Saturday, September 2, 2000
M A I N   F E A T U R E

On the trail of Rabaris

Herdsmen start arriving in Haryana from the drought-hit Marwar region every summer. It starts as early as March in that region. They herd a large number of cows and sheep from the parched and arid region of Jodhpur into the adjoining Haryana in batches of a few hundred to nearly a thousand. They migrate in order to survive because the waterholes dry up and fodder gets scarce in their homeland. These cowherds, called Rabaris, have a unique lifestyle which is as fascinating as it is full of hardships,
Ranbir Singh

OVER the years, due to mechanisation of harvesting techniques, the fields in southern Haryana districts of Rohtak, Rewari and Jhajjar get cleared within a fortnight in the month of Baisakh. Rabaris eagerly await this time of the year to graze their cattle on the leftover twigs and stumps of the Rabi crop. These herdsmen are always on the move but their pace is slow. Their journey is marked On the trail of Rabarisby short stays in the open fields.The duration of the halt depends upon the availability of fodder and waterholes nearby. Usually they choose a clearing in an open, harvested field with some sheesham or shahtoot trees in the vicinity for shelter from the blistering sun. After selecting a site, the Rabaris stay there with their women and children for a couple of days or even weeks together . For transporting their household items and other provisions, they have several healthy donkeys. The families stay behind, while the herdsmen move around during the day to graze their cattle.

A large part of central Rajputana has been hit by drought for the fourth consecutive year now. After spending almost six months in Haryana, Rabaris leave in the month of Ashwin in order to reach their des around Divali. A temporary return to their homeland gives them an opportunity to arrange marriages for their grown-up children and take care of their ‘neglected’ homes. Their difficulties multiply in the rains, winters and also during the sowing season. Last year, they could be seen in Haryana even during the harsh winter months. Messengers coming from their homes had warned them against returning, since potable water was not available — they had to bank on dirty ponds and there was not a twig for the cattle to eat.

The desi Marwari stock breeds regularly and has high endurance levels against heat, stress and scarcity of water and fodder. These cows, with large, ominous-looking horns, are very disciplined. During the period of plenty, these cows eat well and store large quantities of fat and protein inside their horns ( hence, their large size). In the event of stress, the fat stored inside the horns metabolises and yields instant energy and some water, which is absorbed by the cells to run vital life-sustaining activity. These research findings even prompted western zoologists to import the semen of the native bull from India, so that hybrid offspring which could withstand stressful conditions like those prevailing in Southern Prairies in the USA could be produced. The Rabaris keep one or two stout bulls in each herd.

A woman selling cow’s milkFor several years, I have closely watched these cowherds in Haryana and observed their lifestyle. The Haryanvis have been generous and amicable towards them for centuries, and can even understand their Marwari accent. There are no restrictions across inter-state borders on the movement of cowherds.

Since the migration of Rabaris into Haryana has been going on for centuries, they have made acquaintances in several villages en route and they renew their contacts on their arrival. Some of the Rabaris,who looked after camel herds, settled long ago in Kaithal and Humayunpur village of Sonepat tehsil. Local farmers encourage them to bring their herds on their uncultivated fields and ask them to stay for several days so that the soil is enriched with cowdung. Some herdsmen even charge them some amount of money for this work.

The Rabaris also sell cows’ milk in the local market. Often, milk traders purchase milk from them at the rate of Rs 10 per litre and then sell it to halwais at a higher price. The milk is priced on the basis of it’s fat content. The herdsmen usually accept the price paid by the traders. The milk of the Rabaris’ cows is rich in riboflavin and beta carotene. These cows graze on wild grass, a rich source of beta carotene which doesn’t get destroyed or absorbed by cows and remains present in the milk. These herdsmen, who do not have any other source of income, survive on the meagre amount of money earned by selling milk.

 Herdsmen with their hardy stockThe Rabaris are very sensitive in their dealings with the locals. They observe all customs and rituals even while they are on the move. Often, six to 15 families keep their cattle together. They also join other groups on the grounds of close tribal affinity or availability of sufficient fodder grass in new pastures.

The lean and bony cows, however malnourished they might appear, can cover 40-50 km in a single day. Normally, they do not go beyond 10-15 km in one go. We may gather an erroneous impression that the herdsmen do not tend properly to the ailing cows. But on several occasions I have seen them well attended to by veterinary doctors summoned from nearby townships.Till the animal has recovered and regained enough strength to stand and move, the Rabaris do not shift to a new pasture.

Besides tending to animals, the womenfolk in a Rabari dera perform all the household chores.

The dera comprises several family units, complete with a makeshift hearth. During rains, a chhappar (plastic sheet) is put up on bamboo ribs to protect household items from getting wet. During the day, at least two men stay behind at the dera to look after the women, while the rest go away to graze the cattle. Clad in colourful traditional Rajasthani attires, the carefree-looking Rabari women exude harmony and warmth.

A Rabari woman kneading doughThe Rabaris are a storehouse of knowledge about native herbs, animal-rearing and topography and vegetation cover of the area. They invite folk singers from their native places and assemble at night to listen to their melodious voices. The folk singers often sing ballads and devotional songs in praise of Lord Krishna, Pabuji and Ramdevji. For intruders, it is hard to encroach upon their privacy, despite the fact that they live in the open.

The rapid urbanisation and adverse pressures on the environment and land have resulted in the shrinking of free pasture lands. The Rabaris are not permitted to graze cattle in protected forests areas, plantations and reserve lands. It is hard to imagine for how long they will continue to have a nomadic lifestyle. A letter published in the January 25, 1999, issue of Current Science journal (Bangalore) highlights the magnitude of the problem by stating that out of 1500 species of grass growing in India (the world over the number is 10,000), 48 native wild species face the threat of extinction. The threatened species are those which are eaten by cattle and wild herbivores. In the face of drought, the grass species as well as the Rabaris and their cows are adversely affected. Their well-being is directly linked to the quantum of monsoon rainfall and survival of a variety of native grass species.