I was watching a chain of camels climbing a sand dune. Lying on my stomach with my chin resting on my hands and just my head popping out of the tent, I was feeling like a child watching Arabian Nights. A young camel driver, barely a boy, was handling the reigns of six camels. I can’t say for sure what time it was. But it must’ve been early because the sun hadn’t yet painted everything golden. It didn’t make sense to wear a watch for a night in the desert.
I had come away from Jaisalmer and its thousand havelis — a few of them were historic and the rest of them were hotels recently made from a sandstone template. I camped for the night among the Khuri sand dunes. A couple of people from the neighbouring Baran village were with us to serve as ‘housekeepers’ and ‘storytellers’.
Their leader was an old man retired from the Indian army. High on nasvaar (snuff), he had been singing till late in the night. He was already up and ready to serve us tea with anecdotes of his Bhatti ancestors.
He urged us to visit the ruins in Lodhurva which was once the capital of the Bhatti Rajputs. But we were more interested in the deserted villages of Khaba and Kuldhara. He had the same story that we had heard before, that there were 84 such villages that the Paliwal Brahmins abandoned centuries ago. Such is the predominance of folklore in the history of Jaisalmer that it is hard to tell fact from fiction.
Taking directions from the villagers we set out for the mystical ruins. A narrow but well-made road cut through sandy plains. Such roads connect numerous villages spread across the Thar desert.
None of the villages that we crossed had more than twenty houses. There were places where all that we could see was barren hillocks and sand dunes. For miles there would be no sign of life except for cactus and wild shrubs and then suddenly, vibrantly dressed locals would emerge and break the monotony of the golden landscape.
In the spread of barren hillocks and sand dunes, there was the Khabha fort. It wasn’t too big a fort with just one caretaker and his son. It was evident that the place had been recently renovated by the ASI. From its terrace we saw the ruins of Khabha village at the foot of the hill. A dilapidated temple stood in its middle.
There was greenery around the area as if reminiscent of the agricultural genius of the Paliwal clan. They had discovered the means to cultivate wheat and legumes in the desert and the ingenuity to locate lands that had a gypsum layer under the surface. Such a land when filled with rainwater could retain moisture for a long time making it suitable for cultivation.
We went down to the village and entered its broken-down streets. Stones of varying sizes had been put on top of each other to create walls without any kind of cementing. Some walls had slabs with carved ends jutting out, perhaps for creating shelves.
The main street leading to the temple was barely 12-feet wide. It must’ve been a cosy village, I thought. The temple was a single chamber edifice of carved sandstone. It had withstood the test of time as most of the structure was still intact though there were big cracks through the walls and some portion of the roof had fallen off. The sanctum was empty.
May be the Paliwals took their idols along with them when they deserted the villages to escape from the exploitative rulers.
The caretaker’s son had climbed down from the fort to join us. He said that they rarely had visitors.
This is unlike Kuldhara, another such abandoned village nearby which has now being converted into a heritage site. One can buy a ticket to drive through it.
While most streets in Khabha are too narrow for vehicles and others too sandy, a local on motorcycle came by looking for a shortcut through the village. He had milk containers tied to his bike and he was barely managing to keep it from falling. The young boy told him the way. He told us that he was there to spend his vacations with his father. Their family lived in Khabha village which was close to the ruins.
The boy was practising on the Morchang, a single-stringed mouthorgan. He played a tune for us. Its desolate sound echoed all around. Almost like a song of the yellow stones that the Paliwals had left to become one with the sand that they had emerged from.