A Visit to the 2018 Malegaon Jatra with Sailani the Camel Trader

By Firdaus Soni. Firdaus is a PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad. Her doctoral work studies the cultural, religious, and economic aspects of jatras (fairs) in the Marathwada region of the Deccan.

Sailani says he was named after “Sailani Baba” or Hazi Abdul Rehman, a Sufi saint popular in the western parts of Maharashtra. Although there are many urs held to commemorate this saint in the region, Sailani jokes that “it is the jatra of Malegaon that I was destined to visit.”

Crowds of people at the Malegaon Jatra with the Khandoba Temple in rear (Source: Firdaus Soni)

Sailani first visited the Malegaon jatra as a child. He remembers a man from Rajasthan, a Muslim like himself, who used to visit his village to sell camels to the local Dhangar shepherds. His village was a stop on the trader’s route to the jatra’s famous camel market. Sailani was fascinated by camels and joined this man on his journey to Malegaon several times.

The camel market at the Malegaon jatra (Source: Firdaus Soni)

As he got older, Sailani began to work as a driver but his interest in camels never disappeared. He continued traveling with the visiting trader and learning about the camel trade from him. Ten years ago, he made his first trip to Rajasthan with him to try his own hand at the business. They travelled to the Pattan fair, a hundred kilometers from Chittorgarh district, along with a few other traders from Maharashtra.

Sailani remarks, “Camels in Rajasthan are like dogs here. You find them everywhere, and they hardly have any value. You might even get a camel for a few hundred rupees there.  Rajasthan is their maaher (maternal home). In our region, Malegaon is the only fair for camels. There is no other fair like this.” 

In 2018, Sailani bought 10 camels for 10,000 rupees each in Rajasthan with the hope of selling them for 25,000 rupees at the Malegaon jatra. He spent over a month walking the camels over hundreds of kilometers to reach the fair. The ones he was unable to sell there would be sold further west at the annual February urs of Hazrat Turabul Haq in Parbhani. If some camels still remained, he would sell them at a minimum rate. Sailani says that camel trading keeps him busy for about four months of the year. He spends the rest of the year working as a private taxi driver in Latur.

Jatras, yatras, urs and melas are an essential feature of the historical landscape of western Maharashtra and have long served as central places of economic exchange and religious activity in the Deccan. The Malegaon jatra is an annual month-long festival that begins on the no moon day of Marghashish (January-December). It is organized around the village’s Khandoba temple. This deity is closely associated with the shepherding communities of the region and regularly affiliated with Shiva. In Kannada he is known as Mailari or Mallayya and in Telugu he is often referred to as Mallana. The village, located almost at the intersection of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Telangana, falls under the Nanded district of Marathwada. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from these areas as well as northern areas such as Saurashtra, Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Herbert Eder theorizes markets as ‘microcosms’ of the ‘regional environment’ (Eder 1976: 76). One could extend this same description to jatras. In the course of my field work, I discovered that jatras were not just an essential part of the cultural and religious landscape of the Deccan but played a very important role in the life of many pastoral and peripatetic communities.

Nomadic communities traditionally formed a principal component of these gatherings called jatras. They congregated at them for many purposes. These included the exchange of goods and services, trade, religious practice, and intra-community activities such as caste panchayats.

If one considers the temple grounds to form the center of the jatra, we can see that the camel market is located at its outer periphery. To the south of the Malegaon Khandoba temple, beyond the Buddhist section of the village, is a small two room government veterinary hospital with a large adjacent field. The camel market has gathered on this empty ground for several decades.

A resting tent for traders with the Malegaon veterinary hospital behind (Source: Firdaus Soni)

Caravans of camel herders arrive over a week before the official beginning of the fair on the no moon day. By the third or fourth day of the fair, all sales and transactions have been completed. The traders stay for a few more days to enjoy the jatra before moving on to their next market or returning to their hometowns.

Once the herders and traders arrive, they set up their small tents made out of bamboo and tarpaulin and cloth. Every tent has a small hearth next to it that will be used for cooking meals. At a distance from the tents, men are busy digging big iron nails into the ground, the forelegs of the camel are tied with a strong thick rope to prevent it from running away, and then it is secured with another rope to the nail.

Sailani secures his camels to the nails as they return from grazing (Source: Firdaus Soni)

One can easily count the number of camels brought to the fair, by looking at the iron nails dug in this dusty patch where the market gathers. This year, I am told that there are more than 250 nails. Last year there were more than 400. Over the last three years I have witnessed that the number of camels that come to Malegaon have been reducing at a steady pace.

A buyer is inspecting the teeth of Sailani’s camels to judge their age.  The camel is held still as its legs are tied to keep them from running away.  The sale is soon made.  Sailani says that although he buys the camels from Rajasthan in cash, he sells them here on a loan. “If we demand cash right away, the buyers always ask us to reduce the price.  If we loan it, then we can get a better price.”

Sailani’s main customers are shepherds from the nomadic Hatkar community. He comments, “It’s only the shepherd who still practices pastoral life that has a use for this animal. The peasant has no use for it. Our only customers are people who use camels for kids rides in cities and shepherds.”

New traders and those who bring only a few camels often come to jatras with their families. They typically belong to peripatetic communities (Source: Firdaus Soni)

Sailani’s connection to the Malegaon jatra is limited to the camel market. He doesn’t visit the temple of Khandoba. He claims that most of the people who come to the jatra do not visit the temple and none from the camel market. The camel fair in Rajasthan near Chittor, he says, is associated with the goddess cult of Mataji. He remembers being awed by the Dusshehra celebrations in her honor there. He visits the dargah in Parbhani and on occasion the urs of Sailani Baba as well.

Camel traders waiting for customers to arrive at the market (Source: Firdaus Soni)

The space for traditionally mobile communities has been shrinking at the Malegaon jatra with each passing year. This fair is imagined as a rural agrarian exhibition by the Indian government. The nomadic and pastoral groups who attend are at the receiving end of the government’s criminalization, neglect, and appropriation. Yet the jatra continues to expand and serve as a space for entrepreneurial innovations in the face of a violently changing political economy.

Traders and Buyers negotiate sales and inspect animals (Source: Firdaus Soni)

The Malegaon jatra is a site of opportunity for people like Sailani. He is not restricted by the barriers of caste or religion but is instead able to negotiate them effectively. With just ten years of experience in the trade, he has become an important leader in the jatra’s camel market. His business has steadily grown while many traders look to him for advice. In his own words, the jatra and the camel have helped him reach beyond his village and opened the whole world for him.