Sloppy licks and shifting sands
Domesticated thousands of years ago, tamed and trained by the Frankincense traders to make long journeys, camel became the desert dweller’s primary source for everything -- almost.
BY HARPREET KAUR
They are tall, funny to look at and smell. They tag along and do their own thing where food and water are concerned. They sport a personality, are cute and you might get a sloppy lick in return for a little petting. Their rolling gait and the ability to carry weight has given them the nickname the ‘Ship of the Desert’.
You will either love them or hate them. But the Arabs call them Ata Allah, which means 'god’s gift’ for their good temperament, patience and intelligence, contrary to what people think of them.
Camels originated in North America about four million years ago (40,000,000) and about a million (1,000,000) years ago, they had spread across to South America, Africa and Asia. Belonging to the family of camelidae (artiodactyla order), there are only two species, camelus dromedarius (dromedary-one humped) and the camelus bactrianus (bactrian-two humped) which have survived.
The dromedary (road in Greek) camel has always been used as a saddle animal, that can cover more than 100 miles a day. They can be found in arid regions from north-western India to the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia and across African deserts and are better known as Arabian camels. Herodotus’s book – Histories has referred to this particular camel. The bactrian are found all over the highlands of Central Asia, from Turkey to Mongolia. In comparison to the Arabian camels, these are able to maintain a steady pace for a longer time, normally averaging 50 km per day while carrying a heavy load.
Camels in India are mostly of the dromedary type. India is listed among the top ten camel countries with 1,520,000 camels. They have a long-curved neck, a deep chest and a single hump; hair is long, falling on the shoulder and hump and they vary in size according to the nutrition intake. Their approximate lifespan is 50 years and wherever you find them, they will be in a group of two to 20. Close to their human owners, they provide these desert dwellers with milk, meat, leather, hair and fuel (dried manure). A few double-humped camels can be found in the valley of Jammu and Kashmir.
Major Indian breeds are called bikaneri, which has draft capability, jaisalmeri a racing camel and the kachchhi, which is usually bred for milk. Bikaneri is the most popular and widely-used camel breed in India. Found in the Bikaner district, they are built heavily and have a larger body frame compared to others. Jaisalmeri camels are lightly built and medium sized. The kachchhi have a strong body and long thick neck. Marwari, mewari, bagri and mewati are some other breeds found in India.
The Thar Desert stretches infinitely into the horizon and is as harsh as it is beautiful. You may see the footprints of camel or hear the sound of the camel driver’s cry, for this is the transport here, the ship of the desert.
In India, when a camel is bought, the first thing you do is peg it. A hole is made in its nose and a peg is put through it -- it can be wood, plastic or metal. This causes very little discomfort to camels if done the proper way. A wooden peg is preferable than a metal peg because in most of the hot arid regions, metal peg heats up easily than its wooden counterpart, irritating the camel’s nostril. A string is attached to the peg and a rope is passed around the camel’s neck (like a bit in the horse’s mouth). Nose pegs are preferred for better control.
It took a long time to invent a saddle for the camel and its hump. It was around 500 AD, when somebody in West Asia invented a good packsaddle and after this, they began to use the camels a lot. This saddle was also responsible in a way for the development of trade routes between different countries.
Indian camels have been exported all over the world and are highly prized as transport animals in dry regions. Thousands of camels are exported to countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Africa priced at $100,000 to $250,000 for one camel!
Their travel and survival skills help them live nine days without food and water. But this has to be compensated after the journey with a rest for about a month with loads of food and water, till their body fat reserves are built up again. The ability to travel great distances led to the creation of Caravanserais with tight securities for the goods that were brought in. Here, they could rest and eat (both the animal and the owner). With the dawn of the modern age, the ship of the desert is no longer needed to carry goods, but is still a mode of transport vital to this particular region, even in the 20th century.
Over the years
Rajasthan has become the centre of attraction for several camel fairs and festivals held at Pushkar, together with a religious festival celebrated here in October-November, the Jodhpur Marwar Festival in October, Bikaner Camel Festival in January and the Jaisalmer Desert Festival in January-February.
These fairs showcase, hundreds of camels – gaunt, well-fed, velvety brown, and sand coloured gather with their respective owners, perhaps waiting for new owners or to perform in various competitions including races. The most popular event is the camel race, where only the quickest camels participate.
During these festivals, bedecked camels hover around the sand dunes in ornate saddles with tassels, mirrors and thread work. It is next to impossible to keep your eyes off them. Camel decoration has an important part in any camel festival in India, for the best decorated camel bags the prizes.
According to a Jaisalmer-based camel driver and decoration artist, it takes 10 to 12 months to complete the decoration of a single camel. Price of the full decoration varies from
Rs 2,500 to Rs 4,000, says an owner of 32 camels. Geometric symbols and realistic motifs are part of their body art. These motifs represent the village they come from and are meant to symbolise a variety of experiences associated with life and death.
Camel products are created, marketed and used worldwide. Shoes made of camel leather are very popular throughout India. Camels here work on land, ply fodder, pull carts with material for building, work as a means of transportation, do threshing, oil transport and also lift water for irrigation. The most prestigious job among all certainly is being with the Indian Army along with Border Security Force (BSF) guarding the India-Pakistan border.
Indian camels are facing extinction, with many of them exported to Bangladesh for meat. Working on tar roads exposes them to noise and serious injuries. Research is under way to find how these camels can survive on thorny bushes - it has been noticed that they eat from one place and then move on, thus allowing the tree/plants to grow at a faster rate. The idea is to allow the camels to chew cud in arid regions to foster faster growth of plants and reduce the desert and arid conditions.
* Camels were important even 7,000-years ago and this can be seen in an old painting found in the UAE.
* Camels do not pant and perspire very little. Their body has a unique thermostat that raises their body temperature by six degrees and conserves body fluid. Their body temperature is less than the air temperature around, so they conserve body heat by pressing against each other.
* They come in colours varying from brown to almost black.
* Their ears are small, but have acute hearing and are fur lined to stop dust and sand from entering into their ears.
* Their eyes are large with a doe-like expression and are protected by a double row of long curly eyelashes that keep out dust and thick eyebrows shield the eyes from the desert sun.
* Their flat and leathery pads have two toes. While walking the pads spread and prevent their feet from sinking. They walk by moving both legs on one side, simultaneously hence the rolling motion gait.
* They can carry a weight of 450 kg and can work 6 to 8 months in a year and need to take rest of the year off.
* The gestation period before birth is 13 months and the newborn camels walk immediately on birth.
* Camel hair is most sought-after for coats, garments and artists' brushes. They shed around 2.5 kg of hair every spring. Average height is six feet at the shoulder and seven at the hump.
* A camel gulps its food without chewing and later regurgitates it in cud form. They can drink 100 litres of water in ten minutes and store it in the bloodstream. However, they need very little water, as camels get the required moisture from the rich pasture they eat. They weigh around 700kg and can run at speeds of 20kph at a gallop.
* The hump does not store water but it is fatty tissue. From here, the camel draws its energy. The hump shrinks and hangs to the side on excess usage, which after a rest and good food returns to its normal position.
* Their bones are replacing Ivory.