by Michael Benanav


Shot in: Uttarakhand & Uttar Pradesh, India


The Van Gujjars are nomadic water buffalo herders who live in the forests and mountains of northern India. Traditionally, they dwell in the wilderness, where their world revolves around the feeding and well-being of their animals. They spend the winter months in the lowland jungles of the Shivalik Hills, where thick foliage provides plenty of fodder for the buffaloes. Each April, however, temperatures there soar above 110 degrees; the leaves and grasses wither and die; creeks run dry. With nothing left for their animals to eat or drink, the Van Gujjars must move. Entire families, from infants to the elderly, trek with their herds up into the Himalayas, where melting snows reveal lush alpine meadows laced by gurgling streams. When the cold sets in at the end of September, they head back down to the Shivaliks, where the jungle has sprung back to life following the monsoon rains. The tribe has followed this cycle of seasonal migration - up in summer, down in winter, shunning settled village life - for over a thousand years.

But things are changing. While about 30,000 Van Gujjars still live in the wilderness today, the existential challenges they face may drive nearly all of them out of the forests over the next couple of generations; over the past half-century, tens of thousands have already been forced out. For the last twenty years, the main threat to their way of life has been the designation of their traditional lands as national parks - from which the government has attempted, often successfully, to evict the nomads and settle them in villages, turning them into wheat farmers. 

This photostory takes you into the rarely-seen world of the Van Gujjars, following one family for the entire length of their annual spring migration into the Himalayas. 

For a detailed account of the migration, including the great difficulties they encountered because their traditional summer meadows were incorporated into a national park, visit our long-form Van Gujjar Migration Project

We'd like to thank SOPHIA for their abundant help with this project. 

Michael Benanav is a photojournalist and writer whose work appears in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor Magazine, Geographical Magazine, Lonely Planet guidebooks, and other publications. He is also the author of three non-fiction books, including Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White GoldThe Luck of the Jews: An Incredible Story of Loss, Love, and Survival in the Holocaust; and Himalaya Bound: An American's Journey with Nomads in North India. See more at