Cultural Encounters: Experiencing Life in the Thar Desert | Queen of Thar

Windswept sand dunes, vast craggy planes, hardy scrub, drought-resistant trees and parched ancient salt lakes, endless hot days with a cobalt sky and balmy or chilly nights. Thar Desert ensnares the visitor into its hypnotic embrace.

Thar Desert is the land of kings and princesses, warriors, invaders and migrants, of irrepressible sovereignty, wealth and distinctive, elaborate architecture. In contrast, it is the land of the desert dwellers, simple villagers, camel farmers and agriculturalists, the primary source of maize, sorghum, bajra (millet), chana, jeera and sesame, who have learned to thrive in the harshest of environments, of enduring traditions, rich cultures and poetic legends.Thar Desert Climate

Thar Desert is undeniably the most inhospitable region of the Indian subcontinent, and with over 80 people per square KM, it is the most densely populated desert in the world. Thar is also home to more than 40 species of mammals, such as the Indian desert wild cat and caracal, and a range of local and migratory birds including the endangered great bustard.

As the 17th largest desert and 9th largest subtropical desert in the world, Thar Desert may be smaller than others, but its diverse and vibrant culture arguably makes it the most dazzling and enticing. It is part of the largest terrestrial biome (deserts and shrublands) of the world’s terrestrial ecoregions which covers 19% of Earth’s land surface area.

This arid region creating a natural boundary across northwestern India and southeastern Pakistan, comprises undulating dunes interlocked by sandy plains, low, barren hills, stony outcrops and parched saline lakes here and there.

Also known as the Great Indian Thar Desert, the northwestern part of Thar Desert covers some 200,000 square KM across Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat where the huge salt marsh, Great Rann of Kutch, is located.

About 85% of Thar Desert is in Rajasthan India, mainly spread over the four districts – Barmer, Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur. They sit in the Marusthali region, (in Sanskrit ‘Land of the Dead’), the sand-dune-covered eastern portion of the Great Indian Desert known as the Sandy Arid Plain. Thar’s dunes consist of aeolian (wind-deposited) sand that has accumulated over 1.8 million years. They are renowned for their perpetual movement, golden sand grains constantly shifted by the winds, with heights ranging from 6 to 60 meters. Discovering the history of the Thar Desert involves exploring its rich cultural and environmental past.

Jaisalmer and Barmer also sit in the Dune Free Tract where limestone and exposed sandstone rocks are used in building houses, and more frequently hotels. In the Marusthali region where there is sparse water supply, dry beds and banks can be tapped for ground water which supply villages with drinking water and other daily needs.

The partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 left most of the irrigation canals fed by the Indus River system in Pakistani territory, leaving a large area on the western Indian side unirrigated. An agreement 13 years later ensured water supply from the Ravi River, Beas River and Sutlej River to the Indira Gandhi Canal, the longest canal in India.

Rajasthan is famous for its Rajput nobility and kingdoms. Before India gained independence in 1947, the region’s name was Rajputana, meaning “Land of the Rajput’. (Rajput, from Sanskrit raja-putra, “son of a king”).

This status was fortified after the two Pakistani states were created and the British government handed power over to India more than 70 years ago, where, under the newly formed Constitution, ‘former princely states’ including Rajasthan (which maintained Indian rule under the British Indian Empire) became one of the four Indian states. In this state, all the Maharajas would maintain their ruling rights and be provided with a Privy Purse as assured by constitutional guarantees. The Indian states later merged, thereby ending these princely rights. Rajputana was merged with Ajmer-Merwara state and hence Rajasthan was born.

Constitution of India

The geography and aridness of the Great Indian Desert have moulded the identity of its people: courage, tenacity, tolerance, fidelity, generosity and kindness. Its natural adversity and mosaic history have also contributed to the evolution of Rajasthani folk culture.

The philosophy and way of life for the people of the Thar Desert is as simple as the barren land itself.

The essence of ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhav’, interpreted as “all religions are the same” or “all paths lead to the same destination”, exists here—a term attributed to Mahātmā Gāndhi, who first spoke it in 1930 to his followers to quell divisions arising between Hindus and Muslims (unity and respect for all castes and religions).

Most of Thar’s familial generations live in small villages. Complex social structures of the main religions of Islam and Hinduism are integral to each community. In the Great Indian Thar Desert, Rajasthani languages predominate—especially Marwari in the west.

Life in a simple village in Rajasthan is peaceful and grounded.

Desert villages were typically hamlets where most houses were made with found stones, clay and grass, walls stabilised with cow poo, thatched roofs and packed earth courtyards. Villages remain small and social, houses are common property with no fenced-off courtyard in sight but are now made with Thar’s carved golden stone.

Many villages still have no electricity and air conditioners are rare. Families sleeping outside under the starlit sky is normal during the hottest months of the year.

Each small village is mostly self-contained but connects with like-minded villages around them. The village community is founded on enduring relations, cooperation and sharing, customs and common culture. Kinship and maintaining tradition, respect and connection amongst family members is vitally important in the village community, strengthened by a deep religious faith whether it be Muslim, Hindu or other.

Education is limited in the villages, and many cannot afford to send their children to schools in the cities. However, a gradual awakening in villages to the value of education, along with changing political and economic conditions and expansion of transportation and communication systems, is gradually ending the isolation of Thar’s village people and shifting cultural norms. Even though Thar’s desert stretches are sparsely covered with green grasses, the locals graze cows, goats, camels and many sheep, making it India’s most important wool-producing region. Many skinny calves can be seen in the arid region during the hottest season.

Thar’s beautiful ecosystem is also showing signs of change from a growing population and climatic changes. Overgrazing, invasive plant species and denuding of some sand-binding shrubs is contributing to desertification. So too is the iconic khejri tree showing signs of changes in its seasonal flowering and fruiting cycle.

Certain areas are now designated protected areas to conserve floral and faunal ecology and biodiversity in the desert ecosystem, such as Desert National Park near Sam Sand Dunes 43 KM from Jaisalmer Fort. It is one of the largest protected areas in India. Since Desert National Park was established in 1980, the wildlife population has increased.

For centuries, the camel has been an intrinsic part of life in Thar Desert and was a crucial means of transport on the caravan trade route that connected India to the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.

Most of India’s camel population lives in Rajasthan. The Raika community—a pastoral nomadic community—has been herding camels for aeons, roaming through farmers’ lands in a symbiotic relationship, exchanging fertiliser and fresh camel milk with meals and places to rest. Male camels were sold to villagers as a means of travelling and for transporting loads and ploughing fields. Modernisation has changed the need for camels and the means of income for Raikas. Changes in legislation in 2015 preventing the slaughter of camels further placed their means for money earned and the lifestyle of the Raikas in peril.

In turn, camel milk is the new ‘white gold’ super-drink in India, although it remains expensive and neoteric. Tourism has brought to life safaris and a camel ride is one of the exhilarating ways to experience the desert. There are now plenty of camel drivers who provide rides at Sam Sand Dunes.

Discover more about camels and camel safaris offered by desert camps like Queen of Thar.

Tourist with her camel
Tourist with her camel

People of Rajasthan love traditions and customs, and are moved to express the joys and sorrows of past glories and tragedies through poetic expression, euphonious folk songs and tribal dances, thus portraying the courage and fortitude of its people and culture. In this way, the daily challenges and struggles of Thar Desert life and historical knowledge and customs have been passed on from generation to generation.

More so, Rajasthani folklore and folk music are renowned and loved across India and the world and this cultural experience along with the mystery of this vast desert draws visitors from near and far.

Folk dances are an integral component of local culture, not just because they are charming, but because they also convey tales distinctively and intriguingly. Ghoomer, Kathputli dance (puppet dance), Kachchhi Ghodi (dummy horse dance), Bhavai dance (pots on the head), Kalbelia (energetic snake charming dance), Gair (men perform with wooden sticks), Chakri and Chari (usually a flaming pot on the head) are the most famous folk dances of Thar Desert.

At evening cultural shows, women dancers typically perform the Ghoomer, Chakri, Kalbelia and Bhavai dances as men play music with the Dholak, Khartal, harmonium and dol drum and sing tribal ballads. If you are lucky, during a Thar Desert Tour, you may stumble across an Algoza musician playing twin wooden flutes with impressive skill.

Each type of dance has a cultural heritage. Rajasthani Kalbeliyas are also known as Sapera, literally meaning ‘snake charmer’. Years ago, Kalbeliyas were semi-nomadic communities that would go from village to sell snakes and perform.  Their roots and deference for the snake can be seen in the Kalbeliya dance that invokes snake imagery. The dances and ballads are a crucial part of their tribal heritage and are passed from generation to generation. Today, the Kalbeliyas perform traditional welcome to guests and perform in the cultural programs offered by Thar’s desert camps, such as Queen of Thar Desert Camp, and are showcased at the region’s desert festival.

Industrialisation forced many villagers to move to the cities for employment where the approach to animal welfare and handicrafts has diminished. However, many villages in Thar Desert continue to live simple lives and produce much of their own crafts and gifts as the village’s economic mainstay. Demonstrating their courage and resilience, the people of the harshest region in India have ensured traditions have endured through tourism, industrious self-employment and self-sustaining practices.

Handicrafts, architecture and paintings are the hallmarks of Thar Desert’s rich culture and diverse history, from the chivalric opulence of the Rajputs to the prosaic embellishments of the Mughals. Despite modernisation, handicrafts are still plentiful, reflecting the continuing customs and endurance of the desert people.

The work of Usta artists, ivory on wood, applied on houses and to make statues, and gold enamel on camel skin (Gold Meenakari and Munawwati) in Bikaner are famous. Jaipur and Jodhpur are famed for the work of lac, used to make decorated bangles, toys, idols, carousels and other objects. Men of the Kumhar caste (Sanskrit meaning ‘earthen pot maker’) have long made pots from clay.

Probably best known is the printing on textiles. Bandhej,Mothda and Lahariya art is a technique of tying cloth in various designs and then dyeing in different colours.

Jatkatarai artwork is created by shearing the hair on the body of the camel to create shapes and designs. Camel patterns are also created using ink.

Numerous small objects can be found in Jaisalmer from wooden goblets made by woodworkers on the lathe to cups fashioned from fossil stone unearthed in Habur village 40 KM from Jaisalmer (believed to be the result of calcium deposits from millennia-old marine animals) to heavy metal deity heads and padlocks in the shape of a fish or other weird shapes.

The colourful history and vibrant traditions of the Rajput and Mughal dynasties have greatly influenced Rajasthan’s fashion landscape.

Rajputs (in Sanskrit ‘son of kings’) ruled the region historically known as Rajputana (‘land of the Rajputs’) since the 7th century. Although Rajputs vary greatly in status, they are largely renowned as a warrior ruling class famed for their fighting abilities, validating their high standing amongst the castes.

With the coming of the Mughals in the 16th century, great rulers and conquerors, social, cultural and artistic exchange occurred, resulting in a blending of textile patterns, dress styles and ornaments.

Marwadi Husband and Wife in Traditional Rajasthani Attire

Due to the traditional nature of Thar’s residents, men in the villages tend to dress like their ancestors, remaining true to their heritage. Touted as the male counterpart of the sari worn by women, men typically wear dhoti (a rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around the lower half of the body). Hindu men fasten the dhoti between the legs up to the knees. A kurta (shirt) or tunic is worn on top. Muslim men wear all white while Hindu men will be more decorative.

For the more regal, the sherwani is a classic, elegant Rajasthani dress, long and flared with hand-embroidered designs, it exudes nobility. Influenced by Mughal style, it can be worn with the iconic Jodhpuri Breeches, closely-fitted trousers flaring at the thighs.

Breeches, also known as churidar, are tightly fitted trousers that gather at the ankle. They are usually made of cotton or silk and paired with a kurta (long shirt) or angrakha (traditional upper garment). Breeches are known for their distinctive pleats at the waist.

Kamarbandh is a decorative waistband or sash that adorns the classier, or the mightier who brave a Rajput sword, reflecting the reputation of Rajasthan as the land of royalty, invasion and wars, and proudly brandished at Jaisalmer’s Desert Festival.

It is considered uncouth to leave the head bare, but more so, the turban has traditionally been a symbol of identity, pride and standing in society, and so the practice of wearing a turban continues to this day, mainly amongst respected elders.

Nawabs of Bhawalpur in Sherwani
Nawabs of Bhawalpur in Sherwani

The act of tying a turban is an artwork in itself, performed with skill and precision. The size, style and colour of the turban varied depending on status, caste affiliation or position within the community although, the embellished turbans are now preserved for celebratory events and nobility.  For example, the Marwari turban is characterised by bright pigments, typically a brilliant crimson, wrapped closely and neatly around the head, sometimes with a vertical fold at the front, portraying the simplicity and colour of the people.

Moustaches, associated with the mighty Rajput warrior, are essential to the Rajasthani man, exemplifying honour, respect and most of all manliness, even amongst Thar’s Muslim menfolk. The aspiration of many a Rajasthani boy, the pride and social standing that comes with a furry upper lip can be demonstrated in the effort required to maintain a handlebar moustache. More so, this simple signpost is so important as an emblem of upper caste identity, that it has even been the cause of death and legal battles for moustachioed menin India.

There is a greater variety of dress amongst women of the Thar Desert. The whole body is covered and saris and veils are still worn by women in most villages. Their main clothes are chundro, lehariya, odhani and sari, while the ‘Assi Kalighagra’ (eighty pleats skirt) is important.

The traditional Rajputi Poshak is exclusive to Rajasthan, although it is starting to become a popular outfit in other parts of India. It is worn with elaborate and colourful decorations by the traditional folk dancers of the Thar Desert. Adorned with embroidery, beadwork and mirror work, this stunning ensemble consists of a long, flowing skirt and a heavily embroidered hemline (the ghagra) with a hip-length, sleeveless blouse (kurti). And it is finished with the overlaid odhani (veil).

The odhani (or chunni), a rectangular piece of cloth made of cotton or silk, is often intricately embroidered or printed and studded with startling stones or sequins. It is draped over the head, shoulders and face to protect from the sun and to maintain modesty and one corner is typically tucked inside the ghagra.

The women of this vast desert are elaborately ornamental wearing accessories around their necks, arms, feet and wrists, and on their heads, fingers and toes. Jewellery is typically made of gold or silver, silver anklets (kada) at the legs and white ivory bangles for the upper arms known as churas or churlasare. Chura was traditionally made of ivory with inlay work, but today it is made with plastic, glass bangles or lac.

Especially unique to Thar Desert and Rajasthan is the nath or nathni, a large ring or stone-studded jewellery piece placed on the left nostril with one or multiple chains looped to the ear or back of the hair.

Decorative chokers, Heavy Jadau style, are always worn at the neck. Accentuating dark eyes rimmed with Kohl, a Borla or Maang Tikka, a round or bell-shaped pendant, adorns the center of the desert woman’s forehead, dropped gracefully from a chain lying along the central hairline. It is typically crafted from gold or silver, bedecked with intricate patterns and, for the well-off, embedded with diamonds and rubies. The Borla is said to impart will and wisdom to the woman, as it sits at or above the source of the Ajna Chakra, the third eye, the seat of insight, intuition and wisdom.

Comfortable mojris of either textile or leather were the traditional footwear of both men and women of Thar Desert. Now, the desert people commonly prefer to wear flat sandals (slippers) or loafers, though mojris are still favoured for weddings.

Thar Desert itself is not known for architecture, however, in cities like Jaisalmer, where the royal and noble dwelt, influences of war, invasion, wealth and royalty are evident in the building of forts, havelis, cenotaphs and temples.

In Jaisalmer, its unique architectural style is an amalgamation of Rajput and Mughal styles, with intricately carved floral and geometric fretwork on pillars, window frames and doorways, Jharokhas (covered overhanging balconies), screens and cupolas (domes) over windows and door entries – still painstakingly hand-carved by local stonemasons to this day.

This extraordinary architecture is heightened by the use of the golden sandstone of the Thar Desert giving it a magical glow that beckons dreams of princes and princesses and bygone majesty. As the sunsets, the sandy stone colour almost shimmers in a golden honey hue mirroring the setting sun’s orangy rays. The architecture is heightened by solid stone floors and carved, heavy wooden doors with decorated brass edging and heavy door handles. Jaisalmer Fort and Jaisalmer’s famous havelis are beautiful examples of this rich architectural heritage.

Chhatrisare raised, dome-shaped pavilions of striking Indo-Islamic architecture, ornately carved from the local stone. They originated as canopies above tombs, but largely serve as decorative cenotaphs (monuments). Chhatris feature strongly in the Jaisalmer area. Bada Bagh, the royal chhatris cenotaphs constructed by Jai Singh II in the 18th century and subsequent maharajas of Jaisalmer is just one famous example.

The climatic conditions of Rajasthan have significantly impacted the foods of the Thar Desert. Long-lasting food, insufficient water, and scarcity of green vegetables in an arid environment meant that Thar’s dwellers were heavily dependent on millet, grains and pulses, and milk, ghee and buttermilk if they were lucky enough to own cows. Whilst foods including meat and vegetables are more plentiful today, this remains the typical diet of Thar folk.

Bajra (pearl millet) for making chapatis (rotis) has been replaced with atta flour, a wheat flour high in protein. Pooris (a crispy, puffed fried bread), Kachori or Kachauri (a spicy deep-fried snack) and parathas are also local favourites.

Besan (gram flour) is commonly used, as in the classic Rajasthani gatta curry. Perhaps the most popular culinary dish in Rajasthan is ‘dal baati churma’, a combination of dal with baati, hard wheat rolls made from toasted balls of atta dough, and churma made by mixing crumbled baati with ghee. Hot garlic sauce, malaidar lassi, mawa lassi are other favourites of the region.

Indians often find the thin green beans of the sangri less appealing than the usual Indian curry and tend to take ker sangria as a side dish treat. But the dish is very tasty and highly nutritious, full of vitamins and minerals and packed with fibre. You can learn more about the khejri tree here.

The treasures of desert life are on full display at the desert festivals, defining the richness and character of its culture and history. The three-day Desert Festival across Jaisalmer district brings Thar Desert to life with music, colour and joviality, and exudes the warmth and light-heartedness of the local people. It is one of the most famous festivals of the Thar region, with stalls, folk performers, puppeteers, acrobats, snake charmers, tug of war, camel race, stunt bike riding, turban tying competition, longest moustache competition and the defining Mr Desert competition. The festival draws in local villagers of various religions, castes, languages and cultures and welcomes visitors alike.

So, a visit to Thar Desert and Jaisalmer can be a cultural feast and offers so much more than just an overnight stay in a hotel. For a guide on all activities, adventures and explorations the desert has to offer, call Hasem at Queen of Thar Desert Camp for a friendly chat. Or click on the Book Now button.

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