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Goatherding with Gutthu – Travelogue

luglio 18, 2019 4 min leggi

Gutthu sat on my lap staring into my eyes.

Was there love? Was there bonding? Was this  unbroken stream of photons resulting in any emotional bonding from his side? Would he know me if I saw him in heaven*?

Or was it just one-sided love?

Gutthu the  8-month old baby goat was being taken from his village home to the meadows to join 250+   relatives for grazing.

The shepherd’s family lives in a small hamlet of 30 choolahs or hearths (or homes) in a remote valley in Western Ladakh.

And the summer-grazing** fields are at a distance of about 30 kilometers away on a winding road and about a 1000 m higher up on a mountain accessible only through narrow valleys.

The only people who have ever set foot there are the villagers and their sheep. And the Indian Army. It is simply too remote for anyone else.

In the olden days every family owned 200-300 goats / sheep each and every family sent out one adult (and maybe a child or two to assist) with their flock for summer grazing. Areas were demarcated for each family  and the animals were limited to the family’s grazing region and there was plenty of space for all.

But as alternative sources of income such as apricot farming came up, the economic dependence on farm-animals reduced and eventually the flock sizes reduced. A direct result of that was that it was no longer financially viable to assign one whole family member to the task of grazing of only 5-10 animals.

And so the villagers adopted a ‘cooperative’ or collective model of minding their grazing sheep.

A system was set up whereby each family sends one man up to the grazing area and attends to the whole village’s collective flock of about 300+ animals for a period of 6 days. And then it is the turn of the next family to send up a man and so on.

And the system works perfectly.

The man on duty is expected to let all the sheep and goats out of their large semi-closed shelter in the morning, feed them their salt,  lead them out to further remote grounds and lead them all back in the evening.

It is also his duty to shoo away any snow leopards, foxes and cheetah(?) that might visit. He milks the 20-30 female sheep every day and attends to the births if any. He ensures that young ones are sent to separate grazing areas so that they don’t have to compete with the older stronger ones for patches of grass.

A temporary hut is built for the man to spend the night in and he cooks his Tsampa and goat-curd meal and goat-milk-tea on a stove in the hut. To make goat-curd or goat-cheese, he uses the skin of a goat as a container, ties it up and shakes it in a rocking motion for hours. At the end of 6 days everything he has not consumed is his to take home to his family.


There are many many amazing blessings of serendipity in this story – but the most poignant one is this one: On the previous day, during the course of the field visit for the Astitiva project I met the 4 men who were learning to weave sashes from the village elder. And as Indian conversations go, we jump from one topic to another freely and frequently until we have exhausted all our energy and all the topics that we could think of. And so as I stood under the walnut tree with the 6-7 men, we eventually began talking about the next day’s plan to go visit the grazing area. And one of the students – otherwise quiet – piped in to say it was his turn to go up the next day to relieve the other shepherd.

Imagine my curiosity & excitement! A thousand questions followed – as I learnt about ‘turns’ and ‘cooperative grazing’ etc etc.

Carpe Diem is the only way to live … and so we arranged to meet him at 6 am the next day and go up with him.

As soon as  our car stopped to meet his in the morning, there was a rushed flurry of activity – some instructions exchanged in Dardzi, followed by opening and shutting of doors and in a move that took me a little while to comprehend, a goat and a sheep had been transferred to our car.

What just happened?!

Gutthu & Cousin needed to be transported to the grazing area and we were designated to be their ride to the top of the mountain.

Then, with the excitement of an urban newbie, I asked for Gutthu – the 8 month old baby goat – to sit in my lap. And that is how we spent the next hour staring into each other’s eyes.

Click to view slideshow.


Upon reaching the mountain-top, Gutthu joined his relatives in the pen. And later they were all released and they scampered off over the top of the mountain looking for happiness that is found in a full belly.

Here are some memories:

Click to view slideshow.


In the meanwhile, we [my constant guide-companions & the driver] had our little picnic…with NO food, NO blanket, NO basket & NO music.  Sitting closer to the next hostile country than to the nearest hamlet in our own.

Click to view slideshow.


More tales from Ladakh to follow soon…



* somewhat like what Eric Clapton said

**In winter the animals are kept in a enclosed & covered pen just the house and given grass feed that was harvested and stored carefully for the winter

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