The Raika are a community in peril, their lifestyle is in danger and their future is uncertain. The Raika provide the globally recognisable images we see of the Pushkar Camel Fair and yet, this fair provides nothing towards their wellbeing and sustainability.
To delve a little into their history is to open a Pandora’s Box of mythological treats, but to summarise as best I can:
The Goddess Parvati (wife of Shiva) made a camel out of dirt and mud and told Lord Shiva to put soul into it. Then they created the first Rabari (Raika) man, who they named Sambad who would tame, graze and care for the camels on their behalf, in effect being the protector of camels on behalf of the gods. A short while later, Sambad married Apsara (an angel) named Rai and so the lineages of this couple are called Rai-ka or ‘sons of Rai.’ It is still their belief that they were put on this earth to protect camels it is their purpose and their fate. This isn’t just a hobby, or just a way of life, to be a Raika is an honour, they were the ones chosen by the gods to protect these dromedaries and that is what they have done, for centuries, that is until now when their position is, for many reasons, being made untenable.
I met Ilse Kohler-Rollefson via a mutual friend whilst hanging out at Castle Ghanerao, as you do (or you should). Listening to her story I was reminded of a journey I’d done some 30 years earlier when I trekked across the Masai Mara with only 5 camels and 4 Masai Tribals as my guides. Could we curate something equivalent with and for the Raika? I causally mentioned it, the incredible Dee-Ann Bauer got involved and the result is one of the most extraordinary journeys I have ever been on. It is by the Raika and for the Raika, they lead it, invite you into their world, share their stories, their nomadic existence, their concerns, their food and how the women and children cope in the absence. Learn what the camel means to them and how they are attempting to adapt to maintain this extraordinary lifestyle despite the onslaught of the modern world. And yes, they benefit. This is so much more than having cameras stuck in their faces at Pushkar and reaping no rewards. This is immersive tourism, not voyeuristic, respectful not irreverent and a rare privilege.
The following is taken from my FB posts at the time:
I am not sure I have the words to describe the the first Raika Journey that we have just completed. People talk about immersive tourism but that sounds too cold to me, people talk about experiential tourism but think that by just using the word ‘experience’ that one is created.
This to me is more than either of those.
This was a journey which provided an untarnished, unvarnished view into the world of these pastoralists whose ancient way of life is truly extraordinary. This is a journey into the world of the Raikas but not from a third person perspective. We had the advantage of the expertise and contacts of Ilse Köhler-Rollefson who has lived amongst these people for over 30 years and her guidance, together with the brilliant ideas of Dee Ann Bauer, a journey was curated as one that would be led not only for, but by the Raika.
For four days, we became part of their world, attended their pujas, listened to their stories, visited their homes and saw how they live. We foraged for medicinal plants in the forests, ate only what they eat and learnt about the health benefits of camel milk! We camped out under the stars with them and, in-between sharing campfire songs from around the globe, we held discussions to find out about their lives, past present and future.
During the last couple of days, we learnt how to make the modern day products Camel Charisma is producing in an attempt to help them sustain their culture; camel soap, camel poo paper, camel wool rugs, shawls and camel cheese. We had a gourmet farewell dinner, Raika style and on the last day, we got to meet the women of the community. They were all invited to a gathering where we had discussions with them about their lives and the past and how they see their future. We asked if they could think of solutions to help preserve this unique culture and these extraordinary women, living such incredible lives also got to ask us any questions they liked; it transpired that six women traveling alone without men had caused quite a stir, they were as fascinated by our lives as we were by theirs. This is what is so often missed in tourist experiences, taking time to appreciate that whilst we are travelling to learn and experience, that our lives are also fascinating to the communities being visited. How often to we take time to pause and offer insights to our own world to unwitting community hosts? We then joined in their village games to much hilarity.
We spent time with the indomitable Dailibai, a leading advocate for the Raika community, ethno botanist, animal healer and all round power house, as well a Tolar Ram, Pawani and Rata Ram to name but a few, and got to know them as friends.
Above all, we learnt that although non of them were educated in the traditional sense, they hold a power of essential knowledge in their heads, an innate understanding of mother nature, medicinal plants, the way of the land and of course, camels!
To spend this time with them was both a privilege and humbling, and I was honoured when both Dailibai and Pawani refused to let me leave until I had promised to return sooner rather than later, Pawani declaring me her sister.
What must also be mentioned were the group of ladies who agreed to be part of this pilot project. It took a little courage, in some instances patience and an essential sense of humour. I think all of us have left enriched. Now that we have tested it out, we will be running just two trips in a year for a maximum of 8 people. The next one will be in November 2023.
For more information on how you join in on this once in a lifetime, unique experience contact: Philippa@indianexperiences.com
Alternatively you can whatsapp on +447966025330.