After completely disappearing from the scene, yaks are making a slow comeback in the state of Uttarakhand
The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the tourism industry have failed to dampen the spirit of 53-year-old Brijbhushan Rawat, hailing from a remote village in Chamoli (Uttarakhand). Living in a far-flung village of Farkiya Padhan, Rawat decided to domesticate an unusual pet, yak, in 2017. He used to visit Badrinath, during the pilgrimage season, and exhibit his pet to generate funds to meet the expenses for rearing yaks.
The fame he got after becoming the first person to domesticate yaks in the entire Garhwal region, has kept him motivated. Managing the finance to keep yaks during the pandemic was difficult for Rawat. He, however, managed by using the income earned from his agricultural field and mules to feed the yaks.
One of the oldest references to yaks in Garhwal Himalayas can be found in a painting of Hyder Young Hearsey. In his 29 May 1808 water colour of Badrinath shine, Hearsey shows three yaks and two boys. Hyder, born to an English father and Jat mother, accompanied William Moorcroft in 1812 to explore Tibet.
In ancient times, yaks were used for cross-border trade with Tibet. The traders from Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh used to ferry products on yaks. The villagers also used them in the agriculture field. The India-China war put an end to cross-border trade. With the development in road connectivity and the end of cross-border trade, the villagers found little or no use for the yak in daily life. Slowly the bovid disappeared from the scene in Uttarakhand.
Rawat got inspired to keep yaks when he visited Kullu and Manali in 2016. Recalling the visit, he says: “In Himachal I saw tourists enjoying the yak ride. These made me nostalgic as in the past yaks were used by villagers for different works in our area. I approached the animal husbandry department and finally got a yak in 2017 and I named it Chandu. Later, I added a female yak.”
The arrival of yaks in Farkiya Padhan has turned them into a big attraction for visitors. People touring this village, located about 75 km from Joshimath, make it a point to see the pets. Rawat began getting invitations regularly to display his yaks at animal husbandry and other fairs/functions. The sudden attention made the yak owner and his pet grab media and public attention.
Can domesticating yaks turn economically viable for farmers? Lokesh Kumar, Additional Director of Uttarakhand Animal Husbandry Department, says, “I was at Farkiya Padhan village last month. The health of the yaks was fine. I feel that yaks can become economically viable for farmers, but for this, we need to link it with tourism.”
Yak rides are common in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Sikkim. In Uttarakhand too, the long-haired domesticated bovid can be used as a tourist attraction. The experiment of Brijbhushan Rawat proves this. He was with his yak in Badrinath (in 2018 and 2019) and the tourists fell in love with the animal. They touched and clicked selfies with the yak. This season Rawat is not in Badrinath and he is getting occasional calls from tourists who want to see the yak.
In the present time, only a few villagers are domesticating yaks. Besides Farkiya Padhan, there are some yaks in a few villages in Pithoragarh. Veteran Padam Singh Raypa, who lives in Dharchula (Pithoragarh), says: “In earlier times we used to go for cross-border trade to Tibet on yak. We used to even ride on yak for our Mansarover Yatra. Now a handful of villagers from Gunji, Nabi, Kuti, and Rongkong are using yaks.”
Harish Dhami, a resident of Dharchula, adds, “Yaks are presently used for ferrying loads, for milk and for work in agriculture. In Pithoragarh, families use the animal for their migration from summer to winter villages.”
After completely disappearing from the scene, yaks are making a slow comeback in Uttarakhand. Pitambar Molpa, a resident of Mana village in Chamoli, says: “I have been approaching the animal husbandry department to supply me a yak since 2003. This time my request was approved and I will be collecting a yak from the department in the winters.”
The Uttarakhand Animal Husbandry department operates a yak breeding centre at Lata (Chamoli). In summers the centre takes the animal to a high-altitude area at Dronagiri hills, the place from where, legends say, Hanuman took “Sanjeevani Booti” for healing injured Lakshman.
Ravindra Rana, veterinary doctor of Yak breeding centre (Chamoli), says: “We presently have 15 yaks in our centre. This time we are supplying one yak to a farmer in our district and have received 2-3 more applications.” So, the interest among farmers is growing.
Handling yaks is considered a little difficult as they are semi-wild. Many stories are in circulation about yaks coming to this part of the world. Many claim that the Chinese troops abandoned them on the India side after the 1962 war. Many claim the traders engaged in cross-border trade had brought the animal in the Indian Himalayas. The recent development indicates that yaks are making a return in Uttarakhand.
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