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A day with the Raikas

It is peak summer in the Aravalli hills, not too far from Kumbalgarh in Rajasthan. The undulating landscape is covered by a dry forest made almost exclusively of small thorny trees, all looking identical… at least to the newcomer!! But for the Raika Camel herders who visit these desiccated jungles every day, that the Orabjio (Acacia leucophloea) is unlike the Khejri (Prosopis cineraria) or the Desi Babool (Acacia nilotica) is more than obvious!!

These tropical dry deciduous forests have been the grazing grounds of camel herders belonging to the Raika community since immemorial times. Raikas are Hindus and according to mythology, the first Raika was rolled out of a little bit of skin and dust from Shiva’s arm to look after the camel shaped out of clay by his consort Parvati.

With centuries of experience tending camels, Raikas have developed detailed knowledge on all aspects of camel husbandry. For example, they have developed a whole range of traditional treatments with which to care for sick animals.

To discover that amazing traditional knowledge of the Raikas, I contacted Mr Hanwant Singh Rathore of Lokhit Pashu Palak Sanstha in Sadri who organized for me a day with Tanya Raika and his brother-in-law Bhagwan Raika and their herds, some of the last herds of Kumbalgarh camels left in the region.

And there I was, sizzling with excitement while following a herd of 40-50 Kumbalgarh camels up the rocky hills, into the jungle. There are four breeds of camels in India! The breed of this region is called the Kumbalgarh camel. It is extremely tall, and may actually be the tallest camel in the world. And if you think all camels are sand colour, you are in for a shock!! The Kumbalgarh camel is blackish.

After several hours of walk under the scorching sun, the men sat down to rest in the thin shadow of a Babool tree while the herd composed of females and their calves dispersed in the forest for grazing.

“Where will I get water?” I asked the two men, pointing at my empty bottle. My throat was so parched that I could barely swallow.

“No water,” they replied, looking least bothered.

I looked around… and yes, it was true, in the middle of this despairingly bone dry jungle, my question had to have a desperate answer.

Then Tanya Raika got up to catch one of the lactating females. With one of the ropes he carried around his neck, he tied the front leg so that she doesn’t escape. And when the calf started suckling, he proceeded to milk her. Most camels need their young in order to let down their milk, but some have a good relationship with their herder and can be easily milked.

Once his chada, milking vessel, got filled to the brim, Tanya Raika pulled out an Aak leaf from his mighty red turban. Bhagwan did the same and offered me one. He then showed me how to fold it to make a non-leaking cup and poured the milk into it.

“Wow!! Not bad!” I said. It tasted sweet, as if sugar had been added to it. Camel milk is particularly nutritious. Herders subsist on it.

After quenching our thirst with the warm raw milk, we resumed our slow trudge across the scorched forest. With the heat, the monotony of the landscape, the desolation, the three of us got into a kind of stupefying torpor. For what seemed hours, we walked in deadly silence, looking around blearily.

Then Tanya Raika proposed to stop for a cup of tea. A cup of tea in this forlorn jungle!? I was in for a sizzling surprise!

While Bhagwan Raika proceeded to gather twigs and dry grass for the make-shift Chula, Tanya milked one of the camels. To light the chulha, Tanya Raika opened a knot in the lungi he carried all day on the shoulder and took out a match box. From another knot, he got a mix of tea leaves and sugar that he poured in the chada. While the tea boiled, Aak leaves were pulled out of the safa to be creased into cups. 

We were silently sipping tea when suddenly, Tanya Raika said: “I don’t want my son to become a camel herder like me.”


“Because it is tough life! Every day, we have to take our camels to a different place. Every day we have to walk miles and miles. There are no holidays. Grazing takes up most of the day, usually up to 12 hours from 8-9 in the morning till 9pm in the evening.

“Also we are fined and sometimes even beaten up by forest guards if we are caught grazing our camels in the jungle. It is prohibited to take our animals in the forest. They say grazing destroys the vegetation. But it is absolutely false,” added Bhagwan.

Bhagwan was right. Unlike goats that crop plants down to the roots, camels are economical feeders that never overgraze the vegetation. Camels take only a few bites from a plant before moving to another. In fact, camel feeding behavior stimulates tree growth and development of new green shoots. It can actually be said that camels help conserve vegetation. Scientists studying the grazing patterns of camels even concluded that these animals actually keep desertification in check.

“Worse is when car drivers insult us and shout abuses when our camels stray on the road,” added Tanya. “That is why I want my son to study and migrate to the city where he will get a job in an office.”

What is happening is a tragedy! With the Raika’s way of life endangered, the thousands of unique breeds they have developed, each adapted to harsh environment, are under threat. Many have already disappeared. Also the Raika’s time-tested traditional knowledge accumulated over centuries of living in symbiosis with their animals is also vanishing as the younger generation is getting educated in schools. To conserve the camel, it is therefore important to safeguard the Raika’s way of life.

The day was passing slowly. It was 3 pm and time for a well deserved siesta. In the shadow of a Babool tree, the two Raikas cleaned the ground, taking care of removing all dangerous thorns and spread their multi-purpose lungi. Before lying down, they took out their safa to serve as a pillow. A few meters away under the thicker shadow of a sprawling Juliflora, I spread my dupatta to lie down. Not far from me, I noticed the bones of a dead animal. The large size jaw indicated it would have belonged to a camel. I dozed off to sleep feeling very sorry that world livestock breeds were under threat. 20% of world’s 7600 breeds are at risk of extinction. Another breed becomes extinct every month. Soon it might be the turn of the Kumbalgarh camel… unless we decide to support the Raika camel herders!

This post first appeared on Ancient Roots, please read the originial post: here

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A day with the Raikas


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