A Date With the Desert

A Date With the Desert

As Valentine’s Day approached, I finished another Edward Abbey book. Abbey, a crazy white bearded “desert-rat”, had ensnared me. Possessed with thoughts of a sandy paradise, I set sail for the Thar desert.

Two days later, I was on the Jaisalmer-Jodhpur highway, flanked by three fellow travellers – a short white-bearded Gandhian, an international diplomat and a desert dweller from Jaisalmer. But something was still missing.

People, trees and civilisation started looking different, as Jodhpur faded and the desert began to grow. My lover was far away now, and an adulterous mood set in. Struck by Thar’s beauty, I wanted to woo the desert.

But after having spent over two decades in cities, I had no idea how to charm it. I stopped thinking and began to listen.

The car must have been doing some 80 km an hour when our desert dweller Chatra Singh asked us, “What similarities do a woman and female camel have?”

We had no idea. He then asked us another one, “What similarities do a camel and man have?”

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Once again, he was met with silence. He then supplied the answers. Surprisingly, a camel in carnal matters “behaves like a man”. And in motherhood, “the female camel resembled a lady”.

Chatra Singh was full of desert trivia and a million survival tricks. Over time, his people learnt to communicate with the desert as live as per the wishes of the Thar. We sat for hours listening to this living desert library. I learnt many things, including how to tell directions in the desert sans stars.

My quest was still incomplete, yet I felt closer to my aim.

Peachy-orange hues spread over the horizon, our sun was almost dipping into the desert. We stopped in Pokhran besides two lonely boats and a half empty lake. Behold Ram Devra’s temple – a local pilgrimage for millions. For centuries, thirst – spiritual and for water – has brought them here.

The diplomat was clicking photos and I sat on a stone step, marvelling at the trees, temple and the sacredness of water.

Chatra Singh and Gandhian Ramesh Sharma were trying to explain to our diplomat the importance of the lake and water. “Water is life for us. It is divine. The desert is alive only because of it,” Chatra Singh said. My doubts evaporated. I knew to woo the desert I needed water.

By the time we Jaisalmer it was clear when you live in the desert, the desert lives through you. Our thoughts, actions and life all are governed by the sands. Each shade in Jaisalmer, from the yellow sandstone to foxes and hares, all had the Thar singing through them. I was up early and adorned desert wear – a dhoti and kurta – and headed straight to Ghadisar Lake.

The founders of Jaisalmer built this lake in 1156, it’s about the same time the foundation for Jaisalmer fort was laid. It served as the city’s main water supply. It sacredness was conveyed by beautiful yellow sandstone niches and trellises. Many communities including the local courtesans built majestic gates, Chattris and shelters, as respect for the water.

Water was the most precious for Jaisalmer. A complex system of aquifers and man-made lakes freed the city’s inhabitants – human and beasts alike, of thirst for centuries. By harvesting every drop, Jaisalmer wooed the desert. The Thar reciprocated, and spared the city.

But things were not so ideal anymore.  Apart from a rampant corporate land grab for windmills to solar projects, much of old water network of aquifers and lakes is dead or dying due to encroachment and disrepair. The Ghadisar, once proud and full, is now dependent on Indira Gandhi canal water. The catchment area is cemented and partially turned into illegal colonies, the feeders lakes are also breathing their last breathe. Amar Sagar once mighty reservoir is now a refurbished cricket field and it’s catchment area inundated with cement.

But what chance does a lake have when the mighty yellow sandstone fort of Jaisalmer which stood for centuries, is now crumbling. Courtesy sewage and water mismanagement of course. Excess of anything is bad, sometimes excess water is enough to destroy the desert, along with local water systems.

After seeing the city, I headed into the desert. I spent two days roasting in the sun between the Khori and Sam areas. Sand, hot sun and barren rocky soils flogged my mind. But each time I sat to rest under a Khejri or Jal tree, the winds sounded like the ocean, bringing with them tides of sand.

It was hard to not to doze off, but Valentine’s day was only a day away. I had to get somewhere.

Soon, it became clear that the core Jaisalmer zone survived on Baodis (step wells) , beri (narrow stone wells), Khadins (bow shaped agricultural fields which trap water). Many of these were built on royal grants. These low cost, low-tech solutions have stood for over 500 years, and continue to bring life to communities.

The case of Khadins amazed me, as these agricultural fields are created as a resting point for water. When it rains, all the water gets collected in these depressed lands and percolates inside the soil over time. Once the water has seeped in, the farmers sow the land. The crops grow without any irrigation.

I was surprised to see wheat, mustard, channa and other desert trees and vegetables growing on soil moisture alone. The real gold of Jaisalmer lay not in the forts and palaces, but in water and the ability of the people to survive alongside the desert.

Finally it was Valentine’s Day, and the desert festival was also beginning. Far from roses and cakes, I found myself in the inner sanctum of Jaisalmer’s royal temple, where a tug-of-war between the old ruling family and administration was on.

Among the celebrations, camels, fanfare, I sat on the Jaisalmer fort rampart overlooking the desert city one last time, knowing fully well that my affair with the desert had only just began.

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