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Kailashi was embarrassed about the soap melee. "I am poor, but I have my morals," she said. "These 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 after fleeing 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 fist above his head in a kind of salute.

Chittaurgarh is a massive sandstone fort on a plateau in southern Rajasthan. Built in the seventh century, it was the capital of Mewar, a powerful kingdom of the high-caste Hindu warriors known as Rajputs. The Lohar are Rajputs too, according to their oral tradition. They served the kingdom as weapon-makers. But in 1568, Chittaurgarh was captured by Akbar, the great Mogul emperor, and the Lohar fled.

Shamed, they committed to a life of wandering and self-denial, vowing never to spend the night in a village, light a lamp after 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. Their kitchenware and farm tools were prized for their durability and, in the age before manufacturing 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 conjuring of a low class"); the Gagra ("catching, keeping and applying leeches"); and the Kanjar ("curing boils"). "They are not pleasant people to deal with," Ibbetson concluded, "and we are thrown but little into contact with them."

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