A Disappearing Craft - Ply-Split Braiding of the Rabari of Kachchh

A Disappearing Craft - Ply-Split Braiding of the Rabari of Kachchh

Mythological origins of the Rabari caste
The dromedary continues to play a central role in Rabaris’ sense of identity, although only a minority of Rabaris are now specialised camel-breeders. Many migrant families still keep at least one camel ostensibly for draught but also because of the close identification of the caste with the camel. According to one of the myths of origin, Sambad the first Rabari was created for the specific task of tending the camel:

The first camel was made by Parvati from the sweat of Shankar’s body (Lord Shiva) and it had five legs. Sambad the first Rabari and the camel were both made of Shankar’s sweat. Each day Sambad took the camel to graze and because it had five legs, walking was a problem, Shankar came to know of this and he pushed the extra leg up and it became the camel’s hump, but the remains of the leg can still be seen on the camel’s chest. [Personal communication, Surabhai Kanabhai, Kachhi Rabari, 10/8/1997]

Changing patterns of pastoralism
The way of life that sustained nomadic activity has all but gone. After 1947, successive Indian governments embraced a policy of aggressive industrialisation as the new nation-state strove to establish an independent identity in the post-colonial era. An integral part of this strategy was the drive to achieve self-sufficiency in production of food grains. The “Green Revolution” of the 1960s saw the widespread industrialisation of Indian agriculture that had a considerable impact on all aspects of rural life. In Kachchh, at the eastern most edge of the Old World Arid Zone, the old pattern of dry farming (a single annual crop watered by the monsoon) was replaced by year-round production supported by the intensive use of chemical fertilisers and newly-developed irrigation schemes. This resulted in the “reclamation" of wasteland which, along with much common grazing land, was turned over to arable.

For Rabaris, the loss of pasture fractured the symbiotic relationship that had previously existed between them and the farmers.

In former times, although Rabaris' migrations were motivated by the search for fodder and water, they were also an opportunity for income-generation Farmers generally harvested a single, annual crop after the monsoon. For the rest of the year their fields would lie fallow and they were dependent upon animal manure to regenerate the soil. Rabaris' migrations followed established routes and exploited the cycle of the seasons. Following the harvest, they would camp on farmlands for two or three days to allow their sheep and goats to graze on the stubble before moving on. The animals' manure would fertilise the land and the Rabari would be paid for this service, either in grains or money. Such contact also gave them the opportunity to sell ghee {clarified butter), wool and animals.

Since the “Green Revolution” chemical fertilisers have largely replaced the need for manure and the wholesale conversion of wasteland and common land to farmland has effectively blocked Rabaris' access to water. These difficulties have been compounded by the activities of the Forest Department. In order to combat creeping desertification of the district – the result of over-grazing of Kachchh's shrunken pasture, and an aquifer that is overtaxed by irrigation schemes and private bore wells – the Forest Department has planted acacia (prosopis juIiflora) along the roadside strips to secure the land. The dhangs (migratory groups), denied the use of these strips as safe routes between grazing lands, have been forced to travel along the district’s highroads, much to the consternation of hauliers and other traffic. The rupture of the delicate harmony between man, animal and nature, has led increasing numbers of Rabaris to sell their livestock and to sedentarise.


The passing of the craft
As pastoral nomadism declines, so too does the need for halters, harnesses and camel girths. Now, only a handful of villages remain where Rabaris are still making their own goat hair ropes and producing tang The latter are mostly striking “op art" geometric patterns; narrative designs of camels, birds and human figures, occur less frequently. The use of goat hair persists but camel hair has largely been replaced by ready-to-use cotton purchased at the local bazaar. There is a ready supply of goat hair as nearly every family keeps at least one goat for milk. Camel hair, however, is harder to come by as the keeping of camels is confined to those families that are still nomadic. Thus, more recent examples of tang tend to be a combination of goat hair and cotton.

The Dhebaria Rabaris of eastern Kachchh are considered to be the finest exponents of the craft. Two Dhebars in particular, were held in high regard for the beauty of the girths that they made – Somabhai Savabhai Rabari and Kanabhai Bhimabhai Rabari. The two men had grown up together, travelling with the dhangs across Kachchh from Sindh (now Pakistan) to the southern Gujarat, and beyond. They learned to ply-split braid by observing their male relatives; neither man had any formal instruction. Requiring little or no equipment, girths and other items could be taken up and worked as the exigencies of herding allowed. They were often worked as the men watched over their grazing animals. Sadly, both Somabhai and Kanabhai died in 1997 and their knowledge has passed away with them. Their sons have given up herding animals and like many Dhebarias, work as long distance lorry drivers.

With the loss of their vocation as camel-breeders and shepherds, Rabaris are negotiating new identities and redefining their role in the modern state of India. As they negotiate these changes, distinctive aspects of their material culture are starting to fall into decline, ply-split braiding being one such casualty. Girths and khurji (bags), once commonplace items in daily usage, are now rarities. Their value transformed from utility to commodity as they become sought-after objects prized by collectors and dealers. 1n common with another aspect of Rabari material culture – embroidery – they are now more readily found in private and public collections than in use by Rabaris.

I wish to express my gratitude to the Rabari Samaj of Kachchh for their support of my work over the last decade. Particular thanks are due to the late Somabhai Savabhai Rabari and Kanabhai Bhimabhai Rabari whose enthusiasm for their craft and generosity in sharing their knowledge with me has informed this article. Finally, my heartfelt thanks to my brother, Vanka Kana Rabari and his wife, Ramiben, for a home and their unstinting help during all my years in Kachchh.

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