What Time is the Nomad?

A flock of sheep walking on a dry and barren landscape along with two male pastoralists holding sticks.

This essay on the pastoralist temporalities of Rabari communities in Kachchh, India is part of the Troubling Time series, which interrogates environmental ideas, spaces, processes, and problems through the lens of temporality. Series editors: Rebecca Laurent, Rudy Molinek, Samm Newton, Prerna Rana, and Weishun Lu.

They say that Kachchh, a border region in western India, rests on a restless snake. Legend says that when the King came to Kachchh to build his kingdom, he was asked to thrust a nail in the crown of the snake. Unsure and confused, he ended up nailing the tail instead. Each time the snake now moves, there is an earthquake. When those events may be is not scripted.

They say that Kachchh was once a verdant and fertile landscape. That an earthquake pushed the holy River Saraswati underground, changing not only the course of the river but also the history of the region. While historians and scientists continue to assess the “accuracy” of this account, it is certain that seismic activity has changed the hydrology of the region. With each shift in the snake’s posture, the land, landscape, and its built environment shift, too.

They say that Kachchh is a backward, deprived, harsh and unproductive arid land—a “museum of environmental hardship.” Yet statist narratives that see Kachchh as a static nothingness, scarce and remote, obscure its dynamic, vibrant, versatile, and diverse ecology and society. Characterized by variable, uncertain, and unpredictable environmental conditions, Kachchh sees huge spatial and temporal fluctuations in rainfall leading to droughts, floods, and everything in between.

A map of India, with the state of Gujarat shaded in grey and enlarged on the right with the region of Kachchh shaded in grey.
Map of Kachchh and Gujarat in India. Image by author, 2022.

Given these biophysical conditions and the absence of stable and robust crop agriculture, movement in and out of the region to lands near and far became the norm for the many groups of traders, fishermen, seafarers, and, especially, pastoralists who call this magical land home.

This is their story.

A Pastoral Understanding of Environment and Time

It was a crisp and bright autumn morning as I struggled to match Pabubhai Rabari’s determined steps, his sheep in tow, and his son Nathu flanking the back.

“Where will you go?” I asked.

“E toh samay upar aadharit hoy (That depends on the time),” he said.

“When will you get there?” I asked.

“E toh samay upar aadharit hoy (That depends on the time),” he said.

“When will you be back?” I asked.

“E toh samay upar aadharit hoy (That depends on the time),” he said.

Talking with Pabubhai, a nomadic pastoralist from the Rabari community in Kachchh, revealed the importance of time and temporality for his life and livelihood. Deeply contextually attuned, Pabubhai submits to fluid and variable temporal rhythms at the confluence of environment and socio-economic dynamics for decisions regarding his life and livelihood as a livestock keeper. He travels from fields to fallows to graze his flock of sheep on the freshest and most nutritious forage. Traversing a “temporally ordered sequence of vistas” across a vast landscape, his destinations depend on seasons, weather conditions, and crop cycles as they intersect with other human interventions.

Rather than singularly good or bad, modern or backward, productive or waste, the environment as the nomad is variable, uncertain, multiple, pliable, fluid, and alive.

Samay—or time—often implies weather and determines the distances, durations, directions, and destinations of his movements. During the monsoon months, Pabubhai takes his flock westward to graze in the commons in the highlands and grasslands of Kachchh. He, as many others, believes that grasses in dryland areas are more nutritious than those in humid areas, for they need that much more energy to grow.

In the winter and summer months, as the grasses dry out, he walks eastward toward agricultural hotspots in Saurashtra and central Gujarat where he largely finds cotton and wheat crop residues in fields post-harvest. He then returns to Kachchh with the oncoming rains as farmers begin to resow their fields and the soil turns mucky, making it difficult for him and his animals to walk.

It was a morning in November 2021, and Pabubhai was on his eastward journey. In a few days, he would cross the Surajbari bridge, the main conduit connecting the arid island of Kachchh with the more humid mainland of Gujarat.

A map of Gujarat with shaded regions highlighting migratory patterns of pastoralists.
A map of Gujarat showing Pabubhai’s migration area in grey, with grasslands in green, salt desert in yellow, agricultural hotspots marked in orange and violet, and the Surajbari bridge. Image by author, 2022.

“Aren’t you early?” I asked.

“No. I am just in time,” he replied.

My question arose from having observed that he had made the same crossing after the rains in December 2020, and exceptionally late in the monsoonal “year” before in February 2020, after the prolonged and violent rains in 2019. Yet to him calendar months didn’t matter—his rhythm was determined by his experience of the weather. He didn’t consider any of the seasons uniform, nor their quality homogenized—unlike the four equal months of summer, monsoon, and winter that my textbooks had taught me (or the six seasons of the Hindu calendar they didn’t teach).

Pabubhai’s idea of being “just in time” was not connected to normative months, but rainfall. Rainfall is central to pastoralists’ experiences of seasons and climate. In fact, the awkward relationship of Kachchhis with standardized calendars is apparent—their new year begins on Ashadi bij, or the second day of Ashad, the ninth month of the Hindu Gujarati lunar calendar (falling sometime towards the end of June in the Gregorian calendar), which is said to indicate the first day of rains.

Rainfall, or the lack of it, is experienced rather than measured, exemplified by Pabubhai’s statement, “Amuk dukal saara e hoy ane amuk kharab pan (Some droughts are good, and some are bad too).”

For the state, rainfall below a set ten-year average denotes drought. But the quality of the rainfall—its duration, frequency, and intensity, and its interaction with the people, animals, and the environment—defined Pabubhai’s experience.

“Varsad mede mede pade toh haaru. Moto maal hoy toh ene 80% khape, pan jhina maal mate toh 60-70% varsaad e haaru (It is good if rain falls moderately. Large stock [ruminants] needs 80% [of the annual average] rainfall, but for the small stock, even 60-70% is good.),” he said, relating his understanding of “good” rainfall to the wellbeing of his animals.

Unlike commercial crop agriculture that may require higher rainfall and serves as a standard for what is believed to be “good” rain, livestock thrives in less than “optimum” rain and hence, serves as “drought insurance par excellence” offering income even when crops may fail.

Moreover, in a drought year, Pabubhai asks, “Where is the drought until?” If rainfall was even across space, then the region would “green up” and “brown down” at the same time. The unequal distribution of rainfall and the patchiness of resources over space and time means that the pastoralists can chase and prolong their access to green vegetation and to the rain, by intelligently sequencing their movements.

Synchronizing the timing, tempo, and rhythm of their movements with the weather and crop cycles requires deep ecological knowledge that Kachchh’s Rabari pastoralists have accumulated through experience over time. It involves tacking back and forth between past experiences and expectations of the future; between empirical evidence and abstract ways of thinking about them; making decisions in the here-and-now and on-the-go depending on a range of temporal conditions.

Shifts in political economy accompanied by increasing climatic uncertainties are altering pastoral temporalities.

Pastoral understandings of temporality and environment manifest intuitively and affectively. Weather is read through signs in the environment, through the footsteps of the animals, through the feel of the wind on the skin. A year is katho (tough) or bhalo (good) rather than being defined by the exact amount of rain, soil is modu (bland) or kharu (salty) rather than mineral-rich, vegetation is satisfying rather than nutritious—all characterized by subjective experience and interaction rather than objective abstraction.

Social institutions, too, imbibe the shifting temporalities of grazing by allowing arrangements that facilitate modular reciprocal arrangements within the community and with others. For example, the pastoralists aptly time their movements with harvest times to ensure that they have access to crop farms, and the possibility to earn income in cash or kind through manure exchange.

At the same time, the pastoralists travel in migrating groups that may flexibly shapeshift from two to four to ten or even twelve flocks together depending on resource availability. In turn, the size of the group influences the pace of movement. Hence, the practice of mobility, and the consequent organization and experience of time, greatly shapes pastoral lives—both individual and collective.

When Pastoralist Temporalities Interact with “Development”

Yet, while one earthquake—the one that drowned the river—enabled this lifestyle, another seems to be upsetting it.

Zamano fari gayo chhe (The times have turned),” said Jiviben, Pabubhai’s wife, at their camp in the evening. The phrase has emerged as an axiom for the people of Kachchh. Following the devastating earthquake of 2001, the region was deliberately turned into a corporate business opportunity as its vast, “empty”, and “barren” “wastelands” were offered tax free to large-scale export-oriented industries.

Gujarat is also responsible for 33% of Indian exports, as Kachchh hosts the biggest ports of the country. Big, phallic towers, barbed wire, and concrete surfaces symbolize the privatization, fragmentation, and enclosure of territory. Once considered the “backwater of the prosperous State of Gujarat,” Kachchh has become the engine of its double-digit economic growth.

On the other hand, agrarian change towards input-intensive, mechanized, and hybrid/genetically modified varieties of crops have accompanied a paradigm shift towards a zadapi zamano (fast age), especially with the coming of BT cotton to Gujarat in the early 2000s. While indigenous cotton grows in six to seven months, genetically modified BT cotton—which now dominates the region—grows in only four months’ time. Supplemented by improved infrastructure and technology for irrigation and subsidies for chemical inputs, crops can now be sown ahead of the monsoon, and multiple croppings are also possible.

Pabubhai and his family sitting around a bonfire with darkness surrounding them.
Pabubhai’s family sitting around a fire in the night. Photo by author, 2020.

Such shifts in political economy accompanied by increasing climatic uncertainties are altering pastoral temporalities. Sitting around the fire as Jiviben made millet bread in the dusk light, Pabubhai shared his experience from a couple of years ago.

In November 2019, Kachchh and several parts of Gujarat experienced late and violent rains and hailstorms that destroyed the cotton crop. As compensation for the loss suffered by farmers, the government offered subsidies for resowing. The farmers used this compensation to repurchase seeds and with the availability of irrigation and inputs resowing was made possible. Immediately after the late rains, Pabubhai went back to the highlands in Kachchh where he had spent the monsoon, waiting to move to mainland Gujarat for grazing. The delayed harvests post resowing also meant relatively delayed journeys.

Pabubhai finally crossed the Surajbari bridge to mainland Gujarat in February 2020, after celebrating the festival of Mahashivratri in his home village in Kachchh. At the same time, the rains had enabled a castor crop in Kachchh, drawing them back to the region in May 2020 in conditions of COVID-19 and ahead of the impending rains. They grazed in cotton and wheat farms only for three months, as opposed to the eight months of the previous cycle when the rainfall was extremely low.

Man walking with herd of small goats in front of him, camel laden with various belongings walking further in the distance.
Pabubhai and Jiviben shifting camps. Photo by author, 2020.

This period had a lasting effect. It impacted immediate and short-term grazing routes as well as longer-term rhythms as the animals experienced late lambing, having had less and late access to protein rich cotton crop residues. This late lambing affected movements later in the year as the lambs were too young to walk long distances when it was time to go to Gujarat again. Moreover, the confluence of climatic and socio-economic change that these circumstances emerge from and respond to is having a longer-lasting impact on pastoralists across the region.

While fodder is now available closer to home, given the expansion in agriculture, pastoralists are increasingly subjugated by farmers for access. Although pastoralism remains economically lucrative, pastoralists are politically marginalized. Their practices are efficient and innovative, but they remain outside contemporary imaginaries of modernity.

Swinging between the accelerated pace of the global capitalist temporal structure and their inherent alignment with environmental time, pastoralists are simultaneously timeless and enduring—outside of mainstream time, clocks, and calendars, and out-of-time as they find themselves increasingly catching up with rapid changes.

Environment as Myriad Temporalities

Cast from confusion, the story of Kachchh and the Kachbo (literally: Kachchh and the tortoise, here implying a nomad with their home on their backs) serves as both material and metaphor to rethink ideas of the environment through the lens of temporality. Assessments based on standardized measures, especially of time and its relations, have shown the environment in Kachchh to be uniformly barren, arid, and drought-prone. An assessment based on linear and singular ideas of modernity and development thus equate it to being “backward,” “left behind,” and “behind time.”

But this is not the experience of Rabari pastoralists. Rather than an atemporal construct, the environment pleats together various temporalities such as weather, diurnal cycles, and crop cycles—“natural” rhythms, as they intersect with politically mediated human intervention. The pastoralists engage with and co-construct the environment through unique relationships that incorporate shifting temporalities and spatialities. The environment, as time, has come to be seen not as a passive medium acted in or an abstracted object of control that is acted on. Instead, it is lived, felt, and acted with.

Rather than singularly good or bad, modern or backward, productive or waste, the environment as the nomad is variable, uncertain, multiple, pliable, fluid, and alive. It is sometimes fast, sometimes slow, and everbecoming.

The nomad is environment-time. The environment is nomadic.

Featured Image: A Rabari pastoralist from Kachchh, his son and sheep, as they walk towards pasture near the Surajbari bridge with salt pans in the background. Photo by Nipun Prabhakar (supported by the author), 2020. 

Author’s Note: Names of the pastoralists have been changed to maintain anonymity. While factual, quotes from multiple sources have been attributed to the named pastoralists to maintain the narrative style of the piece.

Natasha Maru is a researcher, policy consultant, and creative practitioner working with pastoralists in western India and globally. She finished a PhD from the Institute of Development Studies in 2022 looking at the temporal experiences of being mobile with Rabari pastoralist from Kachchh. She currently works with the International Land Coalition and holds a research grant from the Alserkal Arts Foundation. She is interested in nomadism, resource politics, the commons, space-time-mobility, and living life in technicolor. Contact. LinkedIn.

Acknowledgements: The research for this article was supported by the PASTRES (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins) programme, which received an Advanced Grant funding from the European Research Council (ERC) (Grant agreement No. 70432). PASTRES was co-hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the European University Institute (EUI). For more information, visit www.pastres.org.