The Frankincense Boy from Gujarat

The magic of travel is, of course, the places one sees: some are stunning, others charming, and some can be challenging. But what makes traveling so attractive to me is primarily the people I meet, especially those I stumble on in unplanned, random encounters. Some of these people leave lasting impressions. Sahib, the frankincense boy, is one of them.

I met Sahib in Poshina, a village in the northern state of Gujarat fairly close to the border with Rajasthan. At dawn, the first day, I started walking in the village. The first thing I noticed was that a few people were sleeping on the streets, some of them on a platform in front of an array of small shops. A young boy was among them, standing next to a pile of blankets. I waved at him, took a quick photo, and continued to explore further. A couple of hours later, as I retraced my steps to return for what I felt was a well-deserved breakfast, I saw this young boy again. He was sitting on what I assume was his mother’s lap, next to an older boy and a much older lady. The older boy was Sahib, 10 years old, looking serious and responsible. I sat with them for a while and learned that the younger boy was his little brother and the older lady his grandmother. His father meandered toward us at a later point.

Sahib is not from Poshina, he is a wanderer or an itinerant. His family does not have a home. To earn a little money for the family, he burns frankincense in the top tier of a three-tiered vessel. Sahib goes around the village, stopping at houses and shops to offer them the smoke and smell of his frankincense that he shares using a small piece of cardboard as a fan in exchange for a few coins. This is his life: he does not go to school; he just walk around offering to “purify” people’s life thru a little sniff of his frankincense. After chatting for a while, Sahib announced that it was time for him to start his round, and I decided to follow along (breakfast would have to wait to the annoyance of my hungry stomach).

And so Sahib (and I) spent the next few hours in the streets of this small village, chatting with the tailors (somehow Poshina has a lot of tailors) and the shop owners, knocking at doors of family homes in narrow streets, meeting people some of whom he knew but also new ones. Though Sahib is Muslim, the villagers, predominantly Hindus, seemed to welcome his frankincense or Sahib as the Muslims were.

At the end of his route, Sahib announced that he was done and was now going to another village for the afternoon. I asked him whether his family would sleep at the same place as last night and if I could come back to say goodbye the next day. He said yes. So at dawn the next day, I went down to the platform where I had seen the little boy the previous morning, ready for another adventure with Sahib. Sadly nobody was on the platform. I will never have the answers to the million questions I had about his life and I will probably never see Sahib’s smile again. Yet, the little time I spent with him was special.

Meet Sahib.




8 Responses

  1. I’m Cynthia Winter’s brother-in-law. Cynthia has been sharing your photos with me for quite some time. I’m a great admirer of your work. I’ve been photographing for forty years. I do mostly street photography which works out well as we live about forty-five minutes from NYC. I really enjoyed the Sahib images. The best compliment I can give to someone else’s photograph is that I wish I had taken it. That would apply to several of the Sahib photos. I look forward to seeing more of your work.
    Jack Weingarten

    1. Dear Jack, So nice hearing from you. Yes Cynthia had mentioned that Nicholas’s brother was interested in photography and that she was forwarding him my blog posts. I am sure you have quite a portfolio since you have been at it for some time, I like street photography as well but it is an art form in itself. Thanks for your kind words on the images of Sahib. As always when you have a connection with a subject, things end up looking better. I am glad you are enjoying the images. Hope I get to see your work one day. All the best, France

  2. Good thing you put breakfast on the back burner (no pun intended) and tagged along with Sahib–the photos of your morning with him are delightful. You defintley have the gift of relating to people. And your photos let us along for the vicarious ride.

    1. Elise, Sahib was easy to relate too. He was a very endearing boy. I wish I could have had more time with him. Oh well. And I never worry about breakfast, there is always lunch… Hope you are well. France

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