RAJASTHAN GROUPS: BISHNOI, RAIKA AND RABARI CAMEL HERDERS

RAJASTHAN GROUPS

Gaduliya Lohars are nomads that wander across the Thar desert in Rajasthan in carved wooden bullock carts.

The Meos are the largest Muslim group in Rajasthan. There are around 1 million of them and they live principally in the Alwar, Bahrtatpur, Gurgaon and Haryana districts on the northeastern part of the state. They speak Rajasthani and known primarily as bangle sellers, dyers, butchers water carriers and musicians. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Meos have traditionally blended Muslim and Rajput customs and many feel a closer affinity to the Rajputs than they do to Muslims. They often give there children Hindu names rather than Muslim ones, maintained Hindu festivals and ceremonies. Hindu temples outnumber mosques in the Meo homeland of Mewat. The main Islamic customs that are observed are circumcision and Muslim burials. Since 1947, a revival of Islamic traditions have forced the Meo follow traditional Muslim practices. Many emigrated to Pakistan. Still Rajput customs endure. Cousin marriages are still taboo and women are given more freedom than there traditional Muslim counterparts.

Bishnoi

The Bishnoi are a unique caste of farmers who live in Rajasthan not for their pacificism and love of trees and animals. They are particularly numerous in the area around Jodhpur. The follow the radically pacific teaching of the 15th century guru Shri Jambheshwar. Their "plain living and high thinking philosophy" inspired Mahatma Gandhi. The Bishnoi make up about two percent of the population of Rajasthan, or about one mullion people.

Guru Jambheshwar, or Jambhaji as he is known by the Bishnoi, developed a "very practical and convenient code" of 29 principals that the Bishnoi follow to the teeth. In 1730, these principals were put a test. The Maharajah of Jodhpur needed wood for a fort and stands of kejri trees on Bishnoi land were the only available source of timber. The maharajah ordered his men to enter Bishnoi land and cut down their cherished trees. The Bishnoi were so upset about the plan, the Bishnoi men, women and children circled he trees and put themselves between the trees and axes of the maharajah's men. The maharajah's men began hacking the Bishnoi with their axes. When one fell another ran and took his. A total of 363 were slaughtered before word of what was happening reached the maharajah who was so appalled by what happened he not only ordered the cutting of the trees to stop, he also issued a decree that the Bishnoi trees should never be threatened again.

Bishnoi men are tall and gaunt and wear high white turbans. Bishnoi women dress like other women in Rajasthan. Most Bishnoi use Bishnoi as their last name Bishnoi raise barley, mustard, cattle and water buffalo. They cover their dead in salt and bury them in unmarked trenches.

Bishnoi and Animals

The Bishnoi treat all animals with tenderness, even the nilghai, a tall, ungainly antelope largely despised by farmers. One Bishnoi told the Independent, "The Bishnoi revere all the birds and animals on their land." They have a special relationship with the chinkara, a seriously endangered deer that is found only in Rajasthan. These animals are so carefully taken care of by the Bishnoi they are virtually tame. If a chinkara fawn is found without its mother, the young animal will be suckled by a lactating Bishnoi women with her own child. Animals found on Bishnoi land are protected by law.

If poachers show up on Bishnoi land, the Bishnoi do everything they can to stop them. Many have died, including at least 17 in the 1990s. In 1978, one Bishnoi heard gunshot while eating dinner. He chased after two poachers and caught one but was shot by other. Later he died from his wounds. When asked what should be done with poachers, one Bishnoi defied the pacifist reputation of his group and told the Independent, "He should be hanged. His ears and nose should be cut off and he should be beaten black and blue."

Rabari

The Rabari are a nomadic camel-herding people in Rajasthan whose name means "outside the way." Most are Hindus. The Raika (See Below) are their Muslim counterparts. Robyn Davidson wrote in National Geographic, they "are one of perhaps a dozen castes of live-stock breeding seminomadic peoples or northwest India. Their origins are unknown, and old census reports dismiss them as cattle rustlers, cactus eaters, and stealers of wheat.” Village children in other ethnic groups and castes refer to Rabari as ghosts.[Source: by Robyn Davidson, National Geographic September 1993]

There are perhaps 250,000 Rabari. According to one tradition, all the Rabari once lived in Rajasthan—in Jaisalmer, in the Great Indian Desert. Over the centuries they spread into many states, integrating themselves into Hindu culture as they went, splintering into countless subcastes, but retaining always their Rabariness, their "otherness." Many Rabari women wear black in remembrance of a legendary beauty who chose to be swallowed by the earth rather than marry a raja from Rajasthan that massacred her people. Even to this day there are virtually no marriages between Rabari of Rajasthan and those from Kutch where clans of the murdered women ended up.

For part of the year many Rabari live in villages centered around a brightly painted concrete temple. Most of the dwellings are thatch roof huts with mud and dung walls. For entertainment the Rabari light incense and sing devotional songs with the women and men competing with one another and the whole group laughing if someone gets the words wrong. The like to sing late into the night "taking a spiritual bath in the music—their troubles washed away with songs as old as India," says Davidson.

Food of the Rabari includes buttermilk and ghee soup, pancakelike millet bread called roti, fresh goat milk and strong sweet tea. Money is earned mostly from selling goat hair yarn. The Rabari sometimes sell their sheep to Muslims even though its is against their Hindu beliefs to eat meat or handle it.

Rabari Marriage, Women and Children

Rabari women, Robyn Davidson wrote in National Geographic: "stitch, blow their noses and spit and belch like football players." They also love to put snuff on their eyeballs which Davidson said is like "having a heated dagger thrust into the eyeball and twisted.” They tattoo symbols of prosperity and well-being on their neck, face, hands and legs. Despite the fact they spend long periods of time wandering through dusty deserts they dress in brightly colored saris and wear bracelets pasts their elbows, gem entrusted rings in their noses and ears and on their fingers and silver balls from their neck, along with earrings and other jewelry, usually the family’s wealth.

Life is hard. Rabari women that look like they are in their seventies are actually in their forties. What we would interpret as rudeness the Rabari view as independence. Women carry water in brass pots on their head and they know to the last drop how much they will need for the evening's cooking and washing. Its is shameful for a Rabari woman to remain unmarried and not have any brothers. And smoking is considered scandalous.

Child marriage is still practiced among the rabari. During the marriage ceremony a child bride of four or five accompanies her groom to the house of his parents where she stays for a few days before returning to her family. The groom, who is usually a couple of years older wears a red turban and has a red streak of paint running down his nose. A married female receives a dowry of sheep from her husband’s family and inherits her mothers jewelry when she diea. Rabari women don't wear a veil and they can shop without being chaperoned.

Rabari children are delivered by the father's mother and many women do chores like milking sheep and sweeping the compounds right up until the moment they give birth. Young girls carry small brass pots on their head and make pretend roti. Dried bits of camel dropping tied in scraps of plastic bag are the gems of a doll. Boys begin smoking tobacco from a chillum before they are seven and when they are nine they begin leaving camp to help the men tend the flocks.

Rabari Nomadic Life

During the monsoon season the Rabari stay in their villages but during the long autumn-to-spring dry season they travel in groups called dangs made up of five to fifteen families in search of forage for their 5000 or so sheep and goats and 100 or so camels. Sometimes they travel five times a day; sometimes they wander continuously for 20 days depending on the availability of grass. Each dang has a leader who the group relies. One wrong decision such as leading the animals to a place were there is no food could mean disaster. Sometimes the dang is split into smaller groups so they are less threatening to local farmers or to avoid bribes taken by corrupt policemen.

"They endured everything with complaint, and they would go 20 extra miles to a temple in order to thank the divinities for life. I never saw any one of them commit an act of cruelty. And there was nothing servile about them . They asked for neither charity nor an easy life, only recognition of the value of their expertise and the same kind of support Indian farmers automatically receive."

Davidson traveled with the Rabari for three months. Among the hardships she put up with were baby goats urinating on her sleeping mat; drinking from a ditch covered with green scum and water buffalo turds; a steady diet of sheep, goat and camel milk and chapatis made from millet dough; repositioning her gear which swung underneath a camel’s the stomach; setting up camp in places scattered with broken glass and excrement; coping with fevers brought on by high temperatures and dust; and dealing with deadly poisonous snakes snuggling up next to her for warmth and scorpions under her shoes.

Hardships that she fortunately didn't encounter were bandits known as dacoits, and jackals and wolves that often feed on the herd. Fights often break out between farmers and the Rabari and sometimes people are killed. A dacoit reportedly kidnapped a Rabari man and broke his legs when his family couldn't afford the ransom. Davidson was warned that bandits often kidnap women for their pleasure and "you would bring a high price" she was told. If the police are brought in they often side against the Rabari.

Rabari camps are usually set up several hours before dusk. Women sometimes have to walk a kilometer or more to get water and campfires are fueled with thornbushes they collect on the way back. Heaps of gear are placed on cots to protect them from termites who are vociferous enough, it is said, they can reduce leather to dust in one night. Women and children bundled in blankets sleep on the gear. Their animals wandered about them. The men sleep on the ground outside of the flock and take turn guarding them against jackals, hyenas and wolves.

The Rabari way of life is threatened. Grazing lands are shrinking and irrigated fields block their traditional migration routes. Lamenting their decline one Rabari leader said: "Once we were like kings now we are treated like dogs." Many people suffer from malaria and flu and sometimes their animals are so sick they are barely alive. When someone takes the time to walk to clinic it means they are really sick. They often reject chloroquine and antibiotic oral medication and instead use medicine prescribed for their sheep take, injecting themselves a needle which they think will give them their money's worth. Often times the syringes are used over and over.

Raika

The Raika are a famous caste in Rajasthan that specializes in raising livestock, particularly camels. Many Raika are Muslims. The Raikas and Rabari are closely related. Raikas were once a respected caste. Now they complain they are disrespected and harassed by other groups. Forestry officials prohibit them from entering forests. Farmers, who once welcomed Raika camels as a source of fertilizer, now shoo them away.

According to Hindu mythology, the goddess Privati created the first camel from a lump of clay. She was unable to control the beast and asked her husband Shiva for help. Shiva used pieces of his skin and drops of his sweat to make the Raikas to control the camels. The Rajputs traditionally relied on the Raikas to train pack camels used to carry supplies on their military campaigns. The Raikas provided support in return for protection from the Rajputs. When India became independent in 1947 and the Rajput maharajahs lost their power, the Raikas were given the maharajahs camels. This coincided with the decline in the use of military camels. [Source: Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, Natural History]

Raikas are live in colonies on the outskirts of villages. Women children and older men spend most of their time near the villages. Only the men migrate with the camels. Raika keep sheep, goats and cattle but they are most well known for raising camels.

Raika and Camels

Raikas use camels for almost everything. They drink camel-milk tea and cook with camel-dung campfires. Mainly they raise camels to sell and use for transportation. Raikas are the main suppliers of camels to farmers and small scale transport entrepreneurs. They occasionally shear the camel wool. To control their camels the Raika use a nose ring which is inserted through a hole in the nostril pieced with a gazelle horn.

Raikas have an absolute taboo on slaughtering camels and eating their meat. This view is shared among camel herders around the world. One Raika told Natural History, "The camel is our best friend—why should we kill it?" Scholars believe that even though many Raikas are Muslims, this attitude has it roots in the Hindu attitude about animal slaughter. Unlike camel pastorialists, Raika don't even drink that much camel milk. This is because they are not nomads and get their food with money made from selling camels themselves rather than relying in the camels themselves as a food source.

Raikas have traditionally only sold off male calves, keeping female calves to maintain their breeding stock, which they regard as their ancestral legacy. Many Raikas and Rabari earn money by selling camel milk to tea shops for the use in tea. Camel milk has the advantage over cow milk in many regards. It stays longer without refrigeration than cow or water buffalo milk. Many tea shops don’t have refrigerators. Raikas also make cheese, ghee (clarified butter), rice pudding and special tonics with camel milk. Not all Raikas like the idea. One Raika elder told Natural History, "Selling milk is like selling your children.

Problem Raikas Have Raising Camels

The main problem with camel herding is a parasitic blood disease that resembles human malaria. It is transmitted by biting flies and is particularly common when there is above average rainfall. Raikas diagnose the disease by smelling the camel’s urine and treat the symptoms rather than cure it because they can't afford the medicine to cure it.

To combat camel pox, which afflicts mainly young camels, the Raikas use a simple, effective vaccination. They take a small sample of tissue from a blister on an infected animal, mix it with water and rub into an incision made on the nose of non-infected camel. For chronic diseases, the Raika use "firing"—applying a heated iron to an infected area, a practice that is sometimes used among Western veterinarians to treat certain equine diseases.

Camels have traditionally required large amounts of grazing land. As time goes on there is much less grazing land available. The loss of pasture has resulted in hungry, skinny camels with low fertility. One Raika tribesman at the Pushkar Fair told Natural History, "Look at us. Only fifty years ago we had 10,000 camels—so many that we never even cared when we lost one in the jungle. Twenty years ago, there were 5,000. Now only about 1,00 camels belong to our village. Ten years from now, or even sooner, we will have no more camels.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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