Off-Season Dispatch: Eight Days of Summer in Thar
As word went around in my immediate circle that I was travelling to the Thar for eight days in mid-June, I gathered a hoard of sympathisers. I was headed to the city of Jaisalmer to explore some undiscovered sites for the first time and a luxury boutique hotel was to be my home-office for that duration. I expected to be cocooned indoors through sandstorms and heat spells but instead what unfolded was a series of unending surprises.
The first surprise was the weather. The desert cools down in the night, sure. But even in summers when the mercury rose over 50 degrees Celsius? Oh, yes. Each morning, I woke up to a pleasant and breezy 28 degrees and set out to explore before the sun would start to beat down.
Driving down smooth, winding tarmac, the view was magnetic–vast and open, the browns hugged the blue, stretching for as far as the eye could go, sans any manmade construction. An occasional row of windmills, a recent addition to the landscape, was all that stood between the land and sky. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen this unending blanket of sky before.
The next surprise came in the desert’s resilience to sustain life in astonishing diversity. Thar was dry and arid, yet, dotted with a fair amount of greens. Hardy succulents–keekar, jaal, khejri, kheep, cactus, ker and kumath–stood their ground with familiarity in the swathes of brown.
One morning, I sat gazing at the view from Kuldhara cemetery (35kms south of Jaisalmer fort). A cluster of sati stones–some on pedestals, and some under chhatris or pavilions–lay in the middle of the open and hauntingly beautiful desertscape, with the upturned bowl shape of the earth clearer than ever. The land was parched and cracked–yet the air deliciously cool and inviting. There wasn’t a soul in sight, sans my group of three. I shook myself out of reverie, and took in the sounds around me. A low whirring of the breeze and, a consistent chirping of birds–particularly sparrows–filled the air. I was amazed that, the desert, even in the summer, hummed with sounds and sights I missed in the city. In the next few days, I spotted sparrows, sunbirds, bee-eaters, magpies, and lapwings, bustling around the greens and blues in the Thar.
Another surprise came in the diversity and contrasts in landscapes we encountered: From the flat, open Rann to sand-shifting dunes, from the stunningly-carved Patwon ki haveli (near the fort) and Jain temple at Lodurwa (7kms from Jaisalmer) to the ruins of the abandoned city of Khaba (33 kms from Jaisalmer).
At Mool Sagar (16 kms from Jaisalmer), I climbed atop its central, arched pavilion and marvelled at the lush greens within. The manicured gardens of this 18th century pleasure palace bloomed with summer flowers and fluttering butterflies.
In journeys long or frequent, even the most scenic views start to feel jaded–an emotion I recount from long train rides in Switzerland and Norway. The vast stretches of brown in the desert, however, seemed to grow more familiar with each passing day; folding me in its own with an undisputed sense of belonging.
We found hillocks to climb, to take in the endless landscape. Looking down from atop of Navdungar hill, a perfectly round oasis stood out in the vastness–a happy interruption of blue amidst shades of brown. The sight of water brought to mind the many songs of a traveller lost in the desert.
Often we would cross grassy patches, with herds of goat and sheep grazing. “That’s a dry oasis”, our driver Jograjji would point out. Two days later, just after a night of heavy rains, we saw one of these ‘dry oasis’ had filled with water. “The locals collect water from puddles and pour it into the closest oasis; and that makes it fuller,” we were informed.
A new day took us to a lush mango grove in the middle of the desert. A large shaded grove, Bada Bagh (6 kms north of Jaisalmer), stands across from the road from a row of the most stunningly-carved chattris, built in Jaisalmer’s signature yellow-golden sandstone. Turns out, Thar is the only desert in the world to have a mango grove.
Life in the Thar narrates the story of human enterprise and skill; of the indomitable spirit of its people in turning the hostile land fertile. History has it that the young maharaja of Bikaner, Gangar Singh (1888-1943), built a canal from river Sutlej into Bikaner to irrigate the dry desert. In 1927, this 143-km long canal was inaugurated by British viceroy of India.
On our last day in the Thar, we started our morning atthe tourists’ favourite, Sam dunes (37 kms from Jaisalmer). We spent an hour exploring them on foot–trudging on the gorgeous formations, a cool breeze blowing in our face and the vastness of the desert surrounding us. Other than a herder who hovered around tempting us with a camel ride, there’s wasn’t another soul to break the silence of the morning. The Thar felt like a time capsule–where days seemed to roll into night, and life carried on with a sense of timelessness.
An hour later, taking shade under a jaal tree, and listening in to the rustling of the leaves making music like a waterfall, I pondered on this land of surprise and incongruity–where the pulse of life beats strong in the harshest climate. My souvenir from Jaisalmer–freshly-plucked pickle mangoes that had me savour the magic for weeks after.
The timing of the trip had indeed been fortuitous. For how many can claim to have witnessed the treasures the Thar has to offer when the only tourist there is you.