by Linda Heaphy March 30, 2017


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.
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.   There are approximately 2,70000 Rabari living in India at the present time. 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. 

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. According to their creation myth they 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 moulded a camel from the dirt (in another version, he creates the first camel for her as an amusement). However it kept running away, so 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. The Rabari 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.

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

 



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 Rabari 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 goats, 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, particularly as he majority of Rabari are illiterate and have no written tradition. 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 

Given that there are so many Rabari sub-casts spread over such a large geographical area, it is not surprising that their image, status and prosperity differs from region to region. Even Rabari fashion has changed with time. The Rabari are one of the most photographed minorities in India because of their striking dress and jewellery, vibrant embroidery work and beautifully geometric house decoration. And yet, in modern India, their needs and requirements are often overlooked, and in some areas, they are giving up traditional dress in favour of western clothing. If the Rabari have a future as a distinct people, it is evident that that future rests in their own hands.

References and Further Reading:  

Chakraborty, Subhasish 2014. Dating Rabaris, the Nomads of Kutch. Wall Street International. Accessed 28th June 2017

Nelson, Jimmy.Before They Pass Away: the Rabari

Mishra, Jaina, 2014The Sultry Black Ludhi of the Rabari Tribe. The Art Blog. Accessed 28th June 2017

Rabari Culture. 2015. Pabiben. Accessed 28th June 2017. 

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

Rabari.  Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabari


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

    Linda Heaphy
    Linda Heaphy


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