Gaddis of Dhauladhars, a Semi Nomadic Tribe of Himalayas


The Gaddis are a semi-nomadic semi-pastoral tribe who inhabit the austere Dhauladar ranges of the Indian Himalayas. The cornerstone of Gaddi culture is the town of Bharmour which lies in Chamba, the valley between the Dhauladar and Pir-Panjal ranges in the state of Himachal Pradesh which basically comprises of five valleys – Kugti, Tundah, Samara, Holi and Bharmour. This area, also called Gadherana, has the challenging terrain with rough and sharp mountain ridges, majestic valleys, furious rivers and frozen lakes, and is identified by all Gaddis as their homeland. However, the settlements are not just limited to this region and also found in neighbouring parts of Ravi valley towards Chamba and in some parts of Kangra district.

An old Gaddi man

An old Gaddi man

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The Gaddi community of Himachal Pradesh has traditionally practiced transhumant pastoralism, travelling with their flocks between the upper reaches of Chamba and Lahaul valley in summer towards the nutritious grass and towards the Himalayan foothills of the Kangra, Bilaspur, Mandi and Kullu districts in the winter. Their origin is rather uncertain and unclear and their ancestors believe that they fled from Indian plains. During the reign of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, it is believed that some of the Gaddis got converted to the Islam and some fled to settle inmore protected areas like Gadherana. The origin of these tribes, according to the anthropologists, has a rich history behind the development of the tribal India. A few attempts to study ancient temple inscriptions and other texts, Gaddi recordedhistory suggest that they have been present in this region since 7th century CE. However, the fact about their origin lies in the popular myths in the entire state of Himachal and you could hear varied tales and stories about it.

A Gaddi Woman in tradional dress

A Gaddi Woman in tradional dress

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According to a legendary belief among the Gaddis, a prince of one of the ruling family of Rajputana named Jaistambha became an ascetic on being driven away from his home, probably due to ascension dispute to the throne. On his wandering he reached Kharamukh in the interior of Ravi valley below Bharmaur and there in a cave sat in meditation for Shiva who was pleased and granted Jaistambha a set of Topa (Hat), Chola (Gown) and Dora (a long cord to be tied on the waist) which later on became the distinct dress of the Gaddis.

A Gaddi Woman's Dress

Dora, Chola and Ghagra visible clearly in the women dress.

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Under the Chola (Gown) that falls beyond the knee length are worn acomfortable woollen pyjamas. To absorb the profuse sweating during their long march while grazing their flocks of sheep in the rugged terrain, their inner garments are usually made of cotton. The Chola usually has many tiny items in its pockets like needle, thread, and flint-cotton etc and is tied up with the Dora at the waist in order to form a special big pocket to store essential items and the new-born lamb that is carried to the grazing ground. It resembles the Kangaroo’s natural pocket to carry her baby.

In the innumerable folds of the Dora are stored a kulhari (an axe), a banssari (flute; Gaddis are famous for their musical flair, particularly of flute), a runka (flint-iron), a mandua (leather pouch), chilam (small smoking pipe), a darat (iron sickle) and other items which are indispensable in their daily life as wanderer. On an average, around 40 kilogram of load is carried by a male Gaddistored in and tied around his Chola. The load which is mainly his temporary household is carried on the back instead of head which is the practice that separates Gaddi from the other pastoral tribes like Gujjar. Even the women of Gaddi tribecarry alot of loads, especially during the winter migration accompanying their husbands. As true nomadic wanderers having no fixed place to stay, Gaddis carry all their family possessions, which anyway is modest, with them while they look for greener pastures for their flocks.

Local Function of Gaddis

Gaddi women in a local function.

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A frilled Ghagra (long skirt), tied over the waist and reaching their ankle with a full sleeve blouse (Top) falling at the waist is their usual and traditional dress. They also use Dora but of lesser length and weight. They like wearing ornaments and earrings, bangles, long necklace etc.

Gaddi's moving to high altitude zones

The Gaddis moved across altitudinal zones in their quest for pasturage. In this Kangra painting from the Archer collection, stylistically dated to c. 1900 (Archer 1973: II: 234. Pl. 76), the painter depicts one such family on the move with their flock— sheep and goats—that is guarded by the Gaddi shepherd dog. One can see the heavy load that they carried and how they stowed provisions in the loosely tied upper garment.

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They are peace loving, hospitable human beings. The life of Gaddis has been tough and hard and they have to bear with sweat and smile, endless hardship in pursuit of their profession of animal husbandry. The Gaddis are simple, honest and virtuous race known for their eminent regard for truth. This can be judged by this fact that in the days of British rule whenever they were fined by Kangra authorities they would pay a similar penalty into Chamba treasury.

Gaddi Shephard

A Gaddi shepherd

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Gaddis are a tribe of stalwart and healthy human beings. Gaddi tribe is a pure Hindu tribe with Aryan features- Physically Gaddis are of medium height and have a lot of stamina. The nose is sharp, colour fair and hair generally black. Their women are also physically very strong, slim and good looking.

The people of Gaddi tribe mostly pass their time in singing, dancing/ gambling and enjoying good time in fairs and festivals and other ceremonies. The traditional songs of Gaddis are very important from historical point of view. The Gaddis have their own style of dancing which is closely connected with the narwala ceremony/ given as a homage to Lord Shiva.

The Gaddis not just worship the lord Shiva as a deity but identify themselves as the people totally dedicated to Shiva. This identification is significantly apparent in the legends and stories and the work and culture in the area is embodiment of this popular belief. According to another legend, prior to Shiva’s marriage to goddess Gauri (an incarnation of the Mother Goddess, Parvati), Gauri was unaware of the Shiva’s godly nature and was not very keen of the marriage. She requested snow from the Ruler of Snow, Himraj, in order to stop Shiva from attending the wedding. Shiva, in turn, created a flock of sheep and they cleared a path through the snow, allowing him to cross the mountains. Therefore, to Gaddis, the role of herding sheep is a more than simply a vocation.

Gaddi economy is directly controlled by the habitat which is evident from the way land of Bharmaur tehsil is being utilized and its figures. Agricultural practice is still backward and pastoral pursuits did not come out to be the main occupation of the whole region. Gaddis still practice transhumance as their principal occupation despite the fact that government is providing incentives for agricultural and horticultural development. The production of crops in the region is extremely limited and for short duration and the Gaddis have no alternative but to rear livestock for profits. The ecology and environment of Gadderan is also suitable only for sheep and goat rearing in large number because these animals have the ability to move for long distance in the higher and steep slopes of the Himalaya. Hence, sheep and goats become most important livestock in this region.

Gaddi Lady in old field

An working old Gaddi lady, in the field.

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Difficult altitude, slope and soil along with low temperatures and less rainfall are the major limiting factor for the growth of agriculture. Another major limiting factor is small size of land holding and fragmentation in land holding. In Kugti, the highest village, a farmer’s plots is scattered over 8 to 10 different placeson an average, making it very difficult to plough.

Looking at the scenario and event s prevailing currently, it could be concluded that the Gaddis have adapted themselves to survive in the treacherous terrain by pastoral, primarily and agricultural practices, secondarily.