The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum TrustJodhpur, February 25, 2013.

It is mid-morning when the rickshaw deposits me outside the most intriguing looking gate I have ever seen. It swings open easily and noiselessly into an empty courtyard.

And beyond the courtyard is a beautiful building built in a traditional architectural style and through its archway I can see an enticing view of rocks, green plants and a meandering wall. There is no one in the courtyard except the woman you can see in the photograph below, who watches my approach with curiosity.

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum TrustRao Jodha Desert Park 16The pathway that leads to the building is made from large slabs of rippled pink sandstone. It is a pleasant surprise to see a rippled sandstones outside a geology museum and laboratory and out in the open for people to (hopefully) notice and admire.

As I reach the building, which turns out to be the Visitor’s Centre, a young man comes out of one of the rooms and greets me with a smile and a “Welcome to the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park. My name is Denzil and I will be your guide.”

“Thank you, Denzil,” I reply. “I don’t see any signboard for the park entrance fees or camera fees or guide fees.”

“There are no fees, Ma’am, for visiting the park or using your camera or for the services of a guide,” said Denzil.

What? I can’t believe what I just heard. So far, in the course of my travels in Rajasthan, I have had to pay for visiting every monument, museum, temple, cenotaph, palace, fort, park, etc. as well as for the privilege to photograph them. This is the first time (and as I discover later, also the last time) that I don’t have to pay. And I am getting guide services for free ? Wow ! When I mention as much to Denzil, he only says, “It is our pleasure, Ma’am.

Saying this, Denzil leads me to the exhibition on the origins and history of the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park displayed in the building. He begins by saying:

The story begins over 80 years back when the present Maharaja’s grandfather decided to green the area quickly by spraying the seeds of Prosopis juliflora from the air…

Prosopis juliflora (commonly called baavlia in the local Marwari, kikar in Hindi and ganda baabul in Kachchi) is an invasive shrub not native to the region. It is a fast-spreading plant (some consider it a weed) and does not allow any other plant to grow or thrive in its vicinity. The then Maharaja of Jodhpur must have meant well with his intentions to green the area, but must not have foreseen the problem that the baavlia would bring in its wake — animals refused to eat this shrub and since native plants had started dying out, this resulted in a serious shortage of fodder for animals. The natural ecology of the region was gravely disturbed with the introduction, growth and spread of baavlia.

And so, in 2006, an ambitious project got underway with the aim of eliminating the baavlia and bringing back the native plants and restoring the natural ecology. A 175-acre area adjoining Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort and bounded by the original City Wall, was chosen as the place to begin. It was also hoped that in the years to come, the Park would develop into an outdoor museum showcasing the region’s lithophytes (plants that grow in rocky habitats).

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
Part of the original City wall of the Jodhpur

The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is situated on an outcrop of rhyolite (a volcanic rock). The rhyolite is present in the form of vertical columns, a feature so special that it has been designated as a National Geological Monument. The deep, dark red of the rhyolite is easily distinguishable from the pink sandstone that everything in Jodhpur is built of.

The project hit an enormous hurdle at the very first step — removal of the baavlia plants whose roots reached deep into the rhyolite rocks. Cutting the shrubs did not work as they would grow right back. Attempts to kill them with acid was also unsuccessful, as was using dynamite to blast the rocks. It was at this point that local khandwalias or rock miners were brought in. These miners knew how each rock type was to be mined, broken or cut, including the hard and brittle rhyolite. When Denzil described how the khandwalias worked, I was left shaking my head with disbelief:

A khandwalia would strike a hammer near the baavlia and from the sound made would gauge the depth and reach of  its roots. He would then set about digging at the correct spots and manually remove each baavlia and its roots. Though this was a painfully long process, it was the only one which removed the shrub completely in the Park.

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum TrustIn the spaces where the baavlia once grew, native seedlings carefully cultivated in the Park’s nursery were planted. Each plant was numbered and its progress carefully charted. Slowly, the rocky land started filling up with plants and when the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park was inaugurated 6 years later in February 2012, it was a place teeming with plants that had not been seen in the area for over two generations. Today, the Rock Park reportedly has over 300 species of trees, shrubs, herbs, climbers, and grasses. In addition native fauna like the desert hare have also taken up residence here. 🙂

After this comprehensive and exciting introduction to the Rock Park, Denzil and I made our way through the archway, which was originally a gateway into the walled city of Jodhpur and built in the 16th century, to see the Park. We descended a stone staircase into what looks like a trail, but is actually a stormwater aqueduct that fills up when it rains.

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
The aqueduct / walking trail

This aqueduct is a clever piece of construction. The people who built it some centuries ago exploited a fracture/fault/ fissure in the rock and widened it. Though it is not perceptible, there is a natural slope which ensures that the rainwater flows into a lake at one end of the aqueduct. The walk was a revelation both in terms of the variety of plant life and of the complex geology, which I had only read in textbooks. But first a glimpse of some of the plants I saw:

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
Thorr or Leafless spurge
Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
Kheer khemp or rambling milkweed
Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
Kumatiyo or the gum arabic tree
Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
Sargooro or Bitter drumstick tree
Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
Oont Kantalo or Knapweed

The aqueduct is a geologist’s delight. Not only does one get good exposures of rhyolite, I was delighted to see products of other volcanic activity. The fracture/fault/fissure along which the aqueduct is constructed is also the contact point between two types of rocks—compacted volcanic ash and rhyolite (see photograph below):

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
On the left is compacted volcanic ash and on the right is the rhyolite

 And then further down the long and winding aqueduct, just as it opens out, is a rhyolite dike of a startling red colour I had never seen in rocks before. It was not surprising to see the profusion of plant growth in this part of the Park as dikes are generally rich in minerals which are conducive to plant growth.

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
The rhyolite dyke

I am so taken in with all the geology of the Park that it takes a while for me to notice that the aqueduct has opened up in to a great view of the spread of the park and the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort in the distance.

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum Trust
The Mehrangarh Fort

I spend 3 extremely happy and informative hours in the Park and would have spent more time if only my skin had not started to burn.Part of the reason I lose track of time at the Park is the geology that leaves me wondering as to why my college and university did not bring us here for field work.

But the bigger and real reason is that Denzil is an exemplary guide — articulate, knowledgeable, quietly passionate, not afraid to offer opinions, sincere and well read — who brought the place alive with his narration. Yes, he is a rare breed indeed. To my delight, I discover that he has a Master’s in Geography and has a brother who is studying to be a geologist. Walking around the Desert Rock Park is about its history and origin and current work. It is also about the geography, geology, geomorphology, ecosystems, human intervention and so much more.

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Travel, Mehrangarh Museum TrustThe Park’s website says that, “Ecological Restoration…is this term [that] describe[s] what we do at the Park. We set out to try to restore this tract of land to what it might have been like before it was ‘interfered’ with by human activity.”

And after visiting the Park and seeing the efforts made, I can only say that commendable work has been done and efforts are on to make the experience of exploring the park an even more memorable one. Future plans include mapping the rocks in the Park in include it as part of the tour, selling plants from the Park nursery, an outdoor café, etc.

As I am leaving, I ask Denzil as to how many visitors they receive every day.

“Not many,” he says.

“How many?” I persist.

“Well, you are the first Indian visitor in 7 days,” he replies.

Though a part of me is really happy that I did not have to share the guide or the Park with others, a place like this needs a lot of support and encouragement via its visitors. I really hope that discerning tourists will take the time to visit the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park and see for themselves the effort taken at ecological restoration step by step, using indigenous knowledge and methods at every step.

And you, dear reader, will visit the Park when you are in Jodhpur, won’t you? 🙂

29 thoughts on “The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park

  1. I will pakka, if I ever go to Jodhpur…you are awesome Sudha,…you see such awesome treasures which no one spots..wow!

    I loved that story..its amazing na :):) People can be so resourceful..and Denzil seems awesome

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    1. Thanks, RM. I think I spot these treasures because I love stuff like these. I for one can never come up with narrating the Ramayana as creatively or as interestingly as you do. 🙂

      Part of the reason the story is so amamzing is because it is true. And it is story that is inspiring and gives me hope for our country, however minuscule it is.

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  2. I will, I will and hopefully very soon. I plan to be in India in July and I’m going to bug you about the best places to visit during the monsoon season. The best places, in addition, to your house, that is. I’m going to come see the paintings of the roses and the dancing girls 🙂

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    1. I love planning holidays, for myself, for others. I already have ideas of places you can visit. 🙂 So yes, after you’ve seen the paintings of roses and dancing girls and raided my bookshelves and gossiped with me, you’re free to go wherever you want to go !

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  3. Loved the story of how the park came into being! So, this park started as an experiment to grow other plants, so that the local animals could get fodder? What next? Will the entire area follow the park’s example and the baavlia be removed? :O

    I will definitely visit this place when I visit Jodhpur. Thank you so much for the thumbs-up. Denzil sounds like such a wonderful guide. 🙂

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    1. The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is only the beginning and it is hoped that this experiment will spread to other parts of the region, and then the state. But it is going to be an uphill task, almost impossible. I have seen the baavlia in the Kachchh region or the ganda baabul as it is known locally there and it is everywhere. But the success of the Park gives hope that sustained efforts can bear fruit and ecological restoration can be a reality.

      You should visit this place whenever you are in Jodhpur and do remember to give my regards to Denzil 🙂

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  4. Great pics, full back-ground information and lovely narration – you would make everyone want to visit the places you visit, Sudha! And, I am in awe of the expertise of the Khandwalias.

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    1. Thank you, Suresh.

      The Desert Park would not have taken off, if not for the Khandwalias. And I wonder how many countless skills there are that we are completely ignorant of.

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    1. Thank you, Chattywren. Glad that my posts are/will be of help when you do travel to Rajasthan. There is a lot of stuff that I have not written about, so feel free to mail me. 🙂

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  5. The blue gate is mesmerizing. It took me a while to navigate beyond the gate…..
    Very interesting story about the baavlia. The indigenous plants grown in the desert rock park are so lovely. I remember seeing a black and white photograph of rhyolite in my school text book…now , I know what the red means.
    Talking about growing foreign plants- I remember farmers in Murbad complaining about the fast growing Australian teak destroying the native plantations. Moreover, the foreign teak is sub-standard.
    I hope I get to meet Denzil when I visit the park.

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    1. That blue gate is a green gate according to me. 🙂 And did you know that many languages, including Japanese, to not distinguish between green and blue? But I digress.

      This was the first time I was looking at desert plants so closely and their range and adaptability astonished me. While I love a tropical green forest for its lushness as much as the next person, it took me a visit to this Park to really understand that every plant has its place and greening and beautification should be sustainable.

      And yes, when you visit the Rao Jodha Park, you can talk geography with Denzil 😀

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    1. A very warm welcome to my blog, Namrota, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. And your one line comment has said everything that I have said in over 10 posts now. Thank you so much 🙂

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  6. This post is very interesting to me as a die hard cactus and succulent grower. Though Cacti are American plants, they are common in India. The Euphorbias shown in picture (Thorr) are responsible for stopping soil erosion in the deserts and as they are not edible they act as a natural fence too. Great post..

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    1. And the Euphorbia can also act as ‘firewood’ if needed.

      Thanks, Prasad. This was the first time I got to see and experience this something like this and however small and localised, it leaves me with hope for the future.

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  7. I was hooked the moment I saw the gate and the rippled sandstone. You are gifted Sudhagee. Your eye for detail and lucid narration of sundry information. Thank you for this window. I have been to Jodhpur but missed this place 😦

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    1. That green gate actually made me want to write a poem 🙂 And a friend of mine is so inspired by the gate that she has actually written one !

      Ilakshee, thank you so much for such lovely words and warm praise. The next time you visit Jodhpur, do make that visit to the Park. It is very inspiring.

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  8. finally, at least one place i can say happily that i hadnt heard of, when i visited Jodhpur, for the simple reason that it didnt exist when i visited 😀 but it looks like such a beautiful place… but what an effort!!! these guys must be commended!!!! and cant even imagine what kind of talent and patience it must take, to tap out each rock and rid it of the weeds!!! wow!!! absolutely unimaginable! and i can so see the geologist in you getting all excited with the aqueduct…. wish i had at least seen that when i visited.

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    1. Phew ! Finally one place I can say that I have been to and you have not 😛

      The Rao Jodha Park is one of those places which inspires you and also gives you hope for a better future. Yes, I enjoyed the geological side of the visit to the park as well but what remains is the effort, dedication and perseverance shown by the people carrying out the ecological restoration. I came away refreshed and rejuvenated and of course, inspired.

      If you get a chance to visit Jodhpur again, do visit the Rao Jodha Park. It should not be missed.

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  9. This post was a pleasure. We just spent a breakfast with Pradeep Krishen, the director of this park, and he was narrating these same stories. Which meant that I just had to read more about it. And you have the very same stories outlined here! 🙂

    What a place, would love to visit as soon as I can go to that part of the country! Thanks for an immensely enjoyable and lucid post.

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  10. I will be visiting Rao Jodha Desert Park tommorow and Denzil is my guide I thought to read about the park beforehand and should I say I’m super excited now Thanks sudhagee for the lovely blog and pictures about the park

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    1. Hello Jatin. Welcome to my blog and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. The Rao Jodha Park is an absolute delight and you are going to enjoy spending time there. And as I mentioned in my post, Denzil is a superb guide. Do say hello to him from my side. 🙂

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