The Dhangars

I’ve not used this space to write about my work. It’s more ‘kitchen table’ sociology that I do on this blog. But research with the Dhangars has become a key part of my life now and sharing their stories helps me in a way…you never know who is reading, whose life might be changed…The Dhangars are pastoralists: shepherding communities that practice transhumance, that is they migrate with their livestock (in this case sheep and goats) for nine months of the year in search of fodder. The sheep feed on dry semi-arid scrub land of the Deccan Plateau. This is considered by many to be an unproductive wasteland or dryland but to the dhangars this is what delivers their livelihood.

Much like the drylands, the Dhangars are also considered by mainstream society to be unproductive and backward – wandering around from place to place with ones sheep seems pretty useless to some. However, the Dhangars have an intricate knowledge of weather systems, terrain, geography, risk assessment, market forces and animal health.

Their wealth ‘occasionally bleets beside them’ – an apt description from photographer Kalyan Verma whose blog on the Dhangars I strongly recommend you see. His photographs of the dhangars are truly stunning.

The Dhangars earn their living through the sale of lambs for meat (the price of mutton is Rs.460 a kg), and the sheep fertilise farmer’s fields for which the Dhangars get grain or vegetables in return or a safe place to camp. Sheep crap for food basically. The monthly earnings of a dhangar is roughly Rs.40,000 a month – the starting salary of an entry level software engineer…and much more than a social worker. The women wear their ancestoral wealth in gold but mainly silver as you’ll see in the pictures.

Sheep out for grazing

Sheep out for grazing

There are no known numbers of Dhangars but the estimate of all pastoralists in India is about 5% of the population.

When you fail to enumerate a population, then their problems, degree of marginalisation, extent of access to education and health care cannot be assessed and it makes planning for their growth and inclusion impossible.

Since most of them trade in the informal economy their exact contribution, while significant, cannot be accurately quantified. Pastoralists make substantial contributions to the economy of developing countries mainly through the sale of livestock for meat or milk. In China 78 million cashmere goats produce 65-75 percent of the world’s cashmere fibre. In Ethiopia , the leather industry, dominated by pastoral production, is the second largest source of foreign exchange after coffee. In 1998 alone, leather and leather goods worth US$41 million were exported, primarily to Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The Dhangars move from place to place in search of grazing land. This is not a random exercise but one that is planned, with routes and knowledge of weather, rain, terrain handed down from generations and new knowledge that has evolved with experience of changing climate and habitation areas. Drought, climate change, erratic changes in weather greatly affect their migratory route. They move in groups as small as 3 to 7 people with 200 to 800 sheep and goats, 1 to 5 horses and 1 to 5 dogs, and a few chickens. Their dwellings are extremely humble, four poles and a tarp but for some not even that. The men take the sheep out to graze by around 10 and don’t return till 6 in the evening.The women then fix any holes in the mesh pens, bathe the children, care for any sick or injured lambs, wash the clothes, make lunch and dinner and graze the horses. If they are moving to a new location, then the women do their morning chores, then pack up the homestead, take down the fencing, load up all their belongings on the horses and move to where the men are with the sheep. They reach the new spot, set up the fencing before twilight, set up the homestead and make dinner.

home stead

home stead

It’s a hard life on the road with no frivolous pleasures like foot massages or pedicures. The life of pastoralist families is one of hard work, isolation, constant exposure to the elements and threat of predators.

feetThis dog, who has no name but who I call Spike, wears a collar of spikes as he is on night duty protecting the flock and family from leopards and wolves. The leopards go for the head first but with a collar of spikes, they don’t stand a chance.

spike the dog

For the Dhangars, the health and survival of their livestock are inextricably bound with their own. A sudden loss of livestock or grazing land could impoverish them. But migrating to semi-arid regions with low population density means a lack of services such as schools or health centres. Many dhangar children are now staying back in the native villages to live with grandparents and attend ashram shalas. While they do get educated, they are losing a part of their cultural identity and knowledge. This woman told us how sometimes she can’t sleep at night because she’s thinking of her two boys 5 and 7 years old, about a days journey away from her. Women give birth out in the open, often unassisted and alone. Infant deaths are common and they often fail to get immunized. This woman had her baby after 3 hrs in labour, out in the open with a few lambs around. She cut the umbilical cord herself, cleaned herself and the baby in a stream about 15 minutes walk away across rocky terrain and said she was back to work in about 5 hours. The woman in the picture below is older, she had her first baby in the hospital because she was scared and didn’t know what to expect and then had five more out in the field. ‘They just came out’ she says and ‘There was pain but I knew what to expect’. Romanticising the life of the dhangar women would be misleading but these are incredibly tough women.

dhangar woman1

When we ask the Dhangar women about their day from waking to sleeping, what struck me was their lack of talk about looking after their own children. So much attention is paid to the lambs, the sick sheep, the horses, the dogs…these animals are their livelihood, their everything, their cultural identity. This picture of a lamb and baby sleeping together says it all…

Lamb and baby grow up together

Lamb and baby grow up together

‘Why don’t they just settle down’, you’re probably thinking, ‘wouldn’t life be easier’. We have been conditioned to think that sedentary lifestyles are more desirable because of the historical discourse surrounding migrants has always been demonising. Think of the language surrounding gypsies as vagrants and the CPT- Criminalized Primitive Tribes, the illegal migrants risking death on the high seas to flee poverty in Ethiopia or war in somalia/syria/afghanistan to get to Lampadusa or Christmas Island. Migration of the poor has always been seen as problemmatic and a drain on resources.

However, for the Dhangars, migrating is essential to their livelihood and essential to the environment. It is now widely accepted that the practice of pastoralism also benefits the environment by conservation of flora and fauna, prevention of over-grazing and even encouraging wildlife like the Indian wolf in the deccan plateau for whom the livestock of pastoralists are prey. Their lifestyles are also environmentally sustainable: they live minimalist lives, recycle and reuse everything, use biofuel for cooking, contribute to organic fertilizer for crops and leave a low carbon footprint. However, pastoralists continue to fight for pasture land on a daily basis as farmers expand their lands and governments declare inhabitable regions as conservation areas or defence land.

Many more posts to follow about my visits to meet the Dhangars. And many questions I’m sure you have, which I will answer through my posts. For now, the NGO I work with called Anthra who have been working with livestock rearing communities since the early 90s, are trying to understand how dhangar women understand and access maternal and child health care and to devise a  participatory model for better access to maternal health.

For me, as a sociologist/ethnographer this is the type of research experience I could only dream of. We are in unchartered territory. No one has studied the dhangars before. We don’t know how they think, how they live, how they die. Never before have I done interviews in such sparse conditions. We sit out in the open, in the middle of nowhere, on a rough sheep’s skin rug, drink milky sweet sheep’s milk tea in the hot sun as a 4 day old lamb nuzzles my knee taking shelter from the heat in the shadow of my body. The experience of going ‘out in to the field’ is always thrilling for me, one that I have missed. Being out with fresh new researchers who are learning as we go, takes me back to my London days. And it throws up the classic debates of our influence on people when we do research,the place and purpose of the researcher in changing the world, and what it means to get a glimpse of people’s difficult lives for just half a day and then retreat to the comfort of ones own comfortable life with First World problems.

Thats me in the green and yellow

Thats me in the green and yellow


More on the Dhangars…


About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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6 Responses to The Dhangars

  1. Very interesting…… as you said about the place of research – most of the times, the govt just uses it for the bare figures, provide ‘development’ and ‘relief’, till they become dependent on the state machinery and ‘settle down’…..unable to fit into modern society and not satisfied with their lot 😦 …. love your work..

    • the work is really absorbing…so many layers we have only just begun to unravel. A real privilege to be studying a community in transition – straddling modern and traditional worlds and not always finding a balance. More posts for sure.

  2. Vikram Karve says:

    Fascinating Blog Post.
    Thanks for the information and pictures.

  3. Alka ganesh says:

    Not easy to comprehend! So beautifully written that one gets the feel of the total isolation.”yes, why not just settle down! The dhangars are obviously evolving; they depend on mainstream communities for clothing, bangles etc. Now the children are left behind to study. The next generation will not want this difficult life. So is mainstreaming of the children, no doubt essential, the end of this way of life; or, just as you try to being health benefits to them, can education be taken to them? Will the dhangars go the way of the of australian aborigines if attempts are made to mainstream them? Perhaps the aborigines are a very different group to use as a comparision. Looking forward to more insights on the Dhangars. Alka Ganesh

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