Shifting Sands

The struggle to save the Thar’s old ways of life

30 September 2021
In the 1960s, the invention of two-wheeled camel carts equipped with used airplane tires provided a means of moving around comfortably on sandy terrain in the absence of roads.
Ben Davies / Light Rocket / Getty Images
In the 1960s, the invention of two-wheeled camel carts equipped with used airplane tires provided a means of moving around comfortably on sandy terrain in the absence of roads.
Ben Davies / Light Rocket / Getty Images

“My grandfather was a bandit,” 67-year-old Bhom Singh boomed from his elevated position on an unmade matrimonial bed fashioned from plywood, while his courtiers and clients sat on the rough floor of his kotri, a room in which guests—male guests—are received. The kotri, in the village of Sanawara in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer district, was a windowless cell, but morning light streamed through the open door, exposing empty beer and bootleg-liquor bottles in the corner. An ornate ensemble of bed, sofa and easy chair, carved out of desert teak, completed the furniture.

Singh’s grandfather was locked away in a jail in Bahawalpur—now a border town in Pakistan—for twelve years. “On his way back, he traded a male riding camel for two female camels. One of the females got lost, but the other one he brought back to Sanawara and started breeding,” he said, after taking a deep drag from his hookah. “Before that, only the maharajas were breeding camels while we ordinary folk totally relied on cattle. When I was ten years old, I dropped out of school to herd camels. Over decades, our herd grew to about a hundred and twenty camels.”

With his slicked-back grey hair, aquiline nose and dark glasses—necessitated by a recent eye operation—Singh has the aura of a mafia don. But he is widely revered locally for his razor-sharp mind and ability to cut through conflicting arguments. Local people rely on him to dispense justice and settle disputes. Whether Hindu or Muslim, high-caste or low-caste, for him, “we are all of the same blood.”

Ilse Köhler-Rollefson is a veterinarian and researcher who has spent most of the last 30 years in Rajasthan. She is author of Camel Karma. Twenty Years among India's Camel Nomads and co-founder of India's first camel dairy. She lives and writes below the Kumbhalgarh Fort, surrounded by camels and many other critters.

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