Sauka – the Nomads of the Himalayas

Posted By: farwest

Api Nampa Conservation Area – a personal experience

The ‘Sauka’, or in the literature also called ‘Bhotiyas’, consist of several communities that live in the Himalayan mountains in the upper Mahakali valley in the border region of Nepal, Tibet and India. In former times they were involved in trans-Himalayan trade between the Gangetic Plains and the Tibetan Plateau until the Sino-Indian border was sealed in 1962 due to war. With mainly sheep and goats, the ‘Sauka’ traditionally transported sugar, grain and woolen products from India to Tibet and exchanged these commoditiesfor salt, raw wool, animals and borax, for which there was demand in the lower areas of India and Nepal.

Due to the harsh environmental conditions in the mountains, the ‘Sauka’ perform a system of transhumance, which means that they move with their complete household during the cold winter period to the lower valleys, to the warmer urban areas of Khalanga, Nepal or Darchula, India. During the summer months once the snow has melted and the passes are open, they return back to their summer homeland in the high mountains of the upper valleys. During that time the men mainly move with their livestock to summer pastures and follow the traditional trading routes to Tibet and India, while the women stay behind, taking care of elders and children and cultivating a few acres of agricultural land. Even today most of the communities are still following the rhythm of the year, although the trade volume has decreased tremendously and the amount of livestock is also much less than before. Most households now depend on different sources of income: they are employed by the government, have businesses, or are involved in the collection and trading of wild medicinal and aromatic plants. Especially the exploration of ‘Yarsagumba’ in the last 10 to 15 years has changed their lifestyles dramatically.

Our main aim of the journey was to meet the ‘Sauka’ communities of Nepal in their summer villages and pastures in the high Himalayan Mountains, the Byash Himal. Together we formed a team of nearly 20 people, which consisted of representatives of different government institutions, international organisations and locals.

The long drive of almost 12 hours from Dhangadhi (Farwestern Terai) to Khalanga, Darchula was only the beginning of the journey to the ‘Sauka’ people of Nepal. From Khalanga onward the road has been under construction for years, so we continued by foot, carrying tents, sleeping bags and some emergency food, because some parts of the route are hardly inhabited. The first days, we followed the Mahakali River and day by day the valley became steeper and settlements and agricultural production less frequent. The terrain got more difficult; the trail has been washed away quite frequently by landslides. On the fourth day we entered Byash VDC (Village Development Committee), an area of steep gorges and fast flowing rivers, thick vegetation and forests, with great views of the snow-covered Himalayan Mountains. Many ‘Sauka’ people believe that their gods live in the Himalayan Mountains protecting them and providing them the necessary life-giving resources. On the way we passed several smaller villages and temporary camp sites with people from different areas who walked several days to stay for weeks in the harsh mountain conditions and find their luck collecting ‘Yarsagumba’.

Changrue village, in the heart of the Byash VDC, was our journey’s destination – a village located in Nepal, next to the Indian border where two rivers (Nampa and Tinker) join the Mahakali. The structure of the village reminds me of an alpine mountain village from 150 years ago. Old stone houses with nicely carved wooden windows and doors surround a small square used as a meeting place for festivals and community discussions. In June, when we arrived there, we did not meet many people: only the elders and a few women stay behind, all the other family members  either make their way to Tibet and India for trading, or are in the rangelands with their livestock or in the high mountain grasslands for ‘Yarsagumba’ collection.

The whole area gives an impression of being forgotten by the world. Located between high mountains and bordering China and India, the area is harsh and politically sensitive. The Government of Nepal is far away and the few district officials who have made the way up to the headquarters of Byash VDC in the last years can be counted on one hand. The people of these communities have always relied mainly on themselves and have always had to be adaptive to changing political and socio-economic conditions to be able to survive. Since four years ago, this whole area is part of the newly established Api Nampa Conservation Area, with the aim of conserving the natural resources and improving the livelihood of the local people. This is another change which the local people have to adapt to. At the same time, through the community-based approach of the conservation area and the facilitation of government institutions, it provides a great opportunity for them to conserve their natural resources, their culture and traditions and identify new sources of income to improve their livelihood. It was a great experience and fortune for all of us to be able to visit and share some brief moments with the ‘Sauka’ people in their homeland. Now it is time to join hands to work together so that this great natural place can be preserved and its people can adjust their way of living to the changing conditions without losing their identity or exploiting their natural resources.

Text by Corinna Wallrapp

Photograph by Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD

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