The abandoned, cursed and haunted village of Kuldhara

For reasons that I cannot really explain, ruins fascinate me. Their history, the people who lived there, their beliefs, their art, culture, their life and their ultimate downfall never fails to interest me. While in Jaisalmer, I heard about the ruins of Kuldhara, and knew that I could not come away without a visit. Yes, ruins have that effect on me; they draw me in like a magnet.

Kuldhara, Jaisalmer, Travel, Rajasthan

So that is how I came to be on the road to Kuldhara, about 20 km from Jaisalmer, one February afternoon listening to Sushil, my car driver-cum-guide, narrate the fairytale-like story of how Kuldhara came to be abandoned, cursed and haunted; forgotten, and then discovered after almost 2 centuries. It was a story that was fascinating in every aspect !

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Kuldhara is inhabited by the rich and wealthy community of Paliwal brahmins. Kuldhara is the largest of a cluster of 84 villages that this community is spread out in. Involved in both agricultural trade and practice, as well as other businesses, the Paliwals contribute a substantial amount to the Jaisalmer kingdom’s coffers.

This is also the time when the Maharaja of Jaisalmer is only a titular head; the real power lies in the hands of his Prime Minister or Diwan, Salum Singh. The Diwan has a lecherous eye and one day this eye falls upon a Kuldhara village belle. He asks, no demands, to marry her. The girl’s father refuses as the Diwan is from a lower caste. The Diwan is furious and gives a 24-hour ultimatum to the girl’s father to change his mind or else…

Kuldhara 4An emergency community council of the Paliwal Brahmins is convened and they arrive at a decision — to leave the area for ever immediately to avoid death and dishonour.

And so it came to happen that the residents of Kuldhara and the other 83 villages take what they can with them, bury the rest and leave their villages in the dead of the night, never to return. The people of Kuldhara also leave a curse behind that nobody would ever be able to live in the village ever again, and whoever tried to dig out the wealth would live to regret it.

Time passes. Days turn into weeks, months, years and then decades. A century goes by and then another. The elements take over and decay and ruin set in. Instead of humans, rats, snakes and desert foxes make the village their home. The ghosts of those who had been forced to abandon Kuldhara also return to the village after their deaths. By now, Kuldhara and its people have passed into folklore and have been forgotten by nearly everyone around. Only a few people from the surrounding villages go there occasionally, more out of curiosity than for any other reason. And then, one day in 1998 something happens to change all this.

Two foreigners are seen wandering around in Kuldhara and digging out stuff from the houses in the village and putting them in their bags. The people who see them alert the local police, who arrive there to investigate. On searching the bags, gold and silver items are recovered. The foreigners are jailed, the local archaeology department is informed, etc. Suddenly Kuldhara is back in the news, and with this its potential as a tourist attraction is recognised and acknowledged.

And then work begins to transform it into one. Security guards are appointed as the first step. An entrance archway, almost like a triumphal arch, is built for tourists to enter the village on payment of fees, some of the overgrowth is cleared, a few houses are “renovated and restored”, the local temple made somewhat functional, and voilà an abandoned village is all set to welcome visitors, but strictly during daylight hours only.

Kuldhara 1Fascinating as Sushil’s narration was of Kuldhara’s story, I couldn’t help notice that as we neared the village, we had become part of a large convoy of vehicles making their way there.  Apparently, others also found ruins and the stories around them equally fascinating. By the time we reached the parking lot there were about 50 odd vehicles there, with more pouring in. I stepped out of the car and right into a mela-like atmosphere.

Kuldhara, Jaisalmer, Travel, Rajasthan
The group of musicians performing at Kuldhara

I felt that I had walked into some kind of a bizarre, Mad Hatter’s party. A group of musicians were performing and there were people standing around and clapping hands. Requests for favourites (Why this Kolaveri di? Chikni Chameli, etc.) were being made and the lead singer (the one playing the harmonuim in the photo above) was doing his best to accommodate them.

There I was, hoping to explore the ruins, poke around a bit, soak in the atmosphere, and if I was really lucky, bump into a couple of friendly ghosts. But what I got was tourist hordes who were so noisy that they must have driven every rat, snake, other animals and even ghosts to hide. 😦

Also, since some state minister was supposed to visit, security was tight and most parts of the village was cordoned off. So that left me with only one option—to climb up to the terrace of one of the restored houses and see as much of the village as I could from there.

From the terrace, I could see that Kuldhara was a pretty big and ruins of the settlement stretched out in all directions. It appeared to be a well planned village with straight, wide streets (or was this part of the restoration efforts?) arranged in a grid-like pattern. Some of the houses were double-storeyed and were perhaps the houses of the village headman and other important people of the village. I could also see wells in the distance and Sushil pointed out the drainage system and the water harvesting system in place in the village. From this level, the whole village actually looked quite eerie and unreal, almost like a carefully constructed film set. When I remarked as much to Sushil, he told me that parts of Agent Vinod was filmed here.

Kuldhara, Jaisalmer, Travel, RajasthanEven though it was cold and windy, the sun was very harsh and bright and it became difficult to stand without any shade. Since there was no chance of exploring the rest of the village and the crowds just kept coming, I decided to leave.

Away from the crowds, I tried to imagine what this place must have been like populated with people who cared for their environment and who led a non-interfering life.

I like to think that it must have been a fairly lively place, especially if its people were traders and businessmen.

Did they receive visitors from other kingdoms, other countries even?

Were there schools here?

Did artisans and craftspersons come here? And weavers and cloth merchants? What about bards and storytellers?

Was there an open marketplace or did the traders sell their wares from house-to-house ?

Legends and stories are a wonderful way to attract visitors to a place. And with a curse and haunting thrown in it is a sure way to get visitors to the place. Though Kuldhara gets visitors (too many of them, if you were to ask me), there is absolutely no ground information once you get there. Since some of the houses have been renovated and restored, one of them could be used to give information on the Paliwal brahmin community and their lifestyle. There could be enactments of the legend for visitors in the main square of the village. Maybe a self-guided tour or even a guided tour around the village could be offered. Maybe the guide could be dressed as a ghost… 😉

It seemed strange to have music and dancing and a party like atmosphere at a place that was being sold as a ghost village. I’m not saying there should be a deathly silence all around, but still I admit to feeling a little cheated of the right atmosphere and of not being able to explore the village and beyond. 😦

Dear reader, this was my first visit to an abandoned, cursed and haunted place. Have you ever visited such a place? I would love to hear about it.

50 thoughts on “The abandoned, cursed and haunted village of Kuldhara

  1. This are not the only treasures. People have stolen the wooden frames, doors, windows and those brass decorative s that adored these buildings. Made of solid teak or rose wood. They now adore some of the palatial buildings in Delhi and many of the metros of India. Barring a few old monuments you will find all these bared to minimum rocks and bricks. Very unlike west….

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    1. Well, since the curse was only specific to the removal of the wealth and staying in Kuldhara, I guess people felt it was okay to remove the doors, frames and what not. 😦

      It is the same story everywhere and all over the country. While in Bikaner, I saw an old house being demolished and agents sifting through the rubble and separating the wooden frames, doors and what not.

      Whether these things are looted or sold ‘legally’ through agents, I feel the onus should be on the buyer to know where they are from and how it has been acquired.

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  2. Hi Sudha,

    As you may know, we also visited this place just about two weeks after you did. Reading what you’ve written, I think you would have appreciated it more with us, because we went just after the tourist season was over, as a small detour on our way to Sam sand dunes in the evening. The presence of the entry gateway and a tourist bus full of college-ish kids, effectively put paid to any ‘eerie’ atmosphere that may have been there, but at least there were no musicians there!

    However, despite all the people there, due to the general discomfort of finding myself in an unusually deserted place in the middle of nowhere ,or in other words because of my fanciful mind ,I couldn’t bring myself to walk around too far into the ruins, and was definitely glad when we left!

    Btw, I haven’t had time to comment, but I’m enjoying your Rajasthan series, you seem to have a knack for writing about all these places, in a way that brings them to life.

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    1. I have always loved ruins and some of my best travel memories are associated with ruins. I have come away exhilarated, happy, heavy-hearted or sometimes, even in tears from such visits.

      But apart from curiosity and interest, Kudhara did not evoke any reaction. Maybe it was the presence of the party like atmosphere, or maybe because of something else, it was just another place for tourists to visit. Or maybe, I just need to go there another time at a time when not many tourists are expected to be there.

      Glad you’re enjoying the Rajasthan series. I arrive in your city with my next post 🙂

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  3. walk a km ahead, climb a small hill and you will spot a water body.. there is a hindu graveyard… yes, you read it right- Hindu.. no one who takes you to Kuldhara would tell you about it… its something we discovered during a walk… the stone slabs have carvings of gods and godesses!

    in kuldhara did you see the bowli? Steep stairs, its quite an experience to walk down.

    I loved Jaisalmer, and what added to the experience was visiting virgin dunes and giving Sam a skip

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    1. As I mentioned in my post, most of the village was cordoned off for some minister’s visit. So whatever I saw of Kuldhara was from the terrace of a house. The bawdi was pointed out, but with the fierce sun, could not really see much, even from the binoculars.

      As for the Hindu graveyard, the guide did mention them, but again I could not see them. A similar graveyard exists inside the Wood Fossil Park at Akal. Have you been there?

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  4. Sounds like a fascinating place! I would love to visit it, too. Yes, ruins fascinate me too. 🙂

    As for my experiences, I have visited the ruins of Awantipura in Kashmir. They are not as spead out as Kuldhara, and are quite contained within a small area. Actually, it is just a temple that got buried inside the sand and was later uncovered. Fascinating, though I would have loved to hear more about it! Also, I have visited Talakadu in Karnataka. That story is quite fascinating, too.

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    1. And I haven’t heard of Awantipura ! It now goes on my list of places to travel before I become too old to travel ! And here’s an old blopost on a vist to the ruins of Tintern Abbey: https://thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/rains-and-ruins-a-visit-to-tintern-abbey/ I think you’ll like it.

      Kuldhara is dramatic, and its sheer scale and spread gave me an idea of what entire ruined cities and towns would look like. But it was really disappointing to not be able to explore the ruins. And the crowd and their behaviour did not help !

      Hope you have a better experience when you visit Kuldhara. 🙂

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  5. Gah! i have never visited anything so interesting..may be you should make another trip there to meet up with a couple of ghosts eh?

    I love your travelogues Sudha, it feels as if I am right there enjoying the scenes 🙂

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    1. Thanks RM, for your lovely words. I have really enjoyed writing about my Rajasthan trip. Never thought I would have so much to write and I am just about halfway done. 🙂

      Thanks to this post, I have got a lot of leads to other haunted places in Rajasthan and elsewhere. So while I may not be returning to Kuldhara, I definitely plan to explore the other leads. Want to join me?

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    1. Much as I hate to say this, commercialisation is inevitable in a place like Jaisalmer. For a place that is entirely dependent on tourist-based economy, every place, every site that can be offered to tourists is grabbed and presented. And for most tourists, it is a been there, done that, tick it of my list attitude that gets them to places like Kuldhara. 😦

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  6. Hmm! You gave such a nice coherent version of the tale of Kuldhara. That must have been hours of digging things out from the guides, going by my experience 🙂 Lovely walk through the ruins via your blog 🙂

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    1. I had a rather voluble guide-cum-driver who figured out early on, that it was better to tell me stories of local legends rather than have me ask him uncomfortable questions on the economy of Jaisalmer, on the consequences of borewells used to green Jaisalmer, the caste-based cremation grounds…

      He was a good story-teller and I a good listener and the result is this post 🙂

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    1. I found out later that there are many like Kuldhara in and around Jaisalmer itself. Though I have visited ruins, this was the first time I was visiting an entire ruined settlement.

      Just had a quick look at blog post and it’s so fascinating. 🙂 Will go back for a detailed read later.

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  7. what a lovely story… i wonder what happened to that girl the diwan wanted to marry!!!! and did the diwan try to find them? was he successful? how did all of them simply manage to disappear so soon? and more than everything else… doesnt the curse work anymore? didnt it strike those who stole its wealth, doesnt it work on all those people who are having that mela at such a place? i never even heard of this place when i visited jaisalmer.. but that was such a long time ago, before the times of blogs 😀 would have loved visiting, but hope whenever i do, the crowds are missing..

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    1. The girl? What girl, Anu? Oh, you mean the girl because of whom people of 84 villages chose to leave Jaisalmer kingdom? 😉 I don’t think anybody cares, be it the locals or the tourists who are only interested in knowing and talking about the hidden treasure and the ghosts. The presence of snakes adds to the legend and mystery of hidden treasure as snakes are supposed to be guardians of wealth !

      On a more serious note, historians feel that this story is a fanciful legend that grew over the decades. What they feel is the community gradually left the area due to attacks by bandits and thieves, and strict taxation.

      And yes, Anu, time for you to visit Jaisalmer again 🙂

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      1. hey, i also visited kuldhara just 2days ago and there were luckily almost no tourists…. so we had a good experience and yes super eerie it is… actually i read ur post and thought i should tell u this that the girl for whom the whole 84 villages were emptied overnight, her father only killed her before leaving the village… he burned her to death (as per the story goes) and then he put a curse on the whole village, since he was the head of the village and also a brahmin pandit so all the people of the 84 villages listened to him also and supported him and he said no for his daughter’s wedding to Salim Singh because that guy was already having some 30 wives and this girl was just 15yrs and it wasnt the 1st time that Salim Singh forced to marry a good looking girl from the village… And yes it is also said that all of the people who left village that night went back to the village after death and got stuck there and that was also because they were also indirectly a part of the killing of that girl..So u can say it was a curse of that girl because of which no one got freed till date….

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        1. Good information … thank you….. In those days life of beautiful girls was always like that. Even when I visited last year, I heard a girl was not allowed to go in public because she was very beautiful. And it is also a fact that the girls are really beautiful.

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  8. Really an interesting place! I would be chicken to explore these remote, off road places!!! Good to read about it though 🙂

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    1. It is an interesting place, but in spite of the story behind it, did not give me the chills or thrills. So you may want to visit it and not just read about it 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Deepa.

      Very few places escape becoming touristy. Something gets discovered or written about and next thing you know is that it is getting restored or renovated and everyone wanting to see it before the others see it or get there. Sometimes a whole lot of them land up on the same day like what happened to me. 🙂

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  9. Very beautifully written Sudha. What an amazing story – all the inhabitants abandon the village to protect their daughter. I wish we could learn to treasure our history better. I would love to visit ruins. The only ruins I have ever visited were Tipu Sultan’s stables a long time ago in Barkur, Udupi. I know I went there by accident as there are no tourist offices or directions. Maybe, I need to make another trip now.

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    1. Are you telling me, Neena Barnes, that you there are ruins near your place in Udipi, and you didn’t take me there when I visited you? And you are telling me now?

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  10. After many months I peep into the blog world and yours is the oneI reach out to Sudhagee. And what fodder it has been for the soul! Ruins have always attracted me with their enigma and untold stories. It lets the imagination run amok I guess! I remembered a trip to the ruins of Fort Urquhart next to Loch Ness, in Scotland. There was an attempt to keep the atmosphere sombre in tune with the bloody history of the fort. I guess, the authorities could have tried to give a semblance of suspense and mystery instead of the “mela” like air at Kuldhara.

    Once again a crisp narration Sudhagee! Loved it!

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    1. Welcome back Ilakshee. Good to see you here after so long 🙂

      Alas, I haven’t been to Scotland, but have visited the ruins of Tintern Abbey. Have you been there? It is a quiet place and one that allows you to contemplate and let you imagine its untold stories. The cafes, shops and what not are outside the actual ruins.

      And thanks for your lovely words 🙂

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  11. No, Sudhagee. I have not been to Tintern Abbey but have read the poem though :). Do you have a post on it? Would love to see the place through a blog. You may like the Ross Island in The Andamans. There is no commercialisation except for tender coconut ! I did try to give a glimpse of the place through my post.

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  12. Absolutely beautiful post! I love to hear about the stories behind a ruin/monument. You have put together everything so nicely, I almost felt as if I were a part of your entourage out in the middle of those haunted ruins, in the hot sun.

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    1. Welcome here, Sangeeta and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. 🙂

      If you were to ask me, local stories and legends are what makes every visit to a new place, a journey and travel so much more worthwhile and interesting.

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  13. I visited Kuldhara just a few weeks ago thanks to the chudail trail that Suryagarh offers. I can honestly say as beautiful as it is at night, it is creepy at night! And I’m not one to be easily spooked. The way they explain the history of Kuldhara and the other two locations within the vicinity that they take you to (lake + cemetery) add to the ambience of the ghost village. No lights, no cars, and no people as the people in the surround villages dare not go there past dark. I would totally recommend visiting it at night if the ghostly vibe is what you’re looking for.

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    1. Hello Serenity,

      A very warm welcome to my blog. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      I missed the Kuldhara trail organised by Suryagarh as I had had a bad fall a couple of hours before we were scheduled to go. But the bloggers who had gone for the trail did come back and share their experiences of the trail, which they said was downright creepy.

      My point was not about the ghostly vibe, rather it is about how the ghostly vibe is not possible if song and dance programmes are organised at places touted to be haunted. I visited quite a few sati sites during my trip in Rajasthan and felt very uncomfortable there. Bada Bagh in Jaisalmer and the jauhar site at Chittorgarh were downright creepy.

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      1. I agree, it is very odd for them to have people singing and dancing, especially with the ruins around, it kind of kills the whole atmosphere. Very beautiful place though. I was lucky enough that when we went during the day as well there was nobody there, so we still felt the abandoned feel. Thanks for the welcome and I look forward to indulging in your blog:)

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  14. Hi! The very first sentence drew me to your blog. Ruins and paintings and old things have a similar affect on me.
    Its a long, descriptive and very nicely written article!
    I also paid a visit to this place as part of a college trip and was fascinated by it.

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  15. Very fine words about kuldhara.I felt like a trip in the histoty.I hope the other important places of india would get the due share of your words. Thanks

    Palli Rasool
    Sindh Pakistan

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  16. I think that all the 84 villages were refused the demands of Diwan, Salum Singh.so Salum Singh labours killed all the people and the villagers were buried inside kuldhara. due to mass death in one place.the village become haunted.

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  17. was the paliwal girl was burnt then burried alive inside a hole .it was written on some post relating to kuldhara. isnt this cruelty undefined

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