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Photographing the Nomads of Kashmir Part 2: Journey of Return

By Aarief Hussain

Last week I wrote of the Bakarwal nomads and how, during one of my early Kashmir photo tours, I first met them on their spring migration to more verdant highland pastures. Although a fuller account of Bakarwal traditions and their cosmos will have to wait until a later post, suffice to say that Bakarwal culture is deeply spiritual and based upon a complex and fascinating belief system. Indeed, the more I have learned about Bakarwal values and credences, the more enchanted I have become of them. 

If you read my previous post, you may remember that I named my photo of the nomad I met on the road "Journey of Return". For me this title has a dual meaning. Firstly it of course refers to the nomad's arduous month-long return journey through the mountains to his lowland homelands for the winter. But there was also a return journey in store for me too. 

In 2015, during a trip shooting in some of the remotest regions of Kashmir, I happened to meet this nomad couple and we spent some time talking as I photographed them. While passing that very same way a few months earlier, I'd noticed smoke billowing out from deep inside the forest, and it crossed my mind that perhaps nomads where living there. I indicated to the man the direction from which I'd seen the smoke rising, and he replied that, yes, his family group had been camped there for some time and that they would soon set out on their return trip to warmer climes.

I asked the man if I could visit his encampment before they left. He smiled and indicated for me to come along with him and his wife right away. Together we trekked through the forest for about three kilometers until we reached a clearing where the nomads had pitched their tents. I spent the rest of the day there talking with the families and enjoying their warm hospitality. I also heard some of the nomads' grievances regarding exploitation by people with cameras. Yet, despite these previous bad experiences, for some reason with me things went differently, and either I won their trust or they won mine. Both I guess. 

It was a this point that the true meaning of "Journey of Return” started to become clear to me. The Bakarwal are a very special people, who are too often misunderstood by outsiders. Over the years I have grown to feel strongly connected with, and appreciative of, their culture and way of life. Indeed, both my photography and my life more generally have become very closely entwined with theirs.

This was a return, but it was also a beginning. 

Over the coming months I'll be writing much more about my experiences traveling with and photographing the nomads of Kashmir, so if you've found this post interesting please check back regularly for more installments.

Finally, while I think of it, I quite often receive mail from people interested in joining one of my India photography workshops and tours, but keen to avoid the tourist traps, or just curious about the possibilities my homeland offers for an active and unconventional vacation - far from the packaged performances of many more commercial Asian guided tours. The first question some of these people ask me is whether they will get to experience the real Asia, or just a highly rehearsed and impersonal performance. 

I totally understand this concern, so let me just say that if you are looking for some real adventure travel, India is an incredibly vast and diverse country. Yet most tourists tend to congregate at the same bottlenecks  - such as Agra, Varanasi and Goa - so it's not at all difficult to escape the hordes. If you know where to go. 

Indeed, anyone hoping to experience off the beaten track Asia should not allow themselves to be put-off by India's growing popularity as an exotic adventure holiday destination. On the contrary, this is a fantastic country in which to experience the authenticity and excitement of Asia; Kashmir is a wonderfully rich region to explore; and indigenous and minority groups such as the Bakarwal nomads possess totally unique and fascinating cultures that are unlike those to be found anywhere else in the world. 

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