Tucked away between the Great Salt Desert of
Kutch and a hill range is the Banni Grassland Reserve. Though it is the second
largest grassland in Asia, it is relatively unknown. It wasn’t always a
grassland; the Indus flowed through here and communities from what is now Iran,
Afghanistan, Sindh, and Balochistan have been living here for centuries.
In 1819 a massive earthquake changed the course of the Indus, and Banni became an arid grassland. The settler communities adopted pastoralism and live in 48 hamlets that dot the grassland. While they comprise a number of tribes, their collective identity is maaldhari. In the local dialect—Kutchi—maal refers to animals, and dhari means possessor. They rear cows, buffaloes, camels, horses, sheep, and goats. Their lives and culture revolve around their animals. Some migrate to find pasture for their herds. Their social status is tied to the size and quality of the herd. Every year, they come together for two days to celebrate this.
The Banni Pashu Mela is organized by the Banni Breeders Association. It brings together all maaldhari communities in the Banni. The most popular event is freestyle wrestling for men (locally, bakhmalakdo). This form of wrestling is equally popular in Kutch as well as Sindh, Pakistan. On the day people from villages near and far also gather to make this event a one-of-a-kind annual extravaganza.
—Text by Hardika Dayalani