The camp looked intriguing. About a dozen tents – no more than plastic sheets covered by old sarees – standing in the midst of a strange amalgam of jury-rigged vehicles one day in March.
One of the vehicles was still recognisable as a cycle rickshaw, despite its reinforced axle, thickened frame and motorcycle wheels. The rest were cycle carts – the kind vegetable vendors pull around in India's streets – with motorcycle engines welded onto the frame. The open cart had been replaced by a large metal box with faded posters of the Sai Baba of Shirdi, a Muslim spiritual leader who became immensely popular with Hindus in the 19th century and is still revered today.
Each of the carts housed a shrine of Sai Baba. And yet the group, camping along the road to Pichavaram, a fishing village in coastal Tamil Nadu, were not devotees travelling around the country spreading his gospel.
They were not even Tamilians. They were from a village near Nellore in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and had been on the road for two months.
Thokala Yedukondalu, a young man in the group, said they had left their village on these vehicles after the harvest festival of Sankranti in January. The families, many spanning three generations, travelled first to Chennai, then Pondicherry and Chidambaram in central Tamil Nadu, camping at each place for a few days. Every morning, the men headed from the camps to the nearby villages on their carts to collect alms in the name of Sai Baba. “We make enough money to eat and pay for petrol,” said Yedukondalu.
How long had they been doing this, I asked. Four years, said one of the men. And what had prompted them to undertake the long journey? Given my decrepit Telugu, I could not fully understand their response. All that I could follow was that their traditional livelihood in the early part of the year involved drum-beating and bulls, and in recent years, the number of cattle in the village had come down.
The government had failed to come to their aid. “Naidu is not doing anything for us," said an old woman, referring to Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.
As its traditional livelihood crumbled, for two months every year, this community had jury-rigged itself a new livelihood.
The story of this community is not unique. Travel around India and you find Biharis in Chennai, Manipuris in Thanjavur, Odias in Andhra, Tamilians in Odisha. The country is on the move. The migration cycle is tied up to the availability of work.
Every year, by the end of March, the group heads back to their village, said Yedukondalu. Till the farming season starts, they make bricks and work as coolies.
Then, they work on the farm till the harvest. Come Sankranti in January, and they are southbound again.