They're up before the sun, and work all day, in their homes, in the field, tending to their children and their men and the family's livestock. And they do this high in the Himalayas, up and down shingly hill-paths, carrying on their backs heavy loads of produce and fodder. Meet: the Pahari women of Himachal Pradesh.



Two days before Diwali, Subhadra Thakur is colour-washing her kitchen. The walls are blue, and she slaps on white paint, with rubber-gloved hands. The counter is tidy, the cooking's been done. At 11:30 am, she steps outside for a short break; her grand-children, who have come visiting, play in the sun, and she watches them with smiling, shaded eyes. In summer, she'll spend the whole day in her family's fields. But winter is coming, and with that, some little rest...



From her house in Pitangli village, to her fields, on the hillside near Mashobra (Himachal Pradesh), Subhadra and her daughter-in-law Urmil, walk down a treachorously narrow and stony path. For a kilometre and a half, it hugs hillsides, skirts valleys, cuts through a forest, and is nearly always on an incline. The women leave early to the fields; they take with them a modest meal, and a sturdy basket, to bring back in the evening the day's harvest. That's tens of kilos strapped on to their backs or on their heads. At the end of a long day.



Almost all Pahari households keep some cattle. Once it was the indigenous hill-cattle that was popular: small, sure-footed, and so well-adapted to the terrain. But then, exotic breeds made an appearance, and now they're everywhere - jersey cows, demanding a big feed, but also producing many times more milk than the Pahari cow. Mucking out the shed, milking the cows and collecting fodder - yes, they're women's jobs.



The hills of Himachal are achingly beautiful. But they're also achingly hard to clamber up. Except, the women make it look effortless. In their bright salwar-kameez and scarves, they dot the hills, hunched-up and hard-at-work, scything and bundling, bales of grass and fodder for the coming winter. The grass is then sun-dried in the courtyards and stored in the open, a tall and thin ten-foot grass-hill.



The produce from the fields also feeds the family. Millets and rajma (beans) and corn is sun-dried, and some of it is pounded into flour. In the winter months, cabbage and cauliflower green the fields. But the apple trees are bare; and the last pears fall and rot in the ground. In spring, the terraced plots - giant steps in the hill-sides - will be ploughed by Subhadra's husband, with Pahari bulls. (Her son, suffering from spondylitis, had switched to driving a tourist cab). At the end of two crop-cycles,land-owning families like Subhadra's, would have made their money, and stocked up for winter, when the snow can pile high in the ground, and stay on for many weeks, like an uninvited house-guest. And so, women gather, whenever they can, wood for the stoves. Even pine cones are collected from the forest paths and burnt for warmth. In winter, much of the work moves indoors. And the women knit and cook and clean and care for the children. Rest, for the women in the hills, is a relative word. The basket they carry on their backs perhaps spends more time sitting down...



Aparna Karthikeyan

Aparna Karthikeyan is an independent multimedia journalist. She documents the vanishing livelihoods of rural Tamil Nadu and volunteers with the People's Archive of Rural India.

Other stories by Aparna Karthikeyan