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Chapter 6. Ancestral nomadism and farming in the mountains Agro-pastoralism and gathering food system of the Bhotia and Anwal peoples in Uttarakhand, India

Section 1 Community and food system profile


Namik village is located in the Munsyari block of the Pithoragarh District in Uttarakhand, India. It is situated 60 km away from the sub-district headquarter Munsyari, 118 km away from the district headquarter Pithoragarh, and 80 km from the town of Bageshwar. Namik is the last village in the Namik valley. The total geographical area of the village is 486.38 hectares.

The village is located in a pristine location near the Heeramani glacier. It is divided into seven hamlets: Rautila, Ghungrani, Chaur Ghonghal, Kudai, Junmari, Jugadhara and Malla Namik. The map of the village drawn by the community clearly shows that the upper boundary of the village consists of high mountains surrounded by snow and glaciers. The part below the snow is a meadow and forest area, mainly used for grazing by sheep and goats.

Two types of forests surround the village. One is reserved forest and owned by the forest department. The community manages the other. The community also relies on pasturelands 4 kilometres away from the village, where livestock such as sheep and goats can freely graze. The forests are marked as dark green areas on the map. The light green area on the map is the village area with households and farms. Further, the Ramganga East River flows from the southeast of the village to the west. The village’s five natural springs are their main sources of potable water.

FIGURE 6.1. Landscape of Namik drawn by the participants image image
Source: community participants, with support of the authors, 2018.


The two communities Bhotia and Anwal participated in the study. Three societal groups categorise these communities: general, schedule caste and schedule tribe. Both communities consist mainly of Hindus, although Buddhism also influences the beliefs of many Bhotia people. The Bhotia and Anwal peoples are closely related, as the Anwal community assisted the Bhotia community in their work with trade. The village community is mixed, consisting of various Bhotia groups, amongst them both general and schedule caste. The general caste speaks Kumauni and Hindi, whilst the schedule tribe group also speaks Bhotia language (Sino-Tibetan). With the exception of Hindi, there are no dialects of the other two languages.

According to data provided by the community, Namik village has 110 households. Forty-five households have one to two members working as migratory shepherds, an activity undertaken by the Anwal. Fifty households are of general castes, 41 households of schedule castes, and 19 households of the Bhotia tribe. The overall population of Namik village consists of around 600 individuals, out of which 70 individuals have migrated to cities and larger towns for work and education. Elderly people in the house are considered advisors, as they are highly respected. Nowadays young people spend the majority of their time on education, in contrast with the past, when they contributed to the family’s daily activities. Many migrate to other towns.

With the exception of migrating youth, all family members usually live together. During meals, the elderly and the leader of the household are served first, thereafter the youth and children, and then the women.

Child marriages have traditionally been common in these communities, based on mutual understanding and family agreements. However, current Indian legislation views child marriages as a punishable offence. Women are required to be minimum 18 years old, and men 21 years old.


The majority of the food in the community comes from their own farming and shepherding activities. They have two main crop cycles and grow vegetables continuously throughout the year. The Anwal community lives a nomadic/mobile shepherd lifestyle. Their households raise livestock for their daily consumption of milk and milk products.


The larger part of farm areas in Namik village are located around the cluster of houses. Each household has its own farmland, and households with home gardens grow vegetables. Community members cultivate mustard plants, spinach, fenugreek, potatoes, peas and green chillies in their home gardens. Villagers have also recently started to cultivate daikon radish, cabbage, tomato and garlic. Due to limited land holding, no fruit orchards exist in the village. With the exception of a few citrus, apple, plum and peach trees, as well as walnut trees, most of their fruit supply comes from local markets. With regards to crops, households cultivate a variety of species, such as maize, potato, taro, amaranth, finger millet, buckwheat, black soybean, black gram, pigeon pea, kidney beans and gurun (adzuki bean). Staking in climber beans occurs with the help of ringal bamboo collected from the forest, as well as from the community forest or their own farmlands.

TABLE 6.1. List of cultivated foods: crops, planted trees and other cultivated foods image


The community rears a variety of livestock, such as badri cow (an indigenous cow breed of Uttarakhand), buffalos, mules, sheep and Changthangi goats (pashmina goats introduced from Tibet). They keep these herds either in the meadows or in the forest areas near the village. Two to three community members live with these herds to look after them, and particularly men from different families take turns looking after the herds. Cows and buffaloes provide milk and milk products such as cream, which is used to prepare butter, clarified butter called ghee, buttermilk and yoghurt. The women are responsible for milking and the production of dairy products.

The community rears sheep and goats for meat and wool. The men shear the livestock and, thereafter, spin the animal hair to make thread. Women primarily weave and make jackets and carpets, whilst men knit sweaters. In contrast to cows and buffaloes, sheep and goats are taken to the meadows or the forest for free grazing. Regarding fodder, cows and buffaloes mainly feed on green leaves of oak species (Quercus oblongata D.Don, Fagaceae; Quercus semecarpifolia Sm., Fagaceae), ringal (Drepanostachyum falcatum (Nees) Keng f., Poaceae), and burash (Rhododendron arboreum Sm., Ericaceae), which are collected from the adjoining forests. Celtis australis L., Cannabaceae, phar patti (Synotis rufinervis (DC.) C. Jeffrey & Y. L. Chen, Asteraceae) and Horse chestnut (Aesculus indica (Wall. ex Cambess.) Hook., Sapindaceae) are also collected in lesser quantities. Some families have started growing napier grass around their farmland and home gardens. The community also uses chata (a mixture of flour, rice, salt and barn) as fodder to provide extra nutrients. Further, women collect dry leaves for cowshed bedding and manuring. Due to the remoteness of the village, some families keep mules to transport products and construction materials, in addition as occasional transportation for tourists.

Beekeeping is also part of the community’s food system. Approximately 20 percent of the families have traditional log beehives made of oak or toon trees that are kept near a shade in the house. The nectar is mainly collected from wild and farm flora. Once the hive is mature and has produced honey, families extract it manually and collect it in jars and plastic bottles. However, the extraction is somewhat harmful as the manual method kills larvae in the process. The honey serves mainly as medicine to treat sore throats, coughs and colds. During religious ceremonies, households also offer honey to local deities.

Indigenous woman from Namik village carrying dry leaves from the forest for cowshed bedding and manuring.
© CHINAR/Ghanshyam Kalki.

Wild edibles

The community has always lived in harmony with nature, even before they settled in the village. They have in-depth knowledge of wild edible plants. The women primarily collect these plants and use them as food sources as well as for medicinal purposes for their households. Wild edible and medicinal plants are collected from nearby forests and high-altitude meadows. They use jarak (Phytolacca acinosa, Indian pokeweed) for snacks and vegetables, and bhangeera (Perilla sp., Korean perilla) as a spice and dip to serve as chutney. Bhaang (Cannabis sativa, cannabis) is used for many purposes. The seeds are added to cuisine and chutney as a spice, whilst hemp is used to make ropes. The fluids extracted from the leaves are used to cure wounds. Sisun (Urtica ardens, nettle) can be consumed as a green vegetable, whilst the hemp is used to make ropes as well. Gethi (Dioscorea bulbifera, air yam) is eaten roasted or boiled and can relieve gastric pains. Kutki (Picrorhiza kurroa, picrorhiza) is a painkiller that can also be ingested to treat fevers. Chhipi (Angelica glauca, angelica) is consumed as an energy drink. Hisalu (Rubus ellipticus, golden Hymalayan raspberry) is eaten as fruit, as well as kilmora (Berberis asiatica, Asian barberry), which can also be used to treat asthma and coughs. Linguda (Matteuccia struthiopteris, fiddlehead ferns) is consumed as a green vegetable. After snowfall, the community harvests gucchi (Morchella esculenta, common morel), a rare mushroom in the area, for consumption. Certain orchids are used as plaster applied to bone injuries of cattle.

Traditional healers in the village have a deft understanding of the power of medicinal plants. They collect the rare and recently discovered yarsagumba (Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a caterpillar infected by fungi) and the locals sell it at a high price due to its medicinal value. Trading the fungi is illegal, but it is smuggled into China through the Nepalese border. The fungi are high in protein. China uses the plant to produce various energy drinks, and due to this utility, purchasing the plant in China is quite expensive. Several people also believe that they can produce impotency medicine from this plant. Despite the plant’s high demand, the only manufacturing done by the community is cleaning the mushroom before selling it to local traders. Because they receive such a low share of the income from their plants, the Government is in the process of legalizing its trade and developing a mechanism as part of Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS), so that the production can also benefit the communities.

TABLE 6.2. List of wild plants harvested (both for food and non-food uses) image

Aromatic plants such as koot (Aconitum heterophyllum Wall., Ranunculaceae), jatamasi (Nardostachys jatamansi DC., Caprifoliaceae) and guggul (Commiphora wightii (Arn.) Bhandari, Burseraceae) are collected from the forest by the community to prepare incense sticks and used at home or for religious purposes.


Another principal land-based activity in the village is handicraft. The communities collect ringal (bamboo), which grows in the wild, to make mats, wicker and containers. Further, they use wood from the community forest for firewood, house construction and medicines. Women are responsible for these activities. House construction is dependent on the natural ecosystem. The communities gather stones, wood, soil and slates from the community forest. They make the internal plaster from red soil and cow dung, which acts as a repellent for insects. The walls of these houses are made from stones and are approximately 2 to 2.5 metres thick. The timber primarily comes from species like toon (Toona ciliate M.Roem., Meliaceae), thuner (Taxus baccata L., Taxaceae) and oak (Quercus sp.). The houses regulate temperature well as they remain cool during summer, because the heat during daytime is unable to penetrate the walls. They also keep the atmosphere warm during the winter, and the stone walls help insulate the heat from the firewood. Further, the community has constructed their houses to be earthquake resistant, as they build them with thick, interlocked walls with gaps in between.


During summers from May to June, the minimum temperature remains around 0.8 °C, reaching maximum 27 °C. During monsoon, from July to September, the temperature remains minimum 0.7 °C and maximum 17 °C. Finally, during winters from January to February, the temperature is minimum -3 °C and maximum 12 °C.

The community is engaged in many livelihood- and cultivation-related activities throughout the year. Anwal shepherds spend most of their year in the meadows with their herds of sheep. Summer and monsoon are the main seasons for farming and livestock migration. During this time, the community cultivates a variety of pulses, vegetables and other crops.

The availability of water remains sufficient throughout the year. In the summer, all streams and rivers overflow as the glaciers melt. The weather remains warm and clear during this time. For the Anwal people, monsoon season also carries beneficial conditions for an abundance of edible wild plants, and therefore livestock rearing. During these periods, they take their herds to higher meadows, following fresh grass availability. The green fodder contributes to the herds’ healthy diets.

In contrast, early winters are cold and dry. During the day, the temperature is high, but the mornings and evenings are quite cold. During this period, the Anwal people migrate down to tarai, the foothills of Himalaya, where temperatures are slightly warmer. During fall and early winter, the community collects dry grass, fodder and fuelwood, which they store for the upcoming winter season, when the area is covered with snow. This is the busiest time for the community, and they process many food products such as dried meats and cured vegetables.

The Namik village hosts many celebrations throughout the year, the Hindu tradition involving a large number of festivals. Ghee Tyohar is an important celebration. It occurs on the first day of the month of bhaado, in the middle of the monsoon, when the crops and meadow are lush green and the grains start to grow. Livestock is particularly worshiped during this time. Community members prepare clarified butter for food and they put it on their forehead. During festivals, they make special traditional foods in the houses, such as puri (deep-fried bread), halwa and pua (preparations from semolina flour and sugar either in mixture or fired), bada (fried ball of black gram and spices), kheer (rice pudding), and raita (mixture of cucumber and curd). The community gathers in the same place to worship gods and goddesses by performing various rituals and prayers. Thereafter, the whole community celebrates by eating together. Another important part of the celebrations is to send food items such as prashad (holy food) to relatives and friends in adjoining villages.

The community also worships local gods such as Balchhan bubu, Latu bubu and Raichan devta, for which community members have built temples within the village. From time to time, they gather at these temples and worship in them. One of their religious practices includes bali (animal sacrifice) of goat or sheep to offer them to local gods. The meat of the animal they sacrifice is distributed to the whole community as holy food.


The nearest big market is Bageshwar, which is open six days a week and sells meat, diverse and nutritious foods, and other items. Community members usually frequent the market, which is far and contains expensive items, only for large quantities of purchases related to weddings and religious ceremonies, or for special imported food items. Local markets in Shama, Liti and Gogina are open throughout the week and sell basic food supplies, clothing, produce and medicines. The men are responsible for visiting the markets, which are far away from the village and for which there is road connectivity. A government store is located in the village that distributes food rations and kerosene at a quantity dependent on the economic classes above the poverty line (APL), below the poverty line (BPL) or Antodaya (extremely poor). The government store is opened daily and one of the village members manages it.

FIGURE 6.2. Average annual rainfall (mm) and temperature (°C) in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, and seasonal activities by the Bhotia and the Anwal of Namik village (elaborated by Yanto Wahyantono, IRD, 2020) image
TABLE 6.3. List of edibles sourced from the market image

The barter system is still practised in the village. Community members exchange many items such as vegetables, meat, pulses, potatoes, kidney beans and milk products within the village, and also with neighbouring village communities. Earlier, communities used to exchange kidney beans with wheat from other villages. As farmers in Namik now grow less buckwheat and amaranth than in the past, the current demand for wheat flour has increased.


The history of Namik village dates back 160 years, to when there were only a few small human settlements in the lower areas of Namik. These settlements belonged to general and scheduled castes. Most of these people were Anwal and were farmers. Anwal people used to migrate from the Corbett landscape and Tanakpur forest zone in the foothills of Himalaya to the meadows throughout the year. Namik was the place for their breaks during migration, and livestock exchanged hearty grasses for soil-enriching manure. Eventually, some of these shepherds built their temporary settlements in the Namik village. They found the soil quality, availability of water and weather conditions adequate for cultivation, particularly for potatoes and kidney beans that require cold temperatures and nutrient-rich soil. These adequate conditions for cultivation attracted more community members from the lower villages who moved and settled here. Staple foods such as potatoes, kidney beans, millets and maize thrived.

Later the Bhotia tribe, native from the Johar valley, on the eastern side of Namik village, settled in the village. This tribe was earlier involved in trans-boundary trade with Tibet, through an old trading system known as the Indo-Tibet trading system. The high passes of Himalaya were their traditional trading routes. The Bamba Dhura pass via Milam glacier was one of those routes, located in Johar valley. The Bhotia community used to live close to the Tibet border and they therefore learned to speak the Tibetan language. Thus, their language and culture are influenced by Tibetan culture. This skill gave them an advantage of keeping a stronghold in the Indo-Tibet trading system. Villagers of other castes such as the general and scheduled caste did not have this skill, thus they went on these trading routes as the Bhotia’s helpers.

Their mode of trading was the barter system. People from Namik and other villages used to carry clothes, gud (jaggery), misri (Indian rock sugar) and wheat to exchange for silk, salt and yak butter from Tibetan traders. As the trade halted due to various social and political reasons, they started farming and escalating their handicraft. Other products involved in the trade included salty tea from thuner (Taxus baccata) bark, clarified butter, chang (local beer made from barley) and local liquor. These practices continue in the Bhotia community today, and some have also been adopted by the Anwal community.

View on Namik village.
© CHINAR/Ghanshyam Kalki.

Since the community settled in the village, the production and consumption of food has changed. At the time, there was no access to the roads, nor any establishment of nearby markets. Indo-Tibet trade was the only source of supply for many goods, especially salt, which could be bartered with community members. The Namik village slowly learned to sustain their food system throughout the year. They introduced a variety of crops that could grow in their respective altitude and climatic conditions. The first major shock to their system happened when Indo Tibet trade routes were closed after the Indo-China war during 1962. After that event, the villagers’ dependency on big markets like Bageshwar increased. When the Bageshwar-Shama road was built during 1970, it became easier to access the Bageshwar market. This had important implications for the community’s food system. People started going to the Bageshwar market to shop, and they added new products such as biscuits, sweets, candies and noodles to their diets. Over time, the dependency on the markets for meat, eggs and other food items increased as a consequence of nature conservation legislation that prevented community members from sourcing food from the wild. As a result, a variety of traditional food disappeared from the community. Today, some natural edible plants are foraged just as a traditional practice.

The construction of a bridge over Ramganga River in 2000 increased the feasibility of trading. Before the construction, traders used to travel to Namik on their mules. Now, the farmers had a direct route to the market. Further, in 2011, the Liti-Gogina road was constructed, followed by the establishment of many small markets. Some villagers also opened shops in Namik village, making the products from the markets easily accessible. Alternatively, community members started to sell food products such as potatoes and kidney beans to local traders at the markets, and to barter those for rice.

Because of the increased connectivity with other towns, people started seeking work further away, and their purchasing capacity increased. This encouraged them to buy processed food from markets, rather than exert themselves through strenuous farming or gathering food from the forests. In addition, the Anwal’s trading of sheep and goats was negatively affected by the youth’s migration from the village in search of better jobs, as they were left with an insufficient workforce in the village. The lack of workers has curtailed many family-farming practices in the communities.

“Our traditional crops are not only part of our food but also an important part of our unique culture.”

Mr. Laxman Singh, community member of Namik village.