The smell of dung and dust filled the air as nearly 800 sheep rushed through the green, sleepy village of Kugti in Himachal Pradesh. The Gaddi shepherds staying there were all set to take their flock over the frozen Kugti pass, 16,600 feet above sea level.
The Gaddi are mainly migrant shepherds who live in Kugti village and other parts of Chamba district in Himachal Pradesh, a state in India’s far north. Kugti is the second-largest wildlife sanctuary in Himachal, and is home to animal species such as the Himalayan ibex, tahr, goral, leopard, fox and brown bear.
The village would be an ideal grazing ground, but shepherds must take their sheep elsewhere for sustenance because of state rules designed for forest conservation. They may use some designated grazing lands in the hills of the Lahaul region on the other side of the pass if they apply for yearly permits.
Kugti and the Lahaul village of Keylong are 64 km (40 miles) apart, but the mountains separate them. The closest route by road takes 12 hours, while walking takes nearly six days. They usually travel during the summer because of the extreme cold. I accompanied them on this trek.
The first stop after the trek began was the Keylong temple. Red prayer flags fluttered in the cold air as the temple bells rang. One of the shepherds, Chenu, filled his water bottle from a makeshift pipe near the temple. Locals believe the water from that pipe is magical and can cure diseases. Iron gives it a red tinge. Later in the day, the shepherds stopped to let the sheep graze. The weather was cloudy and it was drizzling.
Before every climb, the Gaddis seek permission from mountain deities, Lord Karthik and Goddess Marali Devi. As a token, they offer one of their best sheep, which they sacrifice at the temple in exchange for safe passage through the pass.
“The region is rich in rare herbs and grass,” said Chenu, who is in his early 20s, the youngest among the shepherds. “The quality of the milk and meat improves after feeding the cattle the mountain grass.”
After three days of hard walking in the hills, they reached Alyas, a long meadow beneath the peaks. At 13,900 feet, it is the starting point for the climb to the pass. Thunder echoed off the slopes and dark clouds shrouded the sky. The drizzle continued, and the shepherds packed up and got moving by 4 in the morning, hoping to cross the pass by afternoon.
As they walked, they chanted to the mountain goddesses for protection, their voices echoing off the mountain slopes. They crossed a rough stretch filled with rubble and stones — moraines pushed aside by glaciers. A hard, cold wind started blowing, and snow followed. The path grew slippery.
As Chenu feared, it was already snowing uphill and the fresh snow made the climb even more difficult. The shepherds used ice axes to cut at the hardened, layered snow and ice that was already on the ground.
They kept praying to the goddess Marali. At the narrow pass, shepherds curled around their sheep, burrowing in their wool, hoping the snowstorm would end. They camped near a shrine to the goddess, adorned with a few iron trinkets, small bells and red prayer flags.
“We haven’t seen such snowstorms during peak summers,” said Chenu. “It would be cold, but a snowstorm was least expected during April-May.” His thick woollen jacket and boots were soaked, making it difficult for him to climb.
One of the shepherds, Ajay, pulled out an old 500-rupee note, worth nearly $8 before India's big demonetisation drive in 2016 rendered it worthless, and rolled it up to use as cigarette paper.
The shepherds waited for a few more hours and decided to press on despite the storm. If they waited, they would have to stay all night without shelter or food in sub-freezing weather. This would be too dangerous. Already the sound of the wind and the falling snow was strong enough that it covered up the noise from the bleating sheep.
The shepherds nudged the first group of sheep to move. It was not so easy. If the ones in the front refuse to move, the rest won’t either. They pulled out their sticks and beat the sheep to drive them ahead. At one point, a sheep in the back row hopped with pain and the flock rippled like a wave. A lamb, which was struggling to walk, slipped in the snow and fell off the ridge.
The Gaddis guided the herd through the snow to the valley, but a flock of about 200 refused to move, frightened by the snowstorm and the hard terrain. The shepherds left them there. Chenu said they would return the next day to bring them down, if they were still alive.
The shepherds also had to leave their food - Maggi dry noodles, wheat, oil and some masala for cooking - at the pass. It was too heavy to carry the supplies down.
In the valley, they found the dead lamb, which they buried.
Now they were in barren Lahaul. Walking through its rubble, sand and gravel is tedious as the trail is slippery, even for the shepherds who know the land well. But after walking for nearly three hours, the green fields of Kodlu Alyas awaited them on the other side.
The shepherds and sheep drank from a clear stream that flowed by the path. The Gaddis offered prayers to Marali at a shrine made from a pile of stones and prayer flags.
As the flock grazed, the hungry shepherds slept in their tents. The snow had exhausted them, and they would go without food for the next two days.
“We will get food from the nearby village after a day’s trek,” said Chenu, struggling to open his eyes. Exposure to the storm dried them out. A doctor and medicine would not be available until they reached the village the next day.
Early in the morning, two of the shepherds climbed up to the Kugti pass to bring back the 200 sheep they left behind. Only 150 remained. The rest were lost in the storm or died where they waited. The Gaddis moved on with their remaining sheep, on their way to the next village, chanting their prayers to the gods.
“Bolo jai Karthik swami ki… jai bolo jai Mata Marali devi ki jai…”
“Hail Lord Karthik, hail Mother Marali…”
Editing by Robert MacMillan; this article is website exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission