Lakka Khan Sahib a native musician from Rajasthan plays
Rag Sindhu Bhairavi and Bhimpalasi on Sarangi
Ghulam Mohammad Mir is from Pugal in Bikaner, who has learnt classical music as well for eight years in Bahawalpur, proudly says :
“…this is the area of Sufiyayna qalam…this region has been blessed by one of the mort important Sufis, Khwaja Ghulam Farid who has spent considerable time of his life here and composed in the praise of the desert…our singing is different from the Sindh region…it has similarities with the Patiala and Sham Chaurasi Gharana of Punjab, exponents of which have sung immortal sufi qalam. In our tradition the most common ragas are Bhimpalasi, Kouns and Multani Kafi…”
Expounding further on the tradition the regal old man tells that Ishq (love) was the first thing to be made by Allah when he created Muhammad. He then sang in his sonorous voice the ibtadayi baat (tale of the beginning) as is expressed in a qalam by Ali Haider. It talks of the primordial relationship between Ishq and gana (song) at a time when there was nothing else:
“Jadon Ishq wali bang mele saiya puchan laga kaun imam ha
Na nau kalam na kurshi arash
na zamin te na asmana
na macca mojij te na ganga tirath
na kufr te na Islam ha
Ali Haider mian
Jadon Ishq de hath wich gana jad Ishq he Ishq da Imam ha”
“when I heard the call of love
the beloved asked: what sort of Imam are you!
I said: neither of the earth nor the sky
nor from miraculous places like macca or sacred pilgrimages like ganga
Neither the Kafir, nor the Islam
Ali haider, Oh dear when love sings
I am the Imam of love and love alone”
Mirs have been known for their passionate and intimate renderings of the sufiyana qalam of Sufi mystics of the north-west Indian subcontinent. The qalam of Baba Sheikh Farid, Sain Bulleh Shah, Hazrat Shah Hussain, Hazrat Sultan Bahu, Ali Haider and Khwaja Ghulam Farid are intrinsic part of the repertoire of this musical tradition. In particular compositions of Khwaja Ghulam Farid form the kernel of this tradition of the Mirs. These are mostly sung in Siriaki, a dialect of West Punjab having strong affinity with Sindhi and Punjabi.
In addition to this soul stirring singing, the Mirs are deft players of been (a kind of bagpipe) and algoza (a double barrel wind instrument) whose reverberating and lilting melodies form part of the ethereal music of the Mirs, setting the mood for mehfis that steadily unfold in the majestic serenity of vast horizons and star lit desert nights. In addition to this, the Mirs have been musicians of the common people par excellence, serving as a medium of devotion, harbinger of peace, hope, love through their ecstatic performances of bhajans and vanis of Meera, Kabir, Gorakhnath, Baba Ramdev, Achalram and others that form part of the versatile repertoire of many among the Mirs.
The Thar Desert
Also known as the Great Indian Desert, encompasses 77,000 square miles of rolling sand dunes in eastern Pakistan and the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan. Small portions of the desert also extend into the Indian states of Haryana, Punjab, and Gujarat, but these states do not exercise extensive control over the region.
The Thar Desert’s name derives from the word t’hul, the general term for the region’s sand ridges. It is defined by a series of natural borders, including the Aravalli Mountain Range to the southeast and the Punjab plain in the north and northeast. To the west, lies the Indus plain, and to the south, the Rann of Kutch.
The geographic isolation of the Thar Desert by mountain ranges and plains contributes significantly to the weather patterns that shape its distinctive, hot, dry environment. The environment around the Thar effectively absorbs all the rain that is carried in the monsoon clouds before the clouds can reach the desert. The resulting monsoon winds in the desert are hot and dry, and the desert does not share in the wet season experienced in surrounding terrains.
Contributing to the beauty of the Thar is the desert’s perpetual motion. While sand dunes are a common occurrence in deserts across the world, the dunes of the Thar are remarkable for their continual motion. The sandy desert floor is always moving.
The origin of the Thar Desert is a controversial subject. Some experts consider it to be 4,000 to 10,000 years old, while others maintain that aridity started in this region much earlier.
Another theory states that the area turned to desert relatively recently: Perhaps around 2,000-1,500 B.C.E. Around this time, the Ghaggar River ceased to be a major river. It now terminates in the desert.
It has been observed through remote sensing techniques that Late Quaternary climatic changes and neotectonics have played a significant role in modifying the drainage courses, and a large number of palaeochannels exist.
Most of the studies share the opinion that the palaeochannels of the Sarasvati coincide with the bed of present day Ghaggar and believe that the Sutlej along with the Yamuna once flowed into the present Ghaggar riverbed. It has been postulated that the Sutlej was the main tributary of the Ghaggar and that subsequently the tectonic movements might have forced the Sutlej westward and the Yamuna eastward, causing the Ghaggar to dry up.
There are three principal landforms in the desert region:
* The predominantly sand covered Thar
* Plains with hills including the central dune free country
The Thar Desert is distinguished by a series of rolling sand dunes that vary in height across the desert. While sand dunes are a common occurrence in deserts across the world, the dunes of the Thar are remarkable for their continual motion. In sharp contrast to the mountain ranges that ring the desert, the sandy desert floor is always in motion. The perpetual movement of the desert, while contributing the the desert’s beauty, has had a prohibitive effect for permanent human settlement, as the sands can easily be blown over structures. The sands are particularly mobile due to severe winds in the region, which sweep the sands over areas of fertile soil. The layer of sand over much of the available farming land hinders agricultural development in the region. Some of the sand dunes of the Thar have become semi stabilized over time, and while not completely sedentary, these older dunes move only very small degrees. Older sand dunes can reach a height of 500 feet.
Dotted among the sands of the Thar, several salt water lakes provide a unique and welcome environment for desert dwelling creatures. While the water of the lakes cannot be consumed by humans, they support much needed shelter and viable farmland. The abundance of salt water, however, also serves to highlight the extreme lack of drinkable water in the Thar Desert. Annual rainfall in the region is particularly low, measuring from 4-20 inches, most of which falls during the monsoon season. It is difficult to estimate annual precipitation for the Thar Desert however, as rainfall often varies widely from year to year.
The harsh natural environment and extreme temperature variations found in the Thar Desert have combined to severely inhibit the growth of vegetation. Most of the native plants grow in small clumps, without a system of order regulating where the clumps grow or any standard number of plants in a vegetation grouping. The plants which have been most successful in the difficult environment have adapted to the conditions of the desert. It is important, in particular for plants, to have developed water storage systems to be able to provide much needed water to themselves during the dry season. Significant plants of the desert include gum, Arabic acacia, and euphorbia. However, these plants are only found on the rocky slopes of the hills.
Stretches of sand in the desert are interspersed by hillocks and sandy and gravel plains. Due to the diversity of ecosystems that exist within the Thar, a varied and thriving wildlife population calls the desert their home. Both vegetation and animal life in this arid region are very rich. About 23 species of lizard and 25 species of snakes are found here; several of them are endemic to the region.
The most notable example of a preserved ecosystem is the Desert National Park, Jaisalmer, which provides an excellent example of the natural wildlife of the region. In this park, Great Indian Bustards, Blackbucks, Chinkaras, the Indian Gazelle, the Indian Wild Ass, and Desert Foxes are common. These are species which are fast vanishing in other parts of India. Despite the apparent difficulty of life in the desert, the animals in the Desert National Park have found ways to adapt and thrive. The park supports these wild and naturally occurring populations of species that are threatened with existence elsewhere. It is also noted for rich seashell and petrified wood deposits.
The animals which are found in the Desert National Park exhibit many of the adaptations that are necessary for survival in the desert. These animals, along with those animals found outside the reserve, often exhibit a smaller body size, one example of biological adaptation to the region. In addition, many of the desert animals are nocturnal, a trait which allows them to avoid the sweltering heat of the day.
There are certain other factors responsible for the survival of these animals in the desert. Due to the lack of water in this region, transformation of the grasslands into cropland has been very slow. The protection provided to them by a local community, the Bishnois, is also a factor.
The Thar Desert faces a distinct environmental threat from the loss of land through wind erosion. The harsh winds of the Thar sweep the sands across the plains and into its awe–inspiring sand dune formations. However, the winds also erode valuable farming land and threaten livestock grazing areas. In an attempt to hinder the wind erosion, plants species and trees have been planted in many areas to help keep the sands attached to the ground. The new windbreaks also provide much needed shelter.
In order to plant the necessary windbreaks, it has become necessary to import exotic plants into the region. The native plants are noted for their slow growth patterns, and windbreaks must mature quickly to be fully effective. The Acacia tortillis has proven most adaptable to the Thar. While the induction of foreign plants is helping the wind erosion issues, the introduction of exotic plants into any environment threatens to overthrow the preexisting environmental balance
People of the desert
Religiously, the population of the Thar Desert is divided between among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. The variety of religions in the region has resulted in an extremely intricate system of political and economic ties, which often follow religious lines. Tensions have become more marked in the area, as the population of the region has grown exponentially in recent years. With more people in the desert, agricultural development and extensive animal husbandry have also resulted. Grazing and farming, however, are beginning to take a toll on the desert, and the fertility of the soil is declining as a result.
Overall, the living standard of the Thar is low, as traditional exports have difficulty finding a place in modern markets. One new development that has emerged on the scene to replace traditional methods is the rise of Agro-forestry. Under this new system, many crops and fruit–bearing trees have been adapted to provide a steady export to global markets. The use of adapted fruit trees also helps to eradicate the propensity of failure in the region. It is estimated that the use of adapted crop bearing trees can provide up to the triple the traditional profit of a farmer. Significant Agro-forestry species include: Prosopis cineraria, used for animal feed, Tecomella undulata, a valuable source of timber, and Tecomella undulata, used to provide shelter and prevent erosion.
The Thar provides recreational value in terms of desert festivals organized every year. Rajasthan desert festivals, held annually each winter, are celebrated with great zest and zeal. Dressed in brilliantly hued costumes, the people of the desert dance and sing haunting ballads of valor, romance and tragedy. The fair has snake charmers, puppeteers, acrobats and folk performers. Camels, of course, play a stellar role in this festival, where the rich and colorful folk culture of Rajasthan can be seen.
Camels are an integral part of the desert life and the camel events during the Desert Festival confirm this fact. Special efforts go into dressing the animal for entering the spectacular competition of the best-dressed camel. Other interesting competitions on the fringes are the mustache and turban tying competitions, which not only demonstrate a glorious tradition but also inspire its preservation. Both the turban and the mustache have been centuries old symbols of honor in Rajasthan.
Evenings are meant for the main shows of music and dance. Continuing until late into the night, the number of spectators swells up each night and the grand finale, on the full moon night, takes place by silvery sand dunes.
* Bakliwal, P.C. and A.K. Grover. 1988. Signature and Migration of Sarasvati River in Thar Desert, Western India. Record of the Geological Survey of India. V 116, Pts. 3-8, pp. 77-86.
* Burdak, L.R. 1982. Recent Advances in Desert Afforestation—Dissertation submitted to Shri R.N. Kaul, Director, Forestry Research, F.R.I., Dehra dun.
* Geological Society of India. 1959. Journal of the Geological Society of India. Bangalore: Geological Society of India. Vol. 21, pp. 461-463.
* Govt. of India. 1965. Ministry of Food & Agriculture booklet. Desert Afforestation Research station.
* Gupta, Raj Kumar and Ishwar Prakash. 1975. Environmental Analysis of the Thar Desert. Dehra Dun: English Book Depot.
* Indian Academy of Sciences. 1934. Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences. Bangalore City: Indian Academy of Sciences. V. 89, No. 3, pp. 317-331.
* Kaul, R.N. 1967. Trees or Grass Lands in the Rajasthan—Old Problems and New Approaches. Indian Forester, 93: 434-435.
* Kaul, R. N. 1970. Afforestation in Arid Zones. The Hague: Junk.
* Lewis, Brenda Ralph. 1999. Great Civilizations. Paragon, Bath. ISBN 0-75256-141-3
* Radhakrishna, B.P. and S.S. Merh. 1999. Vedic Sarasvati: Evolutionary History of a Lost River of Northwestern India. Bangalore: Geological Society of India. ISBN 8185867356
* Rajesh Kumar, M., A.S. Rajawat, and T.N. Singh. 2005. Applications of Remote Sensing for Educidate the Palaeochannels in an Extended Thar Desert, Western Rajasthan, 8th annual International Conference, Map India 2005, New Delhi.
Courtesy New World Encyclopedia
The Bishnoi Tribe
of the western Indian state of Rajasthan have, over centuries, made a unique blend of ecological sense and religious sensibility their faith’s cornerstone
Though worshipping the Hindu diety Vishnu, the Bishnois bury their dead. The idea is to give the body back to the elements.
Bishnoi carpenters never cut trees. They wait for trees to die
The Thar desert in India is full of ironies—one of them being the Bishnoi community of Rajasthan. Here, peace is maintained with aggression and robust health rubs shoulders with regular famine. Here penniless women flaunt heavy gold jewelery and wild animals leave the supposed security of jungles to stroll around village huts and farmlands.
Not to mention the fact that the Bishnois worship nature in all its manifestations. Not the ripe, yielding nature of ancient pagan societies, but the ruthless and demanding desert where a desolate horizon meets a blazing sky. Here, women suckle motherless deer, die to save trees, go hungry to provide food for animals and live a strictly sattvic (simple) life advocated by their guru Jambaji.
Jambaji, or Jambeshwar Bhagavan, born in 1451 in one of the warrior sects of Rajasthan, was soon disillusioned by communal riots between Muslim invaders and the native Hindus. However, instead of wallowing in despair, he went ahead to form a religion of peace based on 29 (bish: twenty, noi: nine) principles that included compassion for all living beings, cleanliness, devotion, vegetarian diet and truthfulness. Thus, the Bishnois came into being.
“It was actually a clever ploy,” says Maharaja Swaroop Singh, vice-president of the Heritage Hotels, India, and former MLA of the Looni (Bishnoi) constituency in Rajasthan (where the Bishnoi population is concentrated). He has worked closely with the tribe for the last 36 years.
“Jambaji knew that to form a successful religion, he had to put in both Hindu and Muslim elements. So he asked the Bishnois to worship Vishnu and bury their dead. The idea, of course, is to give the dead back to the elements. We Hindus use the fire element, the Muslims use the earth element.”
The Bishnois, however, have a different explanation. Says Dev Ram of Guda, one of the largest Bishnoi villages in Jodhpur district, Rajasthan: “Cremating the dead requires wood. But Jambaji said that killing a live tree to get rid of a dead body is ridiculous.” So the Bishnois bury their dead without so much as a memorial. “We let the earth take back what it gave to us,” adds Dev Ram. What surprises you as you approach a Bishnoi village is the sheer freedom with which spotted deer, blue bulls, and black bucks race along the roadside or frolic in the open fields. In fact, during our approximately 50 minutes drive from Jodhpur to Guda, we must have seen hundreds of deer and antelopes, some actually crossing the road ahead of us.
“Animals are sacred,” says Bana Ram of Guda. “Before he passed away, Jambaji told us that in his absence, the black buck should be revered as his manifestation. That belief continues. Hunting black buck for us is like killing our guru. One call of ‘Shikar! (the hunt)’ and 500 villagers will assemble here this moment to teach the offenders a lesson. We’ll kill our own children before we let these animals be killed.”
Which is why the worst thing to happen to a hunter is being caught by the Bishnois. “Once, an Indian Air Force captain was caught hunting. We stripped him and forced him to lie down on the hot sand in the middle of summer. He’d never dream of hunting again,” adds Bana Ram.
This ruthless protection of animals is part of the Bishnoi culture. An extremely aggressive race, they fight for wildlife and environment with a vengeance. In fact, we were warned against going to the villages by the Deputy Conservator of Forests, Wildlife Division, M.L. Sonal. “The contribution of Bishnois to wildlife protection is almost 100 per cent. But they can be dangerous if angered,” says he.
But our reception in the Bishnoi villages, though initially suspicious, was soon friendly and warm. “You must tell others how fragile these animals are,” said a village elder, holding the picture of a black buck. “They are so delicate that most often they die of fright. We try our best to save these gentle creatures but what can we do against so many hunters? They are lured by the people of Jodhpur who don’t hesitate to get these animals killed for easy money.”
As we take a tour around the village, we come across giggling women in colorful clothes, sturdy men in their traditional white dhoti-kurtas zooming around on their motorbikes, sparkling clean mud houses and an occasional carpenter carving wood with intense concentration. “Most of us here are either farmers or wood/stone carvers, goldsmiths and milkmen,” says Maunlal Suta, a carpenter from Guda. “This art runs in the family. We have been carving wood for generations. Now I’m training my son to do the same.”
Wood carving? But isn’t it against Jambaji’s 29 principles to cut trees?
“We never cut trees,” explains Suta. “We wait till a tree dies on its own or falls down during a storm. This work that you see here,” he points at a pile of carved wood for doors, windows and bedposts, “has been done over many years, waiting patiently for wood.”
Patience, actually, is the catchword in this simple and dedicated community. “We have only four months of farming,” says Johra Ram, community head of a Bishnoi village. “The rest of the year we just sit around and hope the food will last.” To add to that, herds of deer end up eating much of the standing crop. “Earlier, almost 30 to 50 per cent of the crop was destroyed by animals. Now it has decreased to about 15 per cent,” informs H.L. Meena, Conservator Forest, Jodhpur.
But not a stick is raised to chase away the animals. “We would willingly go hungry to feed the animals,” says Bana Ram. “We believe in the co-existence of life. Our guru said that those who die saving innocent animals or trees will go to heaven. For us, animals are the avatars of divinity.” Which is why, in the water-starved desert, each Bishnoi family creates a tank in their field to provide water for deer in the arid summer months.
Much of the lifestyle of the community has its basis in the 29 principles of Jambaji. “Our guru forbade us to get addicted, be it smoking, tobacco chewing, drugs or alcohol. Even tea is considered a vice,” says Teja Ram. “He also asked us to consume plenty of milk and milk products and home grown cereals. We never eat outside. Even when going on long trips, we either cook or pack food from home.”
Tribal Faith Which explains the robust health of this community in spite of recurring famines. Here, though women are traditionally limited to household chores, they play a dominant role. “Women are the symbol of creation. Which is why guruji asked them to wear vibrant colors such as red and orange,” explains Bhanu Ram. “Men wear white because it is symbolic of cleanliness and austerity.”
Bishnois also have a strange interconnection between death and festivity. Whenever the head of a family dies, all unmarried girls, irrespective of their age, are married off on the 12th day. “On the face of it,” says Teja Ram, “guruji started this custom to limit expenses during weddings. But it also has deeper implications. For us, death is a way of life. One person dies, the next generation takes his place and the cycle continues. We believe that whatever you do in this life, you pay for it in the next birth.” The marriage of minors, however, as Teja Ram is quick to point out, “is not practiced anymore since we understand that it is detrimental to their development”.
Living amidst the barren wastelands interspersed with khejri and babool trees, the Bishnois are a proud race. “We don’t get any help from the government and don’t want any,” says Johra Ram. “Any change in the world has to begin within the society. All this talk about nature and wildlife protection would be more effective if each individual was to believe in the earth as a living, breathing entity and fight for its survival the way we do.” He narrates the story of Amrita Devi, a Bishnoi woman who, along with more than 366 other Bishnois, died saving trees. “About 200 years back, Maharaja Abhay Singh of Jodhpur required wood for his palace. So he sent his soldiers to cut trees. Amrita Devi and other villagers hugged the branches while the soldiers chopped them down with the trees. This is still remembered as the great Khejarli sacrifice.”
Such stories abound in the Bishnoi community. In fact, the Bishnoi pantheon has more martyrs who died for the sake of nature than gods. And the trend shows no signs of diminishing with time. “What makes me proud,” says Bana Ram, “is that the next generation is even more committed to nature than we are.” As if on cue, a little boy who can hardly keep pace as we walk around the village, tugs at my sleeve and says: “I’ll never let anybody kill these animals.”
Strange dedication, this. A small community spread over the northwestern states of India, including Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh besides Rajasthan, the Bishnois have contributed more to nature and wildlife protection than the entire country put together. They have learnt, with time and hardships, how to nurture nature and grow with it instead of exploiting it.
As we turn back from the village, we come across a Bishnoi woman quietly nursing a fawn that was wounded by a dog. Nearby, her little daughter plays. Outside, herds of deer saunter in the fields or take a nap in the mellow afternoon sun. Can this be for real, you wonder? Perhaps not, at least not in a world where, in the manner of King Lear’s gods, we kill animals for our sport. But reality, as the scriptures say, is relative. So, amidst the reality of corruption and crime, a community dedicated to nature struggles to survive, teaching, along the way, a few lessons in harmonious co-existence.
by Anupama Bhattacharya