The Raika tribes are a nomadic people, occupying the western districts of Rajasthan and Gujurat, including the Thar desert. One estimate put their number at about 500,000, though Raikas many are abandoning the pastoralist way of life in the face of social, economic and legal pressures. They are known for their Arabian camels, or dromedaries, but many Raika families raise sheep and goats.

The Raikas have been herding and guarding camels in Rajasthan for thousands of years. Never using the animals for meat, Raika legend states that the community was divinely ordained as guardians of the camels by Shiva. One telling of the Raika story is this: the goddess Parvati, created a five-legged animal and asked her husband, Lord Shiva, to breathe life into it. Initially Shiva refused, claiming the strangely formed animal would not survive in the world. But later Shiva gave in to his wife, breathing life into the animal, but also transforming the fifth leg into a hump by fusing it into the animal’s back. So was born the camel, or, as some Raika’s call it, the ‘ship of the desert’.

The goddess Parvati then asked Shiva to create someone to look after the camel. In response, Shiva took offer a bit of skin from his arm and created Sama, the first Raika, from whom all Raikas were born. Thus, according to the myth, the Raikas were born to tend to the camels, which accounts for the extraordinary bond that exists between the Raikas and their animals. The primary deity of the Raika’s is Pabuji, with whom the Raika spiritual leaders, or Bhopajis, are said to commune with in trances.

The camel was declared the state animal of Rajasthan, and are vital to pastoralist Raikas, since camels require little water, can survive the heat, and offer milk and hair in return. Although camel milk has yet to breakthrough in Indian and international markets, it is rich in nutrients and contains higher concentrations of important vitamins and minerals than cow’s milk. It’s nutritional status has meant some have tipped it as a ‘superfood’, yet domestic government restrictions have limited the ability of Raika’s to sell their milk.

Despite the Raika’s long nomadic history, they increasingly face existential threats. Once Raikas freely wandered deserts, farmlands, and jungles but increasingly they face restrictions on where their camels can graze. Government legislation and changing social trends are threatening the Raika’s traditional pastoralist way of life, and with it, the ecosystems and bodies of traditional knowledge they have maintained. In fact, the Raika way of life has been recognised as one of the most harmonious ways of living without damaging the environment or contributing to climate change.