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Camels and Camel Keepers of the Thar Desert

The myth of the creation of the camel is dates back to Hindu tradition. Parvati, the goddess of power and the 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 the clay and mud where she sat and had moulded an unrecognisable five-legged animal. She marvelled at her creation that she asked Shiva when he had returned to breath 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 animal he would not be able to protect and sustain it. However, Parvati persisting and persisting, Shiva had granted her wish.

 

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Raikas often shear a unique mark on to each member of his herd. Photograph by Yusuf Ansari.

 

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The wool of the camel is often used for blankets, rugs and clothing to prepare for the cold season. Photograph by Yusuf Ansari.

As Shiva had suspected, the five legs proved walking to be near impossible. The god of transformation then went out recreating Parvati’s animal to better suit it to living. The fifth leg was pushed up into its stomach thus creating the camel’s hump. After a while of nurturing, the newly formed animal became too much a burden to Parvati who thus instructed man to care for them. The first Raika came to be.

 

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The raika will lead his flock out to graze the land for the whole day. Photograph by Yusuf Ansari.

Raikas are the nomadic camel herders that roam the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. This myth not only speaks about the creation of the animal they nurture but also the creation of their caste and therefore their significance within Rajasthani culture is legitimised through Hindu mythic tradition. It is with this reverence of their own history that defines them and it must be with this light that the raikas are to be observed.

 

Since they hold their history with deep regard, their commitment in continuing to practise age-old traditions unwavers: to this day, with the same implements their ancestors would have used, they shear designs into the camels’ flanks. In most pastoral farms, coming close to any animal with a pair of shears is a difficult task when its usual instinct is to run away. Here, the raika’s skill in handling the tool is so accomplished that the camels neither flinch nor flee.

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The hump of the camel, according to Hindu tradition, had originally been a fifth leg that Lord Shiva had thrusted into the animal’s stomach. Photograph by Yusuf Ansari.

However, the trust the camel gives to its keeper is not only on the basis of their skill with a shear. As the responsibility to be guardians of these majestic desert wanderers had been goddess-given, the bond a raika has with his flock is very strong and they hold this deep connection with each member of the herd, be it seventy camels or seven. For most of these camels, they will be born into the herd and live it’s whole life under the attentive watch of one raika. They become almost family and just as families have their secret way of communicating with each other detected and understood by no one, so to does the relationship between camel and keeper extend to even the slightest gestures from either party being a form of communication.

 

I had interviewed Kavraram, a raika from the village of Achla which is a very short drive from The Serai. He owns a herd of fifty and is helped in rearing them by the whole family, even his grandson. His opinions on the importance of the raika and his camels are not only limited to an intrinsic essence of his life but extends also of Rajasthan as a whole. It would only be superficial to say that their cultural value extends only to the Parvati myth, since their importance to the area is consistently proved. Firstly, they were widely used through the whole of Rajasthan as a means transport and load carrying. Their capability to walk long distances while pulling a cart is impressive and second to none: a true ship of the desert.

 

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Generations of camels will often be reared by one raika, thus allowing a strong bond to develop between camel and camel keeper. Photograph by Yusuf Ansari.

Secondly, around Jaisalmer, the camel’s wool is the main material for very common household items including blankets, rugs and clothing. Their hide is also harvested to make luxury attire such as hats and shoes while also being the leather for drum skins (although due to their religious importance, selling camel leather is only found in few areas around Jaisalmer).

 

Finally, Rajasthan and especially the Thar Desert, for most of the year, are typically arid and the ability of a camel to survive with little water is universally attested. They can extract much of the water they need to survive from the flora they ruminate on and in turn, their dung is widely used as fertiliser for the crops.

 

They are part of a cycle in nature that very much depends on their survival and thus the protection of Jaisalmer’s landscape very much relies on continuing to recognise the significance of each and every raika and as a result to conserve this ancient divinely attributed tradition.

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