For centuries, the Raika community in Sadri village of Rajasthan’s Pali district, has been herding camels. The camel was declared the state animal of Rajasthan in 2014, and represents what many people associate with this colourful state: the desert. Camels are essential to pastoralists because they can survive the heat, require little water, and offer their milk and hair in return.
Today, however, the herders’ way of life is in jeopardy. The Raikas find themselves struggling to survive in the face of disdain for, and often active hostility towards, their migratory traditions.
Jogaramji Raika is a senior herder in his community, as well as a spiritual leader – or Bhopaji. He communes with the gods whom the Raikas worship – their primary god is Pabuji. Bhopajis often go into a trance while they commune with the spirits.
When I first met Jogaramji, he was in the midst of speaking with members of the community while concocting a mixture of opium oil. He smokes or ingests some of it at various intervals during the day. His wife was busy making breakfast.
Members consult their Bhopaji for advice on various matters, both personal and community-related. He is also entrusted with the responsibility of making decisions regarding land issues, or representing the community at public gatherings.
Jogaramji spoke about the problems in the community, and about his family. Formal education is important nowadays, he said, at least in perception, and he will ensure that his daughter, Rekha, goes to school. “School seems to earn respect,” he explained. “We didn’t go to school so people don’t respect us because they think we don’t understand the ways of the world. Moreover, she’s a girl. She needs more ways of protecting herself.”
At the same time, Jogaramji will also pass on his traditional wisdom to Rekha. As a girl growing up in a herding community, she has freedoms that are denied to many others – a glimpse of her playing with a camel shows how much she is at ease with animals.
The Raikas are with their animals from the time they are born until they die – although with a lifespan of almost 50 years, an animal may well outlive its owner. Some of the Raikas even grow up surrounded by more animals than people.
The Raikas are among the last people to shear designs on the camels' sides – this is possible only because of the deep trust between a herder and his animal. For an onlooker from outside the community, the animal may look like it is in pain during the shearing. But the Raikas are able to communicate with their camels with the slightest tilt of the head or hand, and thereby avoid inflicting cuts. Camel hair is used to make carpets, and shearing also keeps the animal cool.
I accompanied Fuyaramji, another experienced herder, on a chadiye – when the animal is taken out for grazing. Usually, this lasts all day.
He leaves in the morning, tucking provisions for tea and food inside his turban, and returns late in the evening. Despite the searing heat of Rajasthan summers, and with 20 camels to look after, he still makes and shares his tea with me.
Previously, the Raikas only sold young male camels to earn an income. That isn’t enough anymore. They now sell camel products to supplement their earnings. But it is difficult, said Fuyaramji. Rich in nutrients, camel milk is considered the next “super food.” But its sale in India has not taken off because of numerous restrictions enforced by government dairies. Without such sales, the Raikas’ ability to sustain themselves is on the decline. As a result, many leave the community looking for alternative livelihoods.
According to Ilse Koehler-Rollefson, veterinarian, activist and author of the 2014 book Camel Karma , “The next generation is interested in trying to maintain some of their traditions, but their hands are tied. Try finding a bride for a herder: it is impossible to get one. Many of the Raikas have now become labourers.”
Fuyaramji seemed to be aware that no one in his family was going to follow in his footsteps. As we walked through one of the few pieces of land to which the pastoralists still have access, he told me how the Raikas once wandered freely in jungles and farmlands in Sadri, forging long-lasting relationships with those they met along the way.
Twenty years ago, the pastoralists and farmers were linked economically and socially. When the herder took his flocks on a long trek, he would often have to cross farmlands. Here, the pastoralists provided the farmer with premium fertiliser and fresh milk from the camel. The farmer, in turn, would provide the pastoralist with food. Since the herder’s route seldom changed, an association was formed between the two, which could span generations. Now, many farmers don’t allow herders on their lands fearing they will destroy the fields or the camels will eat their crops.
New laws and policies, supported by some environmentalists and animal rights’ groups, have curtailed the movement and altered the lifestyle of the Raikas. National parks like Kumbhalgarh in Rajsamand district now restrict access to pastoralists, limiting their centuries-old migration patterns.
With the new restrictive laws making it difficult for camel herders to access land and resources, some Raikas have been forced to sell female camels at the Pushkar festival. They had never done this before the year 2000 – until then, only male camels were sold. The sale of female camels is the ultimate sign of resignation for a Raika: without these animals, there is no chance of increasing the herd.
In reaction to this, other Raikas had asked the government to ban female slaughter to try to preserve the species. Instead, in March 2015 the state government called for a blanket ban on the slaughter of both male and female camels – thereby eliminating a steady source of income for the Raikas.
“Most of the time, these blanket policies miss the nuances of the realities of these communities," Hanwant Singh Rathore, chief executive of Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan, a non-governmental organisation in Sadri, said. "The government is not even interested in listening to the Raikas, although they are the ones who understand best the fragile balance of their ecosystem. Their knowledge has been passed down from one generation to the next, which makes it invaluable. They know their land well, and know how to care for the animals.”
Even as you read this, the Raika community is being forced out of more of its grazing lands by the forest department. “The more powerful communities are actively trying to take away the grazing rights of the Raikas," Rathore said. "They think that the camels frighten their buffaloes, and they’ve asked forest officials to guard the entrances of the grazing spaces. The camels will starve to death if this continues.
“The upper caste communities have called on a social boycott of the Raikas, to isolate them from everyone else. We are trying to get the attention of our political representatives to stop this. The Raikas will cease to exist if this continues. And in five years, there might be no more camels in Rajasthan.”
The very fabric of the Raika community is tied to its animals, and any challenge to their grazing rights is a challenge to their way of life. “We’ll try our best to keep it alive,” Jogaramji said, “but if no one thinks we ‘deserve’ these rights, what are we fighting for?”
The author would like to thank the Raika community, the Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan and Harsh Wardhan, assistant photographer, for their help and contribution to this article.