In 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 curses and tangled limbs ensued. It ended with at least one older child in tears.
Such desperate behavior hints at a larger story about the nomads who have roamed the subcontinent for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. The 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, fortune-tellers, conjurers, ayurvedic healers. And some are jugglers, acrobats, grindstone makers, storytellers, snake charmers, animal doctors, tattooists, basketmakers. All told, anthropologists have identified about 500 nomadic groups in India, numbering perhaps 80 million people—around 7 percent of the country's billion-plus population.