Trek to meet the Dhangar shepherds

Last week a few of us from Anthra trekked across the Deccan Plateau to meet the Dhangar shepherds – a semi-nomadic pastoralist community that migrate for 9 months of the year in search of fodder for their animals.

We trekked across a rocky barren landscape. The rains have been playing peek-a-boo all season so much that the state government is planning to create artificial rain by dispersing substances in to the air to stimulate precipitation.

DSC01784It was a 15km trek (one-way) to meet the shepherds. After about 5 slow kms we stopped at the river you can see gouging a path through the landscape. This river used to be flowing till about 10 or 15 years ago.DSC01796We met one of the shepherds we’ve been working with for over a decade, here at this ridge. It was much too steep for us to scramble down (the heavy green area in the right of the picture below). He of course, made his way over to us in deft acrobatic leaps.

DSC01818Perched atop this ridge, we talked for about an hour. Looking around the stunning, quiet landscape the only sound an occasional bleet from a flock of sheep grazing nearby, I couldn’t help but recall the countless interviews and focus groups in crummy community centres with strip lighting, dried out sandwiches and the stench of stale beer emanating from a carpet that looked like it had never seen a vaccum cleaner since WWII.


DSC01859DSC01855As I mentioned in a previous post, the Dhangar dogs where a collar of spikes to keep the leopards from attacking them. Dogs play an important role – they are the night watchman, warning the shepherds of wolves, jackals, leopards and hyenas. This particular dog looks more like a Scottish Terrier than the usual dhangar dogs we see.

The easy way around was a 3km detour but it was the only way that us inexperienced trekkers could make it to the camp.

DSC01901And finally we make it to the camp. The pen (where the horse is roaming) is empty as the 800 sheep and goat have been taken for grazing.DSC01916Horses play an important role for transporting the homestead and young lambs who are too young to walk.DSC01923Chickens provide a good supply of nutritious protein rich eggs. An egg a day for the children, they say.

DSC01925 DSC01926Cleaning out the chicken coops with goat dung.

DSC01932The lady in a green sari with pots on her head delivered her fourth baby ten days ago while on migration.

DSC01938None of these children have received any form of education or immunization and they are prone to things like helminths (worms and flukes) being around animals. None of the children have been dewormed either. BUT they were all wearing slippers (even this little one in the picture below) so that is a great preventative measure.DSC01945 DSC01953A shepherd watches a UNICEF made video in marathi, on a tablet about the importance of immunization.


And this picture because lambs are just so cuteDSC01964 DSC01976The woman from the earlier picture who delivered her fourth baby watches a video on the importance of breast feeding immediately. Pre-lacteal feeds (like sugar water, honey, dates) are a common practice in many south asian and arabic communities. The valuable colostrum which contains about 95% of the good stuff, the antibodies a baby needs, is often thrown out because it looks like a yellow mucous substance and not like milk. The ten day old baby was fed sugar water for the first three days. Our French intern watches on.DSC01977Ten day old baby born on migration.


DSC01988 DSC01989

This shepherd examines the hoof of a sheep that’s been lagging behind of late. He looked quite out of place with his photochromatic glasses (which of course, I quizzed him about). None of the others, including the old lady reported vision problems during the day or night. They do have one motorbike (in picture below) but it is slow going in this very rocky landscape. The shock absorbers are shot within months.DSC01995 DSC01999We talked about a lot of things with the shepherds and here is one of our girls, Sangeeta having a good ol’ laugh…i can’t recall about what. We talked climate change, global warming, sustainability, health, happiness, importance of the girl child, the meaning of poverty. We could have talked for much longer…we have been invited to stay the night, with a lamb slaughtered for a big feast.DSC02002The status of women is quite low in this community, much like everywhere else. They play a vital role in the health and upkeep of the animals. Child marriage is common.We are working with these communities looking at how we can harness the interdependence between human and animal health because animals play a huge role in their lives, culture, myths and livelihood. DSC02006The life of the shepherd and his family is a hard one. Sometimes it can sound like I romanticise it but that’s because I don’t live it – i just drop in and out of it. But when I gave him Amartya Sen’s words, ‘Poverty is not just about empty wallets but about empty lives’ he couldn’t relate. Yes, it is a hard life but he felt that rearing sheep and goat was the best job to take a person out of poverty. He says that their lives are definitely not empty. Their wallets are filled with the sheep they raise.

The beginning of an exciting journey with the shepherds.

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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8 Responses to Trek to meet the Dhangar shepherds

  1. Amrut says:

    very nice write up and photographs … 🙂 keep up the good work. Let me know if you need any help exploring and reaching out to other people in Maharashtra …

  2. Love the bright colours n smiles. Yes, often development work can become “making other people like us” (because of course we are the epitome of full and sustainable lives n lifestyles!?) The other extreme from romanticising. The truth lies somewhere in between. Meanwhile, may you have more exciting journeys n may we see many fantastic blogposts!!

    • aaah…. yes, truth…one thing a qualitative researcher or anyone in development should learn early – there is no one truth, no objective truth (this is my problem with quant researchers!You go looking for a definitive truth and you’ll end up in trouble…

  3. That is the longest break from blogging I have seen you take….. Don’t get lazy, you are an inspiration to many of us :-). Great writeup and lovely photographs. About the Dhangars, wonder if they are still happy becoz they aren’t exposed to the outside world. Will discontent start seeping in when they see the comfortable life of the rich on TV…………

    • As for the Dhangars…there are a number of positive things that the modern world has given us like vaccines and sanitation systems. Very much a community in transition – they are connected to the outside world, the younger generation have aspirations beyond being shepherds, they too want the comfortable life. But without a good education, one goes to mumbai filled with hopes of working in an office and then a security guard just doesn’t see so glamorous. Many fail in the ‘outside’ world because money is tight. SO it’s quite a complex state of affairs, you can’t tell people not to have dreams.We should be wary of romanticising their world and forcing our world upon them. For instance it’s not like a govt school education is anything great but you can’t deny someone the opportunity to be literate. Thanks for the morale boost – yes i need to blog more

    • shreyas says:

      Please also get moreinformation about dhangardog and get more pictures.there is not sufficient information on Google about carry on your work ,all the best

  4. Can you not write more often? Such wonderful writing!!

    • Thank u…It’s becoming a challenge to write more than I already do! Different sorts of writing i guess – currently swamped with grant writing, proposal writing, research writing, analysis writing…somewhere have to make room for blog writing! It was a friend who suggested photo blogging !

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