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Treasuring Life in the Indian Desert

By | March 19, 2015

Our next stop was a village of potters – families of a caste of Kumhars, hereditary experts on shaping the terra cotta vessels essential for keeping water cool in the desert heat.  Just outside their simple homes, the potters had stockpiled their hand thrown pots, anticipating great demand  in the hot season ahead.  Water evaporates through the porous walls of unglazed earthen pots, providing cool reservoirs to quench the thirst–and enhance the lives--of every desert dweller.  The potters and their families greeted us with friendly smiles as we admired their wares.

We had arranged to visit a village school, and even though it was Sunday, a large group of children awaited our arrival under a shade tree outside their school.  On a previous visit, our tour operator had promised to donate a portable electric fan to the school, and so we presented the fan, along with pens and pencils, to the bright-eyed children.  Here, in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, were scores of happy youngsters bringing fresh ideas and new life to the desert.

As our day in the desert continued, we stopped at several small hamlets, where we met camel herders and watched rug weavers and shoemakers at work.  Veiled women, turbanned men, and smiling children greeted us at each stop.  In the home of a prosperous Rajput family, the women of the household sweetly painted pretty henna designs onto the hands of the women in our Smithsonian group.

Perhaps most special amongst all the desert dwellers we met were the Bishnois, members of a Hindu sect devoted to nonviolence and to protecting desert life.  Inspired by a 15th century prophet, Jambhoji, the vegetarian Bishnoi people are famed for protecting trees and wildlife.  The Bishnois were the first tree-huggers, and in earlier times, hundreds gave their lives to protect trees from men with axes.  For centuries, gazelles and deer have roamed without fear near Bishnoi hamlets.  A few years ago, a nationally known Bollywood star ignored Bishnoi–and national–law and shot a black buck in Bishnoi territory.  Caught by the Bishnois, he is currently under indictment.

A highlight of our day in the desert was riding camels through the dunes.  Today, pressure from human population growth has reduced grazing rights for camels.  Even though the camel is the Rajasthan state animal, camels and their herders are facing hard times.  Nonetheless, here in the heart of the Land of Death, we could sense that treasuring life remains a very strong tradition.


Doranne Jacobson

An anthropologist specializing in the study of India, Doranne Jacobson is Director of International Images, a consulting firm. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University and has lived a total of more than six years in India, conducting extensive research on social change and gender roles. She speaks Hindi, India’'s national language, and is the author of many books and articles on India. She is also a widely-published photographer. She has led many highly successful tours to India and other parts of Asia.

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