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, India. Photo 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.
Linda has a Honours degree in Marine Biology and a PhD in Ecology from the University of NSW, Australia. She has travelled extensively and is a passionate writer on subjects as diverse as the role played by women throughout history, tribal communities and their customs, symbology and ethnology, talismans and their history. Occasionally she also writes about her travel experiences, her new life on a 25 acres in the Northern Rivers region of northern Australia and her black miniature poodle Phoenix. She is currently writing her first book on talismans.
In 1989 my father Bernard packed in his house painting business and set off for two years on a backpacking trek to the remotest corners of the world. When he finally arrived in the oasis city of Kashgar, China, he was so impressed with its history that he decided to start a new life collecting and selling exotic goods from all over the world. For 2000 years the legendary city of Kashgar was a melting pot of ideas and a key trading post on the historic Silk Road. It was this unique combination of philosophy and trade that my father wanted to recreate at home.
Starting in markets in 1991, he opened his first store in the Sydney suburb of Newtown in 1994. I gave up my own career as a government scientist to join him in 2000 and soon convinced my partner Ian to join us in what was to become the Family Business.
Today our version of Kashgar stocks a hugely diverse range of furniture, rugs, textiles, antiques, handicrafts and jewellery sourced from over twenty different countries including India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Our collection includes contemporary and tribal silver and gold jewellery, a unique range of headhunting curios, antique Buddhist relics and a collection of one-off necklaces, earrings and bracelets that I design and create myself using the beads and jewellery making techniques of ethnic minorities from around the globe.
Kashgar is a philosophy as well as a store. We are committed to supporting traditional artisans and small village communities by selling authentic handcrafted goods which are personally collected by us. By supporting traditional methods of design and production we hope to encourage local cottage industries which have a low impact on the environment and help ethnic minorities maintain their self-sufficiency into the 21st Century. We are particularly committed to assisting women around the world and to this end have worked with several organisations including the Hua Bin Women's Union of Vietnam, the East Timorese Women's Association and Tikondane in Zambia. Time honoured means of craftsmanship and traditional ways of life are disappearing as people all over the world give up their identity in favour of jeans and T-shirts. We see our trade as a means of staving off the inevitable encroachment of the 21st century, assisting communities to decide for themselves which parts of the western world they wish to incorporate (medicine, education) and which they wish to reject (prostitution, drug production, begging and servitude to warlords). We encourage our customers to think of the handicrafts and artifacts they buy from us as an investment: a piece of history and a way of life that may soon be gone forever.
Kashgar has recently closed its retail outlet and gone completely online.
In the past our pieces appeared in many movies including The Hobbit, Mission Impossible 2, Queen of the Damned, Scooby Doo, Moulin Rouge and Wolverine, and in many televisions series, as well as in plays, commercials and exhibitions. We've found special pieces for individual customers as well as for film sets, event management companies, hotels, businesses, consulates and embassies. The uniqueness of our stock means that we are also very appealing to interior and fashion designers with a taste for the exotic.
There is something for everyone at Kashgar - collectors, the curious, those looking for a special present or for something unique to adorn the home. Most of our items are one-off specialties; other pieces we only stock in small quantities so as to continuously offer a wide and ever-changing range of interesting products. We are also packed with ideas for decorating home and work premises that will challenge your established concepts of design and storage.
Please enjoy - Linda Heaphy
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