The world looks very strange from a camel’s back. On a recent trip to Rajasthan, we travelled on camel back from the city of Jaisalmer to the Sam dhani or sand dunes of the adjoining Thar Desert. We were travelling to Thar, just 42 km away, to watch its dazzling sunsets.
Deoram and Raju
When we set out from Jaisalmer, the desert city famous for its golden fortress, the early evening sun dazzles our eyes. Bright, beige wasteland stretches all around us for miles. Tiny babul shrubs grow by the roadside. There are no villages or huts in sight.
A patch of red stirs in the desert far away. Closer up, it proves to be the safa or turban worn by a camel-herder. His name is Deoram. He and his family of Rabaris or camel-herders have lived this way of life for centuries.
Soon, we find ourselves trying to stay atop our camel mounts. Their walk is awkward and lurching. To us, it feels like one step backwards to every one forward. It’s quite dizzying to be so far away from the sand beneath our feet.
Raju, my mount, has a snout that buzzes with sand flies. He snorts often, but they return to bug him. So, he trots and frets and tosses his head wildly, which makes it even tougher not to take a toss onto the golden desert sands.
Deoram, a 28-year-old Rabari with a fierce moustache, clad in a weatherworn white dhoti and kurta, owns Raju.
Pirdan, Deoram’s younger brother, is bright-eyed and speaks fluent Hindi, while most Rabaris speak Marwari, the regional language around Jaisalmer. We chat as our caravan of four camels trot along.
“I’ve had Raju for 12 years now,” says Deoram. “I bought him at the annual cattle fair at Pushkar near Ajmer. He cost somewhere between Rs. 15,000 to 20,000, I don’t remember exactly…”
Living by camels
How does a Rabari family live around the year? “We live by our camels,” explains Pirdan. “We sometimes hire them out to draw carts. During the tourist season from October to February, we charge Rs. 100 a ride to the dunes. We own four camels, so we make Rs. 400 a day.”
But how about summer under the blazing desert sun? “Times are not so good in summer,” adds Pirdan’s burly uncle, who’s riding a camel named Mayuri. “Since we all live together and we aren’t farmers, we have little to eat then, because our land is dry.”
“Harrrrrrrrrrrumph", says Raju, lurching along, as if adding a thought to our talk.
Does Raju respond to his name? “Of course,” answers Deoram with affection. “When he’s out grazing and I call his name like this, Rajooooooooo, he stops wherever he is. It’s easy to find him then.”
Pirdan, the young groom
Pirdan has studied more than anyone else in this Rabari family – up to Class X. He’s proud to know so much more about the world.
But he’s different from others in Class X in a basic way. Pirdan tells us how: “I got married four years ago, at 16. I was engaged when I was seven. She’s a Rabari, too.”
That sounds so strange to our city-wise ears. Does Pirdan find his situation unusual? “It’s part of our tradition,” he responds. “I’m proud to be a Rabari. We even allow widows to marry again.”
We think about all we’ve learnt about Rabaris as we weave, sway and stagger towards the horizon. Time doesn’t seem to count to their ageless way of life.
More camel facts come into focus as Deoram talks to us. He reveals that the camels from Jaisalmer are known for their speed and can cover over 100 km in a single night. The Rabaris of Rajasthan, we discover, can be either Hindu or Muslim. There are even some among them who are Muslims with Hindu names.
Golden sand dunes
At this point, Raju canters over a curve in the horizon. And suddenly, the sand dunes are before us – wave upon wave of golden sand. They are much more beautiful than any geography book or TV programme has ever suggested.
In the distance, a procession of camels in brightly embroidered cloth move along. Their riders are just dark blurs to us.
Overhead, the sun is still burning bright. It seems to burn the edge of the dunes farthest away. By degrees, the sky turns a brilliant orange, fading into pink, then a misty purple. Even the desert seems to pick up these shades. As we watch, it no longer looks golden brown.
Deoram and Raju brought wonderful adventure into our lives, both on and off camelback. We’re already planning a trip back to the sand dunes, perhaps during the three-day desert festival at Jaisalmer from February 6-8, 2001.
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