Before They - Photography Project by Jimmy Nelson

XII. India

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There’s a cliché image people have of India. It’s busy, loud, a bombardment of colours and smells. There are cows in the middle of the road and the traffic is a nightmare. And in the cities, this image is absolutely accurate. But there’s another side of India, one that far fewer people know. It’s the India that lies beyond the city borders, far away from the capitals and tourist attractions. The India that’s remote and pure, secluded and serene. It’s the India of the Rabari and the Ladakhi, and the one we had set out to find. 
"The Central Himalayas is very special for many reasons. For one, it’s the roof of the world. Home of some of the world’s highest mountains, it’s an absolutely majestic arena to take in"
For the same reason, it’s also a highly inaccessible region. You can’t get to Ladakh in winter over land. Tibet you can access because it’s on a plateau, Nepal you can reach because it’s on the edge of the Himalaya. But Ladakh is right in the middle of the world’s highest mountain range. As such, it’s completely isolated and snowed in most of the year. The only way in is by plane and even that’s very unreliable because of weather and high altitude. 



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For almost 1,000 years, the Rabari have roamed the deserts and plains of what is today western India. It is believed that this indigenous group, with a peculiar Persian physiognomy, migrated from the Iranian plateau more than a millennium ago. The Rabari are now found largely in Gujarat and Rajasthan. 
“It is morning whenever you wake up"
The Rabari women dedicate long hours to embroidery, a vital and evolving expression of their crafted textile tradition. They also manage the hamlets and all money matters while the men are on the move with the herds. The livestock, wool, milk and leather, is their main source of income.



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Ladakh (meaning ‘land of the passes’) is a cold desert in the Northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is divided into the mainly Muslim Kargil district and the primarily Buddhist Leh district. The people of Ladakh have a rich folklore, some of which date back to the pre- Buddhist era.
“The land is so harsh and the passes so numerous, that only the best of friends or the worst of enemies would visit you”
As the Himalayan farming season is short, Ladakhi only work for 4 months of the year. All ages can join in and help. During the 8 winter months work is minimal and festivals and celebrations are almost a continuous affair, giving them the opportunity to display Goncha, the traditional dress.



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Around 2,500 Drokpas live in three small villages in a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. The only fertile valley of Ladakh. The Drokpas are completely different– physically, culturally, linguistically and socially – from the Tibeto-Burman inhabitants of most of Ladakh.
“Boast during the day, be humble at night”
For centuries, the Drokpas have been indulging in public kissing and wife-swapping without inhibitions. Their cultural exuberance is reflected in exquisite dresses and ornaments. Their main sources of income are products from the well-tended vegetable gardens.