How A Nomadic Indian Tribe Created The Ancient Craft Of Ply-Split Braiding

The Rabari tribe
The Rabari tribeL: Atlas of Humanity R: Pastoral Times

Ply-split braiding is an ancient craft form that originated in northwestern India. What makes it unique compared to other forms of braiding or weaving is its technique. Here, one twisted cord (splitter) passes through another twisted cord or multiple cords splitting the plies of the latter cords (splittee cords). In common forms of braiding or weaving cloth is formed by threads interlacing in an over-under sequence. The pattern is formed by different cord colors and the order of splitting. Ply-split braiding has a rich 700-year-old history that is quite fascinating.

A cord being pulled through others in ply-split braiding
A cord being pulled through others in ply-split braidingLouise French

The history of the practice of ply-split braiding is interwoven with the history of the Rabari tribe. The Rabari, also known as the Rewari or Desai, are an indigenous tribal caste of nomadic shepherds, cattle, and camel herders that reside throughout northwestern India, majorly in the states of Gujarat, Punjab, and Rajasthan. Some section of the Rabari population is also found in the region of the Sindh Desert in Pakistan. The word 'Rabari' translates to 'outsiders', which is an apt description of their major occupation and station within Indian society.

One can spot a Rabari by their three distinctive features —their tattoos, jewelry, and their occupation. The most common ink on their bodies is a tattoo of a scorpion on the finger. Scorpions hold a sacred distinctive place in Rabari culture. They believe that a scorpion is an avatar of Lord Krishna, who protects them during their arduous journeys on foot through forests. Rabari women are adorned with jewelry such as large nose rings supported by a chain attached to the hair while upper arm bangles are worn by married women. An easy way to identify which region a Rabari woman hails from is the jewelry. Typically, women with all the bracelets on their arms are from Rajasthan and those without bracelets but covered with tattoos are from Gujarat.

A Rabari woman with all her finery
A Rabari woman with all her fineryJulie Higelin
Tatoos on a Rabari woman
Tatoos on a Rabari womanAlessandro Bergamini

Traditionally, the main source of income for the Rabari community was livestock — selling camel milk, sheep wool, and/or the animals themselves. Even twenty years ago, camels used to be sold at fairs in Bikaner, Rajasthan but now the trade is rapidly declining owing to climate change, lesser demand, and changes in lifestyle. As a result, more and more members of the Rabari community are shifting towards the cities.

A Rabari with their nomadic lifestyle has to travel huge distances. To provide support to the riders, a wooden frame called a Kathu, was fitted on the camel’s hump. It was attached to the camel with a ply-split braided belt called Tang. Tang, a traditional Rabari camel belt, is a 700-year-old craft that has organically developed over the years through the exchange of knowledge within the community. The nomadic tribe spends much of the year in forests. As a result, their environmental surroundings inspire the motifs of Tang, which have also evolved over the years. The most common motifs are camels, panihari (women with water pots on their heads), and scorpions. All Tang motifs are made at a 90-degree angle and look exactly similar from both sides.

Scorpion motif on a Tang
Scorpion motif on a TangPastoral Times

The craft of ply-split weaving was also used to create camel regalia to decorate them for festivals. Now, the practice has completely ceased in the Rabari community and only museums can attest to the decoration of camels. Only a few of the elders have still kept alive the practice of ply-split weaving, as it is time-consuming and very few young members of the community have the skillset to execute it. As the practice among the Rabaris declined, it was picked up by other communities. Even then only a handful of artisans from other communities have what it takes to craft an impeccable Tang Belt.

However, modern-day designers and artists have picked up the craft. The ply-split braiding technique is used by fiber artists to create handmade decorative items such as neckwear, bags, household decorations, garments, and structures such as baskets and sculptures. Today’s braid makers employ materials such as cotton, linen, hemp, silk, paper, or rayon in their ply-split braiding process. It is a method that requires minimal equipment but a high degree of skill. Even though the practice is no longer prevalent in the community where it was born 700 years ago, it has found its way to modernity.

A braided necklace made from cotton cords by ply-split braiding
A braided necklace made from cotton cords by ply-split braidingLouise French

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