Deep in the Thar are buried tales of those who succumbed to the harsh terrain. Under the starry sky, through unmapped paths, only bravehearts get to hear the secrets of the dead
The gold of the sands had vanished hours ago back with the setting sun. We were close to midnight, the moon and the stars were just tiny specks in the infinite darkness. No maps and no human habitation. Only the gold of the headlights from the SUV lit up the night. So deep was the silence that the soft purr of the engine seemed like a loud hum. The SUV was racing towards the abandoned village of Kuldhara. A group of four, we were going to meet the ghosts of Jaisalmer — Siddharth Yadav (vice president, MRS Group), Chandan and Bhanwar Singh who work with the luxury boutique hotel Suryagarh and me. They call this the ‘chudail trail’ (the path of the witches), only to be treaded by the brave and the adventurous.
Kuldhara is perhaps the most-visited abandoned village in Rajasthan as it is high up on the tourism map. But the night turns the empty homes and streets into an eerie stone menace. Stories about the dark lives that lay buried in this silent desert popped out. Even though I had read about the village, goose bumps were palpable. Images of tortured souls rising up from the dead popped up. My mind was rife with the thought of what would happen if the dictators who tormented populations in the past caught me. I wondered if the ghosts came dressed in white saris as seen in Hindi films or what would happen if the car came to a grinding halt as it happens in horror films? My obsession with the film genre took over as nightly sequences flashed through my head. But then, despite the trepidation, there was also the temptation of mystery and the belief that truth can never be overcome.
Legend says once home to the Paliwal Brahmins, the village was deserted in just 24 hours along with 83 others in 1825. Cursed and haunted since then, only remnants of houses, temples and ruins of a fort mark the time when humans walked there. Inhabitants of the area for over 6,000 years, the Paliwals were the royal priests in the court of Rukmini and their roots could be traced to Maharaja Haridas, says history. They would carry the queen’s love scripts to Krishna. But a mad diwan (chief minister), Salim Singh, was obsessed with the village chief’s beautiful daughter. Rather than subject the young girl to the hands of this devilish man, the villagers abandoned the area, cursing that it never be inhabited again.
History’s version, of course, is a little different. It says that the water in the area was contaminated and the villagers were forced to abandon the place. A recent study says that the villages were abandoned due to an earthquake. No one knows their fate, though it is said that it was in the town of Pali in Rajasthan where the Brahmins flourished later. They were good agriculturists, bankers and businessmen.
Following Chandan and the beam of his flashlight, we climbed up some steps to the terrace of a house. Only the stars twinkled and some fragments of the ruined walls were visible. “A chowkidaar (guard) once stayed here and he lost his mind. His family left him. The villagers and local authorities have warned the people to stay away from the place after sunset. There is no idol in the temple,” he recounted, even as I waited with bated breath for a ghost to appear. But no etheric frames, no mysterious smells or sounds. I waited but there was no movement, no greeting, just the night playing truant.
A movie was shot in the temple and a shivalinga lies there for no one wants to transport the cursed energy back with them. As it often happens at historical places, tourists have engraved upon the walls, written their names and doodled, thus not even sparing the homes of ghosts. Chandan told us that paranormal experts had also explored the area and checked it for ghostly activity. He warned me not to touch or pick up anything for the negative energy travels and guests have faced bad luck earlier. I felt the dancing starry rays on my back, as I walked slowly towards the car, careful not to trip over any stone or step on a thorny shrub. Maybe this land just needed some peace but I didn’t voice my thoughts.
The Oasis Ghost
The engine revved up once again and the car turned towards an oasis where a white figure had often been seen spied floating on the water body. I wondered how the two natives managed to find the routes as there were no visible constructed markers and there was no trace of GPS either. Maybe the locals had some markers wired in their brain but would that work in the dark? My mind was racing and then the car stopped. “Don’t pick up any stone or disturb anything,” I was instructed yet again.
The silver moonshine danced on the surface. The water looked like a shiny mirage or maybe a mirror. “Don’t look into the water,” came another warning, “as the figure might capture you there.” No one knew the truth of this figure but it seemed to love this water body. By now, the sand too had turned silver. I felt cold. Stones lay scattered around but I didn’t dare go closer, for they might suddenly dance or roll. No such luck.
Tales of scorpions, snakes and superstitions continued in the car and we headed towards the tombs of the Paliwals and many others, travellers and traders, who had succumbed to the harsh terrain. This, after all, was the Silk Route, connecting India with other Asian countries. Caravans of traders would come often and rest by the oasis. Or simply camp in a suitable place during their long trade journeys. The Desert National Park is close by so the area has many monitor lizards and deadly scorpions. But of course, no snake would curl itself around the car’s bumper—that only happens in films. “There is a snake which only bites on Saturday,” Chandan went on. “I don’t believe snakes know weekdays,” came my prompt reply.
The yellow tombs lay lost in the rocky desert ground. Had the torch not been on, I might have stumbled upon many. What a waste of national treasure and history, I said, citing how Petra in Jordan has a regulated night walk for tourists. The engraved figurines of the families beckoned but there was no point in going closer due to lack of visibility. And who can say, a scorpion might just pop out from the crevices, which was the last thing we needed while searching for the ‘chudails of Jaisalmer’.
It was sad to see the derelict state of the place as the area wasn’t cordoned off and the tombs were at the mercy of the weather gods. No historian had recorded their tales or marked the dates. Maybe the stones would crack one day and the mysterious tales would be fossilised in the rocky ground. After all, we were in a pre-historic area where fossils were the norm.
The night seemed much darker to me now. The souls lay quiet in their stone homes, the stars twinkled their goodbye, as the car purred once again. A hard rocky terrain, home to the lost and the dead, the Thar had not spoken. The golden sands were cold, the tales probably blown away by the harsh desert wind and the chudails probably finding more lands to inhabit.
Attractions in Jaisalmer
JAISALMER IS A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE
1. On the edge of Kuldhara is Khaba Fort from where the sunrise is spectacular. Peacocks dance early in the morning here. A chhatri or cenotaph stands, marking the passage of the soul of an important one from the village.
2. Along the old Silk Route is a small Dedha village where stonemasons live. Unfinished walls, homes with open doors or windows and a Bhairon temple (fierce form of Shiva, representing fear) under the sun, all this work can be completed only when the money comes in. Some even keep deer and rabbits as pets.
3. Step out and walk around to see a distinct narrow bed marking the flow of the river Kakni. Legend says the famed river Saraswati had disappeared into the ground in Jaisalmer.
4. There is the Nabh Dungar temple on a hill. Dedicated to Goddess Durga, one can spot the border of Pakistan from here or at least imagine where the line has been drawn.
5. There is a lone Bhil family living in the area. Goats, a mud hut, some fossils and the desert as their shelter – we gaze in wonder at the six inhabitants living in isolation, forgetting to ask their names. The old lady collects fossils and sells them in the market; the other two women stay at home; and the man, who rests with his goats, takes them for grazing and works as a labourer. The two children do not go to school.
A cursed tribe, their origins go all the way back to Goddess Parvati. Legend says the Goddess asked her husband, Shiva, to bless her brothers. Shiva said it was not their destiny, but at her insistence, he placed a silver pot in their path. But the brothers changed their path and missed the blessing. Parvati insisted and this time, Shiva gave them his precious bull Nandi who was to bring them prosperity. But the brothers thought the wealth was inside the bull and killed it. Finally, an angry Parvati cursed them that they would not own any farming land. While this lone family’s tribe has settled elsewhere, they live rooted in the desert.
6. For those who believe in true love, there is Moomal ki Thadi at the nearby Lodhruva village. Here, Moomal waited in despair for her lover Rano and died.
7. Lodhruva, known as the ancient capital of Jaisalmer, also has a famous 900-year-old Jain temple.
8. There are the royal cenotaphs at Bara Bagh, gardens and lake of Amar Bagh and Brahma Sagar with its temple ruins.
9. The more accessible and touristy spots in the city are Gadisar Lake, Patwaon ki Haveli and the living Jaisalmer Fort (known as Sonar Qila due to its golden stone. Made famous by a story written by Satyajit Ray, it is facing ecological issues).
10. Shopping can be done inside the fort as well on the streets outside.
11. For the adventure enthusiasts, there is dune bashing and paragliding too in the region.
The Thar also houses a natural wonder. This has fresh, sweet water from the spring wells around Mundhari village. There are around seven such wells in that area and only the villagers know which ones have water. In went a bucket and hands cupped, I sipped like a thirsty nomad, as the villagers laughed and whispered.
How to reach Jaisalmer
Most international flights land at the T3, Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi. There are flights to Jaisalmer from Delhi.
Alternatively, one can go to Jodhpur and take the four-hour drive to Jaisalmer which is quite a pleasure.
There is even a railway station and bus stand in Jaisalmer.
This article first appeared in The DIALogue, the now defunct magazine of GMR group and Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL), August 2019 issue.