Rajasthan – The land of camels and eco-tourism dreams
For centuries Rajasthan has been synonymous with camels, the iconic ships of the desert, part of the landscape, part of its cultural identity, and an economically important animal for semi-nomadic desert communities like the Raikas’ who have been herding camels for centuries.
I’m on a Raika Journey, an eco-tourism effort to help empower and raise awareness of the Raika, while getting a rare insight into their semi-nomadic lives and incredible knowledge of medicinal herbs, ethno-veterinarian practices, and culinary specialties.
Rounding a bend in the road, my rickety taxi, itself propelled by a series of blue explosions, grinds to a halt before a dramatic sight. A caravan of camels, herded by a tall, tribesman dressed in a white ethnic Dhoti Kurta and adorned with a scarlet turban, slowly make his way past. He pauses by the drivers-side window and placing the palms of his hands together and lifting them to his face, bows deeply, thanking the driver for his courtesy and patience in allowing him and his camels to pass.
Traditions are plentiful in India, especially those whose ethnicity revolves around animals and nature. Like the Raika, a pastoral semi-nomadic indigenous tribe, particularly famed for their close relationships with camels.
Legend has it that in the 10th century they moved eastwards to India from Pakistan, with Muslim warriors. Rajput rulers, notably the Maharajas of Bikaner, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Alwar, employed them to manage their camels and since then they’ve tended, bred and made their living from camels.
Recognised as the only camel herders in the world who protect their animals from slaughter, the Raikas’ wisdom about all aspects of the camel’s behaviour, breeding, and health care, is legendary.
Sadly, camels and their herders who were once the pride of the desert state, are now struggling to survive. The Raikas’ traditional way of life and cultural identity has been usurped as urban India develops and further encroaches into the surrounding countryside with expanding cities, factories, mechanised farming and road network. Rural life – including the Raikas’ right to roam, which is sealed in tradition rather than in legal documents, has all but vanished, along with the demand for the services provided by their animals.
The Raika don’t own land and rely on fallow fields, village commons and forests for their animals to forage and following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they undertake long migrations in search of good grazing land.
In recent years access to their traditional grazing lands have been fenced off, which has led to herd health issues. The Ministry of Agriculture claims that between 1997 and 2003, the camel population decreased by a third. According to the Raika the numbers are far greater as some have been forced to sell their camels off, sometimes for camel meat, which was once considered unthinkable, and has forced some Raika to shift their animal husbandry to include buffalo, goats and sheep. With closed off income-producing opportunities many young Raikas’ are forced to move to the cities in search of work, leaving those remaining to eke out an existence from their cherished camels.
Now arrived in Sadri, it’s late and I’m tired. Before experiencing a four-day slice of Raika life, I must get some sleep. Whilst my sleeping bag is being prepared for a night under the stars, I lower myself to my haunches, warming my hands at a small campfire, where a small pewter pot is brewing camel milk. Here I begin to learn about the intriguing way of life of the Raika.
According to Rami (guru of all things Raika and my guide for the duration of my stay) a Raika group functions as a small institution. All members of the group have different roles and responsibilities assigned to them. A caravan of animals is led by young, spirited men, who are skilled in finding their way around. Depending on the size and composition of the group, each man manages a sub-set of animals. The elderly and most experienced men manage the animals’ playful brood, and ensure they follow closely. Each sub-set is guarded by a dog whose responsibility it is to keep the sheep or goats from going too far whilst grazing and alarming the group of hunters and thieves in the night. These subsets are followed by women carrying their toddlers and are accompanied by camels and donkeys who carry all the belonging of the settlements.
I’m served camel milk the traditional way – in an aak-leaf shaped into a cup and drink it like the camel herders do. The taste is rich and sweet, liquid velvet almost, and moreish. Camel milk, I learn, is gluten free and suitable for those suffering from Lactose intolerance, with off-the-scale medicinal properties which, together with the Indian government stamp of approval, have given the herders some hope and income. After several more ‘cups’ of milk I return my attentions to Rami and learn about communications.
From the ancient songs they sing whilst undertaking long journeys, to the way they converse with the camels, unpeels the mystique, wonder and strong bond between man and beast – each of which has a given name.
Lyrical communication is crucial as the herders control their animals by using their voices. To impart commands to the camels, the Raika have developed a unique collection of different languages and sounds called ‘Akal-dhakal’ which instructs the camels to seek out a body of water for drinking or to return home. They also invented musical instruments which are used when calling their animals over a long distance.
Feeling somewhat lethargic, I climb into my sleeping bag beside the fire. Rami hadn’t missed a beat and now explains why the camel nomads of Rajasthan believe they came into being.
“The existence of the Raika tribe revolves around a legend that inextricably ties the fate of the camel and the community together. You see, the Raika were created by Lord Shiva to take care of the camel.” He paused for effect then continued in greater detail.
“Legend says that the myth surrounding the creation of the camel is of ancient to Hinduism origin. Parvati, the goddess of power, and consort of Lord Shiva – the supreme god who creates, protects and transforms, was waiting for Lord Shiva to finish with his meditation. To pass the time, Parvati was playing with clay and mud and moulded an unrecognisable five-legged animal. She marvelled at her creation then later asked Shiva to breathe life into her clay sculpture. Shiva had originally rejected her proposal as he believed that no place would be habitable to this penta-pod and therefore by giving life to the creature, he would not be able to protect and sustain it. However, Parvati persisted, and Shiva had granted her wish. He folded the animal’s fifth leg over its back giving it a hump and commanded it to get up. Shiva rolled off a bit of skin and dust from his arm and fashioned out of this the first Raika, with the express purpose of caring for the camel.”
I woke before dawn to the deep throated soft tones of a male singing voice, followed by those of a breathy female. Rami appeared at my side as I sat up in my sleeping bag. I quietly asked after the singing and learnt this to be a ritualistic rendition of Bhopa-bhopi. The singing voices are said to summon the spiritual elements of Bhapoii, a historical figure worshipped by the Raika, who they believe heal ailing camels.
As if understanding it all, a nearby Kumbhalgarh camel (a unique breed which are known to be the most affectionate and interactive of all camels) resting with its legs still folded beneath its immense frame, craned its head forward and gave the back of my head a long, wet lick.
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Written & photographed by Cindy-Lou Dale