Ilse Köhler-Rollefson: Our lady of the camels
It is early morning and Raika herder Gamnaram has just milked his camel Hongdi in the yard of his home in a village in Sadri, Rajasthan. He hands Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, vet, anthropologist, activist, and author of Camel Karma, Twenty years Among India's Camel Nomads, and me, glasses of the warm frothy milk. A quick cup of delicious camel milk tea follows and we head out to the field where a few more of Gamnaram's camels are chewing, snorting and, incidentally, fertilizing the soil with their rich manure even as they gaze imperiously at the landscape. Out there with the herders and Amazonian Ilse - a striking blonde about 6 feet tall - and the camels, you experience a near-epiphany: how ecologically perfect is the Raika way of life that gives back to the land as much as it takes.
Perhaps a similarly illuminating moment first attracted Ilse, a German, to the Raikas and to Rajasthan itself - the state has been her home since the early 1990s. "At that time, I was based in the US and had a fellowship to study camels. I had fallen in love with them when I was volunteering on archeological sites in Jordan," says Ilse recounting how her experience with the Bedouins of the area propelled her to study the camel herders of Sudan. The delicate political situation in that country, however, soon compelled her to leave. "At that time, India had the third largest camel population in the world and fellowships were available so I thought 'I'll go to India'," she reminisces.At the National Camel Research Centre in Bikaner, Ilse, whose work at the time had an anthropological focus, became acquainted with Dewaram Dewasi, the first trained Raika veterinarian. Dewasi introduced her to his community in Sadri.
A photograph from Dailibai's album that features a group of Raikas in the Alps. Dailibai, the only woman in the picture, is a well respected member of a community where women are generally expected to stay in the background. The Raikas were attending the Livestock Futures Conference in Bonn in September 2012 that was attended by representatives of pastoral peoples from across the world. The album, incidentally, is made from camel dung paper.
"He took me to the villages where I met these camel herders and I was floored! These big animals would be resting in the courtyards and then some small kid would come and climb all over them. The relationship was so close; they were so nice to their animals. That really impressed me," says Ilse, a trained veterinarian, who had been so alarmed at the ruthlessness of factory farming in Germany that she had given up practising veterinary science there. "I wanted to become a vet out of love of animals. Then, when I graduated, I realized it was a big mistake. If you go and work with farm animals, it's all about profit. Plus, in Germany, we had this development of industrial livestock keeping where the animal is not treated as a living being any more; it's just a machine for churning out milk or meat or whatever. I hated that. I worked for a while as a vet and then said, 'No, this is not my life," says Ilse. Boys trying to control to a camel as it goes berserk at the camel fair in Pushkar, Rajasthan on Monday. (PTI Photo)
Her love for animals and her admiration for the Raika, who believe Lord Shiva created them to protect the camel, meant she grew increasingly involved with the community. And so, what was intended to be a stop-gap arrangement until the trouble in Sudan cleared up grew into a life-long affair. It was Ilse's veterinary training, though, that made the Raika first take note of her.
"Diseases were killing camels and many had miscarriages. When they found I was a vet, they wanted me to help. They said, 'You come here and take photographs; you are so useless! Do something!" So I felt bad and organised medicines," Ilse says. This wasn't as easy as it sounds as most companies had stopped manufacturing them.
Feeding camel wool into the separating machine. (Photo: HT/Manjula Narayan)
"Then, I found one company here in India. I collected money from my friends in Germany to buy the medicines and distributed them," she says revealing that her move towards activism came as she recognised the need for steady funding to help the Raika and their camels. By this time, Ilse, who was not just a trained vet, but had published archeological papers, been awarded a post-doctoral degree in the history of veterinary medicine and was also the mother of twins - some women are adept at keeping all those juggling balls up in the air - had recognised that she would need to set up a project and seek institutional funding. And so, in 1996, she set up Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan with her associate Hanwant Singh.
Today, the LPPS helps the Raika with veterinary care and fights for the rights of pastoral peoples across India. "The big issue here is access to grazing in the Kumbalgarh forest. Traditionally, farmers here grew crops only in the rainy season, for three months. So, for nine months, camel, sheep and goat herders were welcome because animals fertilized the land. They had to go to the forest only during the monsoon," Ilse says.
A handmade strap intended to secure the saddle tightly on the camel. Sadly, these exquisite pieces are no longer made. "There's only about one man who can still make them and he is not interested anymore," says Ilse.
Changing farming patterns and the prohibition on grazing in forests enforced in the early 2000s affected the Raika badly. "They lost their rights. The LPPS has been to the Supreme Court on these issues. Now, since 2006, the Forest Rights Act has been put in place and in theory, if you can prove that you have used the forest for three generations or 70 years, you can get your rights. In practice, that's not being implemented. It's a huge issue all over India," says Ilse. Alongside all this, she has also been working to create new avenues of livelihood for the Raika who have been affected by the shift to mechanization on farms. This has decimated the market for male camels, which were once used as draught animals.
Gamnaram showing Ilse a camel wool dhurrie in a traditional pattern. "I took the wool to the man who makes them. He charged me Rs 1000 just to make it," he said.
Historically, the Raika kept herds of female camels and sold the young males at Pushkar. Then, around 2001, even as fewer camels were being sold to work on farms, rather puzzlingly, the price of camels kept rising. It soon became clear that the beasts were being slaughtered for meat. "Nobody liked to talk about it because it was against their beliefs," says Ilse recounting the touching Raika creation myth that has Parvati creating a five-legged animal and demanding her husband Shiva breathe life into it. Aghast at the difficult life a beast with five legs would lead, Shiva removed a leg and welded it to the animal's back before infusing the creature with life. According to the story, the camel was such a nuisance that Parvati soon demanded that a man be created to look after it. And so Samar, the first Raika, came to be. For people who identified so closely with the camel, the idea that they were selling their animals for slaughter would have been painful. "I think they actively didn't think about it," says Ilse. The state of Rajasthan has just banned the slaughter of camels and put restrictions on transporting them across the border. While this will appease sentiments, it will not solve the Raika's livelihood problems.
These soaps made from camel milk come in cinnamon, sandalwood and vanilla fragrances.
"It is clear there's no market for male working animals so if you want to let these people continue to breed camels and have an income from it, you need to develop new products," says Ilse, who set about thinking up of new ways to do precisely that. Today, the LPPS' Camel Charisma outlets sell, among other wondrous things, camel wool dhurries, paper made from camel dung, and finely scented camel milk soap. She is also working on perfecting the supply of camel milk, which is good for diabetics and the lactose intolerant. "Parents of autistic children find it is good for their kids so there is much demand," she says.
Gamnaram with Lob. Lob has just lost her calf having accidentally rolled over it. "It's very unusual. I've never heard of an accident like that happening with camels before," says Ilse.
Though Ilse herself is modest, it's clear that her projects have a real impact. All of them also involve much ideation and networking. Take the dhurries. Developing designs that appeal to city folk involved finding a way to make the wool finer, which meant acquiring a machine that sorts fine fibres from the coarse ones. "From the fine fibres one can make stoles and with the rough fibres you can make dhurries," she says. The soft fibres are sent to Jaisalmer, where they are woven into stoles by fifteen Rajput widows. "They are happy if they get spinning work as it doesn't require them to leave the house," says Ilse.
And then there are the superb soaps made on Ilse's farm in Sadri. "It's not rocket science at all. We take camel milk and mix it with coconut oil and then put fragrance in it," says Ilse who has a talent for making the toughest things sound easy-peasy.
Ilse examines Gamnaram's injured hand. "While I was out grazing the animals, another herder suddenly attacked me with a stick for no reason," he says. Another Raika, who is sipping a glass of camel milk tea that Gamnaram's wife has just brewed, flashes an ironic smile. "There's always a history to things. Nothing happens without a reason," he says.
Perhaps it's this can-do spirit that has endeared her to the Raikas - one shepherd we meet on the road speaks admiringly to me of her efforts - who, like all close-knit rural communities, are wary of outsiders. "Now, they are quite happy with me and give me a lot of respect," Ilse says. In the beginning, though, things were difficult. "I got sucked into it somehow! Professionally it was difficult because I had such an academic background. Personally also it was difficult. My children were small so I travelled back and forth from Germany," she says revealing that thankfully, her mother was eager to take care of her kids when she was away.
Gamnaram pouring out a glass of fresh camel milk for his guests.
It strikes you that Ilse Köhler-Rollefson has managed the near-impossible. She leads a life that's personally satisfying while also contributing to the cause of a pastoral community she admires. As you leave Sadri, she's still at it, tossing out ideas about camel safaris that could allow city slickers to gad about with these fantastic animals while also offering a glimpse of the lifestyles of the Raika, and so giving them yet another way of supplementing their incomes.
Camel milk is tasty and low in fat. It is good for diabetics and for the lactose-intolerant. It is also believed to be good for autistic children. Ilse has been trying to ensure the milk will travel unspoilt over larger distances. "We recently sent a batch to Chennai and it reached there in a good condition," she says. Scaling up production of the milk will, however, require much equipment and investment, which Ilse is now working to get.
You come away thoroughly impressed, inspired and fully stocked up on dung paper diaries, enough camel milk soaps to keep fragrant until 2016, and colourful skirts made by Raika women. It's the least you can do.
Learn more about the LPPS at and about Ilse at ; She is @IlseKohler on Twitter
(Photos by Manjula Narayan)