National Geographic : 2010 Feb
' My interpreter and I counted 23 people among four Lohar families, all related. They carried their belongings in ve open carts built from acacia and teak and decorated with lotus- blossom carvings, brass studs, and painted Hindu swastikas. All were ba ed by my pres- ence, and some were unabashedly hostile. "Whatever we say, whatever we do, you write it down!" one woman complained. But a few were more welcoming. Lallu and Kailashi were a couple in their 40s---the Lohar could only guess at their ages---with four children. Dressed in a grimy cotton dhoti, Lallu was small and wiry, with gold earrings shaped like seedpods and an amulet dangling from a cord around his neck. Kailashi was thin and hollow-eyed, her breast- bone tattooed with om symbols and her matted hair covered by a purple shawl. Both had bad teeth and frequently interrupted their labors to light cheap, hand-rolled cigarettes known as bidis from the embers of their forge. Kailashi was embarrassed about the soap me- lee. "I am poor, but I have my morals," she said. " ese people have lost that." Her oldest child, Kanya, fetched a rope cot and invited me to sit. About 20 years old, Kanya was vivacious and strikingly pretty, with broad cheekbones and carefully plucked eyebrows. She also had a forceful personality. "Stop acting like a thug!" she scolded one of her cousins when the young man persisted in pestering me for handouts. Kanya had recently returned to her family a er eeing an abusive husband. I asked Lallu where he was from, expecting him to name his birthplace, or perhaps the town where the family camped for the summer, when the weather is too hot for traveling. Instead he named a place he had never even seen. "Chittaurgarh," he said. And then he raised his st above his head in a kind of salute. Chittaurgarh is a massive sandstone fort on a plateau in southern Rajasthan. Built in the sev- enth century, it was the capital of Mewar, a pow- erful kingdom of the high-caste Hindu warriors known as Rajputs. e Lohar are Rajputs too, according to their oral tradition. ey served the kingdom as weapon-makers. But in 1568, Chittaurgarh was captured by Akbar, the great Mogul emperor, and the Lohar ed. Shamed, they committed to a life of wander- ing and self-denial, vowing never to spend the night in a village, light a lamp a er dark, or even use rope to draw water from a well---pledges known collectively as the Oath. (They also vowed to do without comfortable beds and even now travel with their cots turned upside down, in symbolic observance of the ancient promise.) Still, they had to earn a living, so they put their metalworking skills to more prosaic use. eir kitchenware and farm tools were prized for their durability and, in the age before manu- facturing and low-cost Chinese imports, found no shortage of buyers. India once teemed with such traveling niche workers. Many were first described in detail by a British civil servant, Denzil Ibbetson, in an 1883 report based on census data from the Punjab region. Among them were the Qalandari ("their ostensible occupation is that of leading about bears, monkeys and other performing animals"); the Nats ("acrobatic feats and con- juring of a low class"); the Gagra ("catching, keeping and applying leeches"); and the Kanjar ("curing boils"). " ey are not pleasant people to deal with," Ibbetson concluded, "and we are thrown but little into contact with them." During the dry season herding activity slackens, and the Rabari alter their routines. In Rajasthan, women turn to grueling wage labor (top left), earning two dollars a day for digging a reservoir. Men hunker down to shear sheep. Once the rains return, they'll set out with their flocks, depending on landowners for access to water and pasture. , , , , .