|Take a desert - burning
sand in the long summers, large tracts of dune-decked
plains, with scare water and even scarcer vegetation-
and create a habitation with the mind's eye,
if you can. And then come to Rajasthan to see
if your imagination can begin to match where
reality takes over.
Aeons ago, it is believed, Shri Ram drew an
arrow in his bow. The target was Lanka, the
island capital where his wife was held captive
be the demon king Ravana. However, such was
the power of its annihilation that the gods
pleaded with Ram to desist from his intended
purpose. Unfortunately, the arrow, once drawn,
could not be withdrawn. Ram pointed the arrow
at a distant sea, and let it escape. The heat
generated by the arrow dried the sea, and in
its place there arose a desert, dry, arid, and
Not surprisingly, myth and reality coalesce.
Fossils excavated in the Thar desert reveal
the remains of marine life. And the sand on
the surface of the desert ripples and moves,
forever creating new layers of waves as the
wind dances across its surface. For in its unconscious
heart, perhaps, lies the memory of the sea that
once shimmered in its place.
It was to this arid desert, centuries ago, that
man journeyed. Its earliest inhabitants were
part of an urban civilization that arose 4,500
years ago. Recent excavations of the remains
of the Indus Valley Civilization reveal that
the settlements penetrated deep into the heart
of the desert. Archaeologists and art-historians
have theorised that the citadels and the manner
of building along narrow lanes that dissect
each other at right angles are uncannily similar
to more recent settlements.
The Indus Valley civilization went into decline,
the causes for which still remain unknown, though
there is academic speculation on everything
from earthquakes to invasions as the probable
cause. It is easy to imagine that nothing but
the desert winds howled here for centuries.
In other parts of the world, other civilizations
arose, and with them developed a sophisticated
network of trade that linked different continents.
When maritime activity arose, for the most part
Europe was linked to Asia along a trade rout
that traversed West Asia and journeyed through
the vest spaces of the desert to the rich plains
of Hindustan, and then on to the Hindukush mountains
and beyond, to China.
These caravans attracted supporting commercial
services, and the sarais of the desert soon
became settlements. The invaders followed. And
then came the settlers who, in return for the
protection they offered these caravans, levied
a tax on the goods they carried through their
territory. So began the transformation of the
The kinds were Rajputs, part of the Kshatriya
clan of warriors who had once held much of Hindustan
under their sway. But with internecine wars,
the coming of stronger foes, and sustained foreign
invasions, their centres of power collapsed.
Bereft of their kingdoms, they looked for the
opportunity, and the place, where they could
lay the foundations once more for kingdoms they
could command. The Thar became their refuge.
Here they came, the Rajputs, to a land where
the Aravalli hills lay like a beam across the
desert. And here they built themselves magnificent
citadels to their power. These kings, and the
sons of the kings, ruled once more, and today
the region where their once-mighty kingdoms
commanded respect is called Rajasthan, the land
of the rulers.
Rajasthan's medieval history is as rich in tales
of valour and chivalry as it is in folklore.
Deeply religious, the people built, besides
their fortifications and their palaces, splendid
temples, elaborate wells, handsome mansion,
and memorials to their dead. Celebrated for
their valour on the field, the rulers were also
known for the sensitivity with which they offered
patronage to artists. No wonder, Rajasthan is
also known as the world's richest centre for
arts and crafts.
Today, little in Rajasthan has changed because
the history that was its past is inextricably
linked with its present. It was here the armies
of everyone from invaders to those of the Marathas,
the Mughals and the British laid siege. While
the kingdoms celebrated their victories, their
defeats were cataclysmic: the warriors went
to the battlefield to kill or be killed, and
when they lost, their womenfolk underwent the
elaborate if slightly macabre act of jauhar
or voluntary acceptance of death by jumping
in a ritual fire-pit.
In later years, as peace became common, the
rulers created stately palaces outside their
forts, most of which are now open to visitors
as hotels or museums. Camels and cars coexist
as means of transportation. The handcrating
skills of the craftspeople cater to international
designer needs with the same expertise as local
Which is why, sometimes, when the wind sings,
and the sands shift, and the voice of a passing
minstrel finds an echo in the halls of a deserted
palace, it is easy to imagine oneself transported
into an age long ago when even fairy tales might
have been true.