Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan's

Camel Yatra 2005

A Pilgrimage to Rajasthan’s Camel Herders 

Yatra diary

LPP's Ilse Köhler-Rollefson and Hanwant Singh Rathore of Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan are on a yatra, or pilgrimage, through Rajasthan's prime camel-breeding areas. They hope to highlight how the decline in camel numbers is affecting people, the economy and ecology in the State, and help raise awareness about this issue. Here are Ilse's reports.

12 February 2005
arrives in Bikaner

We have arrived in Bikaner, and I am happy to report that all 12 members of our expedition and the five camels (as well as a dog who joined us about 180 km ago) are all in fine fettle. We received a very warm welcome by the National Research Centre on Camel and had the first hot showers since the start of the yatra.

India TV covered most of our last day, which was very exhausting because of the extremely heavy traffic that we had to wade through for about 12 km in order to reach the NRCC.  However, our camels did not blink an eyelid among throngs of trucks, military vehicles with tanks, and the ugly urban jungle.

It will take some time to get used to normal life again, and we all already miss the silence of the desert and the hospitality of its people. We have seen how far tubewells, tractors and high-yielding crop cultivation have made inroads into the desert, and it is not a pretty picture. Of course, I will be accused of romanticizing, but in the remote areas people seem to be happiest and most hospitable. The famous Thari culture is still alive in many places. It has been a fantastically fulfilling experience, and Hanwant has already said we should do a yatra every year.

9 February
Lost in the desert?

It's been tough crossing the desert. Sometimes the track forked, and we didn't know which way to go. Some of the time we were crossing dunes, without any tracks to follow at all. We thought we were lost several times, but we managed to find our way again.

Yesterday we found that another 2000 camels had been sold for slaughter at a market near here. Selling camels for meat used to be unknown in Rajasthan: the animals were far too valuable. The males were used to haul carts, and the females for breeding. But the decline in the amount of grazing land - lots of new crop fields irrigated by tubewells around here - means that it's no longer possible to keep big herds of females. The problem is that irrigated cropping isn't sustainable: the groundwater level falls, and the fields are left dry.

The government is now looking into this issue, partly as a result of the workshop and conference we held in Sadri before we left on the yatra. One possibility is to ban the slaughter of camels - though that would deprive camel herders of a source of income, and wouldn't solve the underlying problem, which is lack of grazing.

We've now arrived in Jhajhu, just 60 km from Bikaner. It should be easier from now on: we're on asphalt roads for the rest of the way. Plus, we're cheating a bit: we've either walked or ridden the camels all the way so far, but now Hanwant and I have succumbed to the temptation of sitting on the camel cart we are pulling with us. Comfort and bliss!

We hope to arrive in Bikaner in the afternoon of 11 February or the morning of 12th. We're planning a rally through the city on the 13th. We'll be staying at the National Research Centre on Camel in Bikaner.

4 February
Camel yatra in Pokharan

We're now in Pokharan, famous because it's where the Indian government tests its nuclear bombs.

450 km since we left Sadri, and another 250 km to Bikaner. We start off in the morning, and keep walking or riding until after dark. It's tough going in the sand, and we're not sure which way to go now, as there aren't any towns between here and Bikaner. There are eleven of us still on the yatra: nine on camels and two in the jeep.

We plan to arrive in Bikaner on 13 February - unless we get lost in the desert!

31 January
Camel procession through Jaisalmer

We had a big entrance into Jaisalmer yesterday. Twenty-five camels - all beautifully decorated - and their keepers joined us, and we made a big impression when we rode into the city and around the fort. The media were there: newspapers, magazines, TV.

But it was cold! 8 degrees Celsius today. I must admit I stayed in a hotel last night so I could keep warm.

Today we're heading towards Bikaner. We hope to be there in about 10 days.

27 January
plans entry into Jaisalmer

We're now in Achla, a Raika village near Devikot, about two days from Jaisalmer.

There are lots of camels here -- the people need them to fetch water and carry things. All castes use camels, not just the Raika. They gave us a huge welcome when we arrived in the village.

It's been easier going for the last few days: we've been off the all-weather roads, and there have been fewer villages to slow us down. But the main reason is that we're now a lot fitter!

We're planning a big entry into Jaisalmer when we get there on 30 January. A camel rally and a ride through the city. Should be fun!

22 January
Camel yatra arrives in Pachpadra

Camels still occupy a very special niche in the hearts and minds of Rajasthan’s rural people.

This is obvious from the delighted response and the very warm hospitality the members of the camel yatra (“Unt bachao yatra”) have received during the first week. Their month-long tour will take them from Sadri in Pali District, to Jaisalmer, and then Bikaner.

The yatra aims to raise awareness about the rapid decline in Rajasthan’s camel population. Thousands of female camels are being sold for slaughter at the state’s big livestock fairs.

 The yatra is organized by Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan, a non-government organisation based in Sadri.

“According to official statistics, there were almost 500,000 camels in 2003. But we very much doubt the accuracy of these government figures,” says Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan. “We have been though many villages where there is not a single camel left. In others, numbers have fallen by more than 75%”, he adds, pointing to comments that villagers have written in a big red diary.

Dr. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, project director of the German organization League for Pastoral Peoples that is supporting the yatra, agrees, “I first started my camel research in Rajasthan 14 years ago. The difference today is stark. At that time, camel carts were a ubiquitous sight, but it seems that now they have been replaced by tractors and auto-rickshaws”.

In the first week the yatra has covered close to 200 km and has distributed thousands of pamphlets and calendars. “The first days were kind of a warm-up”, reports Archana Mathur, LPPS’s social mobilizer, “because villages were close and water was readily available.”

Today, the yatra members are taking a day’s rest near Pachpadra before entering the real desert, where water is scarce and salty, and supplies might be difficult to replenish. But by the end of the month, around 30 January, the small caravan hopes to arrive in Jaisalmer.

The yatra team includes five Raika camel breeders, a young Jat boy named Keema Ram – who could not bear to part from his camel when it was purchased for the yatra to pull the luggage cart – and nine-year-old Lashmi Devi and her father, Tolaramji. Tolaram is a Bhopa who sings about Rajasthan’s legendary deity Pabuji Rathore. It is said that Pubuji Rathore first brought the camel to Rajasthan hundreds of years ago. Tolaram also dances and plays his home-made fiddle. His heart-rending music often inspires villagers and yatra members to in-promptu dances, wiping away all fatigue.

Since it’s a camel yatra, we must also mention the names of the camels: Moti, Chikal, Toffee, Coffee, and Kalu. They are an all-male group, and since it is now the height of the breeding season, they have formed a strict hierarchy. When female camels are nearby, it is only Moti, the highest ranked of them, who moves into rutting behaviour, prances and make gurgling love-sounds. But this happens only seldom – showing how rare camels have become, even in Rajasthan’s arid west.

Download this press release ( 323 kb)

21 January
Balotra, 200 km from Sadri

Tomorrow is a rest day - thank goodness! It's been hard going: 20 km a day is OK, but 35 km a day is hard, especially in the dark.

But it's very rewarding. We started off with a huge sendoff from Sadri - more than a thousand people. I was garlanded hundreds of time - I could scarcely see because of all the flowers around my neck! We had 10 camels and 20 people travelling with us to begin with. Now there are 5 camels and 11 people, plus a couple of support people riding in a jeep.

There has been a magnificent response from the local people on the way. People invite us in for meals, for tea. They write comments in a book we're carrying. They all say they see so few camels nowadays, and that the lack of grazing is the problem. We've had TV coverage and several calls from national newspapers like the Hindustan Times and India Today.

We've been in the cultivated area so far - all irrigated. From now on we'll be going through desert. We're heading towards Jaisalmer. We will assemble a lot of camels together to make a big impression when we enter the city.

19 January

100 km from Sadri on the way towards Bikaner, and my feet are full of blisters! Sitting on the camel doesn't help -- I have blisters on my behind too. Just another 5 km to go today before we stop.

We had a lot of people to see us off when we left Sadri. Television coverage too. Some people came with us for the first few days, but now there's just the hard core left.

We have a musician with us who strikes up a tune when we arrive in a village. That brings lots of people out to see us. A good way to get to know the villagers and start conversations about their lives, their livelihoods and their livestock.

14 January

Our camel contingent is growing, as is our coterie of "camel drivers" checking saddlery, feed supplies, and wondering what the hell all this is about. This is a view of the "bad camel", but I think he is only in rut and has to establish his supremacy over the two younger guys (who are competing for cuddliness). None of them has come with a name, so this has to change.

I am learning rapidly many things I never knew before, especially about the conservative feeding customs of camels. They either eat dry fodder, but don't graze, or they graze and don't munch the dry stuff.

The big question is how many days will we be able to go without shower - unless some cooperative Rajputs bring us buckets with hot water, this will not be on.

Today is rehearsal time. In the evening we have a performance of the Pabuji epic focusing on the episode in which Pabuji Rathore (a relative of Hanwant who lived about 600 years ago) brought the red and brown she-camels from Lanka to Rajasthan.

We are anticipating about 100-200 guests tomorrow to see us off. Hanwant's immediate relatives from Jodhpur (only about 30 of them) are expected tonight, as are about 3 more camels and keepers, Raika leaders, including Bagdi Ram and Bhopala Ram. It will be a full house, and we don't even have a cook...

More information about the yatra.


LPPS, P.O. Box 1, Sadri 306702, District Pali, Rajasthan, India

Tel. +91(0)2934-285086, 098-292-86948. E-mail lpps@sify.com