The Maldhari of Gujarat


Traveling with a displaced people

About a year ago I traveled to remote regions of India’s Gujarat state to visit with Maldhari tribespeople, semi-nomadic herders who spend eight months of the year criss-crossing sparse pasturelands with their sheep, goats, cows, buffalo, and camels in a quest for fodder. Conveniently – in some regards – I happened to be there during the monsoon season, when the Maldhari return to their home villages.  With the rains, new grass grows closer to home and, for many clans, weddings are held just one day each year, on the date of the god Krishna’s birthday, which falls in the midst of the monsoon. A team of energetic, knowledgeable, and delightful fieldworkers from an Indian NGO called MARAG, most of whom are Maldhari themselves, introduced me to the communities they work with and happily served as translators.
The Maldhari, I learned, are the traditional dairymen of the region, who once supplied the palaces of rajas with milk and cheese. Despite the destitution into which they’ve been thrust by economic, political, and environmental changes in modern India, they remain revered for their mastery of raising livestock, and are said to be better at healing sick animals than are trained veterinarians. They know their animals so well that, from a quick survey of a herd of a hundred head, they can milk, they can tell exactly which cow produced it.
The connection between the Maldhari and their handicrafts might be the most noticeable thing about them. Their jewelry and clothing imbue a sense of identity and tradition, and symbolize their beliefs and ideals. Men wear gold hoops and buttons in their ears, looking more like pirates than shepherds. On their milking hands, many wear silver rings embossed with the ling of Siva; the milk that dribbles over the ring is an offering to the god, eliminating the need to make oblations at a temple.
The ears of Maldhari women fold and stretch with the astonishing amount of silver that hangs from them.  Their wrists are sheathed in heavy, hourglass-shaped bracelets, carved from elephant tusks; many, however, wear plastic replicas for everyday use, keeping the more precious ivory originals stored in cans filled with vegetable oil, which keeps them from cracking and makes them easier to slip on. Such ornamentation belies the poverty in which they live, worn as a status symbol to impart an impression of wealth upon which their family honor depends. Maldhari women are renowned embroiderers, which is at once a source of pride and misery; girls, almost without exception, are forbidden from going to school, expected to spend years of their lives stitching elaborate garments for their wedding day, or – if they’ve been married off as children, as many are – for the ceremony performed when each moves in with her husband, usually when she’s in her early twenties.
Over the weeks I spent with the Maldhari, drinking countless saucers of chai (which travel more easily than cups), I was touched by their humanity, grateful for their hospitality, and struck by their beauty. I offer these photos as a glimpse into a traditional society currently being pushed to the brink of extinction by the bulldozer of so-called progress that’s reshaping the Indian cultural landscape. As they struggle to find their place in a world that’s forgotten their value, it’s worth remembering that the Maldhari have much to offer, including their skills as artisans, their deep regard for animal life, and their non-competitive ethic that leads them to treat all people as brothers and sisters.
For another taste of Michael Benanav’s work, read his book Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold (Lyons Press, 2008).