The sun was just coming out on 17 June when Noor Mohammad Chopan, 53, and his two sons began their journey from their home in Ajas, a village in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, to the high-altitude pastures.
“Take care of yourself and everyone at home,” Chopan told his wife Asha Begum, 45, as she accompanied him to the door. She responded: “You too. Make sure you and the flock return back safe.” The two bid each other goodbye.
In the summer, like other Kashmiri shepherds, Chopan, who had been taking care of sheep and other animals for more than 40 years, moved the flock farmers assigned him towards bahaks (meadows). Every year he would spend about five months – from June to October – in the woods making sure the animals came down safely.
Chopan’s mother died when he was three months old. A woman in the neighbourhood who had no children of her own took care of him. When he was 10, his father, who was also a shepherd, took him to the meadows.
Taking care of a flock is not easy. The threat of wild animals and bad weather keep shepherds on their toes. But this did not bother Chopan. He found solace in serving the animals and didn’t feel burdened by his job.
Like other shepherds, Chopan slept with the sheep in open fields most of his life. The shepherds take shifts keeping an eye on the flock through the night. Chopan was always vigilant in this, developing a strong bond with the dogs that protected the sheep from predators and the horses that carried provisions.
“When you spend years with animals, you’re automatically drawn towards them. Nothing else in life seems more important than being around them. Same was the case with Noor,” says Bashir Ahmad Chopan, 40, a shepherd who knew Chopan well.
Noor Chopan woke up early on 23 June and made tea for his fellow shepherds at Chitrar, having spent six days walking and resting. They were planning to move to Trisangam that day for their next stop and then towards their final destination, Sokhnai. Apart from four horses and as many dogs, they had about 1 500 sheep in their care.
Chopan and another shepherd were walking beside the horses and leading the way when it started raining at 3.50pm. The river next to them in the middle of mountains was filled with heavy stones and flowing ferociously. The shepherds decided to cross it. There was snow next to the river through which the shepherds and sheep could pass.
“We always move horses through the water since they can’t walk in the snow. Their feet get trapped,” Bashir says.
The first two horses crossed the river without much struggle. The third faced a few hiccups but managed to cross. The fourth one, which Bashir says was with them for four years, got stuck. “As the horse couldn’t move its legs, he sat down in the water and was about to drown,” says Abdul Rashid Bhat, a farmer who was part of the group of shepherds.
Chopan jumped into the river with a knife. “He shed off all the stock this horse was carrying and pushed him up. This allowed the horse to move across,” Bashir says.
As other shepherds were some distance away from the river, they thought everything was all right. But they were wrong. “After he freed the horse, he now thought to get hold of the stock that he had pulled off from the horse, but at that very moment his feet slipped and he fell in the water,” Bashir says.
Before other shepherds could do anything, Chopan was swept away, as the storm doubled the flow of water in the river. “He fell down and his head got struck with the stone while water pushed him downwards. As we reached near the river, there was no sign of him,” Bashir says.
Bashir and the others started searching, aware that the chances of Chopan surviving were close to none. After seven hours, at 11pm, the shepherds took a break but none of them could sleep. They all woke up early the next morning and continued the search.
“We had to seek help from other nomads. They joined us immediately,” Bashir says. With no network coverage, seeking more help was difficult. They sent one person to Cxullat and another to Matritalto to make a phone call to Chopan’s family and to authorities.
The 19-hour-long search came to an end at around 11am when they found Chopan’s body. “His entire body was trapped inside heavy stones; we could only see one of his legs,” Bashir says.
His two sons tried to jump in when they saw him. “We made sure they didn’t jump. We had to console them to ensure no more damage was done,” Bashir says. “He had faced a blow on his head and probably died on the spot. We somehow pulled him out of the river and prepared a wooden stretcher to carry his body down.”
Living and dying in the meadows
A week after his burial, his wife Begum recounted how much Chopan loved animals. “He would forget to take his own meals, but never left sheep and other animals hungry. They meant the world to him.”
She was with her younger son Shakir Ahmad Chopan, 18, and two daughters, both married. Chopan’s absence haunts them. Chopan’s father also died in the meadows while taking care of sheep. “He was hit by lightning,” says Begum. “Noor also faced many injuries, as he was with him at that time but somehow survived.”
Chopan’s family isn’t the only one to have lost someone like this. There are thousands of Kashmiri shepherds who live and die in the hilltops. They spend their whole lives in the forests, some for the love of animals, others to make ends meet.
“We do a 24-hour duty,” says Bashir, who has been looking after sheep for 25 years.
The high-altitude meadows Kashmiri shepherds use are long, open, green fields bordered by at least one stream or river as water is vital for both sheep and shepherds. During the almost five months they spend up there, each shepherd group takes care of about 1 000 sheep belonging to local farmers.
Shepherds make sure the sheep remain away from poisonous plants during the day. At night, they protect them from predators. While a few shepherds use stone and wood-made kothas (huts), most of them cook and rest in open fields or inside tents. They carry rice, vegetables and other provisions with them. One or two among the group prepare food while the others accompany the sheep.
The farmers pay the shepherds between R67 and R86 for each sheep safely returned. If one dies of disease or something else out of the shepherd’s control, they must return the skin as evidence. If they lose a sheep, most farmers ask the shepherds to replace it. Their livelihood depends on keeping the sheep safe, which is why they sleep around the animals in a circle, take two-hour shifts staying awake at night and place dogs in different directions to sniff out predators.
The shepherds in Chopan’s community in Kashmir, where most animal herders come from, receive little help by way of jobs or education from the government, but most want to continue their work. “What else can we do?” Begum says. “Our ancestors have been doing this and this is what my children do.”