eiluned Edwards in her article about the symbiotic relation between pastoralists and other communities writes that farmers in Kachchh would welcome migrating herders and their animals into their farm land after a monsoon harvest had been made.  The animals would graze on the stubble, effectively clearing the land for the next season’s sowing while their urine and manure replenished the land, acting as a natural fertilizer. In return the nomads would be given grains for their service. In addition, the farmers would get milk and ghee (clarified butter) from the nomads.
The nomads had a similar relationship with the Khatris (one who works with colour on textiles) in the region. The khatris made colourful clothes for the nomads, and were paid in milk and ghee. Sometimes, the extensive knowledge of the khatris of local herbs and plants came useful in the case of an animal from the herd that needed medical attention.

During the Green revolution, a lot of this changed. Extensive agricultural practices introduced year-round cultivation, fertilizers and eventual loss of grazing land. These changes tragically affected the nomadic pastoralists.

06Daughters
This afternoon however, unaware of the struggles with their semi-nomadic lifestyle, I sit watching in admiration. The young daughters Noorbhanu (5) and Hanifa (10) now have a fan. Hanifa displays such confidence with the animals, running behind the stray ones to bring them back to the pack. Her little sister Noorbhanu is always 2 steps behind her, strong and quick in their movements, I can see that they have already mastered their father’s work. When our eyes meet, I see the shyness and the curiosity of little girls.
“Do they come everyday?” I ask their father. “Oh yes! They love their camels!” he says.

07Noorbhanu
08NoorbhanuAlthough their mother had not come along at that time, I later found out that she plays a key role in their lifestyle. She builds their home, she takes care of young camels when they are born and collects grasses to feed them. She prepares food for the family, typically consisting of camel milk, rotlo (wheat or millet bread) and tea.
Constant travel means their houses should be easy to construct with few and inexpensive building materials. Their special houses, put up entirely by the women in the family is known as the Pakka, made of kal (reed grass), jute ropes and wood. Between house work, the women also embroider clothes, quilts and if unmarried, their wedding clothes.

The camels have fed and drunk. They have been milked. They will now be sheared for their wool. Soon all the attention shifts to two maldharis, friends of Ahmed-bhai, who with their scissors select a camel with a good tuff of hair on him and begin to shear.

09Shearing
10Camel wool
Ahmedbhai collects the hair and puts them in the make-shift cloth bag. Noorbhanu carefully picks up a tiny handful of camel hair from the ground that her father had forgotten. She hands it over to him. “She is very careful, my daughter!” he laughs.

12Collecting wool
13Wool
Traditionally camel wool is used to make cheko; bags that are used to cover the udders of the female camels to prevent the young ones from suckling. Today they are giving the wool to Sahjeevan, who in association with Khamir are finding new markets for camel wool to increase income and encourage camel breeders.
Camels are sheared once a year. just before the onset of summer. This work is done entirely by hand. Some maldharis often shear their camels in wonderful patterns, as a result decorating their animals. It is possible to collect 1kg of wool from each animal every year.

14Collecting water
Once the shearing is done, Hanifa, the older daughter goes away alone with the entire herd, taking the sole responsibility to direct them to their home. Meanwhile Ahmed-bhai sits down with the team from Sahjeevan to discuss matters. We find a small narrow path inbetween a few bushes where the ground is shaded and cool. We have all run out of drinking water, but no fear, the pond is closeby.

15Enough of talking
We talk for nearly an hour before Noorbhanu starts getting impatient. She nudges at her father and whispers in his ear. Her father smiles and continues talking. Two minutes later she says, “Enough of chatting papa. How much talking can one do! Let us get to work!”
She is applauded by all of us. Wah Wah.

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The visit to the pond this afternoon was a part of meeting and understanding the lives of the nomadic herders, for the project – The Biocultural Protocol Of Camel Breeders Of Kachchh.

Their life and spirit is fearless, this is how they have always been.
Here are more photos from this day,

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I could not meet Noorbhanu’s mother, however here is an album of the women from the Jat Community, thanks to Sahjeevan.

maldhari proverbThis Maldhari Proverb probably summarizes the life of a nomadic pastoralist. A life of discipline guided by nature and their animals, a life driven by tradition and culture, a life that leaves behind such a tiny footprint on land. Here is the Biocultural Community Protocol of the Camel Pastoralists of Kachchh.

BCP
Also read World Camel Day

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The most beautiful people – the Unt Maldharis – Camel Pastoralists came together on Saturday to celebrate World Camel Day. More than two hundred of them from areas all over Kachchh had reached Bhuj to be a part of the occasion. The event was also an opportunity to release the Biocultural Community Protocol Book and discuss about its relevance to the life and future of the Camel Maldharis of Kachchh.

One of the woman said to me, “Your kaka (uncle) is unwell, he has a problem with his feet and cannot walk too much. So I have come alone. One of us had to be here. We cannot miss it!”

bcpbookKutch is essentially a land of the pastoralists (livestock keepers), who have migrated from as far as Baluchistan and Sind over 500 years ago. The Camel Breeders represent a huge percentage of these nomadic communities. They are called the Unt Maldharis; Unt means camel in Hindi.

Their existence is under threat today. And that is why organisations like Sahjeevan have facilitated the “Biocultural Community Protocol” Project for the Unt Madharis of Kutch.

It is a book – a response – a voice – a declaration of the rights to diversity of a community.
It is an opportunity for the people who leave such a small footprint of their existence to speak about their way of life, their culture, their animals, their traditional knowledge and the law of the land as they know it, as a means to promote participatory advocacy for their recognition.
The process itself is a strong indication of the community’s value and integrity, reflecting their priorities and their aspirations for the future. Group discussions, written documentation, various types of mapping and illustrations, participatory video and photography, performing arts, etc are the tools that are used to collect, connect and commit to a cause like this one.

This is why my next few posts will focus much on the inspiration coming from this project. I recently wrapped up the design for this book, working in collaboration with an amazing team-mate, Aarati and of course the entire camel team from Sahjeevan. The book will be released in two weeks on World Camel Day (22 June). Little did I know that the photograph of two little girls from my previous post called Fearless, would make the cover of a book that represents them all!

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