North India  |  Life In Rajasthan

Life In Rajasthan

For what is referred to as a desert, Rajasthan is amazingly populated: it's Landscape scattered with a number of villages and hamlets, telltale signs of tree groves and populations of cattle being the only indication that there is such a settlement in close proximity. The typical village has always been difficult to spot till one is actually upon it. Its simplest hamlets, the most basic form of civilization with a way of life that has probably remained
unchanged since centuries, consists of a collection of huts that are circular, and have thatched roofs. The walls are covered with a plaster of clay, cow dung, and hay, making a termite-free (antiseptic) facade that blends in with the sand of the countryside around it. Boundaries for houses and land holdings, called barras, are made of the dry branches of a nettle-like, shrub, the long, sharp thorns a deterrent for straying cattle.
If a hamlet looks bleak, it is hardly surprising: the resources for building these homes, which are the most eco-friendly living unit, are made with what is available at hand, and in Rajasthan, and particularly so in its western desert regions, this can mean precious little. A village that is even a little larger may have pucca houses, or larger living units, usually belonging to the village zamindar family. Consisting of courtyards, and a large nora or cattle enclosure, attached to one side or at the entrance, these are made of a mixture of sun-baked clay bricks covered with a plaster of lime. Floor is made with a mixture of pounded lime, limestone pebbles, and water.
Decorative facades in such unites are limited to creating a texture in the plaster in the facade, or using simple lime colours to create vibrant patterns at the entrance, and outside the kitchen. These homes capture, for many of its residents, the only cosmos they know. For the women, but for visits within the village community, the only social occasions were in the nature of pilgrimages which were usually combined with fairs. But it is when they step out that
the stark desert and the village break unto a feast of colour: turbans bob past in saffron and red; skirts billow beneath mantles that veil the faces of their women - if they didn't, the jewels that glint on their foreheads and faces would add to the shocking surprise of their magentes and oranges, their blues and greens and pinks. Trims of gold ribbon add to this feast of colour, and bangles jangle not just on wrists, but all the way up to the arms above the elbow. Into the bleak, baking hamlets of the desert, the people breathe life that is palpable, carrying in their jaunty strides, the spirit that is their destiny.

Each village is a multi-community settlement, the various castes creating a structure of dependence based on the nature of their work. While changes are being wrought in this structure, with ceilings on land holding, and with the young seeking employment opportunities in towns distant from their villages, the social fabric has still not been rent. At the head of the village settlement are usually the Rajputs, the warrior race whose kings ruled, till recently, over these lands. The Rajputs served their kings, joining their armies, and raising their cavalries, but an attendant pursuit was as agriculturists. Often, they employed labors to work on their extensive fields, and kept cattle for dairy produce: in fact, the cattle density in Rajasthan is very high, and milk from desert settlements is supplied to the large cities close to the state, including Delhi.
The Rajput homes, therefore, came to be the fulcrum around which village life revolved. In their employ were the bards and minstrels who sang their praises in verse and song; tradesmen supplied them, and the others in the community, with the goods required for their daily lives, and this was little, since they grew their grains on their own lands; the potters and carpenters were required for their services; and if the village were large enough, there were also ornament makers and cloth dyers and printers. The priests of the Brahmin families cast horoscopes, performed the elaborate rituals of their festive ceremonies, and served at the temples.
An intensely religious people, each home in Rajasthan will have a room or at least an alcove where they fold their hands and say their prayers before calendar images of their gods. To seek benevolence from their gods, for in this hostile landscape, it is easy to be superstitious, and they pray to the terrible image of Kali, the wrathful form of Shiva's consort, to protect them from the demons of the elements, and the scrounge of mankind. Outside their homes, and in their villages, it is not unusual to find images of local deities daubed with vermillion, and kept in the gnarled roots of a peepal tree, or set into the steps leading to the village pond. There are images of Bhairuji who keeps a vigilant eye over his community, and Sagasji who, when propitiated, can provide a proper harvest. And there is Pathwari whose task it is to look after those setting out on journeys and pilgrimages. And there is the plethora of folk heroes and gods who provide immunity from everything from snake bites to cattle diseases. When one lives so close to the elements, it is natural to want to bow before them: a little obeisance can mean so much in the struggle for existence.

Temples may be one of the several places in a village where people gather, the others being in front of the shops, or at a tea-shop, or in the village 'square' which is usually an old, leafy peepal tree with a large platform built around it for people to sit on. Wells are also gathering points, with the men bringing their sheep and cattle to drink here in the mornings and evenings, and the women collecting to fill their earthen pots with water that they carry home for use in the kitchen, and for bathing. Since water is so crucial to their survival, wells are often elaborately decorated, and have tall pillars that would indicate their presence for travellers on long journeys through the desert. Songs about wells, and walking long distances with pitchers, form part of the repertoire of music that swells in the state.

At home, women confine themselves to the kitchen where rows of shining brass and copper vessels and platters are lined up on shelves against the wall. The stove where the cooking is done is wood fired, into which cow-dung patties are also fed for fuel. Over this stove, set into the floor, women place earthen pots for cooking. The principal meal for to attend to the day's tasks, and lunch is a frugal meal of unleavened bread eaten with a spicy chutney of chillies and garlic. Most meals are vegetarian, and though they eat meat, the Rajputs too do not consume it regularly. In the old days, game would be hunted, and the spoils shared with families in the village.

With the ban on hunting, meat now comes from the goats raised in the communities, but they are slaughtered only for special occasions, and at the time of festivals that demand offerings of blood. It is this frugal diet that keeps the people of Rajasthan in fine fettle, slender of build, and not given to fat, and with a posture that is erect. Betrothals, marriages, even deaths are occasions for the entire village to come together, as much in a show of solidarity as of participation in each other's good times and bad. Cooking for wedding feasts calls for the cooks to dig pits under the ground where the fires will be lit for the huge cauldrons in which the food will be prepared. The entire village dresses up festively to welcome the wedding procession, and the Dholis and others of the singing caste lead the party to the house where the wedding is being celebration can last for a few days, and can become the social event of the season. Just as the women adorn themselves, and decorate their houses and the men wear rings in their ears and slip their feet into gaily embroidered shoes, so too it is not unusual for them to create special jewellery for their camels, or to cut their coats in intricate motifs. The camel is the beast of burden ideally suited to the desert. Its ability to store enough water in its stomach to last it for a few days makes it ideal for long distance travel along routes where even wells may be a rarity.

No wonder there is such close amity between the long-legged beast and its owner. From transport to plouging in the fields to pulling carts, the camel even provides milk though its sweet, thick consistency is not pleasing for everybody. In death, its hide finds use for converting into leather for saddles, bags and shoes. A visitor will find smoke still curling from the kitchen window-modern, gas-fired stoves have still not arrived in the village of the desert. The postman carries mail on camelback. Most villages now boast electricity, though strong gusts of wind can interrupt its supply, so that the twinkling lights of kerosene lamps still illumine the night. The government has provided telephone lines, and even the smallest village has at least one such service: but this is its contact with the world inside. Of what other use would the villagers have for telephones, where their neighbor's are no more than a shout away? The television is a new marvel in their homes, something they watch when there is electricity, but from which they are strangely detached: it reflects far removed from their own. And a network of roads means that they can travel more easily between villages, and to the neighboring towns.