There’s something about camels !

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.

Camel, Rajasthan
Nose up in the air !

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.

A notice board at the entrance giving information on the type of breeds and their numbers at the NRCC
A notice board at the entrance giving information on the type of breeds and their numbers at the NRCC
A wall moral painted on the walls of the Camel Museum
A mural painted on the outside walls of the Camel Museum

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. 🙂

Camel, Rajasthan
New-born camel being fed with a feeding bottle

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.

Camel, Rajasthan
Drink, baby, drink !

I spent a relaxing and peaceful hour or so at the NRCC, walking around and observing the camels. Here are some pictures from there:

Camels 12Camels 10Camels 4Camels 5Camels 9Camels 2

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.

Camel cart, Bikaner
Camel cart, Bikaner
All decked up and ready for the Desert Festival, Jaisalmer
All decked up and ready for the Desert Festival, Jaisalmer
Ready, Steady, Go... At the Shobha Yatra of the Desert  Festival, Jaisalmer
Ready, Steady, Go… At the Shobha Yatra of the Desert Festival, Jaisalmer
Camel carrying water cans at the Kumbhalgarh Fort
Camel carrying water cans at the Kumbhalgarh Fort

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 🙂

42 thoughts on “There’s something about camels !

    1. Welcome here, Sunil, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. No, I did not go for an camel safari anywhere in Rajasthan, as I am against using animals as rides for humans.

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  1. very interesting, Sudha… a paean to camels!!!! Interestingly, we bought a painting at Udaipur, as a gift…. and hubby loved the elephant. but the shop keeper suggested we buy a different one.. with a horse, elephant and camel on it, since the horse represented strength or health, the elephant represented wealth, and the camel represented love. these paintings would bring all the three to our house, he said. and maybe that also explains why camels arent around so much on the paintings and art otherwise… because wealth and strength were considered more important than love?

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    1. That’s a beautiful analogy for camels. I personally think it has to do with caste, as the people who used camels were the nomads who would today be classified as Dalits, or traders. The elephants came to be associated with the royals and the horses with the Rajputs. So maybe, inadvertently, a caste system developed here as well. So just as the Dalits were not spoken about in literature or art, so were the camels.

      Maybe the nomads have their own ar and craft and music and stories involving camels, but it is definitely not in the mainstream.

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  2. oh I loved this mini information piece on camels 🙂 I think, I am just going to make R read all your posts when she grows a bit older to increase her general knowledge 🙂

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  3. This is news to me as I always thought that camels did figure in Rajasthani art. I guess camels were very important during the Silk route era. I know they figure a lot in Persian, Assyrian and Chinese art – after all the camel is still known as the ‘caravan of the desert’.
    I do remember seeing a camel in Udaipur with intricate patterns – an artist had actually drawn beautiful patterns of the full body of the camel with scissors and razors. I wish I had a picture of it.
    On an other note: one of India’s largest art/stationery suppliers have a camel as their logo. They also have a philanthropic wing: the camel art foundation.

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    1. Yes, I always thought the camel did figure in art, too. Just as much as other animals. I haven’t really done any research on it, but I remember seeing camels in arts and crafts across India. It would, obviously, because the art of a region will mirror life around…

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      1. Yes, one does see camels in kitschy art solely directed towards a particular type of buyer. I mentioned that in the post. What I mean is absence in sculptures, murals, frescoes, motifs in embroidery…

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    2. Camels do figure in Rajasthani Art, if you consider camel printed bedsheets, terracotta camels, and camel earrings. But if you are to look at sculptures and art in temples, palaces, forts and havelis, or modern day murals outside houses and art schools and shops, the camel is conspicuously absent.

      I don’t know if it is a “ghar ki murgi daal barabar” syndrome or if the camel is considered to be inferior in some way or the other to not merit mention in art, music, and literature.

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  4. I like camels, too. 🙂 I loved this informative post. Very well put together.
    I have never thought of camels the way you do, though. But come to think of it, yes, they are graceful, with their long legs, extremely quiet and useful, and have beautiful eyes. That said, I have heard of some instances of camels getting naughty, too, and biting off flesh from the legs of passersby.

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    1. Yes, I have heard of this side of camels too. Who knows how they are being treated and fed and taken care off. I’ve also seen tourists teasing them and calling them stupid and making faces at them. I believe that such instances by are always provoked by humans.

      At Kumbhalgarh Fort, the camel that you see in the picture here struggled to climb up and down the Fort path as the paving does not support it’s feet and gait. His keeper must have known it and still kept hitting him and urging him to move. And the camel has to do it so many times a day, TGND.

      They are remarkably patient animals, and I salute them for what they have to put up with human need, selfishness and behaviour.

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  5. Talking of camels not being featured in any artifact or art forms, did you notice that they don’t feature in folklore either? I can only remember one story of the Arab and the camel, where the wily camel first pokes its head into the tent to escape from the cold but slowly enters it and wrecks it.

    BTW, did you drink tea made with camel milk? I have, and it tastes….well….hmmm,,,,’different!’ I still remember the looks of consternation my sister and I exchanged after taking a big gulp, not to speak of the taste — while on a visit to the house of our father’s colleague . That is saying something because it is nearly five decades since it happened 😀

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    1. Did I have camel milk? Well let me say with pride that I had plain pasteurised camel milk, coffee made from camel milk and kulfi as well. And I loved it. 😀

      Camels may exist in folklore and music, but it has definitely not made its way into mainstream literature, art or music. 😦

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  6. The new-born camel being fed milk looks like an ostrich! They truly are gentle creatures. And Rajasthani artists did find beauty in the camel… one finds the camel in almost all Rajasthani paintings. Yes, I do agree they are not popular in embroidery motifs and sculptures. Not like the elephant (I guess it has something to do with its scrawny figure 😀 )
    The most spectacular camel art is when they create designs on the body of the camel itself, by selective shaving of camel hair at Bikaner’s camel festival (though I always wonder if it is a little taxing for the camel).

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    1. A warm welcome here, Nishi, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      Maybe I went to all the wrong places as except for a mural at the Patwon ka haveli in Jaisalmer, I did not come across any representation of camels in art during my recent Rajasthan Trip. Even in Udaipur, the murals outside all the various schools of paintings were either of elephants or horses.

      Another commenter, Neena, has also mentioned about the designs on the camel itself. I missed this one too 😦

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      1. Ah! no, you are right Sudhagee, camel is not popular as an art motif as compared to the elephant and the horse. I think one reason might be that the other two animals were used in war (the horse) and celebrations (elephant: could carry much load at a time), so they figure more prominently in Rajput art, and not necessarily that of the locals. And most of the art that was preserved and is on display is that of the royalty. Of course, local art is also alive, but is on display in fairs and festivals, at the most. (which is why you didn’t come across it)

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  7. Neat and informative piece Sudha. Love the way you explore newer things in a commonplace. I had my rendezvous with camels at Pushkar Fair but their bedecked bodies and turbaned owners was farthest my observation went! Looking forward to more Rajasthan posts…

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    1. Great to see you here, Abhishek. 🙂 And thank you so much for you kind words. I just hope that you don’t get bored of the Rajasthan posts as there are quite a few lined up.

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  8. What an underrated animal the camel is. All I ever knew about it is “It is the ship of the desert.” learnt from elementary school books. I should get DD to read this, she’s been snorting and acting like one the past couple of days – since her cousin taught her how. She will love it.

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    1. “The ship of the desert” is one thing that we all learn in school and the other thing is the Arab and the camel story. Both cliches and both boring. They are really lovely animals, Meera and I loved their patient, quizzical “Who, me? gaze. 🙂

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  9. a wow post !! smile on my face as I see so many of them and the baby camel looks like an ostrich !! 😀 very nice post !! and I had no clue about the animal earings although i dont have any reason to being a guy and also never willing to accompany any female while they go shopping !!
    😀 Some lovely snaps you have taken .. I love bright captures and as many times I have been on your blog .. the brightness of the snaps has hypnotized me !! thanks all the more for the share … I was thinking of drawing a camel cartoon for one of my client but was missing some curves !!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it. And wonderful to meet another camel lover 🙂

      I use the auto contrast filter on Picasa for all the photographs I put on the blog. It;s a simple and nifty tol and works well for someone lazy like me. This one helps to brighten most of the pictures. But it doesn’t always work as I saw with the pictures of Udaipur, which I have largely left as it is. Those posts coming up soon 🙂

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      1. thanks a ton for the Picasa info..somthing I had no idea about the -Auto Contrast stuff….le me give it a try :)Eagerly waiting for your new post..
        Regarding camels even I am glad to be frens with u !!

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          1. I am already playing with it thanks to u 🙂
            BTW .. i have published my first web comic post on my site … and looking for a Title suggestion from fellow bloggers and ofcourse a feedback so as to help me enhance my work…. I would be grateful if you leave by your valuable feedback on the comic strip and also a suggestion for an appropriate title 🙂

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