A nation with as many cultures and languages as it has people, India is home to an estimated population of 104 million indigenous people, accounting for over 8.6% of the national population. Delhi-based photographer Navtej Singh of India in frames is a man on a mission, out to document these dying cultures before they are lost to history.
“There’s so much this country has to offer, we don’t need to look outward, outward is boring.” Navtej says, “We change every 50 kilometres, the way of people, their thinking, the way we eat- it all changes. But we’re giving everything up, we’re leaving everything behind,”
Travelling 20 days out of the month, Navtej’s travels have taken him across the nation, from the picturesque Kashmir Valley to the sandy deserts of Rajasthan, and from the temples of Tamil Nadu to the cloudy abode of Meghalaya. We caught up with the veteran photographer, as he shared mementoes of his adventures documenting the forgotten cultures of our great nation.
In a world conditioned by the misogynistic views of a patriarchal societal structure, this matrilineal Khasi tribe is a breath of much-needed fresh air. Hailing from the Abode of the Clouds, Meghalaya, this matriarchal tribe is led by powerful female figures, with families celebrating the birth of every baby girl, and with the elder women being considered the custodians and preservers of their clan, family and lineage. This tribe is said to be one of the last surviving matrilineal cultures in the world.
A sub-group of the Dhangars, a shepherd caste in the region, the men of the Hatkar tribe traditionally are tasked with the care of sheep and cattle. Known for their woollen weaving and blankets, this nomadic tribe traverses the region and can be spotted all across the Maharashtra region.
One of the most elusive tribes in all our nation, this Islamic tribe is known for being notoriously difficult to photograph, owing to their strict morals and vigorously protective attitude toward their women. A reclusive tribe with roots in Sunni tradition, the women of the tribe are identifiable by their crescent-shaped gold nose rings, also known as Nathlis, which are as big as their faces, held upright by strands of thread pinned to their hair. The men herd cattle and search for greener pastures through the day, while the women take care of the houses, children and chores.
Said to be direct descendants of Rishi Megh, a Hindu saint thought to possess the power of rain, blessing the drought-stricken areas of the arid Thar desert, the Meghwal people are known for their exotic costumes and colourful jewellery, and for their handcrafted beadwork, embroidery and skilful cotton weaving. Easily identified by their exuberant costumes, their work is distinguished by their primary use of red, sourced from a local pigment produced from crushing insects.
Thought to be descendants of the Hindu God of Destruction, Shiva, legend has it that the Lord once provided one of his minions three apsaras (celestial maidens of untold beauty), to marry and flourish, on the condition that he never speaks a word to them. If he violated the condition, the apsaras would be lost forever. One son and four daughters were born of this union, and the Lord commanded his minion to dwell on Earth. Nomadic by nature, the Rabaris’ main occupation is to raise cattle, camels and goats.
A nomadic people that live out their entire lives migrating from one place to another in the Western Himalayas, the Gujjar-Bakarwals are two unique ethnic groups involved in rearing flocks of sheep within the higher and lower latitudes of the Western Himalayas. Claiming a common ancestry from the ancient Gujjar tribe of India, the women of this tribe are the worst performers in various indices of social and economic status, impacted by issues such as a low sex-ratio, low literacy, child marriage, low rate of political participation, denial of inheritance rights, and more.
Famously known as Goa’s ‘Jinga Maamis’, Banjara women can be spotted wearing dangly embroidered clothes by the beachside. Originally hailing from an independent province of Afghanistan called ‘Gor’, the Banjara people eventually settled in Rajasthan before making their way to other parts of India. Known to be a clever people, the Banjaras speak a multitude of different languages including English and Russian, picking up dialects from the vast array of nationalities of the people they come across.
Living in relative isolation in nearly inaccessible villages, the Brogpa people claim to be true descendants of the early Aryans, and of the soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army who never returned with their contingent while retreating in 326 BC from the banks of river Indus. Also known as “Minaro”, legend has it that three brothers named Dulo, Galo and Melo came to the region in search of fertile land, with their descendants taking on the form of the current inhabitants of the area. A tourist attraction, by and large, the “Aryan Valley” is home to other such villages of reclusive tribes claiming Aryan heritage.
Descending from the bards of ancient Indian royal courts, employed to spread royal fame by singing their praises, the Charan tribe is a small tribe in their region, and are known as Gadhvis for being protectors of ancient Gadh’s (forts) in India’s golden days. Considered divine by large parts of modern society, many Hindu deities were said to be born into our world as Charans. Also known as Deviputras (sons of Godesses) the Charan people are strictly vegetarian in their diet.
All images and media used in this article are courtesy of Navtej Singh and belong rightfully to their original owners.
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