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Photographing the Nomads of Kashmir Part 1: A Chance Encounter

Photographing the Nomads of Kashmir.

By Aarief Hussain

Growing up in Kashmir, with the snow-capped peaks virtually on my doorstep, I've been a visitor to the Himalayas for as long as I can remember. Even as far back as the early '90s, my friends and I would go trekking in the mountains, keen to experience off the beaten track Kashmir at it's most sublime. At this point though, photography for me was merely a method of capturing memories, not yet an art form; much less the way of life that it has become for me now. 

In fact it was only in 2013 that I acquired my first full-frame camera and really began to take travel photography seriously. My discovery of photography went hand in hand with a desire to reconnect with my origins. Even before setting myself up as a photographer in Singapore I'd always kept in regular contact with my homeland, yet I found myself returning there more often during this time, camera always at the ready. These first Kashmir photo expeditions were truly exhilarating experiences. A rediscovery of my roots and a reinvigoration of my life, coupled with the thrill of applying myself to a new creative and intellectual challenge

While in the mountains on one of my earliest Kashmir photography tours, I happened to come across a nomad family, and among the photos I took of them were a few shots of their daughter. Back home, some of my friends saw these photos and commented that the image of the nomad girl reminded them of Steve McCurry's famous "Afghan Girl" photograph. Some even asked if it was McCurry’s work. 

It seems funny to write this now, but at that time I was still new to photography and I'd never come across the Afghan Girl photo before. Much less heard of McCurry. But once I saw McCurry's photograph, I could see the resemblance.

In the summer of 2014 I was once again in Kashmir. One day while driving, I noticed this visually pleasing scene of a nomad coming towards me on the opposite side of the road (Image 2). I stopped the car, positioned myself at a good vantage point, and took a few shots. Once he came closer, I asked the nomad where he was heading, and he revealed to me the fascinating story of the Kashmiri nomads' annual migration. 

The Bakarwal nomads are believed to have originated in Central Asia, migrating to northern India over the centuries.They are mostly sheep- and goat-herds by tradition. Although the word nomad might give the impression that they are constantly on the move and have no fixed home, in actual fact the Bakarwal have established ancestral lands, often deep in the jungle, on which they build houses. However, their livestock is not well suited to spending the entire year in the warmer regions of Jammu - where grazing becomes scarce during the hotter months - so around April every year the Bakarwal hit the trails, migrating to the fresher pastures of high-elevation Kashmir for the summer.

Having learned the purpose of the nomad's travels from this man, I captioned his image "Journey of Return". Little was I to know at this point just how significant this chance meeting with the Bakarwal would come to be for me. 

You can read about my own journey of return in next week's post about photographing the nomads of Kashmir.

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