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.
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…
An 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.
Fascinating 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.
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.
Even 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.