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 to me ever since. The cultural variation, social practices, customs and traditions, and their social hierarchy within the community make it an interesting case study. The word ‘Rabari’, means “Outsiders”, which mostly defines their occupation and status within the society.
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.
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 a 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.
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 clothes 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 mirrors, the aesthetically destined patterns, and the excellent choice for colors make Rabari embroidery a unique one in the world.
Rabaris also use decorative backstitching, 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 buttermilk, trees, flowering vines, hills, and temples are found as common motifs used with a 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 mirrors 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.
Another interesting facet of this community is their dress code, especially for women. The color black is dominant in their color palate. According to the folklore, “during one of the hunting days, a Rajput King from Jaisalmer saw a beautiful Rabari woman and was mesmerized by her. Later, he sent a marriage proposal to the Rabari community to marry that girl. The Rabari community declined the offer, saying that even though he is a King, they can’t allow a Rabari woman to marry outside the community.
The rejection didn’t go well with the King. Realizing the consequences, the Rabaris decided to flee from Jaisalmer. They moved and reached Sindh province. The King, Dodo Soomro who used to rule the Sindh province at that time, welcomed the nomadic community and allowed them to take shelter in his province. At the same time, the political scenario was changing slowly. His brother Dodo Chanesar wanted the throne. But, his plea to become the King was rejected by the King’s cabinet.
He then approached Alauddin Khilji and offered him a deal. According to the deal, if Alauddin Khilji helped him to get the throne from his own brother, he would get to marry the sister of Dodo Soomro. Soon, Khilji wrote to Dodo Somroo and asked him to give the throne to his younger brother and offered a marriage proposal for the King’s sister. King Dodo Soomro outrageously rejected the marriage union. Alauddin Khilji who was looking for a reason to declare war attacked Sindh.
In that war, the people of Sindh fought for their King as the Sindh armed forces were not in large numbers in comparison to Khilji. King Dodo Soomro was killed by Khilji in the war. From that day onwards, the Rabari tribe, especially those who are located in Gujarat have been mourning the death of their protector, King Dodo Soomroo. That’s why women wear Black attire and Men wear White Pagris. ” There are many versions of this story.
I was quite amazed seeing how gracefully Rabari women carry black-colored attire on their brown bodies. When it comes to dressing code, there is an unwritten rule in Rabari Community. The married women wear a 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 the 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 the Rabari tribe is their long earrings. The Nagali earrings of the Kutchi Rabari with their spiral, give the shape of 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 the 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 Camelbacks, 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 the coming days.
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