ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY piece together Thar’s glorious past from fragments of ruins, cenotaphs, folklore, forgotten forts and caravanserais along the Silk Route
The road shot across the Thar, a monochrome landscape resembling a gargantuan oatmeal cookie, toasted by sun and time to an uneven brown. All of a sudden, the endless parched expanse was broken by a vast carpet of green, speckled with vegetation. Stray horses lapped at water puddles on the fringes. We rubbed our eyes. It was no mirage. We were staring at the result of an indigenous rainwater harvesting practice that has provided sustenance in these barren tracts for centuries!
At an unmarked location near Jaisalmer beyond the reach of Google Maps, we were on the bespoke Desert Remembers trail, beautifully curated to present Thar’s lesser known history and folklore. The ancient Paliwal Brahmins, who prospered from trade on the Silk Route, were geniuses in agriculture and practised an innovative farming technique. Studying local topography and geology, they identified flatlands and built embankments above an impervious gypsum layer to trap rainwater. These precious aagor (catchment areas) caught the first rains and a network of dhoras (drains) channelled water throughout the khadin (community farmland), ensuring it remained a shallow oasis.
Low ridges to our right formed the mineral rich gravely uplands that gently sloped towards the fertile silty basin on our left. The harnessed rainwater was flooded into the low lying fields and held for two months. The impervious gypsum layer enabled the soil to resuscitate, assuring a round of crops annually and sometimes, even a post-rain crop. No one owned the land and the entire community collectively shared the harvest! Their water management was so legendary, the Paliwals were believed to possess powers to summon rains at will.
As we drove past a sandstone pillar, we noticed deities and inscriptions carved on it. Our host Manvendra Singh Shekhawat explained that it was a govardhan, ancient water markers venerated as shila-ji (holy stone) by locals. Sometimes precious metals would be buried under the posts, with etchings of the ruling planetary deity, aligned to constellations in the sky. It doubled up as a navigational aid and served as life-saving signposts for travellers in the past. After a full day, we finally retired to the comfort of our base Suryagarh.
Many of the hotel’s design elements were inspired by its surroundings – the jharokas overlooking the central courtyard from Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling design from Kuldhara. Champagne and snacks heralded the launch of the Residences at Suryagarh, an exclusive section of private suites set away from the main hotel.
Each handcrafted sandstone haveli offered a sense of private luxury while a large open courtyard, reminiscent of Paliwal villages, was based on the community living concept. Wide windows and pillared corridors framed the vastness of the desert while the warm décor, sunken rooms and furnishings exuded sophisticated charm. In a rare tribute, each room was named after the chief karigar (mason) who built it!
The next day, the prospect of waking up for before dawn for ‘Breakfast with Peacocks’ seemed too much effort, so we settled for a leisurely Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard. It was an asssault course of farsan (snacks), which were consumed in no particular order – kachori, aloo bonda, mirchi pakoda, fafda, samosa, laddus, gulabjamun, fruits, fresh juices, followed by assorted parathas, curd and a variety of pickles and chutneys. It was carnage.
Going by our diet, it would seem we were setting out to conquer Khaba Fort, not visit it. As we disembarked, a turbaned manganiyar clicked his castanets to a soulful rendition of the folk classic “Padharo mhare des.” We could have sworn he was perched in the central jharoka of the Suryagarh courtyard moments ago but had magically transported himelf here. Once a flourishing caravanserai, Khaba Fort housed a small museum with fossil rocks and info boards that traced Thar’s geological history. It was hard to believe that 60 million years ago, the desert was a watery world hemmed by the Arabian Sea but over time the seabed had become an unending sea of dunes.
The next stop was Nav Dungar temple, one in a series of nine hill deities, atop Jaisalmer’s second highest point. Members of a desert cycling expedition from Barmer to Jaisalmer halted here for a breather as raucous ravens and vultures lazily circled overhead. The black desert road swooped down the rugged hills and snaked across the arid lands. En route camels and goats flocked to the khejri trees for nourishment and shade. A group of Muslim women waited by the roadside, their vibrant odhnis (veils) billowing in the wind as chunky traditional silver jewellery glinted around their necks, arms and feet. They smiled, noticing how captivated we were by the raw ethnic beauty of their kohl rimmed eyes and gold disc nose studs.
Even before our calorie loss from the day’s exertions could reach double figures, we had reached Joshida Talao, a royal pleasure haunt by the lake. A stone pavilion stood forlorn, once a resting spot for weary travellers. Khejri trees drooped into the small lake as if quenching their thirst. Every now and then, a tractor with blaring music would roll by to replenish water tankers that supplied nearby villages. Reclining on bolsters, we were plied with refreshments and succulent char-grilled meats as we listened to the strains of the algoza (double flute). Perched on a lakeside platform, our troubadour seemed more magician than musician with his acts of teleportation.
We raced in a trail of dust, feeling lost in the overwhelming emptiness until we saw a lone sign of habitation – a dhani (settlement) of Bhils. This nomadic tribe was apparently cursed by goddess Parvati for not appreciating a gift from Lord Shiva. Tracing their lineage to Parvati’s brothers, the Bhils are doomed to wander till perpetuity. Even to this day, Bhils don’t farm. In a land that believes in community living, the Bhils live as nuclear families, moving every few months to another place.
Their hut had no electricity but a cellphone was left to charge on the roof, plugged into a solar panel! Goats bleated in a pen while a lady rolled chapatis on a clay stove inside. She barely had enough for her family; yet she invited us with a broad smile – “Come, have dinner with us!” Their indomitable spirit of survival in these harsh climes with the barest minimum and innate goodness to open their hearts and homes, moved us deeply.
Despite the apparent nothingness all around, there was much to cover – cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, retracing old trade routes on camel safaris, ancient stepwells and tanks, hillocks with fossil remains, the sweet water wells of Mundari and the midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara; the Thar indeed held many secrets. The size and scale of the ruins hinted at untold prosperity. But what looked innoccuous in the day seemed shadowy and ominous by moonlight. It was in the course of one night that the Paliwals abandoned their 84 settlements en masse. Some ascribe their migration to high taxation, a lascivious ruler or locals poisoning their wells out of jealousy. Whatever the cause, they left no trace of where they went.
Since we had explored Jaisalmer’s yellow sandstone mansions and jharokas earlier, we opted out of the city tour. The famous hill fort had inspired Satyajit Ray to pen the mystery novel Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), which he directed into a Bangla movie in 1974. Based on a reincarnation theme, the adventure revolved around detective Feluda and a kid who had a recurring dream of deserts and peacocks. We could identify with that kid.
We drove to Lodhruva, an old trading town and capital of the Bhati rulers before Rawal Jaisal shifted it to Jaisalmer. The 12th century Jain temple of Parswanath, the 23rd tirthankara, was bedecked with garlands. Local kids eagerly guided us around the complex to the sacred Tree of Life, a fabulous wooden structure carved with flora and fauna besides the snake-hole where people offered milk (the lucky ones got to see the serpent)! We were fine with unlucky.
Unfortunately, Lodhruva was raided by Mahmud of Ghazni and Mohammed Ghori several times. After years of neglect, the temple was renovated in the 70s. The sacred sandal paste on our forehead felt cool in the dry desert wind. We sighed and carried on. Like the Bhils, we too had long resigned ourselves to a nomadic life of travel…
Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur Airport, from where Jaisalmer is 300 km/6 hrs by road and Suryagarh is a 20 min drive from town on Sam Road.
Where to Stay: Stay in palace rooms, suites or the new Residences, with signature Rajasthani cuisine in various fine dine settings. http://www.suryagarh.com
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in the September 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.