Shafiq R Khan


Muslim Van Gujjars of Rajaji National Park in Uttaranchal

Article By Dr David Emmanuel Singh, OCMS, Oxford, UK
I grew up among Muslims that are mystical, eclectic and wonderfully integrated with the plurality of South Asian religions. Muslims arrived in India as Traders, Warriors and Sufis. Sometimes the Sufis came in the garb of Warriors because this was the quickest way of entry into the Subcontinent. The form and the spirit of Islam remain immensely well adapted to South Asian religiosity centering on the cult of personages perceived to be intimate with God and hence, recognized as the saints, both in the sense of being near God and possessing knowledge and power from God to speak words of wisdom and perform miracles.
Since its origins, Sufism has been known to be in some sort of conflict with the traditional Islam of the ‘Ulama’. The state apparatus remained largely tentative as to the form of Islam it subscribed to. ‘Ulama’ had their periods of power and political patronage as they attached themselves to the courts, but Sufism was always the popular expression of Islam. The royalty deferred to the Sufis for reasons of their independence, popularity, power and charisma. There were periods when the state allied with the ‘Ulama’ in Islamizing Muslims of the subcontinent, with little success though; islamization continues today through the efforts of the revivalist movements and the fast mushrooming religious schools (madrasas). These are apparently responsible for creating the consciousness of the ‘true Islam’ among ordinary Muslims. So widespread is their network that there is hardly any community that remains untouched.
A study of the transformation of South Asian Islam is, in this context, significant. An evidence of the movements of change among the remotest and most far flung of the Muslim communities will give us an idea of the nature, extent and success of Islamization. Gujjars have been a vibrant ethnic minority of India. Majority of these are said to be the Rajputs (warrior-ruling caste) of Hinduism spread through out the states of Gujrat, Rajasthan and Central India. A relatively smaller minority of Gujjars is Muslim and inhabits the Himalayan foothills from the North West regions of Pakistan through to Jammu and Kashmir, Himanchal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. Majority of these live in the forest regions of the Himalayas and hence, called the Van Gujjars. I am taking the Van Gujjar of the Rajaji National Park in Uttaracnchal as a case in point. Based on preliminary observations, my assumption is that despite their relative isolation, the Van Gujjars are experiencing a degree of Islamizing. The study I have begun, hopes to establish the extent of Islamization and the impact this has on the Van Gujjars in general and their time-honored ‘folk Islamic’ beliefs and practices.
In this paper, however, I am seeking to lay a foundation for the more in depth qualitative research I am currently doing among the Van Gujjars. I give some information on the Rajaji National Park, address some general questions of their broader ethnic background, and the process of adopting Islam, forest and vegetarianism.
ORIGINS OF GUJJARS IN INDIAThe Gujjars numbered around 2,038,692 according to their last census in 1931. Eight provinces were then identified as pockets inhabited by them namely, Delhi, Jammu-Kashmir, Punjab (undivided) the North-West Provinces (Pakistan) and other area in and along the Himalayas (now Uttaranchal and Himanchal Pradesh). The Van Gujjars are relatively unknown in relation to the Hindu Gujjars of North West India. According to the current reports, the majority of Van Gujjars are semi-nomadic, forest-dwelling and cattle-herding Muslim.
Much has been said and written on Government and NGO involvements among the Van Gujjars and their socio-political, economic and educational advancement, and how they themselves are struggling to fight for their rights in some pockets. Their origins, relations with traditional Islam and religious worldview remain largely shrouded in mystery.
Gujjars are normally associated with North-Western India, especially the state of Gujarat. The state of Gujarat was formed on 1st May 1960, as a result of Bombay reorganization act of 1960. The term ‘Gujrat’ is the shortened form of ‘Gujjar Rashtra’, the land of the Gujjars.[1]
The question of the origin of the Gujjars remains largely unanswered. According to a theory, the Gujjars were originally a migrant tribe that came to India in the wake of the invading Huns in the 5th century CE.[2] The Huns were originally a nomadic and pastoral people from Central Asia. This tribe was the source of two major migrations – one to Europe and the other to regions south of Central Asia. The largest of group migrated to Europe and the smaller to the south, including India, through the Oxus Valley and Kabul.[3] According to VA Smith Gujjars were probably related by blood to the Huns.[4] The Hans and the Gujjars were among several groups of migrations before the advent of Islam in the Indian Subcontinent. Some suggest that the Gujjars are descendents of the Scythian (Sacae or Saka)[5] and Yue-Chi (Kushan)[6] tribes that invaded the subcontinent in the 1st century BC and in the 1st century CE respectively. These probably came via Georgia (Gurjia), somewhere near the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Caspian Sea is also called the Bahr-e-Khizar and, hence, the tribes from this region are also named as Khizar, Guzar, Gurjar, Gurjara or Gujjar.[7]
In the 5th century CE, Brahminism experienced a revival under the Guptas. The invading Huns repeated the political successes of their European cousins, and the Gupta Empire soon collapsed. The Brahmins, the elite in Indian society, were especially affected because the power of their patrons, the Guptas, was waning whilst Buddhism was increasing in influence. The warrior Huns, and likely also the Gujjars (if one assumes they were two different ethnic groups), were accorded the status of the high-caste Kshatriyas (second level of the Hindu caste) or Rajputs (sons of the rulers) with responsibilities to rule.[8]
Many of these were converted when the waves of Muslim invaders made their way into India and gradually established their rule. Islam was born in Arabia in 6th century CE. Arabs spilling out of Arabia soon replaced the Persians. In 711-13 CE these ‘Persianised’ Arabs advanced first towards the Indian subcontinent and gradually established their political rule over much of the subcontinents’ north. Some of the well known rulers before the advent of the Mughals include the Ghaznavis (10th century), the Ghauris (early 12th century), the Mamluks (late 12th –early 13th centuries), the Khiljis (late 13th century), the Tughlaqs (early 14th century), and the Lodhis (15th century). According to a Gujjar website, the Mughal Emperors are said to have had an agreement with some of the unconverted Rajput or Kshatriya kingdoms that if they were defeated they would convert to Islam. Many of these Rajupts lost their battles with the Muslim rulers and thereafter converted to Islam.[9]
We hear of a distinct Gujjar Kingdom in the present North-Western state of Rajasthan, bordering the present state of Gujrat from around fifth century CE. The reference to a Gujjar Kingdom so early on suggests these might have been a group of powerful people. Many of these migrated from Gujrat early on due to a series of droughts. These secondary migrations actually brought the Gujjars to the greener areas of the foothills of the Himalayas, ranging from Kashmir to the hills of Himanchal and Uttar Pradesh (now Uttaranchal).
Most of these secondary migrations left a trail of Gujjars who settled on the plains of North-Central India. We know that Gujjars were a sizable community in Tuqhlakabad (now part of the city of Delhi). Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq, a 12th century Sultan, was the first of the Tughlaqs to rule over a large part of India. He built the city of Tughlaqabad. He is known, along with his son, Muhammad bin Tughlaq, to have conquered parts of the Deccan where Hindu rebellion was rising. His conflicts with the 12th century Chishti Sufi, Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya is well known. This Sufi especially objected to the religious laxity of the Sultan. It is said that he cursed the city (then dominated by Gujjars): Ya rahe Gujjar, Ya rahe Ujjar (If Gujjars are not allowed to settle here, may it remain barren forever). If this legend is true then one can say that the Gujjars were a powerful force already in this region before the establishment of the Sultanate. The Sultan and his traditional religious establishment nurtured anti-Gujjar sentiments possibly because the Gujjars were high standing Hindus with sympathies for the Sufi. It is likely that many Gujjars converted to Sufism in solidarity with the Saint and in protest against the traditional-political Islam.
The stories surrounding ‘Gujjari Mahal’ (the Palace of Gujjars), symbolizes a romantic era of the history of Gwalior, an erstwhile princely state near Delhi. This 15th century palace-fort complex was built by the then ruler of Gwalior, Raja Man Singh Tomar, as a sign of his love for the beautiful Gujjari Queen, Mrignayani.10 It is not clear if this name was originally her or it was given her subsequent to her marriage with the Raja of Gwalior. If she was Hindu herself, she was perceived to be of the same class of warrior-rulers called the Rajput. It is also likely that this little kingdom of Gujjars to which Mrignayani belonged had already become Muslim, but was still not completely islamised. We know this region was briefly overrun by the Turks when the different Rajput kingdoms were subjugated before the time of the Mughal rule. The Gujjars of her kingdom may have converted during this time.
A Sikh tradition of Bhai Sahib Singh (1669-1705 CE) suggests that a sizable population of Gujjars existed in Northernmost areas of India and that the Gujjars of this region had, by this time, been converted to Islam. Bhai Sahib Singh was one of ‘the Five Beloved’ of the Sikh tradition. He was the son Bhai Guru Narayana, a barber of Bidar in the Deccan. The Sikh Guru Nanak is said to have visited Bidar in the 16th century and a shrine had been built in his honor. Sahib Singh is said to have traveled to Anandpur when he was 16, and attached himself to the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. He is known to have distinguished himself, according to the Sikh tradition, as a warrior and is said to have killed the Gujjar Chief, Jamatulla, in a battle at Anandpur.11 Clearly, the name suggests that this Gujjar Chief was Muslim.
The Gujjars in general are increasingly becoming conscious of their ethnic separateness. In some instances, the ethnic background is more powerful than their religion – Hinduism or Islam. Shri Kutch Gurjar Kshatriya Mahasabha is an association of Gujjars which was founded in 1972 at Raipur in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. As this title suggests, Gujjars are assumed to be the Kshatriyas of caste Hinduism (warriors/rulers). This caste is considered second only to the Brahmins, the priests. The mahasabha claims that according to the old manuscripts preserved by a people called ‘Bhats’, the ancestors of all of the present Gujjars, irrespective of the location and present religious affiliation were called the ‘true Kshatriyas’; they arrived in the Kutch district of Gujarat in the 7th century CE. They came primarily to protect the ‘motherland’ of Gujrat from the intruders from ‘the Middle East’. The Gujjar migration from the Kutch to other regions continued, however, after this time.12 The result was the establishment of Gujjar communities in different parts of the North-Western, Central and Eastern India. An unbroken succession of chiefs of the mahasabha itself and the women’s wing of the mahasabha is available from 1972 onwards. Some of the towns where the mahasabha has its centre are: Dhanbad, Nasik, Vadodara, Raipur, Anjar, Jabalpur, and Gondia. Some centers of the Deccan are in Hyderabad, Gulbaga and Nizamabad.[13]
The Himalayas are the youngest mountain chain of the world. They form about 18% of the geographical area of India, feed the major river systems and regulate the climate of a good part of north India. The Himalayas span approximately 3000km from the North West to the North East of Indian Subcontinent. The highest Mountains in the Indian part are the Kanchanjanga and Nanda Devi, standing at around 7-8000 meters. The medium ranges (approximately 3-5000 meters) lie to the south and flanking the indo-gangeticplains are the foothills of the Shivaliks (approximately 900-1500 meters). The GujjarMuslims inhabit the medium and the lower ranges. Originally 3 separate sanctuaries, theRajaji National Park (RNP) 14 was created through the amalgamation of Motichur andChilla forests in 1983. It was named Rajaji National Park after the famous freedom fighter, C Rajagopalachari or Rajaji in short.
The RNP occupies 820.42 sq. km. of the Shivaliks and marks the North Western limits of the Asian Elephant. It has a complex ecosystem, rich in wildlife. The forest is home to approximately 23 species of mammals, 315 species of birds and 3 different human habitations within its perimeters.
The RNP can be reached by air, rail and state roadways and is linked to Delhi and Lucknow by rail and road. There are 7 gates entrances to the forest. The gate at Mohund, about 25 km. from Dehradun (capital of Uttaranchal state), is most convenient for those coming by road from Delhi. Mohund lies on the state highway.
The RNP provides well for tourists who come to the forest in seasons other than the monsoons and the summer. It boasts of AC, deluxe, executive and dorm facilities in addition to the Gujjar huts and the forest rest houses.[15]
Two groups of Gujjars have been identified: the Bakarwals who as shown in the mapabove, occupy the northern reaches of the Himlayas, whereas the Dodhis inhabit thesouthern reaches.[16]
In describing the Flora of the Rajaji National Park (RNP), B Singh and MP Singh describe the Gujjars as ‘a tribal community of the park’.[17] The Gujjars, as observed earlier, are the descendents of the warrior people, some of who converted to Islam and gradually moved northward to Jammu and Kashmir and, then, to the other parts of the foothills of the Himalayas. A story is told of a King of Sirmaur in Himanchal Pradesh visiting the kingdom of Punch in Kashmir. He is said to have liked the quality of milk in Punch so much that he invited the Gujjars to settle down in Sirmaur. It is believed that it was from here that family units migrated to the , possibly at the turn of the 20th century.[18]
According to CP Goyal, director of the RNP, the Park presents myriad management problems.[19] To begin with, the existing railway lines, the highways and the surrounding villages impinge on the wildlife. In addition to these, the Park houses three different ethnic human settlements: the Taungyas[20] and the Gothiyas[21] and the Van Gujjars. The 1400 odd Van Gujjar families and over 10,000 domestic cattle inside the RNP are said to exert enormous pressure on the wildlife habitat. [22] In contrast to the Bakarwals who herd the goat, the Van Gujjars of RNP herd a small, tough and hybrid variety of the buffalo – a mix of the nili and the ravi. The Van Gujjars are vegetarian and depend entirely on the forest produce and the milk or milk products of the hybrid buffalo. The buffalo is an extremely prized animal. It is treated with respect and each buffalo is considered an individual in its own right with appropriate name by which it is called and known. This is what the Gujjars say about their buffaloes:[23]
Our buffaloes start migrating on their own when the weather gets hot in the month of March or April or when it becomes cold in the month of September (close to the snow line). At times if we are not ready to move, we have to physically stop them. If they are not disturbed they can reach their destinations even on their own. They are like any other wild animal of the forests and know how to protect themselves against attacks from carnivorous animals. They have their own warning sounds and all of them gather together in a circle with the calves inside and can fend off any attack. This behavior you will not see in dairy buffaloes. Our buffaloes forage mainly on leaf fodder during the winter months and on the rich grass of the Himalayan pasture land during the summers. In winter we lop off branches from selected fodder trees making sure that enough nodal branches and leaves are left so that the tree may regenerate….[24]
The efforts of the government and NGOs at relocating the Gujjars have not been very successful.
The Van Gujjars spend autumn (approximately October to April) in the Shiwaliks and the summer and the rainy season (May to September) in the higher pastures of the Himalayas. Migrations between these grazing zones take up to three months. They are completely dependent on the forests for their needs of fodder, fuel wood, thatching material and timber for their huts. According to the Park reports, the wildlife and cattle of the RNP competes for fodder and water with the Gujjars and their buffaloes. Traditionally, they migrated to the higher Himalayan pastures during the monsoons. This allowed the vegetation in the park to regenerate and when they returned in October, there was more than adequate fodder reserve to last until their migration in May again. According to the park reports, the Gujjars and their buffalo populations have grown many-fold in the last few decades causing additional pressure on the forest resources that have remained the same. Their annual migration cycle has come in for disruption from the villages on route to the higher mountain pastures, since the Gujjar cattle compete with the domestic sheep for food.
Also, the Gujjars are today, more aware of the profits they can make from selling milk in towns around the forest. The youth are least enthusiastic about annual migration also because of the prospects of additional year-round job opportunities in towns adjoining the forest. The result is that only a small proportion of the Gujjars and their cattle migrate. The majority remain in the forest round the year.
Some Gujjar families have been rehabilitated outside the Park. By the middle of March 2000, a total of over 400 families were relocated to Pathri and Gaindikhatta, the two rehabilitation sites near the famous Hindu pilgrim-town of Haridwar. Each family has been allocated two acres of land for cultivation. Reports on how these changes impact the forest and its biodiversity exist. No studies have so far been done to understand their impact on the Gujjars and their traditional faith/practice.[25]
The Gujjars of the RNP live in homesteads called the deras. Each house is built from the forest material on a clearing in the forest. The Gujjars live and move in joint family groups and set up temporary settlements where the grazing is good.
Men graze the animals and sell the milk and the women milk the cattle, make butter and do the other household chores. The men wear a turban, a lose tahmet (sarong) and generally have a flowing beard. Some wear embroidered waistcoats. The women wear a long kurta (shirt), churidar (tight pyjamas), and jackets. The women do not generally veil themselves. Gujjars speak Gujjari or Gojri, a dialect of Hindi. Many speak Urdu, Kashmiri, Pahari or Dogri as well. They are a monogamous and patriarchal society. Milk and cornmeal are their staple food, and are strict vegetarians.
The Van Gujjars relate the Judeo-Christian and traditional Islamic story of Esau as their justification for forest dwelling and vegetarianism.
Islam holds that humanity is prone to repetitive straying from the worship of the one true God and therefore, the need for this God to commission prophets to warn specific people groups of the different eras and call them to the ‘straight path’.[26] Of course, most reject the prophets’ warnings and choose to live in ignorance (jahilliyya) and in active disobedience and disbelief (kufr) against God. Those that do heed the timeless and unchanging message of the prophets are invited into a brotherhood of those who submit to God (Muslim). In this sense all prophets are equal.
Esau is not a central actor in the Qur’an. He does not fit in the fundamental rationale of the Qur’anic idea of the centrality of prophets and prophecy. For example, the Qur’an says, “And this was the legacy that Abraham left to his sons, and so did Jacob; ‘Oh my sons! Allah has chosen the Faith for you….’ …They said: ‘We shall worship your God and the God of your fathers, - of Abraham, Isma‘il and Isaac, - the one (True) God: to Him we bow (in Islam).’ ….Say you: ‘We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ismai‘l, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them: and we bow to Allah…’”[27] The Qur’an further says, “That was the reasoning about Us, which we gave to Abraham…. We gave him Isaac and Jacob: all three we guided: and before him we guided Noah, and among his progeny, David, Soloman, Job, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron…and Zakariya and John and Jesus and Elias…and Ismai ‘l and Elisha, and Jonas, and Lot….”[28] The Qur’an firther says, “…We bestowed on him Isaac and Jacob, and each of them we made a prophet…”[29]
In contrast to the relative silence of the Qur’an on Esau and his role in the central purposes of God, the Van Gujjars carve out a distinctive role for him – a role that aligns him and the Gujjars more closely to the Mystical traditions within Islam than the mainstream traditional Islam. Sainthood is the central feature of Islamic Mysticism or Sufism. Sainthood is the means by which, according to Sufis epistemology, the inward or spiritual dimensions of the prophetic revelation continue to flow even after the sealing of prophecy by the prophet exemplar, Muhammad. Esau stands as the quintessential saint-exemplar whose wisdom remains hidden and marginalized.
It is likely that there were a combination of reasons for the Muslim Gujjars’ decisionto retreat in the recesses of the forests. The decline of the Muslim rule, disenchantment with the constant interpenetration of the state and the ‘Ulama’ (the spokesmen of the prophetic Islam), institutionalization of Sufism and a series of droughts may all have in some degree contributed to their decision to retreat. Some Van Gujjars themselves give the following reasons:
Isaac was old and eager to pass his blessings on to a son who was able to provide for him the kababs. Whilst the independent and skillful Esau went to fetch a wild goat, their mother assisted Jacob in cooking the kababs made of a domestic goat for Isaac, thus preempting Esau and stealing his right to be prophet after Isaac. Esau returns to the forest upon learning that he had been tricked. God speaks to him through a dream and charges him to worship him with a pure heart whilst living in the forest. He was promised a higher status of sainthood in relation to Jacob’s role as a prophet. He did as told and became a great saint.[30]
Van Gujjars believe themselves to be the spiritual descendents of Esau, the Saint. They live in the forest where they seek to follow the ‘saintly Islam’ of Esau in contrast to the traditional ‘prophetic Islam’. Meat is abhorred, most likely, because Jacob, the prophet, makes an instrumental use of it to dispossess Esau from his rightful claim to the blessing of prophet-hood.
In this paper, I have sought to lay a simple foundation for a more in depth qualitative research among Van Gujjars. I outlined the broader ethnic Gujjar background of the Van Gujjars, reviewed a few general and particular works on them, gave some information on the RNP, and offered tentative answers to the general questions of how some Gujjars might have adopted Islam, their choice to retreat into the forest dwelling and vegetarianism.
Sufism is still widespread in the Indian Subcontinent judging from the continued popularity of Saints among the subcontinent’s Muslims. The Van Gujjars are an instance of the extensive spread of Mystical Islam. If the growth of the Muslim religious schools, the mosques and the mosque based movement such as the Tabligh-e-Jama‘at is any indication, one may observe that the process of Islamization is well underway. The extent to which the Van Gujjars intersect with the traditional Islam of the towns around the RNP and are impacted by it, remains to be studied.
1 The map is from See See more in Roberts, Wess. Victory Secrets of Atilla, the Hun (New York: Doubleday Publishers, 1993), Maenchen-Helfen, Otto J. The World of the Huns (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), McGovern, W. M. Early Empires of Central Asia (1939) and Thompson, E. A. A History of Attila and the Huns (1948)4 The Early History of India (Oxford: OUP 1962)5 A central Asian or Indo-Iranian group; see also West, S. “Scythians” in: Egbert Bakker, Irene de Jong and Hans van Wees (eds.), Brill's Companion to Herodotus (Leiden: 2002) 437-4566 See M Chauhan Scythic Origin of the Rajput Race (Ujjain: Rajputana Liberation Front, 1999); a central Asian tribe (c. 135-241 BC); A group of this tribe conquered the present Afghan area and by the 2nd century CE they reached their zenith under the Buddhist King Kanishka (c. AD 78-144); his empire is said to have stretched from India to Bactria and the parts of Central Asia; see more at See JC Sharma’s work ‘Gojri and its Relationship with Rajasthani’ at; despite the geographical distance between Kashmir, Himanchal, Uttaranchal and Rajasthan the connection between Gojri and Rajasthanis suggests a link between the speakers of these languages.9 See From the Encyclopedia of Sikhism, ed. Harbans Singh Ji at This map of the RNP is from ‘Old style forest protection’ in Rainforest medical Journal vol. 6, no. 1, June 199915 The maps are from The following map is from Theprincipal works on the Bakarwals of the Jammu and Kashmir is by Dr Aparna Rao. A list of her published works is available.17 Singh, B., MP Singh Flora of Rajaji National Park: Uttaranchal K.K. Singh and Anand Prakash. Dehra Dun: 200218 Taungyas were originally employed as forest plantation labourer. These have continued to live in the forest. Out of the four Taungya villages, one was relocated out side the park in 1987.21 42 Gothia families live within the RNP. They came to live in the forest in 1975 when their original homes were razed by a land slide22 Clearly, this statement reflects both the opinion of the Van Gujjars as well as that of those lobbying for the Gujjar right to live within the forest. The Dehradun based Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) is the principal NGO working for the development of the Gujjars. The RLEK is involved in teaching and other developmental activities among the Gujjars.24 ‘Old-style forest protection in India’ Rainforest Medical Bulletin vol. 6, no.1, June 199925 See for more on the rehabilitation programmes of the government at and See Sura al-Fatiha 1.1-7 for the Qur’anic idea of the ‘straight path.’ This opening chapter of the Qur’an contains the most oft repeated verses of the Qur’an and is called the ‘essence of the book’.27 Surah al-Baqarah 2.131-13628 Surah al-An‘am 6.83-8629 Surah Maryam 19.4930 This story is from the Gujjars of Himanchal Pradesh; see

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