Jodhpur, 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.
The 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).
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.
In 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.
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:
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):
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.
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.
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.
The 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? 🙂