|With Ramu, at the dunes outside Jaisalmer, 1999|
The Rabaris, also called Raikas in Marwar, are the breeders of camels. They assert that their ancestor was brought into existence by Lord Mahadeo in order to take care of the first camel, which was created by Parvati for her amusement.
~ Rajputana Gazetteers, Vol. III, by Major K D Eerskine, Calcutta (1908)
His name is Ramu. Deoram, astride the second hump of a seat behind me, tells me so. His gait is awkward and lurching. Tending towards a ramble. Or even a shuffle. One step backwards for every two forward ~ or that’s how it feels to a novice rider like me. I seem to be astride a moving hillock ~ and I’m trying my best not to fall off. And when he’s on a canter, while I teeter precariously atop him, it is quite a dizzying experience.
Ramu’s snout is abuzz with sandflies; he snorts frequently to persuade them to go away. But they return to bug him. So, he trots and frets and tosses his head wildly, while I grit my teeth and clench my teeth, clinging onto the ropes that swing from Ramu’s snout to my hands. I don’t fancy a dramatic toss onto the sparkling desert sands of the Thar in Rajasthan.
My companions on the camelback adventure share my feelings. I’m one of five amateur riders on an hour’s camel ride from the outskirts of Jaisalmer to the Sam dhani or dunes at the edge of the Thar desert, known as the site of spectacular sunsets.
We start out by jeep from Jaisalmer en route to Sam (pronounced S-a-a-m), 42 km away. As we drive along the smooth asphalt from the desert city, which boasts of a golden sandstone fortress and exquisite havelis, babul shrubs teem by the roadside. The early evening sun dazzles our eyes, attuned to mile upon mile of bright wasteland. There are few dwellings in sight. Nothing seems to move or grow or thrive.
A sudden screech of brakes. The rubber sears the road. The jeep halts. And we spot the reason why.
A family of camel-herders stand by the wayside. They strike up a conversation with the jeep driver in Marwari, the regional language around Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.
Our driver returns. Would we like to ride to the dunes, he asks. These are honest men, he assures us, adding that he has known this foursome of Rabaris for years. “It’s just Rs.100 per head ~ all the way to Sam, a ride of over an hour. And they will drop you back to the jeep after sunset,” he tosses in a bonus. It is an offer we cannot resist.
Deoram, who owns Ramu, encourages me to jump astride his kneeling camel. Ramu tosses his head disdainfully and goes hrrrrrumph! The snorting so close to my ear is unnerving.
As Ramu sways, rides and lurches skywards on his spindly legs, I shriek with fear. Around me, my companions are on camelback, but two to a camel for moral support. I could do with some, too. So, Ramu kneels once more and burly, moustachioed Deoram, who’s 28 ~ clad in a weather-worn white dhoti and kurta ~ accompanies me on Ramu. Before he gets on, I notice that he strips a branch off a desert shrub and twirls it.
Don’t hit Ramu, I say, fearing the worst.
As our caravan of four camels strides towards the dunes, I overhear a breeze-wafted conversation from atop Bijli, who strides alongside us.
“Have you been to school?” the tourist from Gwalior asks Pirdan, Deoram’s younger brother. He is bright-eyed and lively at barely 20.
‘Yes, I’ve studied till Class X. I’m the only one in our family who has studied so far…”
“Are you married?” the tourist persists.
“I got married four years ago, at 16,” Pirdan replies. “”I was engaged when I was seven. She’s from our community.”
“Child marriage!” exclaims the Gwalior man. “How could you allow it?”
“It’s part of our tradition,” responds Pirdan. “I’m proud to be a part of it… We even allow widow remarriage.”
What does your family do, I ask Deoram.
“We’re Rabaris, camel-herders,” he responds in Marwari, which sounds like a first cousin to Hindi. “We rear and tend camels. We’ve been lived this way for generations, perhaps centuries.”
Has he had Ramu for long? “For 12 years now,” Deoram says with pride. “I bought him at the annual cattle fair at Pushkar, near Ajmer.”
My curiosity gets the better of my manners. How much does a camel cost?
“About Rs. 15,000 to 20,000,” Deoram’s voice is gruff as he uses his makeshift whip to gently spur Raju to a canter, for the other camels are setting a lively pace.
How does his family live around the year? “We sometimes hire our camels out to draw carts,” Deoram’s mama or maternal uncle replies from Mayur-back, as he trots ahead of Ramu. “During the tourist season from October to February, we charge Rs. 100 per ride to the dunes. We have four camels, so we make about Rs. 400 per day. This is a good season for us. But times are not so good in summer…”
A dry season in every sense? “It’s tough to feed the family then,” Deoram, who has studied upto Std. VIII, picks up the thread of the conversation. “My parents, my mama, my brother and our families, we all live together. Since we aren’t farmers, and the land is so parched, our meals then are very frugal…”
Hrrrrrrrrrumphhh, says Ramu, lurching along, contributing his mite to the small talk. The sandflies buzz on and on about his snout.
Does Ramu respond to his name? Deoram laughs, “Of course. When he’s out grazing and I call his name like this ~ Ramoooooooo ~ he stops wherever he is. Then, it’s easy to find him…”
Ramu tosses his head and grunts at this point, as if in assent.
We cross mile upon mile of sun-bleached scrubland. The caravans before us have carved a path through the arid waste. So, Ramu follows Bijli and Mayur without missing a step.
“Do you know,” Deoram suddenly breaks into a torrent of words, “the oonthwalas or camel-herders of Sam are thieves? They take you for a ride of just 10 or 15 steps and charge you Rs. 100!” His voice peaks with indignation. “Then, they stop and refuse to go another step unless you pay Rs. 75…They cheat everyone. And they’re Muslims…”
(That seems strange when, later, I hear from a schoolmate in Jaipur that the Rabari community embraces both Muslims and Hindus. She even knows of Muslims in Rajasthan with Hindu names).
As Ramu shuffles on while I careen from side to side ~ I’m told the speedy camels of Jaisalmer can cover 100 km in a night ~ Deoram periodically waves his arm to indicate the dunes in the distance. Time seems to blur as we weave, sway and stagger our way towards the horizon.
Over a hump in the land, in a split second, time comes to a standstill. Wave upon wave of golden curves, breeze-kissed and vegetation-free, spell a magical ocean of golden grains. Amidst the rise and fall of the dunes are caparisoned camels in stately procession, their riders mere silhouettes at that height.
The radiant sun is still overhead. It singes the sandy slopes in the background orange. Flames shade the edge of the horizon, where the sky fuses with the landscape.
The stillness of waiting is pierced by bhopas or folk minstrels, singing the plaintive strains of Maro Desh Marwar (my land is Marwar). Colourful safas or turbans on their heads, embroidered mojris on their feet, playing on a ravanhatta (Ravana’s bow), they offer a vocal votive feast to the glorious sunset.
As their voices stream from song to song, the skies respond as if ablaze. Fiery oranges blend into passionate reds, mauves vie for skypower with burnt pinks. Prussian blues appear at the edge of the aerial canvas ~ until both the sunset palette and the eye drown in a star-drenched sky.
Within a half-hour, dozens of camels tread the timeless desert sands on their way back to tents, hotels or vehicles. We wind our way back to Ramu and Mayur, only to find Deoram and his brother rivetted by alien rites of courtship. All tall foreigner reaches for the hand of his girlfriend behind a dune.
“Gora kitna harami hain! (The foreigner is a rascal)”, exclaims Deoram. Pirdan responds with, “Dekho, gori to chher raha hain! Besharam! (Look, he’s touching the white girl. Shameless”)
Neither the constant tourist traffic in the Jaisalmer area nor the passage of time nor thousands of sunsets have tinted the lives of the Rabaris. Theirs is a world wrought aeons ago.
But we, who live today, have to re-tune ourselves to the present. I get onto Ramu once more, this time with less trepidation, and trot all the way to the jeep without toppling off. A solo trip this time.
Off the camel trail, after a special evening thanks to Ramu and his ilk, we return to Jaisalmer.
We carry with us memories of a glowing sun merging into a dazzle of stars, and shoes filled with pure gold ~ of Sam sand.
(Sunday Herald, Bangalore, January 1999)