Omar Khan is the author of Paper Jewels: Postcards of the Raj (2018) and From Kashmir to Kabul: The Photographs of Burke and Baker, 1860-1900 (2002). He is also the founder of the award-winning Indus Valley civilisation history website Harappa.com.
Photo Essay: Nomad Postcards
Postcards were the Instagram of their time, the world’s first mass transfusion of colour images, propagating from thousands to billions in a handful of years between 1895 and 1900. They connected the world through images more rapidly and extensively than any previous medium. Allowing everyone to peer into little known corners of the world. Eventually setting us on the path towards the image-soaked ‘Insta this!’ culture we live in today.
Because so many postcards were produced, and enough have survived, they are often the only images we have of places and people from a century or more ago. Original photographs from which postcards were often struck may have been lost, but the postcards, sometimes with a message on them, survive. Such collectibles have the ability to transport one back in time. Yesterday’s ephemera could be today’s invaluable discovery.
Occasionally, nomads — those most fleeting of human subjects and least sedentary inhabitants of our planet—were caught on a postcard. It is clear from the many postcards of nomads that survive, that they were noteworthy figures in the landscape and that their presence was felt by those with the resources to buy and send postcards. Many seem to be from French possessions in North Africa (Algeria, Morocco), but there are a few from British India too. A number are “transborder” nomads who could cross safely back and forth between the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of British India and Afghanistan (an independent kingdom). “Transborder” nomads were remarkable then as now for how little they cared for the (artificial) borders of states and realms. Other nomads are identified as “wayfarers” in the colour examples from Central India; the term is slightly pejorative to be sure — as in, “unmoored” people — but perhaps also suggests some longing for a way of life that is untethered. Nomads, in fact, are the opposite of people who send postcards from one address to another. They are the postcards, always moving and ending up in new realms.
Nomads have always played an important role for sedentary people. Current research reveals how nomads helped transmit cultural artifacts (like music and crafts), as well as animals and natural resources from place to place — as they did in their capacity as seasonal labourers who migrated from central to western India in order to supplement agricultural and other work. In more recent times, nomads “smuggled” goods across the Durand line between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Perhaps one could call nomads human postcards, carrying stories and experiences, with the address space left vacant.
Original caption: “A Kuchi family (A wandering transborder tribe) moving to Peshawar plains at the approach of cold weather” (The Kuchi are Afghan nomads.) Circa 1910. Postcard, K.C. Mehra & Sons, Peshawar, c. 1915.
Survival on the Summit
Afghan nomads from an illustrated drawing c. 1920.
This advertising card by Liebig’s meat extract, circa 1890-1900, has the photo of a nomad village at the top of the card with the title “Nomadendorf der Hilmen” in German, which could be “Helmand Nomad village” or “Hillmen Nomad Village.” If one had to guess, the former is most likely the accurate translation.
Romani Femininity, or the Sisterhood of the Gypsy Jewels
Original title: A group of Lambanis gypsies of the Deccan. Original postcard caption: “These folk are gypsies inhabiting the great Deccan of India. Their dress is decorated with shells, their arms are generally adorned with a large number of bracelets made of the bones of deer.” Postcard, Raphael Tuck & Sons #9851 Native Life in India Series VII, London, c. 1911.
Original title: A Persian gypsy woman and her children. Original postcard caption: “A Persian Gypsy Woman and Children. These itinerant vendors of small articles travel far and wide through India, often pretending also to occult knowledge. Their faces are distinctly of the Romany type, and frequently are not unbeautiful.” Postcard, Raphael Tuck & Sons #9850 Native Life in India Series VI, London, c. 1911.
Original title: Wayfarers. Original caption: “The position of the child in the picture is typical. The man is carrying a larger share of the burden than is usual. Generally the timid, shrinking wife, walking behind at a respectful distance, has to carry both luggage and child.” Postcard, Raphael Tuck & Sons #9851 Native Life in India Series VII, London, c. 1911.