The Gir Forest in the Junagadh district of Gujarat is an abode to several tribal communities who have lived there for generations. The main tribes found in the Gir area are the Maldharis and the Siddis. The Maldharis, a pastoral community, are primarily involved in cattle breeding and rely heavily on the forest for their livelihood. Known as one of the oldest inhabitants of Gir, they possess a deep understanding of the forest ecosystem and play a crucial role in its conservation. The term "Maldhari" translates to "keeper of the animal stock" and refers to people from various castes and communities who have settled in the Junagadh district, particularly in the Gir Forest. Historically nomadic, the Maldharis became recognized as traditional dairymen in the region, supplying milk and cheese to the palaces of local rulers. The Siddis, an ethnic group of African descent, have also resided in the region for centuries, adding to the cultural tapestry of the Gir Forest.

There are several Tourist attractions near Gir, but experiencing the tribal culture is a highlight when visiting Gir National Park. The Maldhari herding clans have resided within Sasan Gir for millennia, roaming the area in search of pastures for their livestock. Their coexistence with the Asiatic lions is thought to be a key factor in the species' survival, with both humans and animals benefiting from this relationship. The Maldharis are renowned for their deep knowledge of animals and their expertise in traditional crafts such as embroidery and jewellery making. These crafts not only serve practical purposes but also symbolise social status and belief systems within their community. 

The Role of Maldhari Women

One of the communities inhabiting the Banni grasslands of Kachchh is the Maldharis, predominantly Muslims. This semi-nomadic community migrates seasonally in search of fodder and water. They raise and breed livestock, including Banni buffaloes (Sindhi buffalo), Kankrej cattle (Sindhi cows), horses, camels, sheep, and goats. Women play a significant role in livestock rearing, while men typically handle foraging, selling milk to dairies, and selecting grazing routes.

Maldhari women are known for their artistic skills, particularly their unique embroidery, which varies by caste and is passed down through generations. Girls start learning embroidery at a young age, and many women connect with handicraft organizations to earn an income from their craft. These resilient women have overcome adversities and hardships, inspiring others in their villages to improve their circumstances. Here are the stories of three remarkable women who have dared to dream and made a significant impact within the Maldhari communities of the Banni Grasslands.

The Culture and Lifestyle of Maldhari Tribe

The Maldharis are descended from nomadic groups who migrated from regions such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and various parts of Gujarat before settling in the Gir grasslands. Their main communities include the Bharvad, Rabari, Ahir, and Charan. These semi-nomadic herders spend about eight months each year moving their flocks of sheep, goats, cows, buffalo, and camels across sparse pasturelands in search of feed. During the monsoon season, they return to their native villages, as the rains promote the growth of fresh grass nearby. In some Maldhari communities, weddings are traditionally celebrated only once a year on Krishna Janmashtami, Lord Krishna’s birthday, which occurs in the middle of the rainy season.

In certain areas, girls are not permitted to attend school. Instead, they are expected to spend their formative years sewing intricate garments for their wedding day. If they were married off as children, as many were, they create these elaborate outfits for the ceremony when they move in with their husbands, typically in their early twenties.

The lifestyle of this community is quite simple. Living in small mud homes in the heart of the forest, they lack access to electricity, schools, running water, and a reliable healthcare system. They earn a living by gathering wild honey, planting vegetables, and selling milk. Their main source of income comes from selling pure, high-quality milk, ghee, butter, cheese, vegetables, wool, livestock, and beautiful handicrafts. Additionally, they set up temporary stalls at the forest entrances to sell homemade wall hangings and other decorative items to tourists visiting the Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary.