From where I stood on the parabolic sand dune, I could see a long stretch of sand spread ahead till the horizon, lightly sprinkled with cactus and pale bushes. The Thar started, or ended, here depending on how one wished to see it.
Archaeologists propose that almost 5,000 years ago, a mystique river Hakra (often equalled to the mythical Rig-Vedic Saraswati River) watered these plains. There were settlements by its bank, such as at Kalibangan, which depended on its water to irrigate their harvests.
Withered into history
But the river dried up and the culture by its banks withered away. The people either moved to the fertile Ganges plains and mingled with new migrants from Central Asia or remained where they were and adapted to the desert. In the Thar, the prehistoric seems to still enwrap the present. I stood on a small mound of the wrinkled, brown sand, and looked afar. The desert stared back as if in agony that had been hammered in by thousands of years of amour, despair and duality that it bosomed.
Life in the sands
In the desert of Osian near Jodhpur, a village overlooking the Thar, we met Jhallaram who earns his living by inviting tourists home and giving them a taste of the village life. The village in this context hardly constituted a few settlements randomly distributed on the edge of the Thar Desert. Over the wood fire that Jhallaram had built for us in the cold, desert night, we got introduced to his three sons and Sangeeta, his two-year-old daughter.
Nearby, the camels chewed on the fodder and breathed loud enough to be overheard over the crackling fire; they were making their presence felt in the group.
Tempted by the call of the desert, we had arrived at this village from Jodhpur the previous evening, after a long drive through desolate desert roads. In that hot afternoon, traversing Rajasthan was like a penance that we touring pilgrims paid. Carcasses and a few living birds distinguished the journey and the air was thick with sand that was a constant irritation to the eyes.
On arrival, we parked our car on the boundary of the village, and gingerly walked towards the waiting camels that Jhallaram and his oldest son, Sumer, had brought with them. We mounted on the two camels and trekked into the village.
Survival of the fittest
Descending from the camels, we headed to a mud hut adjoining the brick house of our hosts that was to be our home for the night. The hut had gaping slits all across its perimeter wherever the wooden wedges did not stick together. Later that night, a scared bird strayed inside through the gaps and gave us a moment of fright. The hut didn't have a door either and we requested a canvas pall to keep out the cold winds. We were just beginning to realise the harshness that the otherwise calm desert was capable of offering.
The evening was unusually quiet, as if this part of the world had accepted the might of the elements sun, dust and corroding air not out of veneration but of subjection. Here, the brave stories were of survival not conquer.
In the dark, the sky opened up like a jewel box. The Milky Way stretched from one end to the other. We sat by the fire and chatted with Sangeeta and her brothers. There was a primary school in the hamlet visited by a teacher who came to the village in a Jeep from the town. All three of Jhallaram's children, except Sangeeta as she was too young, went to this school. Tourism brought in income, and camels at Rs 25,000 apiece were an investment. Sometimes, when the rain was good, even the desert sand yielded some grains for the family, mainly bajra.
Later, over a dinner of bajra rotlas and vegetables in the house, Jhallaram told us stories of the village. His fine features quivered in the light from the lamp, while his uncommonly handsome face masked any strains of the long bygone day. Satiated and tired, we retired to the hut soon after to battle with the cold wind that had colonised the hut by then.
The next morning, we walked to the nearest sand dune to study the village more soundly. The village was a small settlement, encompassing an ecosystem in itself. The camels tied behind the house were not the only animals. A sheep and dog were the other pets, and we later came across peacocks, hens and even a cow.
Nourishing, hearty fare
The houses were made of brick and mud; the brick ones adding a notch in the social status, it seemed.
Back in our nest, we watched Sangeeta and the kids in their element. There were newborn puppies tucked inside the barn. Sangeeta very fondly held them, and recognising the warmth in her touch, they nestled to her cosily. Later she chased birds in the porch, while we ate a fine mixture of bajra, ghee and sugar a staple breakfast of the desert tribe.
It was time for us to leave. Jhallaram prepared the camel cart for us, carefully greasing the wheel axle and cushioning the seat for us. We looked at the kids. Mindful that we would leave soon, they had grown quiet, but yet smiled. Only Sangeeta seemed carefree as she chased the goat. We worried for her, for what future the desert held for her. We somehow felt responsible in an indescribable way. With a determined, tacit decision to come back and see her again, we climbed into the cart. The cart rolled, and the village dwarfed behind us until it dissolved into ordinariness.
Bowing down to the desert
In the last few days in Rajasthan, and in one day and night at the Thar, I had come to realise the might of the desert. The Thar avenged some wrong of the past, coming across as clearly inhospitable, sterilising any effort of reconciliation with its hostile hot sand storms or chilly winds.
It looked like it wanted to free itself of humanity, testing each one who lived on it to godforsaken ends. But many like Jhallaram still persisted, not with arrogance but bent in reverence. In the dark battle of elements, the survival spirit flamed like an earthen lamp, a remnant of which shone in little Sangeeta's eyes. I was once again humbled, but not by the desert this time.
Nitin is a freelance writer based out of MalmÃ¶, Sweden.