National Geographic : 2010 Feb
• I n their illustrious past the Gadulia Lohar forged armor for Hindu kings. Today these blacksmiths pitch camp on the outskirts of tiny Indian villages and make simple goods from metal scrap. • On a warm February day I arrived at such a camp in India's northwestern Rajasthan state, carrying bars of soap to aid my introduction. But as I approached, men, women, and children surrounded me, grabbing the bag and shredding it, spilling the soap onto the dirt. A maelstrom of curs- es and tangled limbs ensued. It ended with at least one older child in tears. in India. Many groups that once unambiguously t the category have clustered in slums in a pro- cess anthropologists call sedentarization. Yet India remains a rigidly stratified society in which birth is o en synonymous with destiny. So, mobile or not, India's nomads are united by a history of poverty and exclusion that con- tinues to this day: arguably the biggest human rights crisis you've never heard of. To the lonely few who have taken up the nomads' cause, a big part of the solution is to provide them with roofs over their heads, or at least an address, which would make it easier for them to get welfare bene ts and enroll their kids in school. But such e orts have met erce resistance from villagers and local politicians, who see the roamers as grubby outsiders. Prac- tical obstacles aside, a larger question looms: Do the nomads have to stop being who they are in order to survive? over the soap, my morning arrivals were easier. e next day the camp was quiet except for an occasional racking cough. Smoke rose from a crude earthen forge,wom- en took turns at a goatskin bellows while men and boys pounded scrap metal on small anvils, shaping it into cooking spoons, axheads, and other simple wares. Such desperate behavior hints at a larger story about the nomads who have roamed the subcontinent for hundreds, sometimes thou- sands, of years. e Gadulia Lohar (their name comes from the Hindi words for "cart," gaadi, and "blacksmith," lohar) are among the best known; others are herders, such as the Rabari, famous throughout western India for their bulky turbans and familiarity with all things camel. Some are hunters and plant gatherers. Some are service providers---salt traders, for- tune-tellers, conjurers, ayurvedic healers. And some are jugglers, acrobats, grindstone makers, storytellers, snake charmers, animal doctors, tattooists, basketmakers. All told, anthropolo- gists have identi ed about 500 nomadic groups in India, numbering perhaps 80 million peo- ple---around 7 percent of the country's billion- plus population. These wanderers were once part of India's mainstream. ey meshed comfortably with the villagers who lived along their annual migration routes. In the 19th century, though, attitudes began to change. British administrators dispar- aged them as vagrants and criminals, sowing prejudice that survived colonial rule. e rapid- ly modernizing India of call centers and brand- obsessed youth has scant use for tinkers or bear trainers, and pastoralists are in a losing battle with industry and urban sprawl. Fragmented by caste, language, and region, the nomads are ignored by politicians and, in contrast to other downtrodden groups, have reaped few bene ts from social welfare schemes. Just de ning the term "nomad" is problematic Achala, a herder, marks himself as Rabari with his turban and white garments. The Rabari are "those who live outside," and traditionally they eschew the confines of villages or farms.