The mid-day sun in July is hot and harsh as is the landscape around. I am somewhere in the Thar Desert — about 30-40 km west of Jaisalmer city — and the ground is hard, dry, and stony in most parts with some sandy patches. It is the end of summer in this region and I scan the skies for signs of monsoon clouds, but there are none to be seen.
All around me are limestone and sandstone ridges with the meanders of rivers and streams that once flowed here cutting through the rock layers. In the distance, cenotaphs and memorial stones to the dead can be seen. The occasional pops of green from the desert flora provides visual relief (and shade !) in the otherwise arid and barren landscape (see photograph below).
It is a sight that leaves me awestruck for this one frame encapsulates millions of years of history of the region — natural as well as human. A history that is as rich as it is varied and one that has changed and evolved through space and time.
For example, the Jaisalmer region wasn’t always arid like it is today. In fact, there was a time when it was hot, humid and wet. There was no Thar desert; instead, this was the site of a luxuriant forest of towering trees about 180 million years ago or during the Jurassic Period, when Jaisalmer region was speck in the super-continent known as Pangea.
As the super-continent broke up into smaller continental landmasses and shifted and drifted over millions of years to the positions we know today, the environment of the region changed. From tropical to oceanic to lagoonal to sub-tropical to the arid region we are familiar with — Jaisalmer has seen many changes in its climate.
The remains of different climatic conditions and the life it supported at that time can be found in and around Jaisalmer region. For instance, the petrified remains of the forest that once covered the land can be found at Akal (about 17 km from Jaisalmer city)seen. Fossils like ammonoids as well as other molluscs can be seen preserved in the rock layers all over and can sometimes be found lying loose in the sand too.
At Draksh, the bar at Suryagarh, I came across one of the most remarkable and beautiful floors I have ever walked upon. At first glance, the golden-yellow limestone floor doesn’t look much different from the flooring found elsewhere in the hotel. Till you look closely, that is. Really closely. What seems like random black streaks or discolouration of the limestone turns out to be shells of fossil molluscs preserved in it. This shelly limestone was quarried from a site near Jaisalmer town, which was once under the sea. In other words, the rock was formed in a marine environment. Just look at the density of the shells in the limestone and imagine the life that once existed millions of years ago.
A drive through the Thar reveals the harsh conditions that makes it one of the least populated regions in India. In fact, there are stretches which will make one wonder if it ever supported human existence. You will find out that it did —in the remains of abandoned and crumbling village settlements, a fort, a temple on a hillock, cemeteries, cenotaphs and memorial stones…
Till about 200 years ago, Jaisalmer was located on an important crossroads of trade routes. It was tradition that had lasted for about 2,000 years and caravans laden with spices, silk, textiles, and precious stones were traded and offered passage. It is believed that the traders mainly came from China and the Middle East, and Khaba Village and the 700 year-old Khaba Fort was the first point of entry into the region for the caravans. The growing importance of sea trade, changes in overland trade and better and easier routes led to many trade routes, including the one leading to and out of Jaisalmer, being abandoned. All that remains today of a colourful and busy past are abandoned outposts like Khaba.
Though Jaisalmer is the largest district in Rajasthan, it is also the least populated due to its location in the Thar. One can travel for kilometres without coming across any human settlement, and the ones that do appear pass by in seconds, especially, if you’re travelling in a vehicle.
What one does come across are many abandoned villages, giving an indication that the Thar was more populated than it is today in the not too recent past. The outskirts of most of these abandoned villages have cemeteries with crumbling remains of memorials and cenotaphs to the dead.
One also gets a feeling of going back in time when travelling through the Thar, especially when one comes across human settlements. The traditional clothes of the people living there adds to that feeling of being somewhere else in time.
The Thar region has no perennial river today and while irrigation canals have changed and are changing the region, their benefits or effects haven’t reached the interiors of the desert. And yet, life in the desert survives and thrives thanks to the oases, rain-fed water harvesting methods, community farming called khadeens, and irrigation networks called dhoras. [Since the monsoons hadn’t begun yet, I couldn’t see any of these techniques in action, but only had to imagine them!]
The Thar used to be crisscrossed by many rivers big and small and it is believed that the mythical River Saraswati too lost her way somewhere here. Most of the existing river channels, including that of the River Kak, have water flowing in it only after the rains. The Kak, which flows into Sindh in Pakistan, is believed to have been a tributary of the Saraswati and has many legends associated with it.
For villages that are far away from drinking water sources in the Thar, the government has made arrangements to have water delivered to a common tank in the village every few days. The livestock have a separate water tank and that too is filled up regularly. This means that the village women don’r have to go far in search of water for their consumption or for their animals.
I visited Jaisalmer in July this year — my third in as many years. My first trip was all about visiting the usual sights, with a quick foray into the Thar. The second and third trips were very different courtesy Suryagarh, who had invited and hosted me both times. They took me around, and thanks to them I saw a side of the Thar I had only read about, but hadn’t had the chance to explore. It was also an opportunity to experience, what I consider is the hotel’s USP — showcasing the local.
Having been on different trails and explorations with Suryagarh, I have come to understand and appreciate the research that goes into planning and executing each trail. I wish tourism boards would take even half the effort that Suryagarh does in showcasing different parts of the Thar.
These three visits to and explorations of the Thar also revealed something that I did not know about myself — I feel at home the most in the desert, the registan, the marusthal. For others the mountains may call, or the oceans may roar. For me, it is the desert winds that beckon, and tell me to explore, to dig deep into its sand of memories and stories.
The Suryagarh Series
2013: The Suryagarh experience | Something new, something old: Jaisalmer revisited | The incredible music of Salim Khan and Sikander Langha
2016: The Suryagarh experience… Revisited | Sifting through the sands of time | The temples of Kiradu | The incredible music of the Thar at Suryagarh |
Disclaimer: I was invited by Suryagah to visit and stay with them and explore the Thar as part of a blogger group. This post is an outcome of that experience; needless to stay, the views and words are all mine. 🙂