Published: February 2010
Lost Nomads
India’s 80 million wanderers are torn—clinging to centuries-old traditions while the modern world strips their identities away.
By John Lancaster

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.

These wanderers were once part of India's mainstream. They meshed comfortably with the villagers who lived along their annual migration routes. In the 19th century, though, attitudes began to change. British administrators disparaged them as vagrants and criminals, sowing prejudice that survived colonial rule. The rapidly 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 benefits from social welfare schemes.

Just defining the term "nomad" is problematic in India. Many groups that once unambiguously fit the category have clustered in slums in a process anthropologists call sedentarization. Yet India remains a rigidly stratified society in which birth is often synonymous with destiny. So, mobile or not, India's nomads are united by a history of poverty and exclusion that continues 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 benefits and enroll their kids in school. But such efforts have met fierce resistance from villagers and local politicians, who see the roamers as grubby outsiders. Practical obstacles aside, a larger question looms: Do the nomads have to stop being who they are in order to survive?

AFTER THE RUCKUS over the soap, my morning arrivals were easier. The 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.

My interpreter and I counted 23 people among four Lohar families, all related. They carried their belongings in five open carts built from acacia and teak and decorated with lotus-blossom carvings, brass studs, and painted Hindu swastikas. All were baffled by my presence, 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 breastbone 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 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."

Ibbetson's observations reflected the prejudices of the day and the widely held belief in Britain that nomads—and especially the dark-skinned Romany-speaking people known as Gypsies—were incorrigible agents of vice. Such attitudes transferred easily to the subcontinent. In 1871, colonial authorities passed a notorious piece of legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act, which identified dozens of nomadic groups as, in effect, criminal by nature. Itinerant families were required to register with police, and thousands of men, women, and children were forcibly corralled in work camps, some of them run by the Salvation Army, according to the book Dishonoured by History, by Indian sociologist Meena Radhakrishna.

After independence in 1947, the law was replaced by a comparable if less draconian measure, the Habitual Offenders Act, and the stigma of criminality lingers. "I would never have imagined that the descendants of these communities would be viewed with exactly the same prejudices," Radhakrishna says. "It's not that they don't want to be a part of society—they are not allowed to be."

THE WOMEN were fixing dinner. With a mortar and pestle, Kailashi crushed chili peppers for a vegetable stew, while Kanya cooked chapatis, the ubiquitous Indian flatbread, over an open fire. Night was coming, so they had to work fast, because of the prohibition against lamps. The Lohar had arrived in the village a few days earlier and weren't sure how long they would stay. It depended on the availability of work. As one of them said, nodding in the direction of a nearby buffalo, "There is not much of a difference between my life and that buffalo's life. He's roaming for food, and we also roam for food."

It was hard to argue with the comparison. The Lohar had never been to school. They relieved themselves in fields and slept under the stars, except during monsoon season, when they rigged their carts with awnings and encircled them with low mud walls to prevent flooding. They had never heard of the United States. When I first turned up, Kanya assumed—despite my white skin—that I was from Jaipur, the state capital, which was 40 miles distant and marked the geographic limit of her experience. "Ahhh," she said when I explained the airplane. "You came in a cheel gaadi." An eagle cart.

LIKE OTHER NOMADIC GROUPS, the Gadulia Lohar occasionally have been targeted for attempts at rehabilitation. In 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, argued in a famous speech at Chittaurgarh that the blacksmiths' honor had been restored with the establishment of Indian sovereignty and appealed to them to cease their wandering. Thousands who had traveled to the fort by bullock cart and train watched as Nehru ceremonially righted an overturned cot, then invited them to enter by traversing a bridge strewn with rose petals. A boarding school for Lohar boys was established nearby, and housing and employment schemes were launched.

The initiatives never came to much. A settlement where the blacksmiths were supposed to learn farming was abandoned after two girls died of illness—interpreted as a warning to those who would violate Lohar tradition. Others fizzled because of corruption and poor planning.

But the nomads' cause was kept alive by human rights groups, and in 2005 the Indian Parliament formed a temporary commission to address their plight. Its chairman, Balkrishna Renke, was uniquely qualified for the job: Born into a group of mendicants, he spent his early childhood roaming among villages in western India, literally singing for his supper, before a charity took him in and gave him an education.

For Renke the goal is clear. "If they want to have a right of citizenship, education, and participate in modern progress, they have to settle," he says. Renke is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge. India's creaky but expansive social welfare system has long been geared toward redressing the inequities of caste. Because the nomads are dispersed among many castes, they have garnered few of the affirmative action benefits—and none of the political clout—that have accrued to other persecuted groups, such as the Untouchables. "There is no organization. There is no awakening," Renke says. "They are unheard people."

AFTER A WEEK in the Lohar's company, I was beginning to understand one reason: They were not easy to be around. Although I had made clear at the outset that I would not give them money, I tried to remain in their good graces by dispensing small gifts—usually bags of lentils and flour—and regularly treating them to chai from a nearby vendor. But for some it was never enough. Kartar, Lallu's older brother, badgered me constantly for kalakand, a kind of milk pudding, and sulked when I failed to oblige. His wife, Pooni, was no less insistent. "Give me money for chai!" she said by way of a greeting one morning, and whenever I caught her eye, she plucked at her ragged tunic or signaled her desire for bidis by raising two fingers to her lips. I learned not to catch her eye.

Even Lallu, whom Kailashi had pronounced "too shy to beg," was not above hitting me up now and then.

"I didn't eat yesterday because my hen died," he told me one afternoon. "I was very sad."

A dog had killed it. I murmured condolences.

"A new hen costs 300 rupees."

Sympathetic nod.

"You pay 100 rupees."

Sigh.

Still, I couldn't help but admire the Lohar. They were skilled artisans and hard workers and took obvious pride in what they do. One afternoon a gray-haired woman from the village came to buy a spoon. "I may charge you a few rupees more, but I make good-quality stuff," Kartar promised. Squatting in the shade of a neem tree, he heated a piece of iron until it glowed, then positioned it on an anvil with tongs while Pooni, her feet planted wide, flattened it with a sledgehammer. When the metal was thin and malleable, Kartar grabbed a smaller hammer and deftly teased out the shape of the long-handled spoon, pounding its surface to a lustrous, dimpled finish.

He filed its edges smooth, then handed it to the woman with a flourish and an expression of respect. "Take it, mother," he said, receiving 30 rupees—about 65 cents—in return.

The Lohar cared about their craft because they cared about their identity. All but the youngest knew the story of Chittaurgarh, and weeping children were silenced with the command, "Don't cry—you're a Lohar." Kartar's son Arjun was the living expression of Lohar pride. About ten years old, he had wide, expressive features and the build of a junior wrestling champion. Arjun took unconcealed pleasure in his prowess with a sledgehammer, hoisting it tirelessly as his father urged him on with shouts of "Harder! Faster!"

FOR SEVERAL DAYS I had been asking the Lohar when they planned to move on, and each time the answer was the same: tomorrow. Then tomorrow finally came. I showed up at the campsite one morning to find them loading their carts. Tools were stowed in compartments, bullocks muscled into harnesses, bedding folded and piled on board along with cots, fire-blackened cooking vessels, and family members too young or infirm to walk alongside. Finally, on some unspoken signal, the ragged caravan lurched forward, ironbound wheels clattering on the pavement. Oncoming traffic, mostly motorcycles and homemade diesel-powered jalopies called jugards, gave way as the Lohar moved down the narrow road past mustard fields and rippling winter wheat.

It was hard not to be captivated by the romance of the scene. Here, after all, was a lost tribe in motion. Blot out the sputtering, Indian-made Hondas and the orange-and-white microwave towers, and the Lohar were virtually indistinguishable from the proud Rajput artisans who fled Chittaurgarh nearly half a millennium ago. What would these medieval time travelers forfeit if they gave up their wandering and entered society's mainstream? In terms of their culture and traditions, probably everything.

It seemed like a high price to pay. Lohar people I met everywhere cling to their nomadic identity. Yet most made it clear that they live out of their carts for the simple reason that they have no other choice.

"I will be the most happy person in the world if I get some land and a house," Lallu told me one night. Kanya, too, ached for the comforts of a home she'd never known. Their yearning was easy enough to grasp. Even in this rural pocket of Rajasthan, there was evidence of India's rapid economic transformation in the cell phones carried by many of the Lohar's customers (though not the Lohar themselves) and the satellite dishes sprouting from the larger farmhouses. It seemed natural that they would want a share of this new prosperity. Moreover, their consciousness has been raised. Like other nomadic groups in northern Rajasthan, the Lohar have been encouraged by local land-rights activists to apply to the local governing council for land and housing. Besides providing them with shelter, this also would satisfy the Indian bureaucracy's need for a fixed address, without which access to welfare benefits, such as subsidized cooking oil and free medical care, is quite difficult.

But so far their efforts have been for naught. Officials in one town where the Lohar had made an appeal said they had no land to give—and that even if they did, they doubted the Lohar would take it. "They don't want to settle," one official said dismissively. "They want to live on the road."

The same response came in Thana Ghazi, about 60 miles northeast of Jaipur, where local officials had reluctantly provided plots for a dozen Lohar families on a spur of the town's busiest thoroughfare. The blacksmiths lived in one-room brick houses with their carts and forges out front. But after five years, the town had provided no electricity and had turned down their application for a communal latrine.

The pradhan, the senior elected official for the district, confirmed that he had resisted providing the settlement with services because he didn't think the Lohar should have been permitted to settle there in the first place. It was too close to a girls' hostel and a high school, he explained, and they would be better off on another tract outside of town.

A few days after my inquiry, workers showed up at the settlement to begin wiring the homes for electricity. Some townspeople made no effort to hide their hostility. As I left the settlement with a charity worker one afternoon, three teenage boys in slacks and sweaters jeered at us from the roof of the adjacent high school. "What are you going to do for them?" one shouted. "They are nomads, and they will always be nomads."

It was early March, and the spring harvest was almost upon Lallu and Kailashi and their clan. Wheat fields turned golden under a sun that grew hotter by the day. At their campsite in the new village, the Lohar found refuge in the shadows cast by their carts and splashed themselves cool at a nearby well.

Spring is normally a hopeful time in the Rajasthan countryside, but for Kanya this season was filled with dread. Her parents had decided that after the Hindu festival of Akha Teej, in April, she would return to live with her husband and his family. "The boy is very bad," she had told me. She said that he and his mother had forced her to work all day on the bellows, and he'd beaten her when she resisted. But Kanya knew that divorce was unthinkable for a woman in her position. "I can't do anything," she said. "If I stay here I'll suffer. If I go there I'll suffer. It's all a matter of destiny."

Kanya's powerlessness is compounded by her gender, but it is shared to some degree by all the Lohar, whose low social standing leaves them vulnerable to the pressures and prejudices of rural India. One afternoon I turned up at the campsite to learn that the Lohar had been visited the day before by followers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, India's main Hindu nationalist group. Extremists from the group had gotten wind of my presence, assumed that I was a Christian missionary, and threatened to beat me. The Lohar were plainly terrified and pleaded with me to leave.

Eventually I was able to make clear that my purpose was journalistic, not evangelical. Local RSS workers apologized and even accompanied me to meet with the Lohar, who by now had moved a second time, to a trampled pasture on the outskirts of another village. The RSS urged the Lohar to cooperate, but my relations with the blacksmiths never really recovered.

Wary from the start, they saw little reason after the trouble with the RSS to tolerate me any longer. "You give us a handful of flour, and yet you're writing so much," Kartar said, glaring. "Go now. We've had enough of you."

One afternoon I drove out from Jaipur in a final attempt at reconciliation. Unfortunately, Lallu and Kailashi were not around to lend support. They had taken a bus to the Rajasthan capital, where Kailashi hoped to find treatment for her chronic cough and fever. The others would hardly speak to me, and some turned their backs at my approach. I took the hint and walked back to my car. "Don't come back," Kartar shouted.

Before I drove away, I turned and looked at the Lohar for the last time. Business had dried up and their forges had all gone cold. Tomorrow, or perhaps the next day, they would pack up their carts and move on, as they had done so many times before. But for now they just looked listless and weary. They looked like travelers who had reached the end of the road.