Kuldhara - Rajasthan, Feb 2020.
Safari Jeep thrashed on the golden sand and made deep trails as it zoomed ahead from one part of the desert to the other. It didn’t feel at all like a joyride. I could hear Amey (my husband) talking to the driver amid all the thundering, “Bhaiyya, maza aa gaya”. And I looked at him in disbelief with whatever energy was left within me. At any moment we could have landed brutally on the sands and survived a fracture! The ride almost felt as if we were two marbles rattling vigorously inside a glass bottle. I mean how could he? My back was almost breaking and for hours I didn’t feel like myself post the unnecessary morning event.
It was exactly a month before all this COVID hullabaloo robbed off all our happiness. We were happily staying overnight in a tent, taking an early morning camel ride and also this never-ever-again-in-this-life-I-am-going-to-take jeep safari.
February 2020. Sam Sand Dunes. Jaisalmer.
The desert was not of course our first destination. We started 5 days ago from Udaipur. Stayed two days there. Proceeded towards Jodhpur and stayed there two days as well. Rajasthan was the destination we had been long planning to take up. I cannot claim if we had done justice to the place as the 8 day trip was quite hectic for us considering that it was wholly covered riding a bike except the journey from Bangalore to Rajasthan, for which we had taken a flight. Distances between each city was close to 400 kms which took us almost 6-7 hours to commute. Most of the days we got up as early as 5 at dawn and that too it was February. Morning light didn’t appear anytime before 7 and our hands froze while travelling. Clearly, nothing was too comfortable but somehow all kinds of frustration used to simply vanish when we reached from one city to another. Rajasthan is for one word - Majestic!
Morning at the Sam Sand Dunes. the time was around 9:30am
Now going back to the unpleasant jeep safari, it was 9:30 in the morning when we were finally done with that tormenting episode. I also happened to misplace my phone in that short time. Approximately, twenty minutes of hither and thither went on to find it and we finally located the phone under the driver’s seat. Must have fallen from my hand during the jeep dance! I thoroughly felt that jeep safari shouldn’t even be any kind of sport, especially in the desert. First of all, it’s disrupting the desert’s natural formation. Second, it’s downright dangerous. Third, it’s a huge waste of money! Post a filling breakfast which consisted of poori, dal, some curry and a sweet (sorry, I don’t remember that vividly) we started our ride from the desert towards Jaisalmer city. The roads were quite empty except for the regular trucks and few vehicles. Our bike swooshed past barren tracts of land in the sideways. Occasionally we could spot a camel or two crossing the road or thoughtfully chewing on the desert shrubs. Satyajit Ray was quite right when he had said in ‘Sonar Kella’ that, “Here in Jaisalmer, camels roam around the streets just like cows and goats do in other cities.” After fifteen minutes from the time we started, Amey told me quite casually, “Kuldhara dekhna hain tumko?” (“Do you want to visit Kuldhara?”) to which I casually replied, “Haan, jaa sakte hain.” (“Yes, we can go.”). Distance from the sand dunes to Kuldhara is approximately 35 kms but due to no traffic and good roads, it took just half an hour for us to reach the place.
Kuldhara is still considered as an off-beat destination and has been under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India. So, for the ones who are not aware of this place, here’s a bit of background story. Kuldhara or the haunted village as it is called was abandoned overnight by the villagers in the early 19th century. The reasons as to why it’s called haunted or why it had been abandoned are still confusing. I exactly do not remember from where I had heard about Kuldhara but it was a few years back when I came to know of this place. Back then it was just another random haunted village in India for me. It didn’t spark any kind of specific interest that could make me plan on visiting this place during this trip. Visit to Kuldhara was completely unplanned. The original inhabitants of the village were Paliwal Brahmins who had migrated from Pali to Jaisalmer region. Back then before Kuldhara was abandoned, the village was quite prosperous with a total of 84 sub-villages forming the total community. Also, the Paliwals were known to have an excellent understanding of agricultural activities which led them to successfully grow crops in the harsh conditions of the Thar region. They used to basically identify areas in the surrounding regions that stored gypsum rock. It’s a soft mineral made up of 20 percent water, beneath the surface. And, that’s quite true as we saw that for ourselves. While going towards Kuldhara there were large acres of land growing mustard and some other crops. There was mustard for sure as the whole square looked like a beautiful yellow carpet.
Now, it has been a matter of surprise to many historians as to why and how a populous village like Kuldhara managed to simply vanish overnight? There are few articles online which have come up in the last few years writing the various theories on the reason behind the sudden disappearance. Mostly the stories have been collected from the few people who are in charge of looking after the site now. One theory and the most famous one is that of the Diwan of Jaisalmer, Salim Singh. It was about 200 years ago - an era of powerful kings and rulers and Salim Singh was of course no less sinister. He was quite well-known for his corruption and unethical tax-collecting methods. The actual tale began when this heartless ruler set his heart along with his eyes on the beautiful daughter of the village chief. He was determined to have the girl for his own. Any villager who would come in his way would be imposed with heavy taxes. Even though Salim Singh’s wrath petrified the locals, they were still loyal to their chief. Therefore, out of respect, the whole community fled the village overnight and well before the 24 hour deadline given by Salim Singh. It was the year 1825 when this incident happened and while doing this they had to leave behind everything they had worked for six centuries. Also, before leaving the entire village was placed under a curse. Not a single human could ever inhabit or enter this piece of land and whoever tried to do so would meet with death. Quite a story but it was the one believable of the many theories put forward.
The whole village is completely in ruins now. Some portions of the villages have been restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. Taking a look at them you can get a general idea of the everyday life of a Paliwal Brahmin - the proximity of their huts, narrow lanes, small communities etc. There are also other theories such as the gradually diminishing water supply and also an earthquake which urged people to evacuate overnight. Kuldhara is also called a haunted village as I mentioned in the previous paragraphs but till now no correct evidence has been found to back that. But yes, the site is open to tourists only till 5 or 6 pm and even the caretaker doesn’t stay there at night. There are various research studies which are still taking place to unearth the exact mystery behind Kuldhara. Tawarikh-i-Jaisalmer, a book by Lakshmi Chand puts light on the demographic details of the region. If I ever succeed in buying and reading the book, I might be able to write a better piece on this region.
When we took a right turn from the main highway towards Kuldhara, I must say I was a bit terrified. What if we encounter something? I was in half a mind to return but even the thought of it sounded silly in my head. Hence I kept mum and we went ahead. It took us some ten minutes to reach the place. For the first seven minutes we couldn’t find anything which would show that there were ruins of an abandoned village somewhere. Just barren lands with bits of mustard and other plantations. We had already taken a return when two locals who were riding behind us enquired. “Kuldhara jana hain aapko?” We nodded with “Haan”. “Aaage jaaiye, saamne hi hain.” It was a bit surprising as there was nothing in front. Still we went ahead and then I noticed a signboard with ‘Kuldhara’ written on it. Confirmed but still full of doubts we went ahead. After exactly five minutes we saw a huge gate on the left, a caretaker and quite a lot of tourists. There! I kind of heaved a sigh of relief. First of all, the place didn’t give me any kind of eerie feeling but it may be because we were there in broad daylight and in the presence of many other tourists. There were school children who had obviously come there for an educational trip, families who just dropped by like us and other people.
So, it was true. The village was nothing but all ruins and hence nothing was visible from afar. Yes, there were few houses which had been restored basically to give a glimpse of the local life there. But for the most part, it looked as if there really had been an earthquake. Just layers of demolished golden brick structures which did depict that the houses were not exactly mud huts but proper one storey constructions. The lanes between the villages were narrow. As we walked further, we came across a vast space surrounded by a few houses (probably the ones restored). Bunch of ladies were busy taking selfies standing in various corners of that space. We went inside one particular hut, the one which was in front to see what’s inside. It was very much like an usual village hut with a window, small courtyard, separate rooms and a flight of stairs that took you to the terrace. The place was visibly crowded which meant that Kuldhara is slowly on it’s way to becoming a popular tourist destination. There’s also a temple, quite a famous one which we didn’t go to. Oh! And I forgot to mention. They charge you a minimum of INR 20 at the gate. That’s the entry fee.
Some of the houses restored by Archaeological Survey of India
The houses had separate rooms, kitchen, courtyard and also a terrace
Designs etched on the mud houses. These are most probably new ones done by the locals.
While Amey was busy taking photographs, I ventured out a bit, went up on the terrace to take a look. It was quite a view from top. View of what a vast area of ruins could look like. Just a few months before I had been to Hampi which is again a city of ruins, but Kuldhara was a bit different. Hampi is of course beautiful, no doubt about that. But the ruins of Kuldhara were more dense, more impactful. The dilapidated houses were still clustered together. A mud inscription of a deer was etched on one particular wall. Hard to say whether it was done then or later by the restoration group. Also, it was a really beautiful, clear and sunny day. The sunrays were creating beautiful shadows in some of the places. I made some quick photographs along with a few video clips and but guess, I couldn’t do much justice to the place. A couple of hours more would have been good but we had to reach the city and roam there as well. It was post 12 when we finally departed from Kuldhara and started for Jaisalmer.
Ruins as seen from the terrace of an adjacent house
Lanes and by-lanes inside the village of Kuldhara
I cannot give any specific ending to this write-up for Kuldhara as it is more of a documentation of the place. In the last two years, it has gained more popularity with tourists. But Kuldhara is a lot more than what I have written here. Also, while going to Bikaner from Jaisalmer the following day, we had stopped by a roadside shop to have lassi. The owner got quite curious looking at us and engaged us into a conversation. Most of it was from where we came, how long we have been travelling, what is our next destination. As the conversation was nearing an end he asked all of a sudden,
“Aaplog Kuldhara gaye the? Hum wohin ke hain. Paliwal Brahmins.” That kind of surprised me.
I told him in return, “Haa, gaye toh the. Achha laga. Lekin aaplog abhi rehte kahaan pe ho?”
“Hum toh yahin rehte hain. Jaisalmer mein. Hamare purvaj bahot pehle wahaan se nikal chuke the. Abhi toh kuch raha nahi wahaan pe.”
The fact is that even they are not aware of their own history, the actual story as to why a whole village had disappeared overnight. He didn’t press much on the matter and also didn’t launch with any further stories. Post a hurried goodbye we resumed our journey towards Bikaner, our next destination.