Far from the royal cities of the state, the villages of Rural Rajasthan hold their own distinct charm. Though they usually lack any attraction in form of forts, palaces, gardens and wildlife sanctuaries, yet they are worth visiting for the simple reason that they present the life of Rajasthan at its most basic. The rural life of Rajasthan reflects the determination of the people to survive in even most difficult of circumstances. For a tourists visiting Rajasthan for the first time, it is actually difficult to find a village in the vast stretches of barren land. It is only when a herd of cattle is seen around that the tourist gets an inkling of a village in close by area. Many a times, interestingly, even these signs are not seen and the tourists acknowledges the existence of a village only upon entering it. Once in the village, tourists realize that they have reached a place that is most simple and has perhaps remained static over last many years. The state of Rajasthan is populated with deserts. In spite of the challenges that these deserts offers, people have settled all over the Thar Desert and have innovated in their own small ways to make the arid sands habitable. The landscape of Rajasthan is scattered with villages and hamlets, telltale signs of tree groves and populations of cattle being the only indication that there is such a settlement in close proximity. The most colorful villages are found in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. The typical village has always been difficult to spot till one is actually upon it.
Water played an important role in deciding the location of villages in Rajasthan. Water is literally like nectar or amrut (ambrosia) in Rajasthan. People and animals in Rajasthan can manage without water for a considerable period. The women also manage their chores with a minimum of water. For cleaning vessels, they use a piece of cloth and fine sand, which is available in plenty. Brass and copper vessels, plates and tumblers acquire a shiny look after they are cleaned with sand. Then, they are washed with very little water and are ready for use. Bikaner, a western district in Rajasthan was named so as water (ner) was sold (Bika) there. In Jodhpur water was delivered through the railway. In Jobnair also, water was sold like any other commodity. Small tanks and wells were guarded by watchmen. A village well is the hub of activity in the morning. People who cannot afford to purchase water draw water from the well in earthen pitchers by themselves. In villages, the villager can offer a glass of buttermilk to his guests but he cannot offer as much water, which the women-folk carry from a great distance, which is about one to two miles. The water in earthen pots becomes ice-cold in the summers. A baby is also bathed in a thali or dinner plate with a piece of cloth for a sponge and very little water. Camels are integral part of the many households in Rajasthan, and are used for transportation, travel and amusement. Camel load-lifting competitions and camel races take place on festive occasions. Each house has a huge gate for camel and only a very small door for people.
The hamlets, the most basic form of civilization, that has probably remained unchanged since centuries, consist of a collection of huts that are circular and have thatched roofs. The walls are covered with a plaster of clay, cow dung, and hay, making a termite free (antiseptic) facade that blends with the sand of the countryside around it. The boundaries for houses and land holdings, also known as Baraas are made of the dry branches of a nettle-like shrub. These boundaries are made outside the house to protect the house from the stray cattle and enemies. The resources which are used for building these homes, are the most eco-friendly living unit and easily available in the western desert regions of Rajasthan. A village is even a little larger than a hamlet. The villages have pucca houses, or larger living units, belonging to the village Zamindar family, with painted walls and decorated with wall paintings. The walls and houses are just decorated by creating a texture in the plaster, or by using simple lime colours to create vibrant patterns at the entrance, and outside the kitchen. The houses consists of the courtyard and a large cattle enclosure, attached to one side or at the entrance. These are made of a mixture of sun baked clay bricks covered with a plaster of lime. The floors are made with a mixture of pounded lime, limestone pebbles, and water. The villages have agricultural and pastoral settlements, temples and sanctuaries. There are also temples dedicated to Krishna, Ram or Shiva, located a little outside the village and surrounded by trees that are nurtured by the villagers. The central place is occupied by either a village well or a temple. The wells are often elaborately decorated, and have tall pillars that would indicate their presence for travelers on long journeys through the desert.
Each home in Rajasthan will also have a small room or an alcove where they would fold their hands and say the prayers before calendar images of their gods. To seek benevolence from their gods, they pray to the goddess Kali, the wrathful form of Shiva’s consort, to protect them from the demons of the elements, and the illness of mankind. Some of the images of the local deities like the Bhairuji and Sagasji are also located outside their homes, and in the villages, daubed with vermillion, and kept in the gnarled roots of a peepal tree, or set into the steps leading to the village pond. When one lives so close to the elements, it is natural to want to bow before them: a little obeisance can mean so much in the struggle for existence. The Mina tribes in Chittorgarh practice an alternative form of medicine known as extra sensory perception (ESP). In this treatment, a Bhopa or priest enter into a trance and use a form of trapped energy to heal the ailments that ranges from aches, pains and disorders. Ash is used as an anaesthesia and antiseptic in the case of wounds.
The kitchen in a village house is at its centre since this is where storage and cooking go hand in hand. Families rise early, with women beginning the day's tasks with the milking of cattle. Many families maintain dairies, and carry the milk to urban areas for selling. Peasants who work on their farms leave for work after a glass of piping hot tea, carrying their spartan lunch with them. It is in the evenings that families tend to get together to dine. Generally, the male members eat first, the women next. In winter, people dine in the kitchen itself, sitting in front of the hearth. At home, the women would confine themselves to the kitchen where rows of shining brass and copper vessels and platters are lined up on shelves against the wall. The cow-dung and wood are used as the fuel in the cooking stove, set on the floor. Over this stove, the earthen pots are placed for cooking. Most of the meals are vegetarian. The principal meal of the family consists of dinner, where freshly baked bread and porridge is served with a yoghurt curry called karhi, dried beans and fresh vegetables. For most of the families, the breakfast consist of a full glass of hot tea and bread, and lunch consists of an unleavened bread eaten with a spicy chutney of chillies and garlic. Non vegetarian dishes are restricted to only special occasions and festivals.
Each village is a multi-community settlement and here the various castes create a structure of dependence based on the nature of their work. The Rajputs resides at the head of the village settlement. The village life revolved around the Rajputs. The Rajputs served their kings, joined their armies, and raised their cavalries. Often, they employed labour to work on their extensive fields, and kept cattle for dairy produce. In fact, the cattle density in Rajasthan is very high and milk from desert settlements is supplied to the large cities close to the state, including Delhi. The Rajputs also employed bards and ministers who sang their praises in verse and song; the tradesmen who supplied them, and the others in the community, with the goods required for their daily lives and there were potters, carpenters, ornament makers, cloth dyers and printers as well. The priests of the Brahmin families cast horoscopes, performed the elaborate rituals of their festive ceremonies, and served at the temples. The Pathwari looked after those setting out on journeys and pilgrimages. And there were various folk heroes and gods who provide immunity from everything from snake bites to cattle diseases.
The births, betrothals, marriages, and deaths were the certain occasions where the entire village would come together, and participate in each other’s good and bad times. There are also several places in the villages, where people gather in a very large scale. These are temples, shops, wells, and a village square which is usually an old, leafy peepal tree with a large platform built around it for people to sit on. The cooking for wedding feasts was done in a large scale and the cooks dig pits under the ground where the fires will be lit for the huge cauldrons in which the food will be prepared. The entire village dresses up festively to welcome the wedding procession, and the Dholis and other of the singing caste lead the party to the house where the wedding is being celebrated. Such celebrations last for a few days, and became the social event of the season. The women came out of the villages only during the pilgrimages, combined with the fairs. These women are always dressed in beautiful skirts or ghagras, with a veil on their face and lots of jewellery on the forehead and face. Just as the women adorn themselves, and decorate their houses, the men also wear rings in their ears and slip their feet into gaily embroidered shoes, they also create special jewellery for their camels, or cut their coats in intricate motifs. The camel is the beast of burden ideally suited for the desert. Its ability to store enough water in its stomach to last it for a few days makes it ideal for long distance travel along routes where even wells may be a rarity. No wonder there is such close amity between the long-legged beast and its owner. From transport to ploughing in the fields to pulling carts, the camel even provides milk though its sweet, thick consistency is not pleasing for everybody. In death, its hide finds use for converting into leather for saddles, bags and shoes.
Now, some changes have been made in the structure, and ceilings are made on land holdings. The young people are moving towards the distant town in search of the employment opportunities. Some self-sufficient rural villages persist even today and a compact settlement with a tank or well and a struggling bunch of acacias and tamarind in the mid of yellowish sand is the dominant feature of the landscape. Most of the rural villages in Rajasthan now boast of electricity, telephones, televisions and a network of roads from where they can travel more easily between villages, and to the neighbouring towns. Today, there are various fields, and various small habitations that have put a check on the winds that once raced through the sand dunes. Life in the desert is in a stage of transition, but the traditions still remain, which were not just essential in the earlier times, but also gave life its unique blend of flavours.
For a tourist, the ideal way to visit a village is on the back of a camel. The most interesting sights that grabs the attention of tourists are the women around the community well or a group of people discussing important issues related to their village or general topics like politics or children either studying in an open air school or running around with complete freedom. The tourists can get a better insight into the life of rural Rajasthan by interacting with these people.