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Rajasthani People

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For what is referred to as a desert, Rajasthan is fairly populated; its landscape scattered with a number of villages and hamlets, telltale signs of tree groves and populations of cattle being the indication that there is a settlement is close proximity.

The typical village has always been difficult to spot till one is actually upon it. The simplest hamlets, the most basic from of residence 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 covered with a plaster of clay, cow dung, and hay, making a termite-free (antiseptic) façade that blends in with the sand of the countryside around it. Boundaries for houses and land holdings, called baras, 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. In Rajasthan, particularly in its western desert regions, every twig has a value.

A village that is a little larger may have pacca houses, or larger living units, usually belonging to the village zamindar (landowner) family. Consisting of courtyards and a large nora or cattle enclosure attached to one side or at the entrance, these house are made of a mixture of sun baked clay bricks covered with a plaster of lime. Floors are made with a mixture of pounded lime, limestone pebbles, and water.

Decorative facades in such units are notable for their textures in plaster and the use of simple lime colors to create vibrant patterns. These homes capture for many of its residents, the only comos they know. For the women, but for visits within the village community, the only social occasions were the pilgrimages, usually combined with fairs.

It is when the village dwellers step out of their homes that the stark desert breaks into a feast of color, turbans bob past in saffron and red; skirts billow beneath the veil.

The jewellery that glints on their foreheads and arms adds to the kaleidoscope of their magentas and oranges, their blues and greens. Trims of gold ribbon add to this feast of color, and bangles jangle, not just on wrist, but all the way up to the arms above the elbow. Into the bleak, baking hamlets of the desert, the people live a live life that is palpable, carrying in their jaunty strides, the spirit that is their destiny.

Each village houses several communities, the various castes creating a structure of interdependence based on the nature of their work. While changes are being wrought in this structure, with ceiling on land holdings, and with the young seeking employment opportunities in towns distant from their villages, the social fabric has still not been fractured. 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 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.

A visitor will find smoke still curling from the kitchen window-modern; gas-fired stoves have still not arrived in the villages 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 illuminate the night. The government has provided telephone lines, and even the smallest village has at least one 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, after all, cultures far removed from their own. And a network of roads means that they can travel more easily between villages, and to the neighboring towns. There was a time, till a few decades ago, when villagers would sing of rain to children because it was a rare visitor: today, with the increasing green cover, as a result of the network of canals and of electricity-fed tube wells, rain is less of a rarity.

Children are no longer surprised at the fact of motorized transport. They are beginning to forget too the fierce desert storms that would shift entire sand dunes and snuff out everything in their way: once again, the increasing fields under green cover, and the spread of the habitations has put a check on the harsh winds that once raced through empty landscapes. Life in the desert is in a stage of transition: but the traditions remain-they gave desert life its unique flavor.

Life in the Desert For what is referred to as a desert, Rajasthan is fairly populated; its landscape scattered with a number of villages and hamlets, telltale signs of tree groves and populations of cattle beings the indication that there is a settlement is close proximity.

The typical village has always been difficult to spot till one is actually upon it. The simplest hamlets, the most basic form of residence 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) façade 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. In Rajasthan, particularly in its western desert regions, every twig has a value.

A village that is a little larger may have pucca houses, or larger living units, usually belonging to the village zamindar (landowner) family. Consisting of courtyards and a large nora or cattle enclosure attached to one side or at the entrance, these houses are made of a mixture of sun baked clay bricks covered with a plaster of lime. Floors are made with a mixture of pounded lime, limestone pebbles, and water.

Decorative facades in such units are notable for their textures in plaster and the use of simple lime colors to create vibrant patterns. These homes capture for many of its residents, the only cosmos they know. For the woman, but for visits within the village community, the only social occasions were the pilgrimages, usually combined with fairs. It is when the village dwellers step out of their homes that the stark desert breaks into a feast of color, turbans bob past in saffron and red; skirts billow beneath the veil.

The jewellery that glints on their foreheads and arms adds to the kaleidoscope of their magentas and oranges, their blues and greens. Trims of gold ribbon add to this feast of color, and bangles jangle, not just on wrist, but also all the way up to the arms above the elbow. Into the bleak, baking hamlets of the desert, the people live a life that is palpable, carting in their jaunty strides, the spirit that is their destiny.

Each village houses several communities, the various castes creating a structure of interdependence based on the nature of their work. While changes are being wrought in this structure, with ceilings on land holdings, and with the young seeking employment opportunities in towns distant from their villages, the social fabric has still not been fractured. 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 agriculture. Often, they employed labor 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 sing their praises in verse and song. Tradesmen supplied them, and the others in the community, with goods required for their daily lives, not much was required though, since they grew their grains own lands. The potters and carpenters had their separate enclaves in the village. 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 marriages, and served at the temples.

Every home in Rajasthan is likely to have a room of an alcove dedicated to the almighty. Here, residents fold their hands and say their prayers before calendar images of their gods, seeking benevolence from their gods. 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 form the demons of the elements. Outside their homes, and in their villages it is not unusual to find images of local deities daubed with vermilion, 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 snakebites to cattle diseases. When one lives so close to the elements, it is natural to want to bow before these deities as one passes before them: a little obeisance can mean so much in the struggle for existence.

A settlement that grows even a little larger immediately marks out its space with a more formal temple for its gods, and these are temples to Krishna or Ram (Manifestations of Vishnu or Shiva) and they are usually on one edge of the village, surrounded by a dense plantation of trees that are nurtured by the villagers. Such spots are ideal for a little meditation, for getting away from home to sit in probably the village’s only leafy spot, and to set the temple bells pealing with an air of celebration as the air resounds and then swallows up the sound of their chimes.

Temples are one of several places in a village where people gather, the others being tea-shops or 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 in the mornings and evenings, and the women gathering to fill their earthen pots with water that they carry home for use in the kitchen, and for bathing. Since water is so scarce, wells are often elaborately decorated, and have tall pillars that would indicate their presence for travelers on long journeys through the desert, Songs about wells, and walking long distances with pitchers, from 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 is wood fired, into which cow-dung patties are fed for fuel. Over this stove, set into the floor, women place earthen pots for baked bread and porridge is served with a yogurt curry called karhi, and with vegetables that may consist of dried beans, or, now, increasingly fresh produce grown and transported from neighboring states. For most families, breakfast is a glass full of hot tea gulped down with stale bread, before rushing off to attend to the day’s task, and lunch is a frugal meal of unleavened bread eaten with a spicy chutney of chilies 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 well 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 celebrated. Such celebrations can last for a few days, and can become the social event of the season.

Just as the women adorn themselves, and decorated their houses, and the men wear rings in the 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 climatic conditions of 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 plugging in the fields to pulling carts, the camel even provides milk though its sweet, thick consistency is not pleasing for saddles, bags and shoes.

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