2. JAISALMER AYO!
After my trip to the south, I returned to Varanasi and prepared to depart at last for the Thar Desert. One week later, I walked out of Assi Ghat with the cows. a whole stampede of them leaving my neighborhood – my puddle of a street full of rickshaw wallahs sleeping in their benches, temples, vegetable stalls, kite sellers. I slapped one particularly fat bovine on the butt with a solid smack for good luck before heading into Ganga Matt to say one last goodbye to Virendra-ji, my Hindi teacher and adopted father.
I set out for Rajasthan to learn about the ghummaker (wandering people) of the Thar Desert. There are nomadic people found all in every region India, but the nomads of Western Rajasthan have the distinction of an added romantic image. They are considered by many to be the original gypsies. What this actually means, I still have no idea. People - especially those connected to the tourist business - love this word “gypsy’, and nowhere in India is it thrown around with greater zeal than in Rajasthan.
For the next three days, I moved from train to train heading west away from the Ganges, deeper and deeper into the Thar Desert. I pass through New Delhi in a blur of caffeine and greasy market food. I napped in the train station, sleeping on a shawl and some newspapers. When the sun rises, I was in the desert, then land is dry and still. I was thankful for the sleeping car, thankful for the steaming plastic cup of coffee and an aluminum-incased biriyani.
With little effort, I crossed what was once one of the most dangerous expanses of land in the world. There is an old poem about Jaisalmer that says, in order to reach the desert citadel, you must have skin of coarse leather, a horse made from iron, a will unbendable, a body that suffers not from hunger, thirst or fatigue.
Protected by my iron dragon and my fool’s confidence, I snoozed all the way to Jaisalmer hardly thinking of thirst or thieves.
Jaisalmer is a fort city located in far Western Rajasthan the heart of the Thar Desert. The district is hugged on the north, north-west and west by Pakistan and bounded by desert on the east. The city was founded in the 12th century by traders from other regions of India and quickly became a rich trade center and stop on the silk route. Jaisalmer remained a vibrant and diverse center of culture, art and music for nearly 700 years until sea routes opened up and trade fell away. During British rule, port centers grew in importance and railroad tracks to Pakistan and Punjab decreased the importance of the camel caravans and gypsies that had passed through Jaisalmer for hundreds of years.
With the harshness of its climate and the richness of its trade, Jaisalmer has always been a town composed of visitors, not residents. There are more than fifteen distinct nomadic groups in Jaisalmer District and surrounding areas. It is a rich location in which to work, however, on my quiet ride into town, I sit with the knowledge I have no idea what I’m stepping into.
In Mongolia, matters were fairly simple. Aside from slight regional differences, nomadic communities were easy to label and had no ambiguity about their own identity. Almost all of the population outside of Ulaan Baatar is nomadic or semi-nomadic. The primary divisions between communities were based on region, religion, animals herded and language - all clearly identifiable factors and things which could be spoken about openly.
In Rajasthan the picture was completely different. I quickly found myself swimming (at times drowning) in a sea of people who are nomadic, semi-nomadic, historically nomadic and questionably nomadic. There are literally dozens of groups which have traditional held no land and moved from place to place with various means of sustenance. Each group has its own caste or sub-caste, which signals its vocation, region of origin, history and genealogy. Caste remains a firm marker of communities in India, dictating and clarifying people’s status, position and relationships. Yet, caste distinctions and titles are constantly being changed and questioned - especially among the lower castes. Some groups hide or change their caste when they move to a new place. Others have multiple caste identities in different regions they pass through. For the most part, caste keeps communities separate and would provide a clear identity to stand upon if the ground weren’t constantly shifting.
I settle in Jaisalmer and begin the slow process of orienting myself to the social geography of the citadel, the town, the markets, the settlements. I find a room in a family run guesthouse near the musicians’ colony and away from the fort and most of the tourists. During my first few weeks, I spend my days walking, getting to know the business owners in the market, the chai wallas in the truck stop, the book vendors in the fort and some of the musicians performing in the squares.
I spend most of my mornings at the Desert Cultural Center, a small museum founded and run by NK Sharma, a 72-year old community historian and storyteller. Aside from its dusty collection of ancient tools, instruments and craft, the center is also a repository of old stories, old pictures and old men. I spend time with them all, letting the stories overlap, the voices blend together. I don’t worry so much about the inconsistencies. Everyone is an expert in his mind and speaks with a mixture of great certainly and poor memory. Still, the conviction is strong and from a sea of contradictions, a sense of the city, the manner in which people speak of themselves and their community begins to settle.
In addition to its regular collection, the Cultural Center also hosts puppet shows for occasional groups of tourists. After sitting through several of these shows, I slowly become friends with Imam Deen, a Manganiyar musician who works with the puppeteers and is a tireless promoter of the music and dance of the Jaisalmer region. It was from Imam that I first begin to learn about the Kalakar Colony, the informal settlement on the southern side of town, which is filled with several castes of musicians, performers and singers who have settled on the outskirts of the city. We speak at great length about how the musicians fought to make the settlement legal and the complicated relationships between the Manganiyars and Kapputlia Bhat both who settled decades ago versus the Bhopa families, many of whom have only begun to build shacks on the same hill outcropping in the last ten years.
Imam is a wonderful community resource and friend. Coming from a family of successful and famous Manganiyar performers, he is extremely knowledgeable and proud of the history of his community. Over many cups of chai and lazy afternoons, he introduces me to dozens of musicians and performers, helps me feel comfortable in the settlement and explains some of the dynamics of the turf wars amongst groups of squatters who are more and less legal. Imam also begins the great task of introducing me to some of the subtleties of jajmani, the system of patronage that supported the musicians of Rajasthan (both settled and nomadic) for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is foolish to try to understand of the ways in which communities moved about without understanding the economics and social dynamics of the system that supported and prompted this movement.