The Nomadic Rabaris of Kutch

Recently, I had the good fortune of visiting the western most state of India – Gujarat, courtesy the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat. Being a Travel Writer from metropolitan Calcutta, I was scheduled to visit the entire length and breadth of the state of Gujarat. However, I had a particular fascination to visit the Kutch area, which I knew were the home of the nomadic Rabari people.

I had first heard of the fascinating lifestyle of the Rabaris from my archaeologist aunt who spent many years in Gujarat in the 90’s decade. Ever since then, I had a burning desire to know more about the Rabari people. So the first thing I did upon my arrival at Ahmedabad was to request the Tourist Officer to provide me with an opportunity to spend more time at Kutch, which is where most Rabaris live.

We started our journey to Kutch, Bhuj to be precise early in the morning. It was to be a backbreaking 6 hours drive from Ahmedabad. But thank god, the road was excellent and the drive was beautiful too. By the time we arrived at Bhuj Tourist Bungalow, it was evening.

It would be appropriate to mention that Bhuj was the scene of massive destruction during the devastating earthquake of 2001 and my guide Pavitran told me that more than 7000 people perished. I saw a lot of multi-storied buildings with huge cracks but people still continued to live in those apartments. But the heartening fact was that thousands of quake-proof houses had already been built in the Bhuj area and many more were on the pipeline. In fact, the sheer magnitude of the developmental work that has taken place in Bhuj alone that it would be rather difficult to comprehend that for the first time visitor that this area was witness to one of the most devastating earthquakes in India’s recent history. Kudos to the administrators, NGO’s and all those involved in resurrecting Gujarat after the earthquake.

Next morning after a hearty breakfast we proceeded towards the Rann of Kutch – the heartland of the fascinating Rabari people. My guide Pavitran decided that we needed to drive 80 Kms away from Bhuj to a place called Parkar Vas, which is where the Rabari influence is strong. Also, it is a fact that Parkar Vas is the place where the renowned Kala Raksha Trust is located.  Kala Raksha is a trust dedicated to preserving the present cultures of ethnic communities including the Rabaris through their traditional arts, in order to encourage understanding and appreciation. The trust is run by a selfless American lady – Judy Frater who has spent nearly 25 years living in Kutch.

As my car left the narrow alleyways of Bhuj to the deserted highway, I could sense an all-encompassing silence descending. The population was sparse and the landscape desolate. After traveling around 25 Kms. as the car took a sharp right turn, my resourceful guide Pavitran sprang up to life, literally shouting at me – “look up there, the Rabaris with their herd of Camels are marching forward”. Indeed, at a distance I could see groups of Rabaris were on the move probably looking for a quiet place to pitch camp. The men folk wore turbans and were dressed in white while the women wore black skirts with tiny mirrors embroidered on them. They all looked gorgeous.

The Rabari people are a mystery. A Rabari can be nomadic or semi-nomadic. In Kutch, there are about 2500-3000 Rabari families. There are two types of Rabaris – the Vagadias from Eastern Kutch and the Dhebarias from the Anjar Taluka. The white dress is common to all Rabari men.

Rabaris are illiterate. They have blind faith in religion. They are lovers of nature. They worship Mataji Sikotara, Momaya, Loladi, Bhed, Vankol, Amba, Khodiar and Hinglaj. Women do household work while the men folk are mostly in the desert with their sheep and camels. Rabaris do not trust doctors and use only Ayurvedic medicines. Rabari women do very interesting embroidery like Toran, Thela, Popat, Blouse, Gagra and also intricate decorations for camels.

I saw more Rabari women when we returned in the evening. It was  dark and on the verge of a storm. I sat in a restaurant. It was a wide open shop really, staring into the colorful bazaar. Four Rabari women walked into the darkened Chai-shop (Tea shop). Not the ones I had seen before. One, an achingly beautiful young woman, with glowing brown skin and light eyes made more alluring by fire light. They sat across the aisle, the young beauty facing me. I caught her eye, one dazzling moment and smiled a greeting. She, for a second, seemed inclined to respond. But then I heard a hissed instruction – “Don’t talk to him!” and the girl lowered her eyes! “Right they are!”, I told myself in a euphoric mood. After all the hard working Rabaris gain nothing fraternizing with an urban city guy.

We visited Judy Frater’s Kala Raksha Trust and were very fortunate to find her at the reception counter at her modest cottage, which again was custom designed in the traditional Rabari style roundhouse. She has set up a museum and a production center within the small premises far away from metropolitan India with a handful of dedicated staff who work around her vision.

Judy was of the opinion that the Rabaris are gradually loosing their identity through constant invasion of urbanization. But she was hell bent to preserve their identity, which finds expression in the form of hand woven embroideries.

According to Judy – “ a wedding proclaims the best of a community through embroidery. The bride’s home is lavishly decorated. In the midnight ceremony the bride’s embroidery, only glimpsed beneath her veil, the groom proudly displayed dress and the uniform embellishment of guests, from adults to children, all identify them as unmistakably members of one community”.

Among the Rabaris, fashion has changed over time. Yet, at any given time it is important to conform to the current style of the community. Fashion includes choice of cloth and style of embroidery. The bride’s Ghaagharo/skirt worn only until marriage, is made from “Mashru pattern” traditionally used for that purpose. Her woolen Ludi/Veil is embroidered with medallions used only by the “Kacchis” and only for the veil. The bride’s outfit, the Torans, the girl’s blouse and the groom’s “Bokanni” scarf depict embroidery of the people of Kutch from 1960’s to 1980’s. The groom’s Adan/Jacket depicts the style of embroidery popular earlier, up to the middle of the 20th century among the Kacchis.

The ceremonial embroideries preserve the Rabari memory of their origins as desert-dwelling camel herders. The Rabaris embroider Camel trappings to honor their Camels and reinforce the legend that they once supplied Camels to the Rajput royalty.

Having spent long years in this part of the world promoting Rabari craftsmanship, Judy is much concerned to see the disparities of pricing in the international market for textiles. A hand woven Rabari bag costs around Rs.150/- in India but the moment these products reach any Western country, their price is ten times more and charged around $ 80. Also, it is a fact that the Western craftsmen are paid more for their end products then the Rabari craftsmen. It is this disparity of income that Judy is fighting for.

Legend has it that all the Rabaris once lived in Jaisalmer in the neighboring state of Rajasthan. Over the centuries they spread into many other states, integrating themselves into Hindu culture as they went, splintering into countless sub-castes, but always retaining their unique ways and differences.

Today it is clear that in modern India their way of life is in trouble. The Rabari population is estimated to be about 2,70,000. They now often keep only a few Camels for transport. Many earn a living by selling sheep and goats for meat, dung for fertilizer and wool. With open land filling up through development and conflicts with settled people increasing, more and more Rabaris are forced to give up their herds and look for other alternatives.

An early September morning in Kutch finds the Rabari camped in tarpaulin shelters, preparing for their annual migration they call the “Dang”. This is when groups from five to fifteen families set out with their livestock in search of greener pastures. The wander from autumn through the following spring, during the dry months between the Southwest monsoons. There is urgency to get all the work done in preparation to decamp. Women run barefoot over stones and thorns, chasing lambs. The shepherds pound the ground with their staffs and curse the sheep as they corral them into makeshift pens. Each shepherd has a slightly different call, whistle or shriek to call his flock and the noise is deafening. Then one watches the gentle firmness with which a herdsman will get a reluctant goat to suckle a kid and realizes how precious these animals are to the Rabari.

By day the Rabari men guard their animals from wolves and jackals. The forests are also crawling with bandits. At night the Rabari herds them together with their other’s livestock for protection against thieves. A pistol or a rifle is essential for protection, but most Rabaris have only their staffs and sling shots. Besides stealing animals, the bandits often kidnap women for ransom. The village police provide no justice since the system is rife with corruption.

In a typical village, their rectangular houses, called “Vandhas” are built in rows. The whitewashed mud walls and tiled roofs may have an appearance of starkness when viewed from outside. But within each house, the Rabari’s fondness for patterns is easily visible from the many geometric patterns that adorn its interiors. The tiny mirrors embedded into these mud-plaster patterns only enhance their beauty as they catch the faint glimmer of light streaming in from a small window or a low doorway. A home usually consists of two rooms and an extended verandah, which forms the kitchen.

The room at the back is normally used as a storehouse – a virtual treasure house of embroidered clothes and quilts in carved wooden “pataras” (chests); and the “Kothis” and “Kothlas” (granaries) made of mud and cow dung. The other room is mainly a living room decorated with embroidered Torans or decorated doorways, while the doors are covered with brass foil etched in myriad patterns. Often, the only piece of furniture that one might find is the carved, wooden cradle.

The community’s main stay is milk and milk products from their livestock, which they trade in. Besides, the Rabaris also trade in wool and leather in order to purchase commodities that they do not produce themselves

Kutch – the homeland of the Rabari people, is a mystical land. A virtual microcosm of the country’s vibrant cultural diversity. To me Kutch is a place where time appeared to have stopped. No visit to Gujarat is ever complete without a trip to this Northwestern district of Gujarat. The Rabaris of Kutch are renowned for their temperate nature and warm hospitality. For the traveler in you, Kutch offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually lead a nomadic life in complete harmony with nature.

As life goes on, spare a thought about the nomadic Rabaris of Kutch. If possible come and discover their land and you surely will go back with a changed perspective on life.

Traveler’s Fact File:
Bhuj is located at a distance of 310 Kms. from the state capital – Ahmedabad and is connected by both rail and road. Ahmedabad is well connected by regular flights from Mumbai and Delhi. Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Kingfisher Airlines etc…. operate regular flights to Ahmedabad. At the Ahmedabad airport, buses and taxis are easily available for hire.

The nearest airport to Bhuj is however Jamnagar, which is well connected by regular flights from Mumbai, the financial capital of India.

As far as accommodation is concerned, they are at best sketchy. But you can be assured of cleanliness, good hygienic food and stunning window views at this pretty Gujarati town. Apart from the Department of Tourism run Tourist Lodge, there are numerous decent hotels at Bhuj like the Mahalaxmi Guest House and the Panchayat Guest House. There is also a Circuit House that offers comfortable accommodation.

For further information on Kutch, please feel free to contact –