The sun was setting as Parvathi patiently waited for her beloved Shiva to finish his meditation. As she waited, the demure woman began toying with the wet mud beneath her. Soon she molded a structure of a five-legged animal. Once Shiva returned, she asked him to give pran (life) to the clay model. He breathed life into the structure and commanded it to ‘oot’. ‘Oot’ literally translates to ‘get up’ in Hindi. Camels in vernacular are referred to as ‘Oont’. However, due to the fifth leg, the animal struggled to walk. Immediately Shiva pushed the fifth leg into the stomach of the animal. This push created the hump on the camel’s back. The stomach became the bearer of the fifth leg. The myth justifies this by observing that the base of a camel’s stomach resembles the sole of its foot. Soon enough the Oont began walking and because of its height, it could reach the leaves on trees. Parvathi realized that left alone, the humpback animal would soon bare the trees of all its leaves. A dismayed Parvathi turned to Shiva and asked him to create men to take care of the Oont. Shiva who had just returned from intense meditation was hot and sweaty. Rubbing his body he gathered a handful of chammad (sweat) and created the chammadi out of them – ‘men made from sweat’. These chammadi came to be christened as the Raika community.
This is the mythological story of the birth of the Raika.
Research on the origin of the Raika has resulted in revelations that the community has an Afghan lineage. Evidently, the Raika community belonged to a nomadic Muslim camel breeding tribe. On one of their migratory trips, this Muslim tribe entered India through Jaisalmer from Pakistan. A part of their tribe – the Raika ended up settling in different regions around Rajasthan. For the past 700 years the Raika community has inundated different parts of Rajasthan occupied a deep-seated position in the Indian caste system and transformed into devout worshippers of Lord Shiva.
The Raika are pastoralists who belong to the fourth tier in the hierarchy in their caste system. The caste system around rural areas of Rajasthan is structured as such –
- The Rajput is the highest, most respected class of people. They belong to the royal family.
- The Brahmins form the priestly class who receive Sanskrit education and perform the temple duties.
- The Jhats comprise of the agriculturalists who own land and reap profits through them.
- The Raika or Rebari community is bestowed with the responsibility of being the caretakers of the animals, mainly camels, goats, cattle, and sheep.
- The Kumar are the potters. Kumars make a living from pottery and sculpting.
- The Malli are the community of gardeners.
- The Meghwals who are the scheduled caste, engage in an occupation of removing the skin of dead camels and making products from this.
- The Harijan, who are almost equivalent to social outcasts are the manual scavengers of the village.
The Raika are an indigenous pastoral community to whom Rajasthan is home. About 1 million Raika population have settled in this North Western part of India. Even among the Raika there are two types – the Maru Raikas and the Godwada Raikas. The Maru Raika wear gold jewellery and have access to land ownership while the Godwada Raika wear silver jewellery and do not own land. They are also distinguished by the type of turban they adorn. The Maru Raika wears bright red or white turbans only while the Godwada Raika wears multi-colored ones.
For the Raika the camel is more than just a source of livelihood. They do not believe in the slaughtering of camels and it is culturally banned. Traditionally, they never trade their female camels in order to maintain the purity of their breed. The camels play an integral role in the social and spiritual fabric of the Raika existence.
The Raika are a nomadic community. They spend 8 months of the year in migration. They tend to travel up north and sometimes south till Madhya Pradesh. For the 4 months of monsoon the Raika return to their villages in Rajasthan. It is during the monsoon season that most marriage ceremonies take place.
Life of the Raika is dependent on their access to forests, gauchar (village communal grazing lands) and oran (sacred groves attached to temples). The Raika apply traditional medical knowledge in taking care of their Camels. In a sense, the Raika are also known as caretakers of the forest. Their grazing patterns are based on traditional knowledge according to which they follow strict codes of rotation in their grazing routes.
The camel dung acts as manure for more green growth. Studies on the Raika grazing patterns have shown that their healthy grazing patterns have contributed to the growth and expansion of the surrounding forests. Apart from forests being maintained by the Raika, they also give camel dung to farmers as manure. The existence of Raika near forest regions has even said to contribute to maintaining animal diversity in the Kumbhalgarh Sanctuary. Predators like leopards that roam the Sanctuary region prey on the Raika livestock. The Raika consider the hunted animals as a natural process of maintaining equilibrium in the ecosystem. If the customary rights of grazing are taken away, the leopards will soon encroach into villages due to lack of food.
The Raika community tends to be a close-knit one. Their years of experience with animals and nature have resulted in them amassing a vast amount of traditional knowledge. This traditional knowledge is one that has sprouted out of encounters with numerous natural disasters, forest fires, livestock loss, disease etc. Their solutions to these problems have been found in nature and the environment that surrounds them. Thus, their methods of dealing with disasters and problems tend to be eco-friendly, ensuring the maintenance of a natural equilibrium. Due to their dependence on the forests, they not only take care of their animals but also to the entire ecosystem of a region.