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by Linda Heaphy March 30, 2017

Rabari woman in all her finery. Photo credit:  Arzoo Magazine

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. 

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.

Rabari mirror and paint work niches in a mudbrick kitchen. Photo credit: Kashgar, Ajit Bahwan Hotel Jodhpur

The exact origin of the Rabari people is unknown.  It is most likely that they migrated to India via Afghanistan through Baluchistan, although this has been disputed by some experts, who propose a stronger relationship with the Rajputs of Rajasthan. Rabari's have 133 sub casts, the majority of which are Hindus who worship Mata Devi, the great mother goddess of India.  Unsurprisingly, the Rabari's social structure is matriarchal, with women conducting the majority of their business affairs, while men are in charge of the animal herds that form the only true Rabari assets.

Rabari wealth is in the details. Intricately hand embroidered boy's jacket indicates the high status of the owner's family. Photo credit: Kashgar

The Rabaris are known for their distinctive art, particularly the mirrored and whitewashed mud sculpture-work that adorns their homes and villages.   Rabari women are responsible for this artwork and also traditionally spin the wool from their sheep and give it to local weavers to make their woollen skirts, veils, blankets and turbans.  However the women are most renowned for their detailed embroidery and beadwork.  Rabari women embroider clothing, bags, household decorations and animal trappings in patterns that subtly highlight significant events, rites and values in their lives, as well as historical events important to the entire tribe, which helps to perpetuate Rabari knowledge of their heritage. While unmarried women embroider blouses, skirts, veils, wall hangings, pillows, purses and dowry sacks as contributions to their own dowries, married women embroider children's clothing, animal trappings, household items and cradle cloths as well.

The juxtaposition is real. Rabari nomads camp on the ground between the luxurious Umaid Bhagwan Palace Hotel and the Ajit Bahgwan Hotel in Jodhpur, IndiaPhoto Credit: Kashgar  


References and Further Reading:  

Rabari Embroidery, an Exhibition.  1st Mar - 15th April 1995. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Matighar.  Website:

Rabari.  Wikipedia:

Want to buy a Rabari keyring? You can get one here

    Linda Heaphy
    Linda Heaphy

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