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A Rabari woman in her settlement © Julie Higelin

Rabari Tribes of India

The Rabari, also called the Rewari or Desai, are an indigenous tribal caste of nomadic cattle and camel herders and shepherds that live throughout northwest India, primarily in the states of Gujarat, Punjab and Rajasthan. Other Rabari groups also live in Pakistan, especially in the region of the Sindh Desert. The word “Rabari” translates as “outsiders”, a fair description of their primary occupation and status within Indian society.

Rabari Tribes of India, Moving mainly through the regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat, they go back to their village once a year and make their living by selling milk. Completely nomads in the past, they are now semi-nomads, moving from their village according to the seasons. Nowadays, many Rabari has abandoned the nomadic lifestyle for a modern life, settling down in the cities.

Rabari woman with the typical tattoos of her neck, Gujarat, India © Alessandro Bergamini
Rabari woman with the typical tattoos of her neck, Gujarat, India © Alessandro Bergamini

The exact origin of the Rabari people is unknown. It is most likely that they migrated to India from Iran via Afghanistan through Baluchistan around a thousand year ago, although this has been disputed by some experts, who propose a stronger relationship with the Rajputs of Rajasthan. The majority of Rabari, which include 133 recognised sub casts, follow the Hindu faith.

Rabari woman in Gujarat © Alessandro Bergamini
Rabari woman in Gujarat © Alessandro Bergamini

According to their creation myth, hey were created by Matadevi (Pavarti), the consort of Lord Shiva and  great mother goddess of India. As one version of the story goes, she cleaned dust and sweat from Shiva as he meditated and molded a camel from the dirt, while in another version, he creates the first camel for her as an amusement. However it kept running away, Parvati created the first Rabari to mind it. Keeping animals is therefore regarded as a near sacred occupation by the Rabari who see themselves as their herds’ custodians rather than their owners.

While the men are on the move in search of grazing pastures for their livestock, the women and children remain in the villages. In Rabari Tribes, women have a significant role in the economic sphere. They mainly look after the cattle, bring potable water and collect fuel for cooking. Women also have a significant role in religious sphere but do not have any role in the mechanism of social control. Embroidery is a vital, living and evolving expression of the crafted textile tradition of the Rabari people.

As far back as the group’s collective memory stretches, Rabari women have diligently embroidered textiles as an expression of creativity, aesthetics and identity. Designs are taken from mythology and the indigenous peoples’ desert surroundings. Girls learn the art of embroidery at a young age, practising their new-found skills by working on a collection of embroidered items that will later become their dowry. This collection can sometimes take two or three years to complete.

Old Rabari man in Gujarat © Chiara Felmini
Old Rabari man in Gujarat © Chiara Felmini

Traditionally the Rabari followed a highly nomadic way of life, living in tents or under the open skies and raising cattle, camels and goats. As India has changed, so has general tolerance to nomadic groups, who relied in the past on ancestral grazing rights and ancient right-of-ways. Today only a very small percentage of Rabari are truly nomadic, with the majority to be found settled on the outskirts of cities, towns and villages in semi-nomadic lifestyles, following the seasonal rains for periods of time, then returning to their villages.

A cattle herder of the Rabari tribe © Julie Higelin
A cattle herder of the Rabari tribe © Julie Higelin

Going to the local village or town markets is an important part of daily life. In Rabari Tribes, women trade milk and milk products from their livestock. Wool and leather are sold in order to purchase commodities they do not produce themselves. Traditional veils would be made from the wool of one’s own sheep, carded and spun before being handed to the weaver. The weaver would ensure that he used only the wool given to him, and would pass it to the dyer who would perform a type of resist dyeing. Once the veil was complete, the women start to embroider using a variety of colored threads and tiny cut mirrors.

The Rabari Tribes also believe that they are the special children of Pavarti, and seek her advice in all important matters, for example when to start the annual herd migration. Unsurprisingly given their bond with the Mother Goddess, Rabari social structure is matriarchal, with women conducting the majority of their business affairs and managing their villages, while men are in charge of the animal herds that form the only true Rabari assets.

They are good at the traditional art of cloth embroidery. They marry within their community. They speak Hindi, Marwari, Haryanvi and use the Devanagari script. The Rabari tend sheep, goats and camels. Most of the Rabari are vegetarian while some are non-vegetarian; their everyday diet consists of homemade bread of millet or wheat and jowar. They tattoo magical symbols on their necks, breasts and arms. Originally only camels were their source of livelihood. However, now, they keep goat, sheep, cow or buffalo.

Young girl in her traditional costume and ornaments © Julie Higelin
Young girl in her traditional costume and ornaments © Julie Higelin

Sometimes, Rabari women wear black shirts. There is an interesting myth about 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, his proposal was refused by the community. The king got angry and threatened to kill all of them. The Rabaris out of fear broke their camp in the middle of the night with the help of a Muslim man. But the Muslim man while assisting the Rabaris for their escape was killed by the king. So it is told that Rabari women wore black from then to mourn his death. It is also said that the loyalty of this man gives insight to the ease of interaction between the Hindu Rabaris and Muslims.

Marriage, which celebrates the vitality of life and ensures its continuity, is  considered of utmost importance. Traditionally, weddings can be extravagant events, and they take place on a particular day of the year: the feast of Gokulashtami, Krishna’s birthday. The event is awaited with both jubilation and a touch of fear. Normally friendly and hospitable, Rabari tribals turn hostile and suspicious on Gokulashtami Day. Outsiders are unwelcome, and are told so in no uncertain terms. Childhood marriage is still very much in vogue, however adult marriages are also performed through negotiation. Rabaris marry only within the group and often into families that are closely related. Remarriage is permitted for both the widow and widower.

Rabari woman in all her finery, including a large nose ring supported by a chain attached to the hair and the upper arm bangles worn by married women. Women with all the bracelets on the arms are typical Rabari from Rajasthan. The women without bracelets but covered with tattoos are typically from Gujarat region. Photo © Julie Higelin

After the Gujarat Earthquake in 2001, old bonds between landowners, sheepherders, weavers, dyers and the Rabari Tribes women began to break down. Many people were made homeless for long periods of time and the making of veils was put aside. At some point the elders decided that the practice of embroidery was to be outlawed as too much time was being spent on the making of veils and not enough time generating income. Among the Rabari, in case of death, the dead body is cremated in the nearby samsan (cremation ground). The corpse of a male is covered with black clothes. The eldest son lits the pyre and the ceremony is performed after eleven days and the mourning period continues up to thirteenth day.

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