“It is through the power of observation, the gifts of eye and ear, of tongue and nose and finger, that a place first rises up in our mind; afterward it is memory that carries the place, that allows it to grow in depth and complexity. For as long as our records go back, we have held these two things dear, landscape and memory. Each infuses us with a different kind of life.
The one feeds us, figuratively and literally.
The other protects us from lies and tyranny.”
BARRY LOPEZ, About This Life
There was excitement in the air. The horizon was flashing an intermittent neon in the darkness, silhouetting ghostly clouds.
What are those clouds called? I asked. Chhattar Singh gazed into the distance, as if mining a lost memory. The words began to trickle — hesitant at first, then faster, crowding one another in his excitement. Those were kanThi, he said. And if they consolidate and promise rain, their name will change to ghaTaaTope. If the clouds become very dense, they’ll be called kaLaan.
That night, the kanThi did not build up. It did not rain.
Life stirred awake next morning under a pretty-patterned sky — tufts of white trailing in arcs and lines, horizon to blue horizon. We sat sipping chai and watching a distant wind ripple through a feathery, fruit-laden khejri. “Those clouds won’t rain either,” I offered.
“Teetar pankhi” Chhattar Singh replied. They had a word for this cloud pattern too – a perfect analogy that likened it to the pattern on the wings of a partridge.
They say eskimos have 40 names for snow. I get that — they are surrounded by snow all year. The people of the Thar have just forty cloudy days in a year — and yet they have as many names for clouds!
I was tempted to get Chhattar Singh to cycle through the names the desert people had for various types of clouds in one sitting, but some instinct stopped me. It does not work that way. I would have to spend time, be patient. Listen, observe, walk, touch, experience the land with all my senses. Language is not learned overnight.
As I scribbled into my notebook, a soft warm wind picked up. The teetar pankhi flocked together into a light cottony blanket over us.
There was a name for that too. Paans.
The area I have been visiting over the past three years, the deep western part of the Thar desert, lies in Jaisalmer district. It is bounded on the north and west by Pakistan, in the east by Jodhpur district, in the south by Barmer district, and in the northeast by Bikaner district.
The rainfall here is a meager 100-150mm, about a tenth of the national average and a pitiful 2 per cent of the rainfall Kerala and some other of the wettest areas in India get. For the people of the Thar, sighting clouds and rain are events. Memorable. Priceless. Because these moments hold the key to their very existence.
Traditional desert dwellers, traveling mostly on foot, have an innate knowledge of this vast and differentiated land. They map it not in kilometers but in inches, fathoming slopes as gentle as a foot over a kilometer. Shepherds form the majority of the rural population, and animal husbandry is crucial to the rural economy.
These semi-nomadic shepherds sleep in feeble kheemp and kair gawDis in the deep desert and navigate by the stars. During their weeks and months in the desert, the grassland commons is their larder. These people of the desert follow the rhythm of the land. From the grazing paths their flocks take to the food they themselves eat, everything maps to the seasons.
One morning, we headed out southward from the village we were in, under eyyloor (cirrus) skies. Kair trees were in full bloom, and some had begun to fruit. A babbler poked its beak eye-deep into the attractive coral-colored kair flower for its nectar. The flower is a known natural sweetener and widely used in traditional food.
A howling wind bent a khejri’s branches, feathery and laden with sangri fruit, low and whipped them back upright. A husband and wife, camel cart in tow, harvested the fruit with long hooks. Noting my curious gaze, Chhattar Singh explained the local food cycle. A desert family, eating the traditional way, will never want for food. Wheat and millet come from khadeens, supplemented with fruit from the commons according to season. Thus:
Kair fruit with sangri — the fruit of the khejri tree — are invaluable additions to a summer menu. In the months before the rains, shepherds go looking for pilu, the fruit of the jaal tree. A mid-summer walk with Chhattar Singh includes frequent halts under jaals to pick and eat the ripe pilu. Pilu look like perfectly round tiny grapes — red when ripe — with a subtle sweetness, and without the tartness of grapes. Mushrooms growing under the laNa plant in the monsoons are a delicacy to be carefully harvested. Further into the sandy saline desert, orange buds of the phog plant are mixed with curd in winter for baata. Flowers of the laNa plant are mixed into winter roTis. Milk, buttermilk, and clarified butter (ghee) from cows, goats, sheep and camels accompany the fruits.
Until recently, no one in the desert had seen potatoes or cauliflowers, french beans or sugar. No one had suffered from diabetes either.
Kair fruit, assorted seeds, and sangri, dried after the summer for use through the year
Two shepherd boys with their monsoon stash of desert mushrooms
Phog is a delicacy among traditional desert dwellers. The newer generation has not carried the recipes of yore with them. They do not know how to cook this.
With a wave of the hand, Chhattar Singh veered us off the road and over scree, for which too he had a name — magra. I didn’t ask where we were going or why we were off-roading — with Chhattar Singh I had learned to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut.
Chinkaras (desert antelopes) darted away from us and watched from a distance. In season, it is reportedly common to see many mating pairs of godawn, the highly endangered Great Indian Bustard, here.
As soon as we left the scree behind, we stopped. The ground was now smooth sandstone, layered in purples and golds, oranges and burgundies. And suddenly, there was water.
It took me a while to fathom where the pools came from in all this layered rock. Rainwater, percolating through porous rock further up, had dripped onto stone, grinding it over uncounted time into a natural cistern. It was deep in some places to several feet and shallow enough in others to see rock. It was full of freshwater — sweet, strained. I knelt, cupped my hands, and sipped.
The desert people have a name for such natural cisterns. They call them bheys.
You won’t find these formations on Google Maps. These are remembered lifelines, paths to water sources that only walking shepherds know – the same shepherds who know where sevaN grass ends and phog plants begin, and can locate the one area where dune after dune of muraT grass can be found.
I met a shepherd who, brimming with pride, told me that his land, the desert, carries in its womb thirty-six different types of seeds. He was awaiting the dharoLyuo, a joyous veil of rain that bridges sky and earth, to see them sprout.
Such people recognize borders that are not on maps. Borders they recognize as thoughtful, meaningful, natural — geological, botanical, hydrological. With no written history to guide them, they rely on memory and muscle, on a visceral interaction with the land, and they are one with it.
This memory is passed on through words, place-names and named phenomena, songs and symbols. The act of naming — chhinto for a drizzle of rain or ghuTyo for the asphyxiating stillness of un-raining clouds — is a way of paying homage, recognizing worth, according importance of these events that are vital to their survival .
These ambling geographers, these mojri-and-saafa clad ecologists, read the land and know how to “divine” water. They can tell ubreLyo (spent clouds) from dhundh (clouds heavier than the light cottony paans); follow the baaval (petrichor) towards as yet unseen kaLaan (heavy rain clouds); recognize over eighty different desert species of plants from aak to zillon, and know the behaviors of sandgrouse and spiny-tailed lizard, chinkara and bustard.
It is a lived, intensely local knowledge. They find words for what they see and experience, they pass on these words, and individual knowledge grows into collective knowledge. They are the archivists of the desert.
A “bhey” or a natural rock cistern, Thar Desert, India
First published by Peepli