In the evening, we arrived at the Dera Dune Retreat, built atop a sand dune in the midst of the Thar Desert in India’s Rajasthan State. We settled into our charming cottages overlooking the sere landscape below. As night fell, we were welcomed with the enchanting performances of traditional musicians and a folk dancer, her dress glittering with spangles as she twirled in the light of a campfire. Some of our group happily joined her, as she tried to teach them the steps she had been perfecting since she was a child.
The Thar Desert has historically been called Marwar, the Land of Death, because of its scorching dry heat in the hot season, when temperatures can rise above 140 degrees F. But for our group, visiting just before the beginning of the hot season, the desert proved to be a lively place to discover traditional ways of life in a challenging environment. It was also a serene locale for us to contemplate how life is valued among many of the local people.
The morning after our arrival, we got underway early, riding in small cars to the little town of Khichan to see how birds are pampered there. From a rooftop, we witnessed the amazing spectacle of thousands of wild demoiselle cranes flying and landing in a special area where local citizens put out a huge supply of feed for them twice daily. These migratory birds appear seasonally to feed and to drink from nearby ponds.
Next, we stopped to marvel at salt pans, large stretches of flat marshland divided up by embankments, where salt was being laboriously harvested by hand. The very stuff without which human life cannot exist was being extracted from the salty land to be processed and sold throughout the country. Some of us remembered Gandhi’s historic 1930 Salt March, when he led his nonviolent followers to pick up salt on the seashore, in a gesture of defiance to the British monopoly on salt production, a key event in India’s march to independence in 1947.