Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan's
A Pilgrimage to Rajasthan’s Camel Herders
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
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 arrives in Bikaner
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.
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.
Lost in the desert?
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
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.
Camel yatra in Pokharan
now in Pokharan, famous because it's where the Indian government tests its
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
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.
We're now in Achla, a Raika village near Devikot, about two days from Jaisalmer.
Yatra plans entry into 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!
Camels still occupy a very special niche in the hearts and minds of Rajasthan’s rural people.
Camel yatra arrives in Pachpadra
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)
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
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.
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 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.
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