Chasing the desert
Rajasthan is made up of 26 former princely states and territories, each with their own proud and distinctive character. Their collective wealth of tradition and culture — their vivid colours, crafts, music, dance, language, and literature — is to a large extent a response to the challenges of living in a difficult terrain
Gillian Wright

The massive elephant statue, known as Hathi Phata, near Kota
The massive elephant statue, known as Hathi Phata, near Kota

Rajasthan, is modern India's largest state, extending over more than 340,000 sq. kilometres. Roughly divided into two parts, the west comprises the shifting dunes and scrublands of the Thar Desert, the easternmost part of the Saharan-Arabian desert zone. The heart of this desert is locally known as the Marusthali — the land of the dead. Over vast areas of the Thar ruled the Maharajas of Bikaner, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer. Protecting the south and eastern part of the state from the advance of the desert is the ancient mountain range whose name, Aravalli, literally means an obstacle in the way. Temperatures vary from almost freezing in winter to above 50 degrees centigrade in summer. Brief monsoon rains can be torrential and transform arid areas into tapestries of green. A quarter of India's livestock is to be found in Rajasthan. This amounts to 55 million animals including 12 million cattle, 14 million sheep, 17 million goats, 24,000 horses, and 70,000 camels.

A bend in the river Chambal, southern Rajasthan
A bend in the river Chambal, southern Rajasthan

Nurturing the wild side

Of the local communities that actively protect these animals, the most celebrated are the Bishnois. The Bishnois are for the most part an agricultural community. They follow Guru Jambheshwar, affectionately known as Jambhoji, who lived between 1451 and 1536 in an era when saints across northern India were espousing true human values and devotion to God. Jambhoji was born into an affluent Rajput family. When he was a young man he witnessed a severe drought. His neighbours felled trees indiscriminately and hunted wild animals for meat. Retreating from the world he spent years in meditation before he had the spiritual experience that also convinced him that, in the words of one scholar, "Humans will have to sustain the environment in order for nature to sustain humans." Pouring scorn on the hypocrisy he saw in the outwardly pious Brahmins, MuslimsThe 37-metre tall Vijay Stambh in  the Fort of Chittor and Jains around him, he founded a new community based on 29 tenets. "Bishnoi" is Rajasthani for 29 and that is how the community gets its name. Among these tenets were directions to respect and preserve animal life and trees. Rajesh found that the beliefs of the Bishnoi appeared unshaken by modernity and modern education. In fact, they may have been strengthened by the widespread recognition and acclaim they have received for their environmental activism. They still mark the day in 1730 when, we are told, 363 Bishnois, men and women, laid down their lives to stop the troops of the Maharaja of Jodhpur from felling a forest of khejri trees.
The 37-metre tall Vijay Stambh in the Fort of Chittor

Shifting boundaries

A tractor and trailer serves as a bus for labourers setting off to work
A tractor and trailer serves as a bus for labourers setting off to work

Much of Rajasthan's recorded history is the story of ever-shifting territorial boundaries, as clans and rulers struggled to increase their territories and force other powers to accept their supremacy. From the early eighth century, conflict began with Arabs whose base was in neighbouring Sindh, and continued through the dynasties of the Delhi Sultans and the Mughal Empire. But, says Rima Hooja, it would be a mistake to judge the kingdoms of those times by the standards of modern nation states or see the conflicts between rulers through the modern prism, which reduces everything to a simplistic Hindu/Muslim divide. The truth was far more complex and related to pragmatic politics. Muslims loyally served Hindu kings in many capacities, and Hindu rulers allied with Muslims. All traditional architecture is attuned to the climate. In arid Rajasthan, urban stone houses have long shared walls and tiny windows to protect them from the sun. Air and light are provided by courtyards which naturally serve as the focus of the home. In the windswept sands beyond Jaisalmer, Rajesh was fascinated to discover the bare bones of the courtyard houses and wide parallel streets of deserted villages belonging to the prosperous Paliwal Brahmins, who were both merchants and subsistence farmers. In the nineteenth century, in protest against the high taxes being demanded of them, they left the state en masse never to return. The Marwari business community of Shekhawati to the east also left their homes though not in protest but in search of new opportunities. They went on to establish leading business houses like those of the Birlas, Goenkas, and Singhanias. Their original mansions still stand, and a few carefully restored their richly painted walls. Rajesh found himself drawn to remote villages and their simplicity and beauty.

Wells in the desert often belong to different communities and castes. This well in Barmer district belongs to members of the Rajput caste. A woman hauls on a rope to raise water in a rubber pouch. Her husband then pours it into bags slung over their donkey

—Excerpted with permission from Rajasthan Under the Desert Sky by Rajesh Bedi. Roli Books. Pages 207. 
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Photos by Rajesh Bedi