india - gujarat
The houses of the Rabari people in May village are beautifully decorated.
The region of Gujarat has played host to many a tribal culture and nourished them from the very earliest periods of history. One such tribe here, the Rabaris, still pursue a pastoral lifestyle—much in the same way as they did ages ago.
The Rabaris are a semi-nomadic tribe—pursuing a pre-agrarian, pastoral lifestyle—found mainly in the Kutch and Saurashtra regions of Gujarat. Though living today in permanent settlements, they are believed to have originally migrated from Baluchistan more than a millennium ago.
But over these thousand and more years, the Rabaris have undergone many changes and have been widely influenced by the local cultures with which they came in contact. Not only are they divided into distinct clans, they also prefer to trace their origin to Hindu Gods and even the Rajputs.
Without delving into the garbled clues provided by folk lore about their origin, a closer look at the Rabari today leads one into his quaint, colourful and rugged lifestyle.
By no means are the Rabaris an isolated people. The men are on the move—almost 10 out of the 12 months—in search of grazing pastures for their livestock; while the women and children remain in their villages. These villages are normally small, devoid of more than superficial amenities and, almost always, set in bleak, barren suroundings.
In a typical village, their rectangular houses, called vandhas, are built in rows. The white-washed 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 enclosure in the 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 kept in carved wooden pataras (chests); and the kothis and kothlas (granaries) made of mud and cowdung. 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 a myriad patterns. Often, the only piece of furniture that one might find is a carved, wooden cradle.
The community’s main stay is milk and milk produce from their livestock in order to purchase commodities that they trade in various forms at the local village or town markets.
Much of the handiwork seen in their decorated homes is that of their women. In fact, Rabari women are famous for their embroidery work, called bharat kaam, from which they make numerous traditional garments and furnishings. The kediyun, a gathered jacket with an embroidered smock, worn by young Rabari men and children, skirts and blouses for the women and girls—are al dexterously embroidered. Interestingly, the Rabari girl, completes over the years, her entire dowry which includes clothes as well as beautiful quilts or derkee.
Kokulashtami, after the rains, is marriage time. The men are back from their wanderings for this al important occasion. All marriages take place on this one day. Since child marriage is still very much in vogue within this tribe, outsiders are distrusted. Again, the Rabari marries only within the tribe and often into families which are closely located. Marrying outside the fold leads to social castigation and is very rare. While Rabari couples are probably the most exotically dressed, the marriage is a simple ritual performed by a Brahmin priest.
Rabaris, by and large, and ardent followers and worshippers of the Mother Goddess. Each clan has its own tribal goddess as the patron deity, though their homes often have pictures of other gods and goddesses as well. Strong tendencies of deifying and invoking the dead are still prevalent—a pointer to the community’s old world origin.
Another old world custom that has persisted is the custom of tattooing and there is a marked similarity In the motifs used in their embroideries and tattoos.
As an outsider it is difficult to communicate with these people since they speak a dialect which is a mixture of Marwari and Gujarati. But once they understand the visitor’s innocent curiosity, they exude the warmth and friendship that has always been a part of their make-up.