Michael Benanav has made a career as a writer and photojournalist documenting the lives and cultures of people most of us would never hear about otherwise. He continues this work in his latest book, "Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save Their Animals and an Ancient Way of Life."
In this case it is the Van Gujjars of India, forest-dwelling tribal people whose way of life depends on their ability to guide their herds of water buffaloes into the higher reaches of the Himalayas, where they find food and water sufficient to endure blistering Indian summers. It is a centuries-old culture, one that seems on the brink of destruction when Benanav arrives to accompany one family of herders on their annual migration. The story seems simple enough, but it is actually quite complex. Benanav does a wonderful job capturing the nuances of the forces at play, including blatant colonialism masked as conservation, selective law enforcement as practiced by ignorant bureaucrats, and cold indifference to ancient indigenous cultures.
These seem like old issues, and they are. For centuries European governments colonized indigenous people all over the world, installing their laws and values everywhere they went. It is a grim example of the darkest side of humanity, the ramifications of which are still felt. Yet it continues to happen today, like in Africa, where nomadic herders, facing deadly violence, are no longer allowed on lands they've used for centuries. Or the aboriginal people of Australia, driven from "wastelands" that a British government decided was better served for the testing of weapons.
Not to mention here in America, where Native tribes were driven from ancestral hunting grounds on lands destined to become national parks, and remade as farmers and villagers … or else. This is where we find the greatest, most relatable parallel in Benanav's story.
When the British Raj (term for the period of British rule in India, between 1858 and 1947) still held sway on the Indian subcontinent, they instituted a permitting system that significantly limited the movements of the Van Gujjar people, as well as how many buffaloes they could own. These restrictions are still in place, and they are getting tighter. The nomads don’t own their lands, and their traditional lands were suddenly, beginning in 1983, becoming national parks they were no longer allowed to live or graze their animals in. The culture has been getting squeezed ever since, despite changes in laws that should protect them.
Benanav’s story is part history, part social commentary, and part adventure. How his trip plays out in the face of a situation more dire than he realized is at times harrowing. The people he travels with face one hardship after another. But Benanav also shows the warmth and humor of these people. The Van Gujjars travel in close-knit family groups, are Muslims with liberal views (women are never veiled, can instigate divorce, etc.), and strict vegetarians who view their buffaloes as family. The buffaloes are the center of their existence, in fact, and the culture’s economy is almost entirely milk-based. The love they have for their animals, and for the world they survive in, is depicted beautifully in Benanav’s storytelling. A selection of Benanav’s gorgeous photographs from the trip are a perfect companion to his writing.
It is a frustrating read, though. There is a sense of inevitability about the looming fate of the Van Gujjars. It is difficult to feel hopeful about any of our fates when faced with the reality of the relentless juggernaut of modern civilization. We seem bent on using up every possible resource with no concern for any other life we share our planet with, and for what? Comfort? Convenience? It is depressing. Yet somewhere, right now, there is a family of nomads living an existence that has survived for millennia, facing joys and struggles in equal measure. Benanav’s book goes a long way toward showing that, perhaps, we have more to learn from them than they do from us. If only we would listen.