For the wandering nomads, the Rabaris, who have lived and traveled along the desolate edges of the Kutch and Thar desert in north west India, art is everywhere. Almost as though they are making up, for the monotony of their land. As they travel and follow their flock of sheep and camel, even their gods travel with them. The portable shrine of the Rabaris is called the Pabuji ki Phad.
Wandering minstrels named Bhopas, narrate the great tales of Pabuji, in the form of a 4000 verse poem.
The Phad depicts the tale of the semi divine warrior named Pabuji, considered to be an incarnation of God by the Rabaris. And much like the Mata ni Pachedi used by the Devipujak communiy in Gujarat, the Pabuji Ki Phad is also a folk tale, that forms the backdrop (quite literally) to mobile shrines. Wandering minstrels named Bhopas, narrate the great tales of Pabuji, in the form of a 4000 verse poem, for the people. These tales are painted on the backdrop of the shrine.
In the legend, Pabuji narrates his adventures and while doing so, he often makes an entry into different stories from Indian mythology, as a character. In one adventure for instance, he is said to have protected the sacred cattle herds of goddess Durga and is blessed by her. In another, he battles Ravana, the King of Lanka and brings back camels from Sri Lanka! John D Smith, a professor at Cambridge University, has an interesting take on this. In his book ‘The Epic of Pabuji’ he writes how elderly Bhopas believed that Pabuji defeated Ravana ‘who lived beyond the Indus’ and brought camels as trophies of war. It is a fine example of how over centuries, local folk heroes get entwined with the broader Hindu epics, and then get spun off as epics on their own. Smith believes that Pabuji was a historical character who lived sometime between the 14th to the 16th century in the Marwar region near Jodhpur and over centuries acquired divine status.
Bhopas believed that Pabuji defeated Ravana ‘who lived beyond the Indus’ and brought camels as trophies of war.
Historically speaking, the idea of Pabuji may have its origins in the hundreds of ‘hero stones’ which are found scattered around Rajasthan. In the medieval period, gangs of dacoits roamed across the countryside stealing cattle from the pastoralists and many young men died defending their cattle. The ‘hero stones’ were erected in memory of these fallen men and bards would sing tales of their bravery. As time passed, these fallen warriors became deities for different nomadic communities.
The tales of Pabuji are popular. Bhopas travel from village to village performing the epic poem. The performance takes place through music and song, accompanied by a musical instrument named Ravanhatta. Incredibly, these Bhopas recite this 4000 verse epic by memory, and the performance goes on for 5 nights, with the phad as the backdrop. Rabaris believe that praying to Pabuji ki Phad fulfills their wishes and cures their cattle of diseases.
The phad itself is a work of art . It is prepared by painting a canvas of around 15 ft by 15 ft with scenes depicting the life of Pabuji, his palace, and his adventures. The art becomes ‘sacred’ the moment the eyes of the Pabuji are painted on, as it is believed that his spirit now enters the picture. From then on, the phad is worshiped every day. If it gets damaged, it must be decommissioned by consigning it into the sacred waters of the Pushkar Lake or the Ganges.
While there are several academic works on the ‘Pabuji-ki-Phad’ and the Bhopas, the most riveting account is by author William Dalrymple in his book ‘The Nine Lives’. The book devotes a whole chapter tracing the story of a Bhopa, trying to survive in changing times.
As old nomadic tribes like the Rabari’s lose out in the race of development, their homes and traditions are also fading today.
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