Aamcha mhendrach dhana
aamhala aandan ran vana
hindu kushal aamhi bara mahina
chandar surve aamchyasathi martat chakkar
aamhi haye dhangar dhangar
vadhyache paani kunacha sangala
jangal raj mahaal bandhalan
chandanya mojit jhopu
aamhi ushagati patthar
aamhi dhangar dhangar
Our sheep are our wealth
Forests are our treasure
We wander carefree all twelve months
Even the sun and the moon revolve around us
We are the Dhangars...
Who owns the berries and plums,
and the water of the stream?
We have built palaces out of forests
We bend our shoulder and take stones for pillows
We are the Dhangars...
— From the 1948 Marathi film Aaher's song 'Aamhi Dhangar Dhangar'
All photos courtesy Kalyan Varma.
The Dhangars are presumably one of the oldest inhabiting pastoral communities in India settled predominantly in the Deccan region of Maharashtra and Karnataka, with marginal presence in Goa and Madhya Pradesh. Some records state that the community's origin can be traced to Gokul, Mathura and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, akin to the other pastoral clans such as the Yadavas. Dhangar is derived from the Sanskrit term 'dhan' meaning wealth, which in this instance refers to livestock and animal husbandry.
Noted wildlife photographer and filmmaker Kalyan Varma got a chance to explore the Dhangar community back in 2013, when he went there to film for a BBC series that focused on their relationship with wolves. Since then, Varma has been interacting with the community sporadically over the years, and uncovering various facets of their everyday existence.
"A friend from Maharastra told me about these shepherds who migrate with the monsoon, and how wolves follow their packs. The BBC shoot involved spending a month with them and during that time, I realised that there has to be a detailed body of work that needs to be done about the Dhangars and their lifestyles," Varma says, talking about how that experience made him come back next year and extensively document the Dhangars and their nomadic lifestyle. "I walked with them for a month as they migrated across Maharastra and stayed with them to understand their story," he adds.
Varma says he consciously tried to go into this body of work a bit unprepared, and looking back, he feels it was a good decision. He explains, "I realised if I had gone there with a set of ideas in my head, I would end up covering those and get back. I didn’t want to be a kind of journalist/photographer who would parachute in, do the story and head out." With an open mind and an empty journal, Varma admits, he could explore about the Dhangars that he may not have been able to otherwise. "I walked with them and let them tell me their stories. This takes time, of course, as you have to build their trust and respect."
While Dhangars are found across Maharashtra, Varma's photo series revolves around a specific family, which spends almost eight months of the year in parts of north Mumbai, and then walks for a month to reach somewhere in central Maharashtra spending 3-4 months during the monsoons. "They need to be on the move all the time to support their thousands of livestock," Varma points out.
"I initially went there to understand their relationship with grasslands and wildlife, but the more time I spent with them, it became the story about their livelihoods and rights, many of which they don't have anyway."
Varma spent nearly three weeks with Mahendra Kathal and his family, living with them in their temporary home, which basically was a "blue tarpaulin stretched taut on a central pole, with the four ends pegged to the ground." Varma would sleep during the day, and spend the night looking out for any possible attacks by the wolves.
He remembers how on one night the wolves actually made an appearance and were successful in taking one lamb from Kathals' herd. He was so busy shooting the whole thing that he forgot to alert the family about the wolves. He apologetically told them he would compensate them by paying the price of one lamb. "I assured them with the unthinking arrogance of the professional photographer that I was," he recalls, and adds how Mahendra Kathal's wife responded to him saying, "Not everything can be measured in money." "You will never understand,” she told Varma.
In the book, Martial Races of Undivided India, author Vidya Prakash Tyagi states: "The Dhangars have originated several ruling dynasties, most recently the Holkars of Indore. Prominent Dhangars have been Kahharaya and Bukkaraya, founding fathers of Vijayanagara Empire. Dhangars have established the Hoysalas, Rashrakutas, Maurya, Pallav, Holkar dynasties. In addition, the poets Kalidasa and Kanakdasa were also Dhangars."
While the pastoral communities then had a huge wealth of cattle livestock, today the Dhangars mainly raise animals such as goats and sheep. Adding more on the occupational side of the community, Reginald Edward Enthoven in his volumes of the ethnographic survey of India published in 1922 under the title The Tribes and Castes of Bombay mentions that apart from cattle-breeding, the other callings of the Dhangars included cattle-selling and blanket weaving. He adds that there were distinct breeds of Dhangars' horses found in Ahmednagar which were "famed for hardiness and endurance" and special breeds of cows and buffaloes in the Karnataka region. "They have a great name as weather prophets, foretelling rain and other changes of weather by observing the planets," Enthoven writes.
According to Varma, this project taught him how livestock grazing has a very positive impact on the dry grasslands. He says, "Without them, frankly, we will lose the balance of grasslands and lose predators like the wolves." This realisation also dawned upon him whilst he was travelling with the Kathals. In his blog, Peepli, Varma writes how when he expressed his concerns to Mahendra Kathal over the losses incurred by them at the hands of wolves and other predators, the latter responded saying, "Wolves? They are the least of our worries. In fact, we worship them; I know they are good for me. I might lose a few lambs to them, but they are the reason I have thousands of healthy sheep."
"These Dhangars lose about two per cent of their livestock annually to wolves," Varma points out. Wolves — as a species — is highly endangered in India. Historically too, both in India and abroad, people have killed and prosecuted them for various reasons. However, with Dhangars, it is very different. "These people do not hate wolves, and in fact, believe that they clean up the weakest of the livestock, thereby keeping the overall population healthy," he explains.
This belief of the Dhangars has also been mentioned in Pastoral Deities in Western India by the noted German ethnographer, Günther D Sontheimer, who wrote about how sacrifice is closely associated with abandon according to Dhangar mythology. Khandoba, a form of Shiva, and the guardian deity of the Deccan, was enamoured by the beauty of Banai, whose father owned around 9,00,000 sheep and goats. In a bid to marry Banai, Khandoba slaughtered all the animals with the condition that if Banai is married to him, all the animals will come back to life. When Banai indeed got married to Khandoba, the animals revived and doubled in numbers. Sontheimer writes, "Sacrifice creates life out of death... Similarly, as the sacrifice to the wolves increases the herd, the sacrifice of sheep to Khandoba promises of life," also alluding to the belief that wolves are manifestations of Khandoba.
Kathal was indeed right in mentioning that wolves are the least of their worries, as over the years, the livelihoods and survival of Dhangars have often been under threat. Urbanisation, deforestation and rapid loss of grazing areas are some of the major concerns the community is facing on a daily basis. A report on India Water Portal says, "Their [the Dhangars] identity has deteriorated from being pastoralists to being underdeveloped and backward. Then there are also the policies and approaches in forestry and watershed development that are largely hostile to them."
"Their migrations are getting cut year after year as the grasslands (village commons) are classified as wastelands, and a big chunk of these lands go for development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs)," Varma says. He further adds, "In some places, the forest department has declared sanctuaries and has fenced them off. Hence, these people have nowhere to go."
The community has also been fighting for a Scheduled Tribe status for a while now. 'Dhangars' constitute nine per cent of the total population of Maharashtra, and is currently included in the Vimukt Jati Nomadic Tribe (VJNT) category, whereas a certain "Dhangad" community is classified under the ST category. Dhangar community leaders believe that the nomenclature "Dhangad" was a typographical error committed in the past, as a result of which the 'Dhangars' are wrongly classified in the VJNT group.
Speaking to the Press Trust of India, members of the community alleged that the centre had failed to act on the ST status demand raised by the community. The typographical error occurred in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Maharashtra. However, Bihar and Odisha rectified it. The former government had told them that the 'Dhangad' community existed in Maharashtra, but no records about the existence of the said 'Dhangad' community were found with revenue or caste verification departments of the state government, explained one of the members. "The tribal department misguided us, claiming that there are 43,000 people from the 'Dhangad' community, as per 2011 Census," as quoted in the report by the Press Trust of India's report.
By virtue of their nomadic lifestyle, the Dhangars have often remained detached from the sociopolitical discourse and the state policies surrounding them. Being on the move perpetually, and with no permanent address, state benefits tend to evade them. Many do not even possess their voter ID cards because they do not have an address. "They are totally left out of our constitutional process," Varma points out.
"Unfortunately, this is the story of our times. The marginalised and non-privileged never get the coverage that they deserve. The story that everyone hears from this region is of farmers' suicide. But there are lot more things going on and the future of nomadic tribes is at stake."
— Kalyan Varma's photographs were put on display in 2019 at an exhibition in Mumbai's Godrej Culture Lab.