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Phototours: The nomadic lives of the Rebaris

Among the several nomadic and semi-nomadic communities of India, the Rebaris are the traditional pastoral semi-nomadic community pre-dominantly found in Rajasthan and Gujarat and are uniquely distinctive because of their strong cultural roots and attire.
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The Rebaris migrate yearly with their flocks in search of pasture lands for their livestock. Image by: Abhishek Hajela

You have perhaps seen them – tall, lanky figures with bright-red turbans, dressed in pure white kurta and dhoti, striding with their stick, manoeuvring their livestock – goat, sheep, and camels or the large-horned cows (known as Kankrej) in and out of traditionally hundreds of year old routes that their ancestors have tread on as well. Accompanying them are the women, adorned in striking silver jewellery and the white bangles covering the entire hand. They wear rich coloured clothes, dark blues and reds which make them stand out.

Among the several nomadic and semi-nomadic communities of India, the Rebaris are the traditional pastoral semi-nomadic community pre-dominantly found in Rajasthan and Gujarat and are uniquely distinctive because of their strong cultural roots and attire. They migrate annually with their flocks to search for pasture lands for their livestock. Usually, they migrate in a group following the weather pattern of the Indian monsoon.

Several families migrate together – a combination of elderly men and women who are the experienced leaders, young men and women who do the grunt work, along with the kids who obviously can’t be left behind! And the star attractions of this entire entourage are the thousands of livestock, and camels that are used to carry the essentials while on the road – beddings, utensils, food items, clothes and everything in between that is needed for this sojourn that lasts for almost nine months!

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The star attraction of this entire entourage – thousands of livestock; and camels which are used to carry the essentials while on the road. Image by: Abhishek Hajela

The Rabaris have been in absolute sync with weather patterns, nature and animals, for centuries, as they have lived a zero-carbon footprint lifestyle that follows all recycling principles, are minimally invasive, and co-exist in harmony with the earth and all its elements. Their lifestyle had been eco-friendly, even before eco-friendly became the buzzword.

One of the most interesting facets that make this journey possible for them is the love and warmth they receive from locals. While on their 1200-kilometers long trip, local farmers invite them to camp on their empty fields for several weeks – imagine thousands of animals dropping ‘organic manure’ on the land every morning, turning the land fertile for a long period of time. In exchange for this organic manure, they barter produce and grains. One of the main businesses during this journey is the sale of goats and sheep to traders, or the selling of milk and ghee.

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Images by: Abhishek Hajela

The traditional route which the Rebaris take begin in their homeland in the Pali district, southern Rajasthan. They set out just after the Diwali festival and weave their way across the state, through the beautiful hilly roads of Aravalli range of mountains, around the Marwar Junction, entering Madhya Pradesh through Chittorgarh where they encounter plains. By this time it’s almost January and they have covered about 300 odd kilometres.

From here, they have to cover another 250 to 300 kilometres within Madhya Pradesh, reaching all the way to Ujjain, a journey they complete around April. And then starts the return journey in reverse order, depending on the monsoon cycle. They target to get back home around the end of July to August. 

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The Rabaris are in absolute sync with weather patterns, nature, and animals, for centuries, as they have lived a zero-carbon footprint lifestyle that follows all recycling principles. Image by: Abhishek Hajela

I have been documenting the entire cycle of the journey of the Rebari community in their original ecosystem for the past several years – and it is a subject close to my heart. Having spent time very closely with several families – speaking to them regularly, visiting them often, and spending time with them; even I have noticed a rapid change in the short span of a few years. 

The Rabari’s traditional and sustainable way of living might die out in the next few decades due to a combination of factors. The younger generation has migrated to bigger cities in search of higher education and job opportunities. Globalization and the ‘modern lifestyle’ they see on social media platforms has made the traditional way of life undesirable and unappealing. This is ironic as this traditional system has more monetary value as opposed to a regular job in the city.

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Image by: Abhishek Hajela

Highways have been built on what used to be their traditional routes of migration, with boundary walls coming up on farms and the proliferation of chemical fertilizers which makes land unfertile.

To further bring awareness to this beautiful community,I have curated a photo trip series called ‘Undiscovered Rajasthan’. This trip has been designed to showcase and bring participants closer to the Rabari culture.

Participants will experience this sustainable community, its eco-friendly practices, apart from learning pro tips on travel and portrait photography, critique sessions, and technical reviews.

Author, photographer, mentor, and filmmaker; recipient of the International Nikon Award; Abhishek Hajela works with several media houses in India and globally. He leads photography and experiential tours with international photographers and travel companies.

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