With the nomads of New Delhi
FARIDABAD, India, April 9, 2015 – In a year since moving to Faridabad, a fast-growing satellite of New Delhi, I have spotted from time to time nomadic tribes with their herds in the middle of the road. I would always wonder where they came from, and where they were headed.
One day last month, I saw a group of them as I was driving home. This time, I was not going to let them get away. It was a Sunday, so I was free to stop and shoot a few pictures. I greeted them, they greeted me back. When I was done, we got chatting and they told me they were soon heading to another camp. So I came back later that day and shot them packing up.
The wandering clan come from the western desert state of Rajasthan, an extended family of about 30 individuals who were half-way through a year-long journey, camping out in the open as they trek long distances in search of pasture for their 2,500 sheep.
I realised this had the makings of a strong photo essay, so I ran my images past my editor – who pushed me to go back and do more.
There was a hurdle, however: as nomads, they kept moving. And they don’t camp on the main roads, always a little way off where there is grass. Before each photo session, I first had to track them down.
But in situations like this, you always find someone who can help. In this case my helper was a member of the group, called Maala, who happened to speak much better Hindi than his relatives, and who crucially had a mobile phone.
At first he wanted to know why I was taking pictures. Since they set up camp on vacant land they come across, they are always a little scared of getting into trouble. But once reassured, he agreed to direct me to them, using local landmarks since they have no address.
And the real ice-breaker was when I turned up with print-outs of some of my pictures of them. They were delighted. And they gave me a little more access to the family group.
Nomadic child Mansa and her brother Bhawra, with donkey Rinku, at their camp outside Faridabad on March 22, 2015
(AFP Photo / Money Sharma)
I admit I am still not entirely sure which child belongs to whom – each couple had four or five kids. But by the end of my time with them, I knew pretty much everyone’s first name, even the name of a donkey!
I followed the group as it moved across three different sites, between 30 and 70 kilometres outside Delhi, on half a dozen occasions during the day and around a campfire at night. That gives you time to hear their stories.
Nomadic shepherds prepare dinner at a camp outside Faridabad on March 23, 2015
(AFP Photo / Money Sharma)
The tribal family eke out a living by selling wool or male lambs, earning around 250,000 rupees ($4,000) in six months which they divide among themselves. The men lead the herd to graze and milk the animals, while the women cook, fetch water or churn butter. The children stick close to their elders, hanging from tree branches or happily chasing the sheep around. The group camp out in the open, stopping for baths and laundry only when they find an accessible water point.
I was curious to know more about the children, especially the little girls, whether they wished they could get an education, to move ahead. But with the exception of one woman whose daughter was at school back home, not one of them wanted to study.
Why would I want to go to school, they asked. Who would look after the sheep?
Chatting to the menfolk also gave the impression this was the only life they could picture, but not necessarily by choice. Several said they were not earning as much as they should, that they had debts to pay off.
But they describe themselves as utterly uneducated, without the skills to be day labourers on construction sites, or basic knowledge of farming techniques.
"For generations, we have made our living herding sheep," the 65-year-old clan elder Padma Ram told me as he adjusted his red turban. "We don't know how to read or write and neither do our children; this is the only way of life that we know."
All we are good at, one of them told me, is staying awake at night to guard the flock from predators, and walking up to 50 kilometres per day. One of them joked they could make good security guards, or policemen.
Padma Ram was 12 years old when he began herding sheep. He remembers when the outskirts of Delhi was all farmland, and has watched the radical transformation over the years. These places are growing at a breakneck pace and the plots where they now graze their sheep are all marked for development.
When I ask them why they travel here, or there – they always reply, ‘It is because of the sheep’. They seem to make decisions from one day to the next, based on the needs of the animals, not following an overall pattern.
When the time comes to move, one of their number rises before dawn and walks ahead on reconnaissance, finding a place to camp and returning to lead the group there.
They pack their lives on the back of their mules – light charpoi rope beds, bedding and cooking utensils. Even the tiny lambs, they wrap in little bundles and sling two or three on the side of each donkey. The babies too: you name it, they put it on the back of a donkey.
But this is a hard life indeed, walking thousands of kilometres, camping out with no electricity, little access to water, no shelter from the wind and rain.
Children Sappa (L), Bhama (C) and Deena wake at their camp in Sikri in Faridabad on March 25, 2015
(AFP Photo / Money Sharma)
They seem happy in many ways, and yet I don’t think they have much of a choice. India is such a huge place, with countless cultures and languages. Spending time with them, sharing tea around the fire, felt like stepping into a whole other world, all thanks to my profession.
Each photo shoot ended with a 15-minute session of portraits-on-demand, including one of the women in the family - posing without their veils - for private viewing only. The last time I came to photograph them, the children all came running up to me. And my new-found friend Maala would not let me leave without taking this picture of me, resplendent in a nomad’s turban.