Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Treasuring Life in the Indian Desert

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.

Our next stop was a village of potters – families of a caste of Kumhars, hereditary experts on shaping the terra cotta vessels essential for keeping water cool in the desert heat.  Just outside their simple homes, the potters had stockpiled their hand thrown pots, anticipating great demand  in the hot season ahead.  Water evaporates through the porous walls of unglazed earthen pots, providing cool reservoirs to quench the thirst–and enhance the lives--of every desert dweller.  The potters and their families greeted us with friendly smiles as we admired their wares.

We had arranged to visit a village school, and even though it was Sunday, a large group of children awaited our arrival under a shade tree outside their school.  On a previous visit, our tour operator had promised to donate a portable electric fan to the school, and so we presented the fan, along with pens and pencils, to the bright-eyed children.  Here, in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, were scores of happy youngsters bringing fresh ideas and new life to the desert.

As our day in the desert continued, we stopped at several small hamlets, where we met camel herders and watched rug weavers and shoemakers at work.  Veiled women, turbanned men, and smiling children greeted us at each stop.  In the home of a prosperous Rajput family, the women of the household sweetly painted pretty henna designs onto the hands of the women in our Smithsonian group.

Perhaps most special amongst all the desert dwellers we met were the Bishnois, members of a Hindu sect devoted to nonviolence and to protecting desert life.  Inspired by a 15th century prophet, Jambhoji, the vegetarian Bishnoi people are famed for protecting trees and wildlife.  The Bishnois were the first tree-huggers, and in earlier times, hundreds gave their lives to protect trees from men with axes.  For centuries, gazelles and deer have roamed without fear near Bishnoi hamlets.  A few years ago, a nationally known Bollywood star ignored Bishnoi–and national–law and shot a black buck in Bishnoi territory.  Caught by the Bishnois, he is currently under indictment.

A highlight of our day in the desert was riding camels through the dunes.  Today, pressure from human population growth has reduced grazing rights for camels.  Even though the camel is the Rajasthan state animal, camels and their herders are facing hard times.  Nonetheless, here in the heart of the Land of Death, we could sense that treasuring life remains a very strong tradition.

The finale of our day was relaxing near the pool on the ramparts of our retreat, gazing across the desert landscape at a brilliant setting sun.