I am at a trinket shop in Udaipur looking for souvenirs to buy for family and friends back home in Mumbai. When I see a some quirky earrings in the shape of various animals and birds — elephants, dolphins, peacocks, butterflies, swans, deer, etc. — I decide to buy some of them for my niece.
As I set aside the ones I want to buy, I ask the shopkeeper, “Do you have camel earrings?”
“Look at these elephant ones, Madam. They will bring good luck and strength. These birds are so delicate, they will look beautiful. And the deer earrings, they are unique, Madam. Nowhere else will you find them in Udaipur. And this butterfly ones…
“I am buying a pair of all these. But I would also like to buy a pair of camel earrings. Do you have them?” I ask again.
“Um… yes,” he says, pulling out a pair from under the counter. “Why do you want to buy camel earrings anyway?”
“Because I like camels,” I say.
“You like camels?” the shopkeeper asks incredulously. “They are smelly, stubborn, and quite ugly. What is there to like in camels?”
“Oh there is plenty to like. You see, there is something about camels,” I smile.
During my recent 11-day trip to Rajasthan, I saw more camels than I have seen in my entire lifetime. And also got to know more about this gentle and intelligent animal than I expected to, thanks to a visit to the National Research Centre on Camel (NRCC). This one of a kind centre, about 8 km from Bikaner, conducts research on camels and also offers camel breeding programmes, support and expertise to the nearby villagers and tribes. The NRCC is also open to visitors in the afternoons and one can spend some time here getting to know more about the different camel breeds, their behaviour patterns, how they are trained, what they eat and what they don’t. In fact, it’s a good introduction to camels as I found out when I visited the NRCC on my very first day in Bikaner.
The NRCC has an on-site museum dedicated to everything and anything to do with camels — from its physiology, to its uses, to its types, to products made from camel teeth, bone and leather, to an exhibit of a well-preserved stillborn camel. It is a good idea to begin at the Museum, before taking a tour of the grounds to see the camels.
There are four types of camels at the NRCC — Bikaneri, Jaisalmeri, Kachchhi and Mewari. The male and female camels are kept in separate enclosures and are brought together only for breeding purposes. There are also separate “time-out” areas for rebellious and naughty camels. The guide said that camels too go through, ahem, “teenage angst and raging hormones”. Such camels are separated from the others for a while before allowing them to rejoin their group. Then there is a maternity section, where new-born camels and their mothers are kept, as is a nursery for slightly older camel calves and their mothers. I was lucky to see a newborn camel, struggling to stand up and drinking from a feeding bottle for all it was worth. 🙂
And another new-born camel, which had just about manged to stand up on trembly, rubbery feet and was helped to feed with his handler’s help.
I spent a relaxing and peaceful hour or so at the NRCC, walking around and observing the camels. Here are some pictures from there:
With its unique physiological characteristics, the camel is an icon of adaptation and indispensability to the region. It has played a significant role in civil law and order, defense and battles in the past and continues to do so at present through the camel corps, an important wing of Border Security Forces of India.
The camels at NRCC was only the first of the many camels I saw during my travels in Rajasthan. Whether pulling a cart or standing to attention in a parade or carrying water cans or simply resting by the roadside, or taking tourists on a ride, they were everywhere. What struck me was irrespective of the situation they were in, their demeanour was calm and quiet.
The camel is, arguably, the most important animal in the fragile arid and semi-arid desert eco-system of Rajasthan. And yet, and this is an important yet, the camel is conspicuous by its absence in art and craft. Here, I don’t mean the kitschy and sometimes tacky souvenirs; I mean as sculptures, as motifs in weaving and embroidery, and as themes in paintings.
One only has to look around modern-day street art in the villages, cities and towns of Rajasthan or centuries old carvings in temples and havelis or frescoes and miniature paintings in palaces, museums, and forts to see that camels are totally absent. Elephants, horses, lions, tigers, peacocks, deer, parrots, cows, bulls and even cranes — you can find them all, but you will not find a single camel.
While I can understand the symbolism associated with elephants, horses, lions, tigers, etc., and their inclusion in art, I am equally puzzled by the exclusion of camels in art.
Isn’t art is supposed to be inspired by life and happenings around? So why then has the camel been ignored in a region that is its home and a region that depends on it?
Is it because camels have no symbolism associated with it in Hindu or Jain religious texts?
Is it because the camel is associated with the nomadic tribes and the traders, and these were the communities that did not build temples or havelis or forts?
Or is it because the artists don’t find the camels graceful or beautiful enough for their art?
Or is it something else altogether.
I have kind of fallen in love with camels. Their gentle gait, their inquisitive and patient gaze, and their quiet, dignified demeanour — I tell you, there is something about camels. Something very, very special 🙂