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A Disappearing Craft

Craft / Handloom / Art, Micro-history / Art History, Safeguarding

A Disappearing Craft: Ply-Split Braiding of the Rabari of Kachchh

Edwards, Eiluned

Introduction

Defined by caste occupation, the Rabari are camel-breeders who inhabit the desert area of Kachchh district in Gujarat, in the west of northern India. In actual fact, they are nomadic herders of sheep and goats, or cattle and water buffaloes, depending on their particular regional situation. The Rabari are among the few communities who still practice the craft of ply-split braiding which, in its traditional form, is now in decline. Young Rabaris are no longer learning it and the few remaining practitioners are all old men who learned to ply goat hair and camel hair as children from their fathers, grandfathers and uncles while migrating with the dhang (migratory group).

Traditionally, Rabari men – it is a male preserve – would make a variety of camel trappings and bags. Girths known as tang, halters, and elaborate neck decorations adorned with tassels, buttons and cowry shells, known as gorbandh, were made to beautify and protect Rabaris’ most valuable assets – their camels. They also made bags known as khurji that were used to hold canisters of ghee and milk, and other essential items for the migration. The craft of ply-split braiding was integrated into a life that expressed an existential harmony between god and man and animal.

Mythological origins of the Rabari caste

The dromedary continues to play a central role in Rabaris’ sense of identity, although only a minority of Rabaris are now specialised camel-breeders. Many migrant families still keep at least one camel ostensibly for draught but also because of the close identification of the caste with the camel. According to one of the myths of origin, Sambad the first Rabari was created for the specific task of tending the camel:

The first camel was made by Parvati from the sweat of Shankar’s body (Lord Shiva) and it had five legs. Sambad the first Rabari and the camel were both made of Shankar’s sweat. Each day Sambad took the camel to graze and because it had five legs, walking was a problem, Shankar came to know of this and he pushed the extra leg up and it became the camel’s hump, but the remains of the leg can still be seen on the camel’s chest. [Personal communication, Surabhai Kanabhai, Kachhi Rabari,
10/8/1997]

Changing patterns of pastoralism

The way of life that sustained nomadic activity has all but gone. After 1947, successive Indian governments embraced a policy of aggressive industrialisation as the new nation-state strove to establish an independent identity in the post-colonial era. An integral part of this strategy was the drive to achieve self-sufficiency in production of food grains. The “Green Revolution” of the 1960s saw the widespread industrialisation of Indian agriculture that had a considerable impact on all aspects of rural life. In Kachchh, at the eastern most edge of the Old World Arid Zone, the old pattern of dry farming (a single annual crop watered by the monsoon) was replaced by year-round production supported by the intensive use of chemical fertilisers and newly-developed irrigation schemes. This resulted in the “reclamation” of wasteland which, along with much common grazing land, was turned over to arable.

For Rabaris, the loss of pasture fractured the symbiotic relationship that had previously existed between them and the farmers.

In former times, although Rabaris’ migrations were motivated by the search for fodder and water, they were also an opportunity for income-generation Farmers generally harvested a single, annual crop after the monsoon. For the rest of the year their fields would lie fallow and they were dependent upon animal manure to regenerate the soil. Rabaris’ migrations followed established routes and exploited the cycle of the seasons. Following the harvest, they would camp on farmlands for two or three days to allow their sheep and goats to graze on the stubble before moving on. The animals’ manure would fertilise the land and the Rabari would be paid for this service, either in grains or money. Such contact also gave them the opportunity to sell ghee {clarified butter), wool and animals.

Since the “Green Revolution” chemical fertilisers have largely replaced the need for manure and the wholesale conversion of wasteland and common land to farmland has effectively blocked Rabaris’ access to water. These difficulties have been compounded by the activities of the Forest Department. In order to combat creeping desertification of the district – the result of over-grazing of Kachchh’s shrunken pasture, and an aquifer that is overtaxed by irrigation schemes and private bore wells – the Forest Department has planted acacia (prosopis juIiflora) along the roadside strips to secure the land. The dhangs (migratory groups), denied the use of these strips as safe routes between grazing lands, have been forced to travel along the district’s highroads, much to the consternation of hauliers and other traffic. The rupture of the delicate harmony between man, animal and nature, has led increasing numbers of Rabaris to sell their livestock and to sedentarise.

The passing of the craft

As pastoral nomadism declines, so too does the need for halters, harnesses and camel girths. Now, only a handful of villages remain where Rabaris are still making their own goat hair ropes and producing tang The latter are mostly striking “op art” geometric patterns; narrative designs of camels, birds and human figures, occur less frequently. The use of goat hair persists but camel hair has largely been replaced by ready-to-use cotton purchased at the local bazaar. There is a ready supply of goat hair as nearly every family keeps at least one goat for milk. Camel hair, however, is harder to come by as the keeping of camels is confined to those families that are still nomadic. Thus, more recent examples of tang tend to be a combination of goat hair and cotton.

The Dhebaria Rabaris of eastern Kachchh are considered to be the finest exponents of the craft. Two Dhebars in particular, were held in high regard for the beauty of the girths that they made – Somabhai Savabhai Rabari and Kanabhai Bhimabhai Rabari. The two men had grown up together, travelling with the dhangs across Kachchh from Sindh (now Pakistan) to the southern Gujarat, and beyond. They learned to ply-split braid by observing their male relatives; neither man had any formal instruction. Requiring little or no equipment, girths and other items could be taken up and worked as the exigencies of herding allowed. They were often worked as the men watched over their grazing animals. Sadly, both Somabhai and Kanabhai died in 1997 and their knowledge has passed away with them. Their sons have given up herding animals and like many Dhebarias, work as long distance lorry drivers.

Conclusion

With the loss of their vocation as camel-breeders and shepherds, Rabaris are negotiating new identities and redefining their role in the modern state of India. As they negotiate these changes, distinctive aspects of their material culture are starting to fall into decline, ply-split braiding being one such casualty. Girths and khurji (bags), once commonplace items in daily usage, are now rarities. Their value transformed from utility to commodity as they become sought-after objects prized by collectors and dealers. 1n common with another aspect of Rabari material culture – embroidery – they are now more readily found in private and public collections than in use by Rabaris.

Acknowledgements
I wish to express my gratitude to the Rabari Samaj of Kachchh for their support of my work
over the last decade. Particular thanks are due to the late Somabhai Savabhai Rabari and 
Kanabhai Bhimabhai Rabari whose enthusiasm for their craft and generosity in sharing their 
knowledge with me has informed this article. Finally, my heartfelt thanks to my brother, 
Vanka Kana Rabari and his wife, Ramiben, for a home and their unstinting help during all 
my years in Kachchh.

First published to coincide with ‘Expanding the Girths’, an exhibition of traditional and 
contemporary ply-split braiding; part of Spliterati-01 – the first Ply-split convention held 
in the UK in 2001

 

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