Kalbeliya, nomads of the Indian desert

Snake charmer belonging to the Kalbeliya community. Rajasthan, India.

Snake charmer belonging to the Kalbeliya community. Rajasthan, India.

Kalbeliya are a community living in the Thar desert, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Considered as untouchables, these independent people try to do their own things their own way, they try to preserve their values and customs despite the pressure of change. Like other nomads of the region, they were once part of the mobile market that took its wares to the remote villages located far away from the main commercial centres.
Among all the itinerant “castes”, each one was specialized : each community distributed specific commodities that ranged from cattle, herbal medicines, salt, bamboo poles and drums to thread and needles, buttons and beads. For example, the Gaduliya Lohar ( I have already written a post about this community) set up smithy and repair workshops for a few days in the villages. While domestic looms existed, the Kalbeliya made and marketed the spindle for the loom. But with the modernisation, the needs changed. The factories and roads came and the main economic function of the Kalbeliya disappeared. Unlike the Lohar blacksmiths who continue to earn a living moving from villages to towns in their carts, the Kalbeliya have been forced to find new means of livelihood. Not prepared to settle down and abandon their nomadic life, they have adopted a variety of skills like administering herbal medicines, catching poisonous snakes, making “kajal” (eyeliner), selling eggs, organising snake charmer shows in the villages, sometimes begging. Sometimes it’s possible to see them moving from one place to another. Men and women walk briskly alongside their donkeys on whose backs are strapped all their possessions. A rope bed sits astride the donkey and perched on it are chicks and hens and often the young children of the group. The procession is led by a number of wiry hounds who are an integral and important part of the Kalbeliya entourage. Despite their poverty and constant struggle to make ends meet, they both collectively and individually radiate warmth and good humour. They keep going with pride and hope.
The camp consists of a number of separate units, travelling and living side by side but independent. One group can have in its fold anything from three to eight smaller family units, each of whom set up their own shelters and cooking areas. They have their own dogs and donkeys, and there is hardly any community eating within a group except during a festival or marriage.
Women in the tribe have greater freedom than most Indian women and equal status to men. Before a girl is married, her prospective bridegroom comes to live with her family for at least one year. During this trial period, the couple can either approve or disapprove each other. The dogs are an important part of the bride’s dowry, each dog costing between Rs 2.000 ( 30 euros, US$ 40) and Rs 4.000 ( 60 euros, US$ 80), depending on the animal’s lineage. Indeed, dogs are indispensable for hunting.
Skilful snake catchers and charmers, the Kalbeliya first cut the poison glands from the snakes they later train to perform, to sway to the music of the “been”, a wind instrument particular to the Kalbeliya. Once a year, on Nag Panchami ( a hindu festival celebrated every july), they worship the snake. At other times, worship rites involve devotional trances.
Their dress and ornementation is elaborate. The women embroider their clothes and trim their flared skirts, the cuffs of their pinafores and their veils with bits of patchwork. Bold, as well as intricate, silver jewellery adorns every parts of their bodies. Silver slides, chains and bells adorn their hair. The women pluck their eyebrows and tattoo a thin line arched over their eyes; the husband’s name is tattooed around their necks and flower motifs appear wherever the flesh is exposed.
Hindu rites are followed for marriages but despite of most hindus, they bury their dead, possibly because of the scarcity of firewood in the desert.
Once a year, during Holi ( the hindu festival of colors celebrated every spring), all the Kalbeliya gather at an appointed place. It’s an event that establish their solidarity, it’s a time when energetic match-making takes place, when songs and dances keep them spirited.


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3 Responses to Kalbeliya, nomads of the Indian desert

  1. sharonstjoan says:

    It is sad to read about their treatment of the snakes. Snakes belong free in the wild.

    • Like most people living in rural India, Kalbeliya are not concerned by wildlife protection, animal rights. Many times, I have seen dogs, donkeys, cows ( yes even holy cows !) run over by careless drivers. Not amazing in a country where people are careless with other people…

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