Accessibility links

Breaking News

A Threatened Way of Life: the Van Gujjars of Northern India

Though they are Muslim, Van Gujjar women never veil their faces - except on their wedding day.
Though they are Muslim, Van Gujjar women never veil their faces - except on their wedding day.
A Threatened Way of Life: the Van Gujjar of Northern India
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:03:58 0:00

American writer and photographer Michael Benanav has traveled around the world studying the cultures of nomadic people.

His work has taken him to places from Mali to Jordan to Mongolia.

Benanav writes about people who are threatened, endangered or chased from their land.

Recently he joined a nomadic tribe in northern Indian called the Van Gujjar as they moved across the country.

He said that he was surprised by how open and welcoming the group was to him.

“They really invited me and welcomed me into their world, and really was taken into the family with an incredible amount of warmth and trust.”

Benanav noticed how the tribesmen cared for their herd of water buffalo. He found they consider the animals family members and would never kill them for food. Instead they keep the animals for the milk they produce.

“Every Van Gujjar buffalo has a name. Every buffalo, they say, has a unique personality. If a buffalo was to get sick, the family would be really wracked with concern…And if a buffalo dies they’ll bury it and mourn for it almost as if it was human.”

Benanav followed the tribe as they moved with the seasons over 44 days.

“In the fall and the winter they live in an area called The Sivalik Hills.”

They are a group of hills in northern India with a forest that provides enough food for the buffalo. By April, however, the area becomes very hot and the food is mostly gone, so they move to the cooler Himalaya Mountains.

There, Benanav said, the Van Gujjar find food and water for their buffalo all summer.

But India has begun turning some of it best lands into national parks, pushing out the Van Gujjar.

“Some of them have already been forcibly evicted from the forests where they and their ancestors have lived for over 1,000 years.”

The photographer also noted that the people he studied had a deep, or profound, connection to their environment.

“There’s a really profound relationship with the natural world. Maybe some of that comes from the fact they're living really in intimate contact with the natural world but also their perspective on it as something that is essentially sacred.”

The Van Gujjar are Muslims. Benanav said he found them to be among the more open communities within India, especially the women.

He says he experienced no barriers and he could spend time with the women in the family.

Benanav says his experiences have made him understand the differences in the many cultures around the world.

He noted, “As the world becomes a more homogenized place, I think it's really important to be remembering all of the different possible ways that it is to be human.”

Benanav has written about his time with the Van Gujjar in his latest book Himalaya Bound. He says he hopes it will expand the world of his readers.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Julie Taboh reported this story for VOA. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English and George Grow edited it.


Words in This Story

nomadicadj.a member of a group of people who move from place to place instead of living in one place all the time

caravann.a group of vehicles (such as cars or wagons) traveling together

uniqueadj.very special or unusual

buffalo– n.a large animal like a cow with long horns that lives in Asia and is often used to pull plows

consumptionn.the act of eating

migrationn.the act of moving to a new place

meadown. field be thrown out of one’s house or land

intimate–adj. having a very close relationship

homogenizev. to make everything pure