Relocating cross country from the South to north of India – I encounter a family of nomadic rabari tribes-people well away from their traditional home in gujarat, on an identical quest.
Late last year, I moved from Hyderabad in the south of India to Jaipur, in the north west. There were some logistical challenges with that. Where I was living, I had sufficient furniture for a small apartment and a car while the place I needed to move back to – my hometown was nearly a thousand miles away. In the spirit of ‘letting go’ I sold off what I could – this effort assisted by my parents, who live with me. Still, there was enough that needed to be taken back. The movers that came in, did a job that with hindsight, is best classified as ‘barely adequate’ (I learn later that they broke some stuff).
However, at that time, I was happy that the bulk of the items were packed up and would reach us a few days after we arrived home. So, once this mini-truck left, we did too.
Immediately after setting off, it was clear to us that we had kept far too many things with ourselves and hadn’t really let go of enough material objects. This rather terrible photograph is taken with me on the backseat. The khaki is of my shorts, a red bag occupies the vacant rear seat, topped by another bag and then the car’s cover. The racquets were kept from being shipped as a last minute thought for they might never reach in good shape and the front two seats are occupied by my parents (dad’s driving at the moment of this photograph).
Perhaps to compensate the discomfort caused by such crowding, the roads on day 1 were excellent.
On the second day though, after we had covered nearly five hundred miles – and had an overnight stop, the roads deteriorated significantly. We passed through a forest area in the state of Madhya Pradesh (seen below) and then went through a plateau. Here, the roads were a mixture of gravel compacted by wishful thinking.
By then, the shared journey was taking its toll. Though dad and I shared the driving responsibility , the road conditions, the heat, seating posture, lack of space and discussions over missed turns and safe driving habits had all led to differences and arguments. Sometime on this stretch, from a distance I saw something quite unusual – a train of camels led by people i assumed were villagers from nearby. We were going a bit fast, so we missed the first group, but soon there was another few and we stopped the car.
When I crept a bit closer to get a photograph of her face, I saw the tattoos on her hand. It then struck me that these were Rabari nomads from Kutch, in Gujarat – on India’s western extremity. I was beyond astonished – they were over twelve hundred miles from their homes.
I smiled at them but in return got a stare of suspicion, mixed with curiosity and so I stopped. However, one of them nodded briefly indicating it was OK to continue. These nomads migrate annually in search of greener pastures – on their camels they carry everything they own. In doing this, unwittingly, they subscribe to the Jain principle of Aparigraha – non-possession. The principle commands lay jain-folk to own only as much as necessary and to not give into the vice of acquisitiveness or getting too attached to material possessions. In case of the nomads, this includes livestock – such as these goats.
They are skilled craftspeople and the women produce intricate embroidered works – the back of the camel was covered with quilts that are stitched with unique designs endemic to the region and shaped by their tribal aesthetic. The beds are produced by another community that specializes in woodworking, but if you look closely, it shows their lifestyle in motifs.
I walked ahead to see what else i could find in this train. From the front I could see the man leading them. He carried a staff, useful for rounding up a stray goat perhaps. Behind him, on the first camel, the leg of an inverted four-legged bed (charpai) was topped by a steel water pitcher. The man himself had ears pierced and wore jewellery – a large silver bracelet on his right hand and yet the mustache couldn’t be manlier. Viewed from the front, the small caravan is makes for a Dramatic contrast against the divided modern highway.
When the third and last camel passed me by, I could observe the ladies’ dress at closer quarter – they wear pleated long skirts along with a shirt-like top, all heavily embroidered. The stitch is called a ‘kutchi’ stitch. Best of all, the camel she leads, serves as a mobile bedroom for one of the children – the other walked beside the woman. In this manner, they are able to save their energy.
Responsibilities appear distributed with adults and adolescents in charge of the camels and others safety while the younger ones ride along. The nomads carry firewood as well, for where they halt for the night, there’s no hotel for them, they will camp where they are allowed to. They will perhaps traverse the distance to their homeland in about 40-60 days. For this duration, they must watch out against traffic, make and break camp every night, protect their belongings from theft, and ensure their women and children’s safety. For a minute, I thought, this has to be an awful lot of responsibility for them. Much like me, they were moving house – but they had no support of movers, no safety of a car or a place at night. Worse, they were walking a similar distance in the oppressive post-monsoon heat! The dromedaries are not meant to walk on asphalt, nor are people for long distances – so perhaps what kept this family going was each other’s company.
And here, I had it all and was taking it for granted. The sensation induced by this thought was so powerful, that for the rest of our journey – another day and a half with an overnight in-between, I tried to be on my best behavior. I think I very nearly succeeded.
[submitted to the discover challenge – Shared Journeys]. If you, dear reader, have any questions about tribal life in India – please leave a comment. It is an area of abiding interest and I’d be happy to have a conversation.