History on their backs

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It is a classic tale of the late 20th century: a way of life unchanged for centuries swept away in a generation. But the decline of the nomadic herdsmen of Saurashtra is, arguably, of more than usual poignancy - especially from the point of view of a photographer. As recently as 20 years ago, the countryside of this region of Gujarat, India's westernmost state, was among the visual wonders of the world. The land itself was unremarkable: dry and dusty, though reasonably fertile. The people who worked on it, however, were unforgettable.

For much of the year, they were nomadic, moving flocks from pasture to pasture. Some reared sheep, some goats or camels; a few had cattle. The non-itinerant minority of farmers paid them to camp in their fields, so manure would fertilise the land. Their lives were simple; everything was done by hand, and much in accordance with ancient custom. Camel carts were used for transport, bullocks for farm-work.

Visually, however, this was a society of the greatest sophistication. Gujarati women have long been famous for their embroidered cholis (silk tops) and heavy mirrorwork skirts, and Gujarati textiles have been admired the world over for centuries. Among the Saurashtra tribes, however, clothes are much more than decoration; they are personal histories. The textile patterns all have meanings, telling the initiated where they come from, their marital status, their religion, even their tribal history.

Kutchi Rabbari women, for example, wear black wool skirts and cholis, richly embroidered in black silk thread and mirrorwork. They have dressed like this for centuries, in mourning for a tribeswoman who, according to legend, died rather submit to an unwanted marriage. But there is an astonishing range of colour even within this tribe. The men wear white lungis, a piece of cloth worn either as a skirt or as a loincloth, but add heavily bordered shawls and large colourful turbans.

Money in its conventional form was rarely used in this society. Instead, people wore their wealth on their bodies, as jewellery or in their precious, painstakingly hand-made clothing. No longer. Progress has finally reached the quietest corners of Gujarat. Foreign investors are setting up factories, and goods can now be imported from all over the world. Consumerism has arrived, and with it satellite television. Even in mud huts, people are dreaming of what they could have if only they had money. Children yearn for Western clothes and luxuries; they no longer want to work as shepherds.

Intensive agriculture and increased road traffic, meanwhile, are making the nomadic way of life untenable. With traditional sources of subsistence drying up, nomadic chiefs are allowing their tribes to sell their identity. There are more and more tourists, and the temptation to sell them jewellery and clothes is irresistible. Sadder still, the women no longer bother with the old style of stitching; they now use thick acrylic threads, sell everything they make, and themselves wear factory-made polyester skirts.

The Indian government is trying to move the shepherds into the 20th century through medical help, education and equal opportunity. They seem to welcome the process, and, in material terms, it should be an improvement. How sad, nevertheless, that this can only be achieved through the passing of an extraordinarily beautiful and ancient way of life.

! An exhibition of Carolyn Cowan's photographs is at Metro, 3 Jubilee Place, London SW3, until 9 Sept.