Seeing Pastoralism 4: Moving through time and space

This is the fourth post in our Seeing Pastoralism series, highlighting material from a new online exhibition that draws on PASTRES research.

This week focuses on the journeys of pastoralists in India and their relationships with smallholder farmers. Natasha Maru has been carrying out research in Kachchh, Gujarat, working with Rabari pastoralists. While much research focuses on the spaces where pastoralists move, Natasha’s work highlights the experiences of pastoralists and the importance of duration and time.

The Rabari trace their origins to a Hindu myth, in which the Lord Shiva moulded them in the form of camel-keepers. While Rabari pastoralists now also keep sheep and goats, the camel is still an important factor in their mobility, used as a beast of labour. Women in particular speak of a special relationship with camels, and they say that as long as they are walking with their camel, they will not tire.

When on the move, the pastoral camp becomes the heartbeat of the community. Camp life is marked by the rhythms of the day, with the camp coming to life as the sun rises. When night falls, the period of rest begins.

Seasonal changes and animal life cycles also play a role in the rhythm of the camp. As pastoralists move across places and paths, they experience the changing weather, natural landscapes and the social aspects of camp life. When mapping out pastoral routes, it is the location of the camp that provides the illustration.

Mobility as a form of existence requires the pastoralists to travel lightly. Only those materials that can support life on the move are taken, such as kitchenware, food, blankets and tools.

These items also reveal clear gender roles amongst the Rabari. It is women who are key to camp mobility. They manage the loading and unloading of wares, as well as developing the necessary equipment to carry the belongings.

Despite the need to travel light, there is still time for personal expression. Pastoralists create decorate covers to adorn their camels, or in some instances their tractors.

Shifting from camels to tractors highlights the Rabari desire to keep up with the times. Small trucks or vans are also becoming common among the pastoralists as a way to remain mobile and move the camp to the next area.

There is a trade-off with the switch from camel to motorised vehicle, however. Camels are better than trucks or vans at crossing rough terrain, allowing access to wider areas of farmland and peripheral areas. Yet a mechanised tractor can take pastoralists further and faster, allowing them to circle around in neighbouring villages.

Successful mobile pastoralism is dependent on timing. Pastoralists time their mobility to match crop cycles and weather cycles. These are important in maintaining the health and reproduction of the animals. Timely mobility ensures that the livestock receive the best nutrition possible, and for pastoralists to make the most of emerging opportunities, such as exchanging manure with farmers.

In the winter and summer months, the Rabari travel eastward to mainland Gujarat to graze their animals on crop residues. During the monsoon, they return to their home district of Kachchh, where the animals graze in the fallow commons. While the places they visit from year to year remain much the same, the Rabari must respond to changes in society and in the biophysical environment.

Explore the exhibition

For more images and stories from Kachchh, and to explore the other PASTRES research sites, visit the exhibition site Seeing Pastoralism.

Previous posts in this series:

Seeing Pastoralism 1: ‘Everything has changed, even the way we die’

Seeing Pastoralism 2: Dharma on the Left, Conservation on the Right

Seeing Pastoralism 3: I Exist Because You Exist

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