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The Kalbeliya and Bopa Women:
Queens of the Rajasthan Desert

continued (page 2 of 5)

We woke to the sound of chants from the adjacent ashram, as large monkeys jumped on our roof performing an acrobatic show. As we visited the street market in search of breakfast, three pre-teen girls in colorful patched dresses and adorned in numerous bracelets and anklets greeted Yumi with charming smiles. They offered their hands and said, “Namaste, what’s your name?” As soon as Yumi grasped the proffered hand, one girl turned her hand palm up and proceeded to draw on it using henna paste. Henna paste is a natural substance obtained from the leaves of the henna plant and traditionally used for temporary tattoos that last up to two weeks. Once the paste is applied, it cannot be removed for ten minutes. Once started, Yumi had no choice but to let the girl finish.

We would later learn that this is a favorite marketing technique for young Kalbeliya girls. Once the tattoo is started, the girls invite their “customers” to sit down and, while telling of their poor life or family conditions, begin negotiating high prices for their body art. Prices vary greatly depending on both the quality of the design and the haggling experience of the artist. The more beautiful and aggressive women in their early twenties can get up to ten dollars for a service worth a few cents. We found them charming and accepted their trick as a funny cultural experience, but the adjacent shopkeepers didn’t share our feelings. After the girls left, they told us, “These people are no good! They are thieves! They lie! You should not talk to them!” Later in the day, we noticed more Kalbeliya women, all dressed in the same bright dresses and walking with pride, despite the occasional yell of shopkeepers trying to chase them away. Hindu people have long used henna to decorate the hands of brides for wedding ceremonies. Some Kalbeliya people realized that foreign tourists don’t know the traditional use of henna nor are they caste prejudiced, making them excellent potential customers. These Gypsies settled on the outskirts of Pushkar and adopted henna tattoos as their livelihood.

Page 2 of 5 | Next page »


The Kalbeliya Gypsy women, skilled dancers once hired to entertain kings and maharajahs, are now struggling to preserve their culture.
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