A shepherd’s delight in the Himalayas
week-long migration, In the Footsteps of Anwals, a new itinerary from award-winning sustainable tour operator Village Ways. Supi, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, “Land of the Gods”, is surrounded by mountains and gushing rivers, sacred to the nation’s Hindus. The village is at the end of the road; from here, it is pack mule or Shanks’s pony only as peaks rise steadily towards the Himalayas and the border with Tibet.
Beneath us, down a silver stairway of glistening mica, lie narrow terraced fields of yellow-green wheat and barley, vegetable patches, and traditional houses of stone and clay with carved wooden doors and window. Myna birds nest in the eves, cows and buffalo poke their heads from the straw-filled ground floors, while from first-floor windows, people lean out to talk to family or neighbours on the paved forecourts.
Each spring families here, and in surrounding villages, entrust their sheep, and some goats, to the anwal. As the weather warms, the grass on the lower slopes becomes dry, and the sheep must go to higher pasture. The dryness creeps after them until finally the anwal set off, three from each village herding a flock of around 700, to migrate to the glaciers where receding snow leaves rich grass throughout the summer.
Paid 100-300 rupees (about £1-£3) per sheep for the whole season, about 30 men from across the region gather with 7,000 sheep at the Pindari Glacier. They bring supplies for five months, the chief anwal tells me, camping in makeshift lean-tos. He is speaking the local Kumaoni language, translated by my guides, Deepak Joshi and Tara Singh (himself from Supi). At the glacier, the shepherds offer food and prayers to the goddess Nanda, after whom the nearby Nanda Devi peak – India’s second-highest – is named, before they lose contact with the outside world as the rivers swell impassably in the summer monsoons. They do not return until the autumn.
The anwal chief is worried about the shepherds’ future: young men are going to the city and villagers buy cheap, factory-made jumpers rather than making the labour-intensive bakhula, the traditional thick brown wool jacket that lies across his knees. He looks lovingly at his flock, starts up a different call, and the sheep reply.
Their bleating is mixed with the sound of drums. April and May are also wedding season and back down in the village we watch as a couple are carried off down the mountain paths, the groom on a white horse, the bride in a pink-canopied sedan chair.
Our attention turns to our own journey, walking from village to village, sleeping in traditional homes converted by the communities into Village Ways guesthouses. Here visitors (a maximum of six, but usually two) are housed, fed fresh vegetarian Indian food (exceptionally good, I soon discover) and looked after by trained villagers.
Deepak and Tara credit Village Ways with saving them from the filthy “goldenpaved” streets of Delhi, allowing them to stay here and still make a living. It is hoped the new itinerary will help the anwal, too. “Tomorrow we start with 1,000 steps,” says Deepak. We what?
After a hearty breakfast of porridge, omelette, paratha and the essential masala chai (spiced tea), we set off