Baldev Singh – Our livelihood depends on sheep
Baldev Singh wears the traditional grey woollen felt cap with a green velvet border which is typical for the Sangla Valley, his trousers and jacket too are made from wool. His wife has spun the yarn, a weaver in his village has woven the cloths and naturally the wool comes from his own sheep.
The family needs 50 kg of wool per year, it's the wool of about 30 sheep. From the yarn clothes are made for Baldev Singh, his wife and the four children, and they need shawls and blankets. Mr Singh owns 500 sheep which are sheered in the first week of September.
Through the course of the year the sheep of several owners are combined to one big herd, called a toli, but when and where his animals are sheered is the decision of each individual owner as is planning and organising it. Baldev Singh has a regular spot set up to do the sheering. It's situated half way between his home village, Rakcham and Chitkul at the upper end of the Sangla Valley. The sheep wait together with some goats in a walled enclosure. Goats are part of every herd: they supply fresh milk, carry loads and if there is something to celebrate one of them is likely to become the nicely roasted centre piece of the feast. But goats are not sheered. The sheep wait patiently and don't seem nervous until one of the helpers grabs them by their hind legs and drags them to one of three sheerers. This year for some of the sheep sheering will be over before they properly know what's happening. A German non governmental organisation has sponsored two electrical sheering knives and with those the sheerers take just a third of the time to free each sheep from its heavy woollen coat. The electrical sheering knives look a bit like the outsized version of the gadget hairdressers use to clean the back of the neck of their short haired human customers. Using the electrical knives the sheering is more even and the quality of the wool is improved. And it's less strenuous for the sheerers: It takes strength to sheer a sheep with traditional scissors and usually the men get large blisters on their hands within a few hours of working. By the way: regular sheering is necessary to maintain the health of the sheep and part of their care. If left to grow the sheep would hardly be able to move and prone to get ill.
The sheering knives are operated from a car battery. The organic project has contributed to the financing of a solar panel, the battery can now be charged continuously and in an environmentally friendly manner. Baldev Singh is happy to work with the organic project. Before this co-operation the buyers came to where sheering was taking place, bought as much as they needed leaving the rest for the farmers to sell to government agents at very low prices.
Like most other sheep owners Baldev Singh has an additional income through some 50 or so apple trees. But the sheep are his main source of income. 'The sheep are our livelihood, our existence depends on them' he says, without woollen clothes and blankets it would be impossible to survive the long Sangla Valley winters. 'And only by selling wool are we able to make enough money to live.
Jawaharlal Thakur – of life in thin air and through long winter months
Chitkul is situated at an altitude of 3,450 m at the top end of the Sangla Valley, beyond Chitkul there is only a narrow dirt road that leads through rugged terrain towards the snow capped mountain ranges and the border with China. Steep paths and steps connect the old, often beautifully adorned wooden houses, several temples and numerous small elevated storage facilities. Now, in autumn, they are filled to the brim with hay and fodder to get the animals through the winter.
Jawaharlal Thakur's house, too, is built in the traditional style. The wood panelled ceilings and walls in the living room and the many colourful woven blankets and cushion covers seem almost similar in style to old farmhouses in the European Alps. With 1,500 sheep Thakur's herd is one of the largest in Chitkul. Together with his wife Sarina Devi Jawaharlal also farms 1.5 ha of land. They grow vegetables for their own consumptions and peas which do very well in this part of the Sangla Valley and are renowned across northern India for their particularly good taste.
After the peas have been harvested the plants are cut by hand as fodder. Now, in autumn farmers put huge bundles of pea greens just about everywhere to dry them off: they hang from trees, are draped over fences and spread out on walls.
Jarwahalal was just 25 when his father suddenly died and he was the only one living in Chitkul and able to take over the farm. Both his older brothers were away studying at the time, today one is a lecturer for geology, the other one is a civil servant. Only Jawaharlal's youngest brother is still in Chitkul, too, he's running a small restaurant and a shop. Over the summer months his best customers are the herders who come regularly to buy provisions.
Jawaharlal Thakur employs nine herders. With lambing September is one of the busiest months of the year for everyone. He expects 250 lambs to be born, says Jawaharlal. And before the sheep go on to the long trek to the winter pastures they have to be sheered. It's a strenuous time for the herders and for Sarina Devi who every night has to cook a warm meal for everyone.
Right now it's still warm during the day but from middle of September Chitkul can get the first snow. From January to April the village is often completely cut off from the rest of the world. Even the snow ploughs operated by the army usually need several days until they have cleared the only road leading into Chitkul.
The villagers are used to living through these harsh winters, but if there is a medical emergency, a life threatening scenario can develop quickly. 'We have an ayurvedic doctor (trained in traditional Indian medicine) here in the village, but no midwife', says Jawaharlal. He still remembers 27th February, 2015. 'Our neighbour was highly pregnant. The baby was in a breech position and we knew that we had to get her to the doctor in Rakcham'. It's the next villages, just 10 km down into the valley.
The men first cleared a track and then carried the neighbour on a stretcher. She delivered a dead baby while they were on the road to Rakcham, but at least her life could be saved. The Thakurs have two children, nine year old Sidarth and 13-year old Prinan. Both live with Jawaharlal's brother in Solan, 300 km away because only there can they attend an English medium school. 'We talk on the phone a couple of times a day' says Saina Devi.
Being separated is hard on everyone but getting a good education comes first, both parents agree on that. The children should have a chance to get into any profession they chose. 'They will have a family of their own, we'll see where they will settle', says Jawaharlal. 'One day they will return to Chitkul. This is where their roots are.'
Dimple Negi – Organic sheep start a trend
The room on the first floor of the spacious wooden house is painted in pink and light blue and furnished to accommodate a large number of guests. Dimple sits in one of the many armchairs and smiles. Her father in law of course knows much more about sheep and how to organise a joint herd (or toli), she says, but yes, it is true, for the last three years she's been in charge of doing this job in her village.
The family owns 600 sheep and goats, but the herd Dimple has to manage consists of 1,800 animals owned by 16 families. Some own just a few sheep, others several hundred.
The Negis and the other sheep owner of this herd live in Batserie, a beautiful village in the middle of the Sangla Valley and surrounded by fruit orchards. To manage a toli is a demanding and a big responsibility. It's an unpaid position but to be chosen for this job means having the respect and trust of the community. At the start of the season Dimple has to employ the herders and negotiate the terms of their employment. Most of the herders apply year after year to be working for her and Dimple wants the men to like what they do, 'when the herders are content they will look after the animals better'.
Seven shepherds look after the herd, all of them come form the remote Rohru Valley. The men get four months leave in a year, two months in spring and two in autumn – much more generous terms than they would find with other herds. The pay is better too.
Throughout the season Dimple has to make sure that the herders get their provisions or have enough money to buy them. One of the herders has arrived in the village the night before to collect food and supplies: rice, spices, lentils and vegetables from Dimple's garden. The herder will rest for a day and then get back to his colleagues and the herd – eight hours on foot, carrying the provisions.
At the end of the season Dimple will add up the costs for wages, provision and equipment like blankets. The sum then has to be divided between the families depending on how many sheep they have in the toli – the more sheep they own in the herd, the more they will have to pay towards the expenses.
Dimple would have liked to become a lecturer for history at a college in Shimla (the famous summer residence of the government during the Raj). But while at uni in Shimla she fell in love with a fellow student and after the wedding both moved back to the Sangla Valley. She enjoys the time she has with her sons, particularly as in three and a half years from now they will start attending a prep school in Shimla, a ten hour drive away. Only in Shimla can you find a really good school, says Dimple. And a good education is a priority, everyone in the family agrees on that, even if it means that parents and children hardly see each other throughout the year.
And Dimple cares deeply about the food the family eats. The family's wood clad house is adorned with rich carvings and behind it is a large garden with a vegetable plot big enough to grow practically all the vegetables the family needs. None of it is ever sprayed with pesticides or treated with chemical fertiliser. 'Organic vegetables are good for all of us', says Dimple.
And when she saw how the organic certification of the sheep was achieved, she decided to get 'into organic' herself: The 100 young apple trees that have been planted on part of the Negi's land this year will be managed organically from the start. 'Right now there is not much demand for organic fruit yet' but in hotels and restaurants in Shimla organic produce starts to be available on a regular basis. 'In seven or eight years time when these trees start to produce fruit a lot of customers will have understood that organic fruit and vegetables are healthier for them, for the farmers and for the environment.'
The pains and joys of outdoor mountain life – meet the herders
It's late morning, Danraj Pistan squats in front of a small wood fire and makes tea with fresh goat's milk and salt - for anyone not from the region the taste may take some getting used to. A blue tarpaulin draped over a washing line and anchored with some stones offers protection from the wind.
Six herder sleep in this makeshift tent at night, plus half a dozen kit goats which regularly manage to find a cosy spot to rest in. 'It's nice to have one or two in the tent' says Danraj and smiles 'they keep you really warm'. There are 1.500 animals in the herd (toli) he manages together with the other herders, 900 sheep, the rest are goats.
The lambs stay close to their mums, kit goats get to play together in a kind of kindergarten so that their mothers can be milked.
The tarpaulin, a blanket, a pressure cooker that works on a wood fire to make Dal (lentils, spiced with coriander and cumin, eaten with rice or flat breads), some kitchen utensils made from steel and a few provisions – that's it. Herders travel light because everything needs to be carried, either by the goats or by the men themselves. Few herders own a mule to help with transport.
Every few days one of the men has to go to the next village to get supplies. 'Right now we are not far from Chikul', says Danraj, that's only four hours away - on foot.... The herders rotate tasks. Looking after the kit goats is not one of Danraj's favourite jobs, he prefers to be with the sheep on remote pastures, that kind of work comes with a lot more responsibility and Danraj can draw more on his experience and skills.
Herders like Danraj know each animal, they see immediately when a ewe is lame or a lamb doesn't feed. Government veterinarians working out of one of the many field stations in the region support the herders. Occasionally the herders have to act as midwives too, there are always some sheep who give birth during the long migration. The mums will be up on their feet and walking just minutes after giving birth, but their lambs will have to be carried by the herders for the rest of the way.
In a few weeks the long journey to the winter pastures will start. Once the herd reaches he will sell off half of his sheep. The money from the sale will have to cover most of the families expenses for a year. Nights on the low lying winter pastures will be warmer, but working with the sheep becomes more difficult. They have to be kept closer together and supervised all the time, the vegetable gardens of nearby villages are beckoning ...
There is no such thing as a night of uninterrupted sleep anyway. Throughout the night two herders have to keep watch in a three hour shift pattern. Trees grow to an altitude of 4000 m and predators like panthers and bears live in the forests. 'The night before last a panther attacked the herd', says Danraj who works with a different herd, 'we managed to chase him away with shouting and throwing stones.'
On the long trek through the forests en route to the winter pastures such attacks are even more frequent. For the duration of the journey the dogs wear wide steel collars with spikes on the outside, it gives them a chance to survive when a panther or bear tries to kill them. 'It is very scary', says Danraj, 'but to protect the animals is part of my job'.