The idyllic setup of Rajpura in Pali district, Rajasthan, is undisturbed even when you make your way through it in a dilapidated tempo that explodes every time it encounters a pothole. The roads are clearer, the fields on either side of the road, even more so. The Aravallis look on silently from a distance at the dull, yellow landscape of the neighbourhood, dotted with a few pastoralists clad in vibrant drapes and turbans. But a state of unrest is brewing in the middle of this quiet. At Buti Bagh, a residential area belonging to camel expert and activist Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, around 200 Raikas (a tribe of camel herders) converged over the first weekend in November for the first edition of Marwar Camel Culture Festival (MCCF). The state animal (declared last year) is a ubiquitous part of Rajasthan’s cultural and economic identity, but the festival put forth a long-brewing crisis in focus — the camels are disappearing.
Organised by the Sadri-based Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS), MCCF is unlike other camel fairs in the state, most prominently the Pushkar Fair. More than the pageantry and exhibitions, its focus is an agenda helmed by the indigenous tribe of the Raikas, the custodians of camels and its culture. “It’s an all-out effort to revive the Raika camel culture which is famous throughout the world, but has fallen on rough times. Unless we nurture this culture with its tremendous depth of experience, knowledge and passion, the camel will become extinct,” says Köhler-Rollefson, organiser of the festival and co-founder of LPPS.
A German veterinarian, Köhler-Rollefson arrived in Rajasthan in 1991 and over the past 25 years, along with co-founder of LPPS, Hanwant Singh Rathore, she has worked alongside the Raikas to sustain their animals, as well as the community’s livelihood. She is also the author of Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads (Tranquebar) that was published last year.
In her book, Köhler-Rollefson looks at the myth that inextricably tied the fate of the camel and the Raikas together. Legend has it that the camel was created by Lord Shiva at the behest of his consort Parvati. Parvati shaped a strange five-legged animal from clay and asked Shiva to blow life into it. At first he refused,saying that the misshapen animal would not fare well in the world, but later, he gave in. He folded the animal’s fifth leg over its back giving it a hump, and commanded it to get up —“Uth”. And that is how the camel got its Hindi name. The animal then needed someone to look after it, so Shiva rolled off a bit of skin and dust from his arm and fashioned out of this the first Raika.
Once the pride of the desert state, camels and their herders are now struggling to survive. At the fair, herders from Barmer, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Dosar, Alwar and Ajmer discussed the alarming rate at which camels are disappearing from the state. Their population has dwindled to 2-2.5 lakh camels, as opposed to 3,20,000 in 2012. Issues comprise the lack of grazing land, dropping prices of camels (they used to be sold for Rs 30,000 and 40,000, but it has come down to Rs 10,000), no income to maintain the animals, the Camel Act which prohibits inter-state camel migration, and the exclusion of camel milk from the Food Act because of which they cannot officially sell it, among others.
“The future of the camel lies in its milk” says Rathore. “We want to provide incentives for camel breeders to continue keeping camels. At the moment, the Rajasthan Dairy Cooperative is not accepting camel milk, making it very difficult for camel breeders to make a living. That is the reason why so many of them are giving up and selling their herds.” Among the Raikas, camel milk is known for its medicinal properties, especially for autism, diabetes and immunity. The tribe also prohibits camel slaughter. The herders have collectively drafted an ultimatum for the government, each quoting various deadlines for when they will “hand over the camels to the government at tehsil level for them to take care of the animals”. The threat, Kohler-Rollefson and Rathore say, is immediate: it is being estimated that within five years, camels will completely disappear from the Rajasthani landscape.
At the fair, apart from the sessions involving Raikas and experts such as animal scientist Chanda Nimbkar, professor of camel surgery from Rajuvas, Bikaner, TK Gahlot, and anthropologist Uttra Kothari, the programme included a cultural exchange of sorts. Influenced by various international festivals in Rajasthan such as the Jodhpur RIFF and the Jaipur Literature Festival, the MCCF too, included guests from other countries. They contributed learnings from different pastoral traditions and held discussions on how to inculcate them in the existing Raika culture. Ruth Häckh, 52, is a shepherd from Sontheim, Germany, and owns 400 sheep. “What is common between us and the Raikas is that we both live with our animals and for our animals. We may have different cultures and languages, but our issues are the same,” she says.
Danish camel cheese expert Anne Bruntse, who lives in Kenya, brought along her experiments with the Rajasthan camel milk cheese traditions. French couple Sara Mirelli and Dario Busetti opened a make-shift café at the venue that brought out contemporary fare such as camel cheese sandwiches, camel milk cappuccino, and camel milk cheesecake. “We can’t think of ways to resurrect the camel culture, but we can always think of ways to build a base for further development,” says Köhler-Rollefson.
At the heart of the conservation efforts is a community’s desire to protect their history. Langa musician Tolaram Bhopa, 62, has long been associated with camel-rearing communities of the state. His world is laced with stories and songs of yaadgiri (memory), and the folklore surrounding camels goes back to over 700 years. Along with the herders, Bhopa is an equal custodian of what is left of the “camel music”. Holding a ravanahatha, Bhopa performs Pabuji ka parh, a distinct art form that employs a scroll painted with a sequence of images about life and stories in the region. “The camels came from Sri Lanka,” he says, as he recalls a song that describes ‘Pabuji’, a folk deity, going to the island nation to bring a gift for his niece. “He brought along a camel and that was the first to enter the state. Our history begins only when the camels came,” he says.