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Blessed by Lord Shiva: The Gaddi tribe of Jammu and Kashmir

By Arka Chakraborty

India is distinguished by its incredible diversity, whether it is in terms of topography, climate, economy, population or culture. Among the immense population of the subcontinent, there is room for numerous groups of people. Classification of caste, religion, language, ethnicity and tribe cuts across the population making every individual unique. The region of Jammu and Kashmir with its numerous tribal, linguistic and religious groups adds to India’s vision of inclusive diversity. Of the twelve notified scheduled tribes of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Gaddis occupy a special, albeit rather overlooked space. Legendarily blessed by Lord Shiva, this pastoral tribe with its long and varied economic, religious and cultural traditions deserves to be cherished.

The English word ‘tribe’ is derived from the French word ‘tribu’ which itself originated from the Latin word ‘tribus’ which was used to denote the tripartite ethnic division of the Roman state. Tribe is generally defined as “A unit of socio-political organization consisting of a number of families, clans or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture.” Tribes have inhabited the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. Around 8.6% of India’s total population is notified as Scheduled Tribes (Singhania and Singhania, 2024). In the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the proportion of the estimated tribal population was even higher: in the Census of 2001 when the tribal groups of the state were first officially enumerated, they comprised 10.9% of the erstwhile state’s total population and 1.3% of the total tribal population of India (Bhat, 2024). According to the Tribal Affairs Department, Government of Jammu and Kashmir, there were twelve tribes in the erstwhile state: 1. Balti, 2. Beda, 3. Boto, 4. Brokpa, Drokpa, Dard, Shin, 5. Changpa, 6. Garra, 7. Mon, 8. Pungpa, 9. Gujjar, 10. Bakarwal, 11. Gaddi and 12. Sipppi. Among these tribes, eight reside in the region of Ladakh (now a separate Union Territory) while four, namely, Gujjar, Bakarwal, Gaddi and Sippi call the region of Jammu and Kashmir their home. The eight tribes that live in Ladakh were accorded Scheduled Tribe status in 1989, while the four that live in J&K were granted ST status vide the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Act, 1991 (Kumar, 2019). Among the tribal groups in J&K, the Gujjars seem to be the most numerous, followed by the Bots, Bakarwals and Brokpas (Bhat, 2024).

The origins of the Gaddi tribe are shrouded in mystery. According to legends, their ancestors seem to have inhabited the plains of Sind and Punjab. Their lives of constant motion led them to the region of Bharmour in the state of Himachal Pradesh. There, according to legend, Lord Shiva, one of the most important deities of the Hindu pantheon, gave them the boon of gaddi (reign) by allowing them to live in and rule that particular region. That is why their tribe became known as the Gaddis (Ethnographic profile of tribes of Jammu and Kashmir, Tribal Affairs Department, Government of Jammu and Kashmir). Today, the Gaddis are known mostly as a tribe of peripatetic herdsmen who travel with their herds of goats and sheep throughout the year, moving to higher altitudes during summer and lower during winter months. The majority of them reside in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. The Gaddis of Jammu and Kashmir believe that their ancestors migrated there from Bharmour, Himachal Pradesh. According to the Census of 2011, around 178130 people from the Gaddi tribe live in Himachal Pradesh, while the number of Gaddis inhabiting J&K was estimated to be 46489 (Kumar, Kumar and Devi). Within J&K, the Gaddis are concentrated in the areas of Bhaderwah, Basohli, Ramnagar, Udhampur, Bilawar, Ramban and Balot (Ethnographic profile of tribes of Jammu and Kashmir).

Traditionally, the chief economic resources of the Gaddis were understood to be land, the forests and their herds. So important were their herds to them that the word used within the Gaddi community to denote the herd is Dhan, literally meaning money (Sharma, Prakash and Uniyal, 2022). They travel with their herds mostly comprising of goats and sheep through the mountainous regions of J&K, selling sheep wool, goat skin and the meat from the sheep and goats to earn a living. According to the research conducted by the Dehradun-based Center for Ecology, Development and Research, in their research area an average Gaddi household controlled a herd of around 250 goats and sheep and earned Rs. 2.5 lakhs to 3 lakhs per annum (Jain, 2020). This figure may vary across localities and regions. The form of livelihood traditionally followed by the Gaddis can be described as transhumance which entails seasonal migration of herders along with their livestock, thereby ensuring seasonal utilization of resources which are spatially removed from each other and gaining protection from the harshness of environment. The Gaddis also build temporary houses called Hadwaris in the higher altitude areas during the summer months to better protect themselves from the harsh weather and rain and abandon these houses during the winter months when they move towards lower altitudes. This form of livelihood depends largely on the knowledge of the herder communities of the locations, seasons and resources. The Gaddis’ traditional knowledge of the availability of resources, access to resources and utilization of resources have allowed them to continue their livelihood with varying degrees of success for hundreds of years. Now, however, members of the tribe are increasingly taking up non-transhumant professions such as agriculture and jobs that depend on education in the private and government sectors (Kumar, Kumar and Devi; Sharma, Prakash and Uniyal, 2022).

The Gaddis are mostly practicing Hindus. They are divided into numerous subsects like Aralu, Beloria, Katoch, Chaak, Krokar, Jarwa, Lalhal, Shundal, Parihar, and Veerpuri. These subsects are socially stratified based on their Rajput or Brahmin lineages. Overall, the perceived social status of the Gaddi tribe among others at the regional level is not high. They themselves think that their status is low compared to other Dogra communities of Jammu. In matters of matrimony, the Gaddis practice endogamy at the community level and exogamy at the gotra level. Interpersonal relationships within a typical Gaddi family are usually cordial. When any dispute arises, it is usually resolved through mutual reconciliation. If disputes are of criminal nature, however, the Gaddis seek justice in the state’s judicial system. Village panchayats exist among the Gaddis and exercise social control although they do not possess statutory powers. The status of women in the Gaddi community is unfortunately secondary. While they participate in socio-economic activities, they do not compete on equal terms with men. Women participate in economic activities such as agriculture and animal husbandry, thereby contributing to the economy. Moreover, they function as water carriers and fuel collectors for their families. Some women have also taken to weaving woolen blankets and clothes. Participation of Gaddi women in politics is almost absent but they enjoy voting rights (Ethnographic profile of tribes of Jammuand Kashmir).

The Gaddis are a non-vegetarian people who consume mutton but they abstain from eating beef. Their staple food is maize and wheat and, to a lesser extent, rice. They eat cereals and all types of pulses. The Gaddis also have milk and milk products like butter and ghee. They use mustard oil for cooking. The Gaddis use homemade ingredients and generally do not depend on the market for anything. During the winter months, they can store ingredients for up to four months. Occasionally, they make special dishes such as Charrawdi (sweet noodles), Satrawa (salty noodles), Babru (poori) etc. They also prepare and consume homemade alcoholic beverage called Chang. It is said that Chang keeps the body warm and is not bad for health. Generally the men in the community drink Chang but older women also partake in it (Ethnographic profile of tribes of Jammu and Kashmir; Kumar, Kumar and Devi). Gaddis generally wear a loose gown called Choga which goes below the knees, tying it at the waist with Doras (ropes) and accompanying this with tight trousers known in the Gaddi dialect as Unali Suthan. Gaddis used to wear handmade shoes but nowadays some also wear leather shoes. Today, some Gaddis also wear handmade coats known simply as Gaddi coats. Gaddis wear ornaments generally made of silver but in recent years some also have taken to wearing gold ornaments (Kumar, Kumar and Devi).

The Gaddis are a festive people. They celebrate a number of Hindu festivals throughout the year and they celebrate these in their own unique ways. Jatar is one of the prominent Gaddi festivities in which every family worships its own kula devta (family deity). This family deity can be Nag Devta, Chound Mata or Lord Shiva. A highlight of the festival is the procession where the idol of the kula devta travels with a palanquin, a chela (follower of the deity) closely following it. The chela then goes into a trance, answering the villagers’ questions, making prophecies and even warning of possible diseases. It is believed widely that the deity speaks through the chela. Jagra is one of the most popular festivals of the Gaddis and takes place around November or December. Dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva, the festival of Jagra entails sacrifice and devotional songs. Nuala is another Gaddi festival dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva. The festival begins with a pooja in the evening where a copper bowl full of maize and some wool is presented to Lord Shiva and which concludes around 2 AM. Thereafter, a sheep is ritually sacrificed to the deity. The one who sacrifices the sheep takes its liver to the roof. One half of the liver is presented to Lord Shiva and the other half is roasted and distributed among the devotees as prasad. Shivaratri is also celebrated with much pomp and show. During this festival, popular dishes in the community such as Cherrawdi and Satrawa are prepared and beverages such as Pinderi (a drink made of curd) are made and consumed. Some of the important pilgrimages for the Gaddi community are Manimesh Yatra and Choundi Yatra. Some of the other important deities for the Gaddi community are Gunga Devta and Banast Devi, both protector deities for the community but the first specifically protecting the goat and sheep of the community and the second known as the goddess of the forest (Kumar, Kumar and Devi).

In recent years, the Gaddi people have been facing many challenges. While this article does not claim to present an exhaustive account of these, it will try to briefly discuss two of them. Many of the Gaddis have been finding it more and more difficult to continue their traditional pastoral lifestyle. This is because of the shrinking of pasture lands, rapid urbanization and changes in local ecology. Permanent villages of the Gaddi community have come up in Kansar, Shupiyal, Kud, Haddar etc (Kumar, Kumar and Devi). This coincides with many of the Gaddis leaving their traditional pastoralist livelihood to pursue a career in agriculture, manual labour or jobs that depend on education in the government and private sectors. This transformation can be seen as a part of a global decline in transhumance activities- many transhumant communities are no longer able to continue their traditional livelihoods because of social and biophysical challenges such as market, land use transformations, farmer-herder conflicts, state policies on forest and farming, fast-spreading weed and the effects of climate change (Sharma, Prakash and Uniyal, 2022). Even as some of the Gaddi people are moving away from their traditional pastoralist lifestyle, the problems they face in achieving educational qualifications can act as a barrier for them to productively participate in India’s developing economy. As per the Census of 2011, the majority of the Gaddis are yet to receive formal education. The literacy rate of the Gaddi tribe is 28.6%. Some of the factors which are preventing the tribe as a whole from achieving adequate education are: migratory activities, widespread poverty, lack of awareness about scholarship schemes, early marriages, lack of internet connectivity, lack of ICT and language barrier in the educational institutions (Kimar, 2019). Even within this generally poor educational status, there is a noticeable gender disparity. Generally, boys in the community are encouraged to receive education: many of them reach high school level and some even advance to the undergraduate level of higher education. This encouragement is not present when it comes to education for girls. Girls mainly have to drop out because of social and economic considerations whereas boys drop out in order to augment their family income (Ethnographic profile of tribes of Jammu and Kashmir). As a result of this, as per the Census of 2011, 37.6% of men in the Gaddi community are literate while only 19.6% of women can claim to have received even this basic level of education (Kumar, 2019).

The Gaddi tribe, with their delicious cuisine, self-sufficient pastoral economy and delightful festivals, are an inextricable part of Jammu and Kashmir’s diverse human landscape. Their legends, deities, architecture and festivals are deeply connected with their traditional pastoral past and present. The changes and challenges that the Gaddis are facing in a rapidly transforming world have led many of them to part from their age-old pastoral traditions and seek other livelihoods. While education and gender equality must be promoted within the Gaddi community, measures must be adopted to protect the pastoral traditions among those of the community who wish to continue following in their ancestors’ footsteps in spite of the challenges. Through ensuring the protection and preservation of the pastoralist culture, the cultural essence of the Gaddi tribe may still be preserved.


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