Kutch, India’s largest district, has a rich cultural heritage. Encompassed in this heritage are Kutch’s pastoral communities.
The maaldharis are the pastoralists of Kutch; in Gujarati, ‘maal’ refers to the animals (the word literally translates to 'material') and ‘dhari’ are the people who keep these animals. Their herds include camels, sheep, goats, buffaloes and cows.
The Jats, Rabaris and Sammas are considered among the major maaldhari communities of Kutch. The Jats themselves are comprised of four communities - Fakirani Jats, Hajiyani Jats, Daneta Jats, Garasiya Jats; except for the Fakiranis, none keep camels, yet they are all nomadic. The Rabaris follow Hinduism while Jats and Samas practice Islam, but all the communities share the same philosophy of life.
I first encountered the pastoralists on the road a few years ago, on the outskirts of Bhuj city. I saw a family passing by, with a huge herd of camels. A friend told me these were maaldhari people, who migrate in search of green pastures just before the onset of summer, and return when the monsoon sets in.
Tucked between the Great Salt Desert of Kutch and a hill range is the Banni Grassland Reserve. Even though it is the second largest grassland in Asia, it has been shrouded in relative obscurity. The area wasn't always grassland; the Indus river flowed through here, and communities from regions that are present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Sindh and Balochistan, have been living here for centuries. In 1819, a massive earthquake changed the course of Indus, and Banni transformed into arid grassland. The settler communities adopted pastoralism and continue to live in 48 hamlets that dot the grassland.
Maaldharis across Kutch rear cows, buffaloes, camels, horses, sheep, and goats. Their lives and culture revolve around their animals. Some of them migrate to find pastures for their herds. They sing songs about herding. Their social status is tied to the size and quality of their herd. And every year, they come together for two days to celebrate this.
The Banni Pashu Mela is organised by the Banni Breeders Association. It brings together all maaldhari communities in Banni. There are animal beauty contests, milking contests, races, and freestyle wrestling for men (locally known as bakhmalakdo) during the day, and soirées featuring Sufi and folk music in the evenings.
The fair offers a unique glimpse into the pastoralist culture of Kutch — as these images attest.