In Langscape Magazine Articles

Wellsprings of Territories of Life

June 18, 2024
Gaoli pastoralists in central India assert their traditional natural resource governance against fortress conservation.

Ajinkya Shahane, Pandhari Hekade, Kanna K. Siripurapu, and Prafulla Kalokar

Buffalos in their natural environment

Buffalos in their natural environment. Photo: Ajinkya Shahane


The Melghat region of the Satpura Range in central India is renowned for its lush green forests, its tigers, and the Korku Indigenous tribe, who once lived in the forest in the vicinity of what is now the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Among the lesser-known wonders of this region are the beautiful indigenous Gaolao cattle and Nagpuri buffalos and the vibrant Nanda-Gaoli traditional seminomadic pastoralist community who evolved that unique livestock, inhabiting and traversing this beautiful landscape for millennia.

The Gaoli people trace their lineage and relationship with this region to Lord Krishna. In ancient times, the Gaoli people were instrumental in producing and supplying milk to the entire Melghat region. Since time immemorial, the Gaoli people and their livestock have been dependent on the forests and grasslands of Melghat. The forests, grasslands, and natural water bodies are the mainstays of the life, economy, culture, and traditions of the Gaoli people and their livestock. In other words, they are the foundations and wellsprings of their territories of life.


Left: Herd of buffalos grazing under the watchful eyes of a woman herder inside the forest in the Meghat region. Right: A Gaoli man against the backdrop of a grazing patch located inside a forest. Photos: Ajinkya Shahane


The most striking and important feature of a territory of life in the Meghat region is the dob (“pond” or “pool” in the regional Marathi language). A dob is a natural, shallow water body surrounded by a pasture or a grazing area, usually inside a forest. A similar resource-use pattern and nomenclature are also found among the pastoralists of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, who refer to a water body surrounded by a pasture or grazing land, usually located inside a forest, as a penta.

While every dob is a natural water body located inside a forest, not every natural water body located inside the forest is a dob. A dob is generally used as a wallowing and resting place for the buffalos reared by the Gaoli people. Water buffalos have sensitive and almost naked skin, which needs frequent water dips and mud baths to keep it cool and free of parasites. Usually the dob should be big enough to accommodate forty to fifty buffalos and shallow enough for them to wallow and comfortably rest to beat the tropical sun.

A dob is a natural, shallow water body surrounded by a pasture or a grazing area, usually inside a forest.

In the past, the Gaoli people and their livestock lived inside forests for most of the year. Their traditional routines include grazing the livestock inside the forests, collecting wild forest foods and firewood, and milking the cattle and buffalos twice a day at a kharag (a campsite, erected on an elevated and flattened, dry and clean area close to a dob). Buffalos usually return to the dob to rest after milking and leave for grazing inside the forest at night, without the herders, returning to the kharag at dawn.

Nagpuri buffalos

Nagpuri buffalos wallowing at a dob. Photo: Prafulla Kalokar


Dobs are of different sizes and shapes, and many dobs may be scattered throughout the forests of the Melghat region. Traditionally, dobs are treated like private property, with unwritten rules and agreements. A dob can be perceived as a de facto private property nested within a common property regime — an example of semicommons. Unlike the public, private, open access, and common property resource regimes, the concept of semicommons is more of a social arrangement than a matter of physical confinement. Traditionally, herders claim a dob as their own and retain their de facto ownership over it for generations. A herder may claim ownership of a few dobs located inside the forest and is free to use them as they wish, but without causing any irreparable damage or harm to them.

Herders believe that resting at a dob keeps the buffalos cool and stress-free, thereby enhancing milk production.

Every year, herders lead their buffalo herds to the same set of dobs as the previous year. Most often, buffalos will arrive at a dob on their own, as they are quite familiar with all the dobs retained by their masters. The herd spends just enough time at a dob until the fodder in the surrounding area runs out. Then the herd moves out to another dob that has enough water and fodder, and the cycle continues. The rise and fall in water level and the exposed mud floor of a dob give the herders an idea of the availability of fodder in the surrounding area, depending on which the herders move their herds across the region. Herders claim that it is not they but rather the buffalos that choose which dob they should go to, and they simply follow. Buffalos remain submerged in a dob for long hours, especially when there are too many gadflies and mosquitoes around. Herders believe that resting at a dob keeps the buffalos cool and stress-free, thereby enhancing milk production.

Buffalos ready to leave the dob

Buffalos ready to leave the dob for grazing. Photo: Pandhari Hekade


With all the benefits provided by the dobs, it is not surprising to see a deep sense of reverence among the Gaoli people for the wellsprings and foundations of their territories of life. The reverence for dobs manifests itself in their culture and traditions. The Gaoli people observe Dob Puja, the traditional annual festival of ponds, which takes place during Kojagiri Paurnima, fifteen days before Diwali (festival of lights and one of the main Hindu festivals). Usually, it is observed when dobs start shrinking. Members of a Gaoli family visit dobs retained by the family and perform traditional rituals to satiate the deities and Mother Nature, with an expectation that the gods and nature will be pleased and will replenish the drying ponds. Sindhoor (vermilion), kumkum (red ocher), and haldi (turmeric) are applied to the banks of the pond. Incense sticks are lit, and coconuts, lemon, kharik (dry dates), bananas, and almonds are offered to the pond. Roti (a type of Indian flatbread made of wheat flour), jaggery (a type of raw sugar), and ghee (clarified butter), are offered as prasad (sacred, blessed food or gracious gift) to everyone attending the ceremony.

The reverence for dobs manifests itself in the Gaoli people’s culture and traditions.

For the past few decades, the traditional Dob Puja has been in danger and may even be at risk of disappearing from the region. Ever since the establishment of protected areas across the subcontinent, with the exclusion of all human activities inside the designated protected areas, the Gaoli people have felt discouraged from practicing their traditional festival, as they are forbidden from entering the forests. The government’s embracing of the Anglo-European way of understanding forests and nature and adoption of the Western “fortress conservation” model have resulted in an unprecedented destruction of India’s traditional natural resource governance systems and the alienation of thousands of Indigenous communities from their ancestral lands. Fortress conservation has led to undesirable consequences not only for wildlife, forests, natural resources, agro-biodiversity, livestock, and local communities but also for the Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems.

Gaoli men

Gaoli men leading the buffalo herds to grazing, a usual sight in the Melghat region. Photos: Photo: Ajinkya Shahane


The alienation of Gaoli people from their customary grazing lands may well have negatively impacted the dobs, forests, and natural grasslands in the Melghat region. Locals recount that many dobs located inside the forests have lost their natural capacity to retain water and have turned into dry and flattened plains, completely covered with silt and gravel from runoff and devoid of vegetation. For instance, a dob that is located near Navargaon village, in Seloo Taluka (Division), Wardha district, has dried completely and turned into a plain. Conceivably, the regular movement of buffalos in and out of a dob serves to prevent siltation and helps maintain a certain depth in the dob. Buffalos grazing in and around dobs may help control the weeds and foster healthy growth of aquatic vegetation. The dung deposited by buffalo herds may have played an important role in nutrient recycling and in maintaining balance in the local ecosystems. The role of buffalos and of the Gaoli people and their biocultural traditions and practices, however, is neither acknowledged nor accommodated in the fortress model of biodiversity conservation.

Domestic livestock play a vital role in the health of natural ecosystems.

Gaoli women nurse young calves

Gaoli women nurse young calves with love and tenderness when they are either abandoned by their mothers or face difficulty in nursing on their own. Photo: Ajinkya Shahane

Although further studies are needed to ascertain the role of buffalo herds and the Gaoli people in connection to the health of dobs, the existing literature strongly supports the idea that domestic livestock play a vital role in the health of natural ecosystems. For instance, in the Sathiana grassland of Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh, a reduction in the swamp-deeper population may be the consequence of imposing a total ban on livestock grazing in and around the wetland. Banning livestock grazing may have led to the siltation and prolific growth of exotic weeds and vegetation, eventually choking the wetland and causing the disappearance of swamp deer from this area. On the contrary, the swamp deer population was found to be thriving in the neighboring Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary, where grazing was allowed. It was also found that Tiliacora acuminata, a large climbing shrub, was proliferating under the sal (Shorea robusta) canopy at Dudhwa National Park, due to the banning of regulated livestock grazing and gathering by local communities for traditional uses. The proliferation of Tiliacora is negatively affecting the park’s ecosystem.

Likewise, migratory Siberian cranes have vanished from the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, following the ban on grazing domestic buffalos inside the park. In the absence of domestic buffalos grazing, Paspalum distichum, a weed, has proliferated and choked the wetland, leading to a shortage of food for the cranes and thus to their disappearance from the scene.

These examples suggest that there is an urgent need to develop a deeper and critical reflection on the dominant Western, elitist, top-down, coercive, and exclusionary approaches to biodiversity conservation and to acknowledge, and take measures to resuscitate the traditional and inclusionary natural resource governance models that existed in India for millennia.

Support the Cause: Advocate for the forest rights of pastoral communities, particularly the Nanda-Gaoli community, and help conserve the Gaolao cattle breed by contacting the Gaolao Breeders Association on Facebook @Gaolao Breeders Association.


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Ajinkya Shahane.
Ajinkya Shahane is a consultant on the forest rights of pastoralist communities with the Centre for People’s Collective in Nagpur, Maharashtra. He is interested in studying the traditional dairy and livestock production systems and issues related to crop raiding by wildlife to bring appropriate policy changes in India..

Pandhari HekadePandhari Hekade belongs to the Indigenous Nanda-Gaoli community, a seminomadic pastoralist community of the Indian state of Maharashtra. He volunteers for the Centre for People’s Collective, working for the rights and livelihood improvement of pastoralist communities in Maharashtra..

Kanna SiripurapuKanna K. Siripurapu is a researcher interested in the biocultural diversity of Indigenous nomadic pastoral systems and agroecosystems in India. He is Assistant Dean and Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Design at Woxsen University in the state of Telangana. Read more from Kanna.

Prafulla KalokarPrafulla Kalokar, PhD, also a member of the Indigenous Nanda-Gaoli community, graduated with a Doctorate in Economics from Gondwana University in Maharashtra, and serves as Deputy State Project Coordinator at Mooofarm, Wardha district, Maharashtra. Read more from Prafulla. 

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