A shep­herd’s de­light in the Hi­malayas

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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