Rabaris, a pastoral nomadic tribe from Kutch, Gujarat has always been a major draw to my intuitive mind since the time I landed in Gujarat in 2003. Though a large pecentage of the community are settled now in urban Gujarat, and some of them have become wealthy through selling land and milk, but a considerable percentage of them still lead the nomadic life, tending cattle, sheep/goat and camel in the arid tracts of Kutch and north Gujarat.
In Ahmedabad, one gets a trailer view of Rabari life, but to see the full picture, one needs to travel to far off Kutch, a region with miles and miles of emptied land and vast salt desert, called Rann in the local dialect.
When I reached Nakhyatrana , I asked my host, Mr. Jugal Tiwari, a young scientist, who has set up a centre for research, ‘Centre for Desert and Ocean’ at Moti Virani, about a nearby Rabari village which I could visit at my leisure. Mausana was the nearest Rabari Village, located beside a hill top in the thorny desert.
As I approached Mousana what struck me was the simplicity of village life and the myriad colours of weaving and embroidery work, all in stark contrast to the dull desert landscape. One of the major attractions of the village was the elderly women folk, all clad with their long black head scrapes and distinctive heavy brass earrings that hang low, stretching their earlobes. All most all the women were heavily tattooed on their necks and arms.
There goes an interesting legend of their black wearing. Many years ago, Jaiselmer, Rajasthan, was the main centre for Rabaris. Once a Muslim King fell in love with a young Rabari girl. However, the community refused the proposal. This angered the king. He threatened to kill all of them. Out of fear, the Rabaris broke their camp in the middle of the night with the help of a Muslim man. As the King came to know, he immediately killed the Muslim man. So it is said that Rabari women wore black from then on to mourn his death. The incident also brought tolerance between the Rabaris and the Muslims who live side by side in Kutch.
Another attraction was the jewellery that adorned the speared ears of Rabari women. They appear like snake. In Puskar, Rajasthan, the home of yet another Rabari community, the women associate locally grown mushrooms with snake umbrellas as the former crop up from soil during monsoon seasons and snakes find shelters under their hood. The Rabari earrings symbolize both mushroom and snake combined. According to the folklore the Rabari women of Kutch inherited this art from their ancestors while passing by Puskar during their migration from Jaiselmer.
In contrast to women, the men folk appeared in white dress holding a big stick in their hand, although most of them had gone to tend their animals during my brief visit. A unique feature of their upper garment is a short double breasted waist coat laced over the chest and tied.
In the dead-end of the village was located the village temple, a building similar to one of a Rabari house at Mousana. Inside the house were shrine a cluster of terracotta camels with their men riding on them. Camels are the integral part of the spiritual life of Rabaris. Legends say that the first Rabari in the planet was called Sambal, who once lived in heaven. He fell in love with 3 apsaras. Shiva, the lord of the universe allowed Sambal to merry them but under one condition – he would not speak to them. If he violates he would lose them forever. From their wedding, one son and four daughters were born. Soon as the family grew large, Shiva asked them to go and dwell on earth. In earth, Sambal became an ace camel breeder. Once, a goddess stole his entire animal. Sambal however caught her. They married and wandered through the western Indian desert and finally reached Kutch.
As I strolled in the village, I met each and every Rabari was engaged in weaving and embroidering, to what they refer bhrat work. Looking closely and through interactions I found that the repertoire included trousseaus, everyday apparel, dowry bags, brides’ ghagro, kanchali (blouse), and ludi (veil), dowry bags and auspicious torans. Each design speaks a story of their myths and about their desert adaptation.
The Rabaris of Mausana live simple yet hard life. However, there are some existing social institutions that may leave layers of impressions on people visiting them. One of these is the prevalence of child marriage. By the age a girl reaches 4 or 5 and a boy 7 or 8, they get married. It may be against the constitutional law of the country, but the Rabaris have their own logic. In the past, like today, the region was dry and harsh. There had been also struggle for resources. Communities lived side by side always fought to gain strength. As it was necessary to create bonds, marriages were fixed between families to strengthen the community interest thus bypassing individual interest. Today the world may have changed but they have still retained the old world believe.
Another strange institution is the girls not going to schools. A family gives its daughter on marriage to a family that has a daughter too and could be exchanged for its son. Through this act, the wealth does not go out of the family.
I left Mousana heavy hearted with lots of learning and love which I will cherish always.