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Monday, September 27, 2021

A Forgotten City

Visitors on their way to the famed ‘Sam’ sand dunes of Jaisalmer often overlook Kuldhara.

Written by Apurva |
June 27, 2010 11:03:23 pm

Visitors on their way to the famed ‘Sam’ sand dunes of Jaisalmer often overlook Kuldhara. Except now,a freshly painted board manages to corner the attention of the more curious among them.

Some 20 kilometres away from Jaisalmer,stands the town of Kuldhara,as it did 200 years ago,with bats and an occasional desert fox taking over the homes,town square and the temples. The desert winds have snatched the timber roofs away,but the sandstone buildings stand firm,lining the deserted roads. It could not have been spookier—the city stands intact,not only the roads,homes,temples and buildings but also the wells and the city’s drainage system

Kuldhara is an abandoned town and the desert tale says that its residents were the Paliwal Brahmins who now are spread across Rajasthan. The community,though Brahmins,were traders and successful farmers and lived in Kuldhara,the largest of a cluster of 84 towns and villages that they dominated in a 30-km radius around Jaisalmer.

A broad road lined with roofless homes leads to the town square,each home is connected to a drainage system and the backyards are lined with separate sheds for animals. Everything stands intact,except that the deities have long disappeared from the temples and so have the people. On the walls,in Devnagari script,are inscriptions—local scholars say a mix of Sanskrit and Marwadi dialects,perhaps dating back to the 19th century.

As interesting as its tale of abandonment is that of how it came to be rediscovered some years ago. The abandoned town would have been lost to the desert winds,but for a pair of “mercenary” foreign tourists and a man called Sumer Ram,who,in the 1990s,had moved into one of the abandoned homes in Kuldhara with his father,since they had no other place to live.

“It was in 1998,nobody would come this way then. For three nights,two foreigners would come with long metal poles (detectors),dig up one of the homes and take something away. We confronted them and found them with gold and silver coins. One threatened me with a knife,asking me to forget everything as they left,” recounts Ram.

But Ram wouldn’t give up and,with the help of two people who were passing that way on their motorbike,called the police.

And the rest,as they say,is history. Ram’s son Padma Ram remembers the police act in a way he has never since thereafter. “For some reason,they took the issue seriously and arrived in Kuldhara in force with four Gypsies and several men. The two men,one a Dutch and the other German,were arrested and even served a jail sentence,” says Padma Ram. The gold and valuables recovered are in the custody of a Jaisalmer court which handled the case.

B L Soni,Jaipur range Inspector General of Police,who was then Jaisalmer SP, recalls the incident. “We had received some information and acting on that we had arrested two foreigners who had dug up some artefacts at Kuldhara using metal detectors. They even did some time in jail but they were later let off on bail,” he says.

After the police case,the Jaisalmer district administration woke up to Kuldhara’s historical importance and built a boundary wall and hired Sumer Ram as watchman. Ram now stands guard at the newly built fortification wall,within which is a cactus garden and a spot where tourists are regaled with a song-and-dance show and ghost tales. There aren’t too many tourists,though. A few trickle into this town,undotted in tourist brochures.

To date,Kuldhara and Khaba,another town of Paliwal Brahmins some 10 km away,remain as they were abandoned 200 years ago,except for a few additions and restorations,courtesy the Jaisalmer Vikas Samithi. So far,neither the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) nor the state archaeological department has shown much interest in developing or even researching Kuldhara,though both departments are well aware of the site and its importance.

Prakash Vyas,the secretary of the Jaisalmer Vikas Samithi (JVS),which oversees the development of Kuldhara,maintains that of the 84 towns,only a few remain. “Though all 84 were cleared out then,only Kuldhara and Khaba,the biggest,remain. The rest are either lost or have been taken over by other nomadic people. The two towns are amazing examples of life and lifestyles from 200 years ago,” says Vyas.

According to Vyas,it was in 1998,that the district administration authorised the building of a boundary wall around Kuldhara. “Before that,it was open to everybody and miscreants would camp in the empty village and even damage the structures,” Vyas says. By 2000,he says,the government had begun restoring some of the buildings in Kuldhara.

Where did they all go?

Kuldhara’s story is a fairytale. It starts with a beautiful woman,a daughter of a Paliwal Brahmin who inhabited Kuldhara,and one powerful man’s desire for her,the prime minister of the Jaisalmer royals.

Jodharam Babar,deputy director of the Rajasthan Department of Archaeology,narrates the story. Salum Singh,the prime minister of the Jaisalmer king in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,wanted to marry the girl. “Tradition was most important then and the Paliwal Brahmins refused to let a member of their community marry anybody considered lower in the caste hierarchy,” Babar says.

“With a bruised ego,Singh gave the inhabitants of Kuldhara a choice: marriage or death and gave them a day to decide their fate,” Babar says. But the residents decided on a third course of action: disappear. “In one day,the Paliwal Brahmins packed what they could carry and in the dead of night,left the city,” says Babar. Kuldhara was the biggest of 84 villages and towns in the area,so the remaining 83 followed suit.

However,Nand Kishore Sharma,founder of the Desert Culture Centre and Museum and author of more than 40 books on Jaisalmer’s history,believes the story has distilled into a fairy tale. “They were a very prosperous community that easily rivalled Jaisalmer. But when the trade routes began closing down and the rivers began to dry out,the Paliwal Brahmins bore the brunt of the taxes,” says Sharma. He adds that while Salum Singh imposed heavy taxes on Kuldhara and other villages,bandits and dacoits,who knew of their wealth,began plundering them.

“There are some records of dacoits mercilessly looting the inhabitants of the 84 villages,primarily because they were well off. Later,they even started kidnapping the women of the villages and held them to ransom,” says Sharma. This,he believes,was the prime reason for the Paliwal Brahmins’ decision to clear out. “It could not have been a gradual process since they might have been tracked down,” he says.

Though the Paliwals were Brahmins and scholars,they were also businessmen. “The city primarily depended on trade and they were good at it. At one point,Kuldhara was easily more prosperous than Jaisalmer city itself. So some believe that Salum Singh’s overbearing attitude and excessive taxes forced them to leave,” says Vyas.

“Once,the Kak River flowed through here and provided the inhabitants of Kuldhara the water they needed. But this river was dammed some 300 years ago and slowly dried up. This could be another reason why they abandoned the place,” says Vyas.

The town as it stood once

Walking into Kuldhara is a trip back in time,though the city’s architectural design is anything but ancient. With well-defined roads lined by houses,an efficient drainage system and separate sheds to house animals,Kuldhara might be old,but its degree of sophistication in design beguiles historians.

Sharma,who has studied Kuldhara and Jaisalmer’s history for the better part of three decades,believes Kuldhara’s inhabitants were far ahead of their time. “Its residents,who inhabited this land that’s some 20 km from Jaisalmer,flourished for over 400 years in what was Jaisalmer’s golden age—of trade,agriculture and even water,which for this desert district is unthinkable,” Sharma says.

“Each one of the 84 villages use a simple technique of rain-water harvesting. They built wells a little away from the main village or town,several feet deep,and simple canals drained into them,” explains former Jaisalmer district collector K K Pathak. He adds that every time it rained,the wells and some ponds would fill up and the water would last for the better part of three years. “Few of these canals and harvesting methods exist now. The ones that have survived still work as efficiently as they did,” says Pathak.

It was only recently that the JVS reconstructed two houses in Kuldhara,perhaps to aid tourism,but Sharma isn’t too happy about it. “One of the restored houses is a mess. Then roofs were built of wood,but the new one is made of cement. Also,the sandstone walls have been painted for reasons I have not been able to understand yet,” says Sharma. He says that another house next to the temple was built from scratch,a “preposterous idea”.

The temple inscriptions suggest that it was built in the early 19th century. Sharma points out,“This temple was built by the Paliwal Brahmins around 1815 to honour Lord Murli Manohar.”

Each house in Kuldhara was built to precise calculations. A typical house includes sleeping quarters for the masters and their children,a puja room and a kitchen. “The architecture was very advanced and every house had good cross ventilation to ensure shelter from the sun,” says Pathak.

The houses were built not only according to a strict order,but records with historians in Jaisalmer show that each house had a specific address. “They used last names everywhere and also specified their gotra as well as that of their neighbours. This makes it easy to pin point every house,” says Sharma.

Also scattered around the city are cenotaphs that have withstood the test of time. Just south of Kuldhara and two km away is a group of at least 15 cenotaphs,which Vyas believes are of the villages’ noblemen. “Though most cenotaphs have a stone altar with a slab describing the body they enshrine,some cenotaphs are much larger,with elaborate designs and finely sculpted images of gods. These probably belonged to the wealthier inhabitants,” says Vyas.

Kuldhara’s town planners seemed to have chosen the temple as the city’s centre,with the town expanding radially around it. The larger houses that stood closer to the temple probably belonged to the wealthier owners.

Pathak,the former Jaisalmer district collector,says Kuldhara’s houses display a rare sophistication. “Though there are many houses,most share walls except the temple,which is an indicator that there was an efficient property and municipal system in place. In most settlements this old and this far away,houses never share boundaries,” Pathak explains. He adds that the houses are also arranged in some order unlike in other settlements.

And now

For long,the Paliwal Brahmins,now spread all over Rajasthan and found pursuing various professions—unlike their ancestors who only farmed and traded goods—were largely uninterested in Kuldhara and its heritage. But of late,the newer generation of Paliwal Brahmins,seemingly interested in their history,culture and the faraway promise of valuables once lost,has been coming to Kuldhara,looking for their lost homes. “Every now and then,a family turns up claiming to be descendants of the Paliwal Brahmins who inhabited the area years ago and wants to trace their ancestry back to Kuldhara. Some come looking for treasure and some for answers,” he says.

Unfortunately,Kuldhara will continue to remain a mystery to tourists as there is no written record or guide anywhere that narrates its fantastic tale. But there is a cactus museum just outside Kuldhara,which contains cacti species from prehistoric times,and so,the only sign inside Kuldhara says,“Beware! Do not get poked by the thorns.”

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