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Sheep to Blanket – a journey

Sheep to Blanket- a journey worth an experience

That day, while cleaning & reorganizing the storage loft, I found a ‘Ghongadi’ (desi blanket made of sheep wool). I remembered the village market, where I had bought that ‘ghongadi’ few years ago, just for fun. That market was called as ‘Mhashacha Bazaar’!

Years back, when I often used to go for hiking; the ‘Dhangars’ (shepherds) with the flocks of sheep & goats was a common sight. And whenever I could see one such flock; I always used to wonder how will be the journey of a Ghongadi from the stage of raw sheep wool?? This thought kept lingering in my mind for years & one day I thought to follow the process & experience that journey.

First, I decided to accompany a group of shepherds; to live, eat, sleep with them as they do for self experience of their life. I didn’t refer any book, film or internet. Earlier, being used to tracking, hiking & rock climbing, I started the business of making the equipments useful for tracking like tents, sleeping bags, haversacks etc. After starting the business, I could hardly get time to wander in the hills & mountains. I had lost my practice. So first I Started daily walk of 5 km, then increased it up to 10 km. Breaking the habit of using ‘commode’ was also necessary; I did so! But without knowing me, the shepherds would not allow me to stay with them. I tried asking to some groups at the Old Mumbai-Pune highway. It was of no use!! At last one friend come to my rescue & introduced me to Dhondibhau Bichkule, a shepherd from Otur village in Junnar Taluka, Dist Pune. The mediator was Tajane Master! Dhondibhau agreed to my stay with them.

By passing time I understood that there are two different categories of the Dhangar community. They are Hatkars & khutekars. Hatkar are the shepherds who take care of the flock & keep moving from one place to another Hatkars are further categorized bet Topiwale, rumalwale & pagotewale. The Khutekars live at one place & weave the ‘Ghongadis’. In this process a piece of wood is buried in the ground & the loom is then fixed on that wooden piece. This wood base is called as ‘Khuta’ & so the people become ‘Khutekar’. The ghongdis are traditionally woven on such looms.’ Dhangar community’s deity is Biroba, the Veerbhadra.

My experience expedition started with the hatkars. I started living with Dhondibhau’s ‘wada’. These gipsy Dhangars everyday stay at a different place, called as ‘wada’. It was a huge family consisting Dhondibhau (65), Wife Bhambai (58), younger brother Balu (56), grandson Sagar (4) with 100 sheep, 15 goats, 2 cows, 1 ox, 4 hen & 2 dogs. All of them were one family under one big roof of open sky, except the shelter in rainy days.

Their day starts at 5.00 am. Fetching water from any nearby well, milking the goats are the routine morning chores. The little lambs of around 2-3 months from the sheep family are then taken out of their shade made of nylon net. It is known as ‘Waghur’. Entering the waghur & catching a lamb was a hard task for me. Bhambai used to instruct like ‘Be careful, hold it by the thigh, not the leg… if you hold the leg, it will break…’

There were many babool trees around & they were of no use for the farmers. Tender leaves of these trees make a good treat to these tender little animals. The big sheep not grazing well or not walking properly were also keenly observed & then treated. Dhondibhau took out a syringe & injected a sheep…. I was simply amazed!! Dhangar Dhondibhau was playing a doctor in real life. Another sheep had its knee bone upset. The bone was first set upright, the joint was covered with herbal medicine paste & then the leg was tied with the bark of ‘Hiwar’ tree as a plaster. Dhondibhau, this time a bonesetter, smiled & said, ‘here you must know & handle everything.’ The only thing I could do was being astonished & watch his multileveled skills. That sheep was walking perfectly on the third day.

Balu, Bhambai & Dhondibhau manage to identify all 100 sheep by their colour, eyes & horns; for instance one was named ‘Dhavla Kolha band’, that means white sheep with strips of the colour of a fox.

You can’t manage sheep standing at one place; for their food is not available so. One has to move constantly to graze the whole flock & keeping all the animals together takes lots of efforts.

If the animals enter in a farm, the Dhangars have to pay whatever compensation the farmer would ask for. On the very first day I got my hands and legs scorched due to thorny bushes. Driving the flock in one direction took my breath almost out. And the ‘Shekata’, I forcefully took on my shoulders; added in my troubles. The shekata is a 20 ft. long cane attached with a hook at one end. The hook helps to take down the beans from the trees and feed the sheep.

My exercise of walking a distance of 5-10 km daily proved useless in this real adventure… in fact my stamina was over, my urban fitness failed miserably in the real rural and gipsy life. One thing I noticed that these people are quite particular about where their sheep will get good food to eat. They also know about the science of plants and trees.

When the evening sun was about to set down the horizon; Dhondibhau & Balu took some leaves & blew a special kind of Whistle with it and to my great wonder, their whistle was a return call for the flock the dispersed animals come together from the hill slope and started moving towards home. It was amazing… incredible… I just failed to understand & asked to then about it. The reply was, We are not learned much; but gentleman, tell me can one pass the matriculation exam on the very first day?…. ‘I was speechless’.

The dinner was Bhakri & hot, spicy curry accompanied by raw onion & chutney made with a few peanuts & lot of chilies. In my family no one could ever imagine of such not spicy meal. But there was no scope for any complaint as I had decided to adapt their lifestyle. However Bichkule family understood that their meal was too spicy for me & from next day a special ‘Phika khana’ was prepared for me.

I was able to know & learn quite a few things after 3-4 days. The sheep… the whole flock is made to sit in a farm to enhance the productive quality of the soil as their dung makes a good organize fertilizer this process is called as ‘Shet rangawane’. The Dhangars get 200 rupees per day for this service. Earlier they would get food grains in the barter system. For this service too, the Dhangars need to keep moving & the stay is at different place everyday. Obviously their luggage comprises only a few necessary things. They use a brass plate called ‘Pitali’ for drinking tea & to have their meal too. “We just can’t afford carrying cups & soccer. ‘Continuous wandering for 8-9 months with all the animals & with the luggage loaded on the horses is not a joke!!’ says Dhondibhau. There is lot one can learn from these people, just like the ‘Mumbaicha Dabewala’. These Dhangars actually live the ‘Resource Management’, so we should take lessons from them. The raw sheep wool is sold just for 7-8 Rs. per kg. They cannot afford its transport charges. So it hardly gives them any income.

The main source of income is selling the sheep or lambs. Dhondibhau’s approximate monthly income is about 7-8 thousand rupees. One day Dhondibhau took me to ‘Chakan’ in pune District to see the special ‘bazar’ of sheep and goat. It is really a different experience.