The sun rose bright and fiery, its heat radiating off the vast plains surrounding us.
The somnolent atmosphere of just the day before transformed into one of furious activity.
The people came from everywhere—traders, farmers, butchers, army officers… a democratic gathering with a single purpose: to celebrate the imminent march of the Dhangars, the last of India’s truly nomadic tribes.
Sheep are the lifeblood of the pastoralists; in their growing numbers lies economic security. Yet, on that day, lambs were being slaughtered with seeming unconcern. For every dozen visitors who trickled in, a fresh lamb was pulled from the pen and butchered.
The acrid stench of blood hung thick, mixing with the tang of cooking curry and the sharp smell of wood-smoke from the many fires that burned under the cooking pots.
The Dhangar men greeted their guests and made small talk; the women bustled around in a swirl of chatter as they tended to their pots. Sheep bleated their alarm at the smell of the blood of their own; every now and again, a horse neighed its protest at the tumult that was contrary to the peace of pastoral existence.
The feast began in the early afternoon. Vast quantities of mutton curry and rice were consumed amid a cacophony of conversation and convivial laughter. The guests, all from different strata of society, were united in rapport with the nomads, who they would not see for the next six to seven months—until the monsoons arrived.
It was very late into the afternoon before the guests took their leave to a chorus of final farewells and promises to meet again soon. And then the Dhangars got down to the real business of the day.
The Tribe’s elderly priest, who with his assistant had arrived earlier in the day, created a small shrine for the three godheads of the nomads: fresh-cut grass, a horse, and a dog, the trimurti the nomads rely on for their survival and that of their sheep.
As the sun eased down to the western horizon, a small fire was built and stoked to red heat. Gowri, the wife of Mahendra Kathal, leader of this clan of Dhangars, stepped forward to take the oath on behalf of the women of the tribe.
Without a flinch and to the chant of the priest and the beat of the drum, she walked through the fire and vowed that she would always be there to look after her family, who in turn would care for their sheep. She also made a promise to the dieties—to plant a neem tree and also look after the water sources
It was a strange mood in the Dhangar camp—not joy, not sorrow, for none knew what the days ahead would bring.
It was a mood of acceptance of the certainty that change would come with the morning.
More drums were brought out, and passed around among some of the Dhangar men. The rest—men, women, children—gathered in ordained formation.
And then, to herald the change that was now upon them, they danced the steps that mark the beginning and the end of each chapter of their migration.