Images of the Garhwal Himalaya are replete with tranquil scenes of rolling meadows and shepherds and their sheep, moving slowly from one flower strewn alpine hillside to another. But we should learn to look beyond these idyllic pastoral scenes and realize that there is much to be learnt from them. And the Covid 19 pandemic might be a seemingly surprising place to start.
The Bhotiya community whom this part of the world belongs to, have been here for centuries, their rhythms, always, matching the seasons. Spending the winters in the Himalayan foothills and heading towards the mountains as the winters withered to create space for spring. As they moved up, buds eagerly waited, to welcome them with the season’s first blooms. Blessed with the melting snow, the springs along their path, started running enthusiastically, gurgling like a growing toddler.
The vistas unfolded like cosmic scripture, which they knew to read, like the birds and animals moving in the same direction, towards the alpine meadows. They always moved at the same pace, neither slow nor fast, their destination across the high Himalayan passes, to the markets in the interiors of Tibet. For centuries they ferried essential goods from the Indo Gangetic plains to Tibet and brought back precious items to India.
They always moved at the same pace, neither slow nor fast, their destination across the high Himalayan passes, to the markets in the interiors of Tibet.
The only mode of transportation available to them were pack goats, each carrying a weight of around 20 kg wrapped in a bag made of waterproof goat hair. In spite of the steep climb their herds moved enthusiastically without any sign of fatigue eager to graze on the newly appearing green tinge on the high meadows.
It was a primitive yet sustainable mode of cross border trade in the Himalayas. The villages along the way welcomed their arrival. Even the droppings of the goats were transacted for tangible and intangible benefits, with passing villagers enticing them to rest the flocks in their fallow fields, so they could be fertilized for the next crop.
This trade was the major source of livelihood for the Bhotiya community who made the rugged terrain of the trans Himalayan region their home. They also faced pandemics, and being on the move most of the year, they were aware of their responsibilities towards containing these pandemics.
Pandemics were simply one of the occupational hazards in maintaining the trade connect between the Indo Gangetic plains and Tibet.
The authorities in Tibet were also fully aware of the need of trade and the chances of diseases entering Tibet through the Bhotiya traders and their goats. Both the Tibetan authorities as well as the traders and local communities had elaborate systems to strictly observe the norms developed over centuries of experience.
The key was in maintaining physical distancing between the local and moving herds of goats, quarantining the villages for a couple of days, along with administrative supervision by the Tibetan authorities and strict compliance by the Bhotiya traders who pledged a guarantee in gold to be paid as a penalty if something went wrong. That’s how the Bhotiyas survived and made money for centuries. Pandemics were simply one of the occupational hazards in maintaining the trade connect between the Indo Gangetic plains and Tibet. While the cross-border trade stopped due to the Indo- China conflict of 1962, the Bhotiyas still observe some of those norms.
This forgotten chapter of pandemics control might be of importance for people who are managing the affairs in the Himalayan states in India.
Photo credit for featured image: Bhumesh Bharti