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Muslim Van Gujjars of Rajaji National Park in Uttaranchal, India

Dr David Emmanuel Singh, OCMS, Oxford, UK


I grew up among Muslims that are mystical, eclectic and wonderfullyintegrated 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 tobe 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 tothe 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 regionsof 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 ofIslamization 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 tolay 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




The 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-WestProvinces (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

Gujrat. The state of Gujrat was formed on 1


May 1960, as a result of Bombay re-organisation act of 1960. The term ‘Gujrat’ isthe shortened form of ‘Gujjar Rashtra’,

the land of the Gujjars.


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 map below is from


the invading Huns inthe 5th century CE.


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.


According to VA Smith Gujjars were probably

related by blood to the Huns.


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)


and Yue-Chi



tribes that invaded the subcontinent in the 1


century BC and in the 1


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.


In the 5


century CE, Brahminism experienceda 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.


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 (10


century), the Ghauris (early 12


century), the Mamluks (late 12


–early 13


centuries), the Khiljis (late 13


century), the Tughlaqs (early 14


century), and the

Lodhis (15


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




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)


The Early History of India (Oxford: OUP 1962)


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) 437-456


See M ChauhanScythic 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



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.


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.


We hear of a distinct Gujjar Kingdom inthe 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 12


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 12


century Chishti Sufi, Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya is well known. This Sufi

especially objected to the religious laxity ofthe 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 inprotest against the traditional-political


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



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.


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 BhaiSahib Singh (1669-1705 CE) suggests that a sizable

population of Gujjars existed in Northernmostareas of India and that the Gujjars of

this region had, by this time, been convertedto 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 16


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 havekilled the Gujjar Chief, Jamatulla, in a battle at



Clearly, the name suggests thatthis 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 7


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.


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 mahasabhaitself 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.



Rajaji National Park

The Himalayas are the youngest mountain chain of the world. They form about 18%

of the geographical area ofIndia, 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-gangetic

plains are the foothills of the Shivaliks

(approximately 900-1500 meters). The Gujjar

Muslims inhabit the medium and the lower

ranges. Originally 3 separate sanctuaries, the

Rajaji National Park (RNP)


was created

through the amalgamation of Motichur and

Chilla forests in 1983. It was named Rajaji

National Park after the famous freedom fighter, C Rajagopalachari or Rajaji in short.


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 1999


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 (capitalof 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 forestin 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.



The maps below are from


Van Gujjars of the Park

Two groups of Gujjars have been identified:the Bakarwals who as shown in the map

above, occupy the northern reaches of the Himlayas, whereas the Dodhis inhabit the

southern reaches.



The following map is from The

principal works on the Bakarwals of the Jammu and Kashmir is by Dr Aparna Rao. A list of her

published works is available.



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’.


The Gujjars, as observed

earlier, are the descendents ofthe 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 issaid 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 20




According to CP Goyal, director of the RNP, the Park presents myriad management



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


and the Gothiyas


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.



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:


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 theyare not disturbed they canreach 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 carnivorious animals. They

have their own warning sounds and all of them gather together in a circle with

the clves inside and can fend off any attack. This behavious you will not see in

dairy buffaloes. Our buffaloes forage mainly on leaffodder during the winter

months and on the rich grass of the Himalayan pasture land during the

summers. In winter we lop off branchesfrom selected fodder trees making


Singh, B., MP Singh Flora of Rajaji National Park: UttaranchalK.K. Singh and Anand Prakash.

Dehra Dun: 2002




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.


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 slide



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.


sure that enough nodal branches and leaves are left so that the tree may



The efforts of the government and NGOs at relocating the Gujjars have not been very


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 toregenerate 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 ofland for cultivation. Reports on how these

changes impact the forest and its biodiversityexist. No studies have so far been done

to understand their impact on the Gujjarsand their traditional faith/practice.


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 wearembroidered 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.


‘Old-style forest protection in India’ Rainforest Medical Bulletin vol. 6, no.1, June 1999


See for more on the rehabilitation programmes of the government at



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’.


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 inthe Qur’an. He does not fit in the fundamental rationale

of the Qur’anic idea of the centrality ofprophets 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, - ofAbraham, 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…’”


The Qur’an

further says, “That was the reasoning aboutUs, 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….”



Qur’an firther says, “…We bestowed on him Isaac and Jacob, and each of them we

made a prophet…”


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


It is likely that there were a combination of reasons for the Muslim Gujjars’ decision

to 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:


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’.


Surah al-Baqarah 2.131-136


Surah al-An‘am 6.83-86


Surah Maryam 19.49


Isaac was old and eager to pass his blessings on to a son who was able to

provide for him the kababs (burgers made of goat meat). Whilst the

independent and skillful Esauwent to fetch a wild goat, their mother assisted

Jacob in cooking the kababs made of a domestic goat for Isaac, thus pre-empting 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 ofsainthood in relation to Jacob’s role

as a prophet. He did as toldand became a great saint.


Van Gujjars believe themselves to be the spiritual descendents of Esau, the Saint.

They live in the forest where they seek tofollow 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 IndianSubcontinent 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 Gujjarsintersect with the traditional Islam of

the towns around the RNP and are impacted by it, remains to be studied.


This story is from the Gujjars of Himanchal Pradesh; see

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