Jul 21, 2010
The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter,
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
- Thomas Love Peacock, English poet and satirical writer (1785-1866).
What happens if the sheep have both mountain and valley background? Are there such sheep? Yes! Thereby hangs a tale.
Maharashtra’s hinterland, much to the east of Pune and Satara, is arid, with low rainfall and hostile environment. Apart from one monsoon-fed crop, the main occupation of these pastoral communities is sheep-rearing. But, once the first crop is harvested, there is not much greenery left for the sheep to graze on orany productive work on the farmstead. So, a great exodus starts in search of greener pastures for the herds of sheep and goats to graze on grass and foliage.
The sheep are herded across 200/300 km, along the Pune-Mumbai highway, for their final destination in the Konkan region, starting from Pen and going beyond Ratnagiri. The caravan, riding horse-back and walking on foot, takes several weeks and includes mainly women, children, ponies, pet dogs and cats and even parrots in cages. They are like our own deshi hippies, carrying minimum things and depending on host farmers along their trail to provide them shelter and feed. The round trip starting in October and concluding by May/June, to be ready for the monsoon farming, keeps them out of their farmsteads for about 7/8 months. Meanwhile, back home men hold the fort, with aged women minding the kitchen.
How do they feed themselves during this sojourn period in the Konkan? Along the route, the caravan anchors itself to farms. They live in the open under shady trees or the host farmer provides them accommodation in spare huts. They are given grains to cook. This is part of the barter as the sheep feed on overgrown greenery (which otherwise would have to be trimmed employing paid labourers) and the farm is fertilized by dung of the animals - a rich source of natural manure against the expensive chemical fertilizers. Some goats beget kids during this long foray and the hosts are offered milk and, in some cases, gifted a kid.
Thus, the yearly cycle goes on, with visitors and hosts developing a long-term barter bond. I used to run into these caravans, interact and photograph, on my frequent week-end retreats from Bombay to the hill station of Lonavala. The caravans were led by plucky women, marked by Maratha pride and pluck, who reminded me of the lines by Alice Meynell, English poet and essayist (1853-1922):
She walks – the lady of my delight –
A shepherdess of sheep
Her flocks are thoughts. She keeps them white;
She guards them from the steep.
She feeds them on the fragrant height,
And folds them in for sleep.
John B. Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).
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