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The Desert People of Bhuj

by Ellie Vandoorne

While I was working in Bhuj in Gujurat I headed off  to explore the desert villages famous for their embroidery.  Bouncing along in our jeep we picked up local tribals that squashed in the back with me. Dressed in purple and hotpink turbans,gold and ruby earrings,dhotis and curly toed shoes with chiseled faces and piercing eyes I couldn't stop staring at them and they at me.  A riveting experience.  And these were just the men.

The men are shepherds, always looking after their sheep and goats using their crooks to herd them into line as they slowly meander over the road.  It is such a pleasure to just follow them at snails pace checking out every detail.

When we finally arrive at a village taking endless detours the first person we see is the head woman with her cows.  She is a blast of colour, embroidered head to foot in swirling skirt, jewels, tiaras and anklets....not to mention the cows with beaded necklaces and horns.  She takes us into the village which are mud and thatched huts on the outside and inside the walls are sculptured mud designs inserted with tiny mirrors everywhere.  All sublime.

No electricity or running water.  It's down to the well with the earthenware pot on the head and a good old gossip with the girls.  Some villages are just starting to get running water and the women don't like it as they are shut up inside their huts and can't meet and gossip at the well anymore.   The temperature is over 50 and I can barely cope with the heat.  The women have little embroidered fans made with fabric and mirrors.

It was monsoon when we were there - mozzies and malaria are common. The women only have the neem leaf and their light cotton shawls to protect themselves.Flooding regularly causes the mud huts to disappear. Rebuilding damaged huts is always necessary after the monsoon.

The children, who are drop dead gorgeous, make their own beaded jewellery. There are no schools in the area, so they help out at home.

All the beautiful work in the village is done on synthetic fabric using synthetic threads.  They buy it in the market and it is cheap. For the women to afford cotton thread and fabric requires an NGO organisation to work with them.  This is a very slow process.  The tourist industry is just starting to open up again since the devastating earthquake of 2001. And tourists want to buy cotton not synthetics.

After being served delicious tea in saucers we said our goodbyes and the wonderful head woman, with tears in her eyes, said to the translator I was too short in their lives.  This of course broke me up totally.