I hear them before I see them: jangling bells, barking dogs, maas, baas and the lilting call of the anwal as they herd their sheep across the Himalayan hillsides from pasture to pasture.
It is spring, the rhododendron forests are blooming red, pink and purple but the grass is drying; the time is near for the last migrating shepherds of the Indian Himalayas to drive their flocks higher and higher above the remote villages of the Saryu and Pindar Valleys to the lush summer vegetation of the glaciers tucked beneath some of India’s highest and holiest peaks. And I am heading to meet them.
“They have not left yet,” a young man on the narrow mountain path reassures us. Over his arm is a bakhula, a thick brown-wool jacket handmade from the local wool, and a bag of supplies. He is returning from the only shop for miles around, tucked into former animals’ quarters beneath the beautifully carved wooden doorway of a traditional blue-and-white house in the village of Kaljhuni where we spent the previous night. “You will find them”.
And we do, already high on the mountainside around their pre-migration camp, a walled enclosure with a rough stone hut, more for the newborn lambs than for the shepherds who live in open lean-tos. The anwal are welcoming, their thoughtful senior shepherd happy to sit and talk.
His name is Man Singh, he tells me through my Village Ways guide who translates from the local Kumaon language, and he has been an anwal for half a century. Each year he migrates, spending five months away, cut off for weeks by monsoon-swollen rivers.
With around 100 sheep of his own, Singh and a couple of assistant anwal take some 600 of other people’s animals, for a fee of a couple of pounds a head. How does he tell which is whose, I wonder: “I recognise them,” he says as if it’s obvious.
Man Singh likes his job, especially at the glacier: “it’s relaxing”. I see what he means as I sit the following day at Village Ways’ 3000-metre Jaikuni camp. The staggeringly beautiful 200-degree Himalayan peak panorama shifts constantly as the light changes. Shadows are always on the move, peaks appearing and disappearing in a real-life movie that is both meditative and mesmeric.
Meanwhile, night is falling at the anwal camp and my Village Ways protectors light a campfire close to our own tents. I sit in the warm glow eating delicious vegetarian Indian food – dahl, rice, chapatti with homemade ghee, and nuts with Himalayan honey – watching the orange eyes of the anwal’s dogs circling the flock.
At 3am I wake to a cacophony of barking. Footsteps follow and men’s voices, before it all goes quiet. Waking to birdsong, jingling bells and voices round the cooking fire, I ask what all the noise was about. “A leopard,” they say unperturbed, “it’s OK; the dogs did their job”.
Only rarely is a sheep taken by a leopard at this altitude, but each flock loses some 8 or 10 a year to snow leopards at the glacier. The dogs and the anwal ensure it is no more.
In the bright morning sunshine, we set off with ‘our’ flock. Large billy goats to tiny lambs, they munch, nudge, clamber and gambol their way from one grassy bughiyal (high pasture) to the next. Walking here is stunning whatever the company, but there is something special about traversing the mountainsides with this humorous herd and the last transhumance shepherds of the Indian Himalayas.