Sunday, January 4, 2009


Rabaris, the Original Gypsies


Women in CostumesTattooed WomanReading Mine Till Midnight and Seduce me at Sunrise by Lisa Kleypas, Gypsy Lord by Kat Martin, and A Dangerous Love by Brenda Joyce has been a great pleasure for my gadjo eyes. During my trip to India, I was privileged to run into the ancestors of these gypsies that Lisa, Kat, and Brenda write about.

Little Camel HerderVillage BeautyFor countless generations, the Rabaris have moved with the seasons, around the desert, and through the plains of northwestern India and parts of Pakistan, searching for green pastures, keeping up an age-old tradition as wandering cattle herders. It is a surreal sight when the savvy desert dwellers emerge on the barren horizon, their large turbans, colorful costumes, mystical tattoos, and striking jewelry evoking tales of far away lands and exotic people lost in the mists of time.

Proud ElderDesert DwellerAfter years of enduring the merciless summer sun, sandstorms, and chilly winter winds, their chiseled faces are a testament to their lifestyle. Persecuted and prosecuted endlessly for their cultural mores and nomadic lifestyle, the Rabaris have retained their folk music and dance, their language(a mixture of the Marwadi and Gujarati), their wandering ways, and their independence.

They've succeeded in gaining recognition for their distinctive arts, especially embroidery, beadwork, and mirrored mud sculpture. Rabari embroidery, known as bharat-kaam, not only tells us much about their culture, but is also like a language in which the women express themselves. The compositions created by the women comprise specific motifs, each of which has a name and meaning. Many of these symbols represent elements intrinsic to Rabari everyday life and throws light upon how the community sees their world. Others have historical meaning and help to perpetuate the Rabari knowledge of their heritage.

Rabari Women's Traditional CostumeRabari Woman Showing Off Her HandiworkThe kediyun, a gathered jacket with an embroidered smock, worn by young Rabari men and children and the ghagro, skirts, kanchali , blouses, and ludi, veil, for the women and girls are all dexterously embroidered. The Rabari girl, completes over the years, her entire dowry which includes clothes as well as beautiful quilts or derkee. Much of the handiwork seen in their decorated homes is also by the women.

Spiral Gold JewelryKokulashtami, after the rains, is marriage time. The men are back from their wanderings for this all-important occasion. All marriages take place on this one day. Since child marriage is still very much in vogue within this tribe, outsiders are distrusted. Again, the Rabari marries only within the tribe and often into families which are closely located. Marrying outside the fold leads to social castigation and is very rare.

Camels at the Altar of Mother GoddesssThe Rabari believe that they are directly descended from Shiva, one of the Holy Trinity of Hinduism. However, their patron god is Krishna. They trace their ancestry back to Shamal, a mythical camel herder who punished a thieving goddess by making off with her clothes. Shamal later married the goddess and their descendants lived in the Indian state of Haryana. Rabaris are also ardent followers and worshippers of Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva and known as the Mother Goddess. Each clan has its own tribal goddess as the patron deity, though their homes often have pictures of other gods and goddesses as well.

Especially over the last 1,000 years, the need for additional grazing areas have forced the Rabari south through India's Rajasthan and the Sind in Pakistan, before arriving in The Rann of Kutch in the Indian state of Gujarat. The land is dry with temperatures reaching up to 50 degrees in this saltpan desert. During the monsoon or wet season, the salt pans fill with water, effectively cutting the region off from the rest of India. This has also ensured both physical and cultural isolation, which is why the area retains so much of it's old traditions.


10 comments:

Emily Cotler said...

Fascinating stuff! Thanks for posting it.

Keira Soleore said...

Thanks for stopping by, Em. Not sure if JQ had a chance to meet them on her visit a year ago.

Anna Campbell said...

Wow, Keira, that was absolutely fascinating! I didn't know ANY of that. Well, I knew about the Gypsies originating in India but all this other stuff, nuh, completely new. Please do more posts like this. That was great!

PJ said...

I didn't know any of that, Keira. Thanks for sharing with us. How fascinating!

Keira Soleore said...

Thanks, Fo and PJ. I'm glad you enjoyed it. The ladies were shy when I asked to take their pictures, but agreed. I happened to witness their annual day of marriage, which was a merry, noisy celebration through the streets of the city.

Next up: Indian Music during the British Raj.

jo robertson said...

Interesting post, Keira. You've traveled so widely and have so many unusual topics to discuss. Thanks for sharing!

There's a lovely book called SHABANU, DAUGHTER OF THE WIND by Suzanne Fisher Staples that you might enjoy. It's a coming of age story about a young girl living with her family in the Cholistan Desert of Pakistan.

Trish Milburn said...

This is all very interesting, Keira. Very cool post and nice accompanying photos. I'm looking forward to future cultural posts.

Caren Crane said...

Keira, I am endlessly fascinated by India! I had no idea the Gypsies originated in India. My only cultural connection to Gypsies is that I am a huge fan of Gogol Bordello, who are a Gypsy punk band. *g*

As you know, I am a great admirer of Indian fashion and I am intrigued by the intricate needlework of the Rabaris. I wish I could travel in India and experience these things firsthand. Maybe someday!

Megan Frampton said...

Now I am craving papadum. Thanks, Keira.

Keira Soleore said...

Jo, thanks a bunch for the rec for SHABANU. I've added it to my library list. I'm on the waiting list there. :)

Megan, papadums are just 'round the corner for you. Maybe today?

Caren, some day, you're going to do it. Perhaps with Fo, eh? 'Coz she's going for sure.

Thanks, Trish.