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Shepherds embark on seasonal migration with special friends


By Rajiv Rawat
Garhwal Post, 26 April 2007

“Mountain shepherds of the world unite!” may seem like an otherworldly slogan, but it is being put to the test by two young Americans who are following the seasonal migration of highland Bhotiya herders and their flocks in Chamoli district this April and May.

Ian Snider and Kelly Sheets who both hail from the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern North America are currently traveling with a family from Birahi village, a connection arranged through Dr. Sunil Kainthola of the Nanda Devi Campaign and Mountain Shepherds Initiative. The monumental journey will eventually involve scaling 2,000 feet with a flock of 325 goats and sheep in tow.

Entitled “Leaving Winter”, the trek-cum-research project focuses on the pastoralist livelihood strategy long practiced by the Gujjar and Bhotiya peoples of Garhwal and Kumaon. Known as transhumance in academic parlance, this practice is dying out worldwide as populations become sendentarized and experience the same challenges as their more settled neighbours, namely, the outmigration of youth and the abandonment of rural livelihoods. However, despite overwhelming adversity that includes ever more onerous restrictions on grazing rights, some families stubbornly cling to their traditional lifestyle to this day, finding a way to adapt to the difficulties of the road and the utter transformation of the landscape by modernity.

It is this struggle that first gained the attention of Ian and Kelly, leading them to launch Mountain Works, a newly created partnership that is working with the Nanda Devi Campaign to champion these intrepid nomads. Beyond sponsoring the trek, Mountain Works is dedicated to working at the grassroots level to bring communities spanning the globe closer together for the cause of sustainable mountain development.

A veteran of the Garhwal Himalayas, Ian has visited India over the last few summers as part of his studies and general interest in mountaineering. “Leaving Winter” embodies the culmination of his efforts on behalf of Garhwal, having earlier helped raise over $10,000 worth of gear and equipment for the Mountain Shepherds Initiative and participated in mountain geography field work organized by an American colleague and long-term associate of the Nanda Devi Campaign, Dr. Keith Bosak.

As an arts teacher and cultural activist, Kelly will be conducting her own project “Trading Traditions” immediately following the migration. She is keen to share the musical and artistic traditions of Appalachia with fellow highlanders from Garhwal, having previously done so with mountain communities in the Philippines. This will include exchanging folk ways such as storytelling, dance, and song while organizing community events and workshops for the purpose of positive globalization. As both Ian and Kelly are avid singers, this cultural component promises to forge some powerful mountain-to-mountain bonds.

Traveling largely at night to avoid heavy road traffic, the two travelers have already come to some profound realizations that have led them revise some of their earlier preconceived notions about the Bhotiya herders. For example, rather than a “staunchly independent group of people practicing a marginal livelihood activity in an extreme mountain environment”, Ian notes that the dominant narrative resembled that of an “uneasy family ingeniously finding a passage through a rapidly modernizing India.” Ian and Kelly also note that they were more prepared for traversing alpine meadows than suffocating on diesel fumes and avoiding automobile collisions on paved roads.

Indeed, this has fundamentally changed their research question from “how” to “why” given the enormous difficulties facing shepherds in their attempt to maintain their heritage. Ian and Kelly hope that their research will at least alert the authorities to addressing some of the problems, so that a way of life intrinsic to the cultural fabric of Uttarakhand will not be lost due to neglect.

Ian and Kelly are regularly providing news updates for well-wishers on their blog at, where readers can also comment on their reports.