Rabari Tribe: The Wandering Gypsies

Clad in black attire, distinctly visible tattoo art on her body, with wrinkles on her face, a fairly old lady was busy with her embroidery work, unperturbed by anything surrounding her. The intriguing thing was to see the detailed thread work, perfectly weaving with so many colors by a woman, who was probably about 80 years old . I was later told that she belonged to the Rabari Community. Until then, I knew nothing about the tribe and their craftsmanship. My curiosity to dig out more about this community lingered in my mind and I decided to get some detailed information about this tribe.

The tribal communities and their unique cultural fabrics have been fascinating me ever since. The cultural variation, social practices, the customs and traditions and their social hierarchy within the community makes it an interesting case study. For that instance, Rabari Tribe and their lifestyle simply lured me. The word ‘Rabari’, means “Outsiders”, which mostly defines their occupation and status within the society.

Origin

The exact origin of Rabari Tribe is unknown, though many claim that they migrated to India via Afghanistan through Baluchistan. Rabaris have 133 sub castes and a majority of them are Hindus. According to one of the legends on their origin, they are the descendants of Lord Shiva , who had given Sambal, one of these minions, three apsaras, to marry and flourish with a condition that he will not speak one word to them.  If he violated the condition, the apsaras would be lost forever.  From his association, one son and four daughters were born.  Soon, the family grew large and the lord asked him to go and dwell on the earth.  Since then Sambal was called Rabari.

Conventionally, the Rabaris are highly nomadic in nature, are found in the deserted lands of western India, mostly in Gujarat and Rajasthan.  The main occupation of this tribe is to raise cattle, camels and goats. For pasturing their cattle, they wander from one place to another for half a year, chasing seasonal rains . Though with the times changing, only a few are still living a truly nomadic life, while others have started living in villages, located far away from cities and towns, in remote areas.

One of the most striking features of this community is that they practice matriarchal social system, where women take charge of the majority of affairs and men are found dwelling with their cattle, which they consider as a true asset.

Rabari Embroidery

Unlike, other tribal communities, Rabari women are known for their exquisite artworks, particularly their thread, mirror and mud-relief work. They are renowned for the finest embroidery and bead-work. They are skilled artisans, embroider trousseau, bride’s Ghagro (skirt), Kanchali (blouse) and Ludi (veil), the groom’s Kediyan or shirt, children’s cradle cloths and auspicious Torans (door hangings) etc. Rabari style of embroidery is unique and evolving. A variety of patterns and mirror work are distinctively present in their designs. Inspiration is derived from mythology and the desert surrounding.

They use the chain stitch method to outline their garments. The use of mirror, the aesthetically destined patters and the excellent choice for colors make Rabari embroidery a unique one in the world. Rabaris also use decorative back stitching , known as Bakhiya , to make the seams of women’s blouses and men’s kediya/ jackets look appealing.  It takes months to finish one single attire. But it’s worth a look.

Mud Relief Work of Rabari Tribe

Rabari women are also very expert in decorating their mud houses. Their houses are embellished with mud-relief work, which makes it an extraordinary work of art.  The designs of their mud-relief are derived from their own embroidery and stitching patterns. The elements such as Elephant, Camel, Peacock, Parrot, Scorpion, women with water pots on their head, women churning butter milk, trees, flowering vines, hills, and temples are found as common motifs used with lot of mirrors in round, square and triangle shapes.

Rabaris believe that a woman with water pots is the most auspicious sign for the community. The use of mirror in their embroidery and also in mud-relief work signifies their deep rooted belief. According to Rabaris, mirrors dismiss the negative effects of the evil eye and due to this reason, abundant use of mirror work is evident in their crafts.

Dress Code

Another interesting facet of this community is their dress code, especially for women.  The color black is dominant in their color palate. There is a myth attached regarding the choice of black in their clothing. It says that many years ago, a Muslim King fell in love with a young Rabari woman in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. But the community refused to accept the King’s proposal. The furious King threatened to kill everyone. To save their lives, the whole community decided to leave their village overnight with a help of a Muslim man. While helping the Rabaris, the Muslim man was killed by the King. From that day onward, Rabari women started wearing black to mourn his death, though there are many versions of this myth.

I was quite amazed seeing how gracefully Rabari women carry black coloured attire on their brown body.When it comes to dress code, there is an unwritten rule in Rabari Community.  The married women wear blouse pleated at the breast, setting them apart from single women. One of the most identifying elements in their attire is the Ludi (veil), which also carries different color codes for different age groups and it also signifies their marital status within the society. Unmarried young women, wear white Ludi or shawl, whereas married and elderly women wear brown or black. Also, in case of young married women, the Ludi is adorned with tiny deep red circular designs. Likewise, the ‘Puthia’ or Ghagra for unmarried girls are in red, pink, blue or green. The ‘Puthia’ is made of ‘Mashru’ or ‘mem’, which is a blend of silk and cotton. Another distinctive fashion statement of Rabari tribe is their long earrings. The Nagali earrings of the Kutchi Rabari with their spiral, give the shape of a spring and is one of the cultural identities of the community.

The Rabari men generally wear complete white attire. Men wear dhoti and on the top, a short double breasted waist coat (all white) laced over the chest and tied, with long sleeves and a white turban. On festive occasions, they wear red turbans embellished with ‘Gota’ work. The men wear the ‘Murki’ in their ears and also the ‘Jhela’.

I am amazed by the fact that how just a dress code can play a significant role in deciding the social status of a community and becomes a cultural identity. The exquisite artworks of Rabari Tribe have earned them the reputation of one of the most skilled tribal communities in India. Their contribution to the world of Indian Art and Craft is remarkable.

Meeting the Rabaris and visiting their villages in Gujarat just gave me the opportunity to peep into their daily life. The best defining moment was when  I came across a migrating Rabari Tribal family on the road in Gujarat, with their children sitting on Camel backs, slowly and steadily walking towards their next destination. It was a sight that will be etched on my memory forever.

For me, Rabari Tribe is not just about the wandering gypsies in modern times, but they are also one of the most fascinating Tribal communities to look for in coming days.


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42 Replies to “Rabari Tribe: The Wandering Gypsies”

  1. Wow this is a fascinating read. I haven’t heard about this tribe before. The distinction by their dress code is very clever. Enjoyed reading this post
    Rajlakshmi recently posted…6 Beautiful Lookouts at Fitzroy Falls, AustraliaMy Profile

    1. Thanks Rajlakshmi. Its quite a fascinating tribe.

  2. Very interesting facts about the Rabari tribe! 🙂

    1. Thanks . I got so fascinated by their lifestyle and crafts that I am planning to visit them again.

  3. What fascinating people! I love that you included the myths and legends about this tribe. Such a beautiful story.

  4. This is very interesting. I have always loved the fact that these tribal (any tribes) are very creative and they live their life free from any social stigmas. Very intriguing dresses and jewelery

    1. Thanks Ruby. The lifestyle and the culture of Rabari tribe is quite unique and interesting .

  5. Like you I had never heard of this tribe before so thanks for digging a little deeper and sharing your findings. I really enjoyed reading this, learning about their nomadic habits, their fabric making, etc. It’s super fascinating!

    1. Hi Anne, Thanks a lot. I was amazed to know facts about this tribe.

  6. So interesting. Love modern day gypsies and find the way they live their lives very interesting.

    1. They are actually modern day gypsies 🙂

  7. Wow, this is super interesting! Never heard before about this community.

  8. Is it that uncommon, otherwise, to wear black in India?
    Anyway, I like how they decorate their houses, with designs close to the ones they use for their embroideries. I see there are shards of mirrors on the wall too! 😀

    1. The color black is not uncommon in India. But the way they give importance to this color which defines their social and marital status within the community is unique.

  9. It’s interesting to see how this nomadic tribe has gradually adapted to the changing times. It’s heartening to see that they still proudly carry on the traditions of their artisans. I especially love how they decorate their mud huts! I actually have the same question as Luca too – isn’t it rather uncommon to wear black in India?
    Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes recently posted…Zoo Berlin, A Fantastic Attraction for Animal FanaticsMy Profile

    1. Most of the tribal communities wear colorful attire in India. Black color is not as dominant in their color palate like Rabari Tribe. Thats why Its uncommon.

  10. This was a really interesting read! Did you learn this information by speaking with someone from the Rabari tribe? They certainly are quite skilled with that stitching! I thought it was really interesting how the color of their veils indicates marital status. That’s a bit more obvious that a ring on the finger 😛
    Brianna recently posted…What My Friend Carr Teaches Us About TravelMy Profile

    1. Thank you Brianna. I did speak to one of them. But I was later told about their culture while I was exploring their villages in Gujarat. They are surely one interesting tribal community.

  11. This was a really interesting post and a great piece of writing. I absolutely love the photos you took of these women. I had never heard of this tribe before, either, so this was super fun and intriguing to find out about!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words.

  12. This is what I love about traveling, getting to know the locals. I love getting to know the culture and tradition. You get an a real appreciation of their art and simple ways of living. It
    s captivating.

    1. Thank You Amer. I have been fascinated by the tribal communities in India or anywhere for that matter. SO whenever I get a chance to know them, I don’t leave that opportunity. And every time I come back amazed by their culture and lifestyle.

  13. What a beautiful and informative tribute! Thank you so much for sharing this. I loved learning about the community, but I am particularly fascinated by the mud relief work – what a unique and gorgeous art form!

  14. Such a fascinating post. I’ve never heard of the Rabari, but I can totally see why you were intrigued and had to find our more about them. Their stitchery is beautiful, and I like how their houses are more simple with outlined artwork.
    Lara Dunning recently posted…Guesthouse Ellensburg – Boutique Lodgings Near Downtown Ellensburg, WAMy Profile

  15. Never heard of Rabari before. 133 sub castes is a lot! Before I started blogging, I knew very little about India. Still learning!
    Brian recently posted…2017 WASHINGTON, D.C. TRAVEL & ADVENTURE SHOW: A REVIEWMy Profile

  16. An amazing insight and story of this tribe. Despite the modern world’s advances in every aspect of life, they have preserved their culture and tradition. Their simple lifestyle, skills and strong sense of community are admirable. Thanks for this post!

  17. Interesting to know about this tribe. Never heard of them before and the story so similar to Kuldhara of Jaisalmer. I hope they don’t vanish away. Loved the handicrafts you have shown. Yes the last pic touches you somewhere in heart.
    Indrani recently posted…Adventure Tourism in Dantewada Chhattisgarh; Visit Dholkal and Phoolpad WaterfallsMy Profile

    1. Thank you so much Indrani ma’am. Watching them migrating was the epic moment of my trip.

  18. Wow, didn’t know that such a tribe even existed. Loved the way the designs have been made on the walls of the mud houses. The design patterns on the dresses also look amazing. It seems you had an enriching experience.
    Swati & Sam recently posted…Luxury Resort in Ubud – Maya Ubud Resort & Spa ReviewMy Profile

    1. Thank you Swati. Yes, I did have an enriching experience. I love knowing about new communities.

  19. It is so interesting to emerge yourself into the life of a community different than the one you live in, and get to know it. I am surprised how the Rabari community is speaking through non-verbal signs, like the way they dress. Just by looking at a woman you will know her age, her marital status… that is fascinating. I used to study symbolistic in uni and the Rabari tribe would be a perfect study example.

    1. The community studies are enriching and intriguing. Thank you so much for your lovely words.

  20. Their thread work is pretty colourful in contrast to the black they wear. I wonder how much of the legend of how they came to wear black is fact. It’s quite interesting how culture forms over these years.

  21. I like the life of tribes as they remind us our ancestors. Thanks a lot for the article & photos.

  22. Those little huts are the cutest. I love seeing in depth pictures of the culture of some places. The expressions and emotions you can almost feel from some of these people. Their handy work as well seems immaculate!

  23. What a fascinating tribe, I really loved how you describe their habits and legends. I’ve always loved to find out more about this ancient tribes, so interesting..many thanks for sharing this incredible experience 🙂 .

  24. Wandering gypsies are known for many things but few others than their craft of fortune telling. From behind their crystal balls to their fortune wheels and tarot cards, it is said that they can help you see into the future. Love the stories told behind these great images.

  25. No doubt Indian Women are very hard working

  26. Wow this is a wonderful posting with excellent pictures

  27. ragiya ranjit (rabari) says: Reply

    Thank you for visiting the rabari community of india

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