THE ROAD WEST INTO THE desert enters Mallani from Marwar at Pachpadra. It actually drops down into a sandy valley that was once interspersed with inverted dirty white four-sided mounds. The drop now doesn’t seem as dramatic as it once was, at least not in a geological sense. But it certainly does when it comes to the vista, now rapidly bereft of its natural forms, and seasonal visitors. At this time of year Pachpadra’s vast sandy valley would be teeming with visitors who fly in from Siberia, over the Himalayas, and scatter their flocks across the desert in Rajasthan.
Mallani is not a point on the map; neither is Marwar. But both have existed long before maps came into the desert, more as cultural and political entities than anything else, the latter an offspring of the former. Mallani, older by a few decades, is a distinctly identifiable geographical space within the larger entity of the Thar, or the Great Indian Desert. Marwar lies east of Mallani and is far larger conceptually, also a lot more identifiable worldwide. Both essential components of the Thar, joined by other such entities like Basya, Khadal to the north, and Dhat west into Pakistan.
The dirty white mounds in the sands west of Pachpadra were precisely sized heaps of salt. All identically shaped and sized. Their meticulous geometric size a result of finely calculated total weightage in salt. It was this prized mineral that brought the railway into the desert, when Jodhpur was connected with Karachi in 1892. There was even a railway station catering only to the salt trade, officially called Pachpadra Salt Depot. But as the landscape flattened and changed, the rail tracks were also uprooted. The simmering white salt pans now giving way to towers of steel spreading across the sands.
The steel towers now dominating the desert landscape in Pachpadra will one day become the innards of an oil refinery coming up here. As with those who live further west in another desert across the Arabian Sea, many here believe the refinery foretells a ‘Dubai’ future. Although a deeply knowledgeable bureaucrat with the government of India labelled the upcoming refinery at Pachpadra a “white elephant”. Deserts are not known to be welcoming towards elephants, whatever their colour. The Siberian visitor, though, is a welcome sight in Rajasthan, to the point of becoming a propitious part of folklore, in verse.
During winter the venerable Demoiselle Crane (Grus Virgo) swarms into Rajasthan in the thousands. The beautiful Khichan village, near Phalodi in Jodhpur, has of course made this visitor its brand ambassador. Khichan prepares elaborate feasts awaiting the arrival of the birds after their 6,000 km journey from the cold of Siberia. Kurja, as the large bird is called in Rajasthani, lends its name to a most romantic local song. The bird being a messenger for a moping woman pining for her husband. There is, however, nothing romantic about the other winter visitor to the desert, also another bird.
Further west in the desert the sands and shrubs become the home and grazing lands for the MacQueen’s Bustard (Chlamydotis Macqueenii). A ground dwelling bird, the Tilor, as it is known locally, is the focus of much culinary debate. Smaller in size than the state bird of Rajasthan, the Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis Nigriceps), Tilor is a subspecies of the Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis Undulata), and is regarded as the best dish in the hunter’s pot. So much so that in neighbouring Pakistan, vast tracts of land are earmarked for the wealthiest of all hunters, Gulf Arabs who use ancient techniques.
Falconry, illegal in India, continues to thrive in the deserts of Pakistan and passionately practised by wealthy Gulf Arabs who fly into specially created enclaves. Cholistan Desert in Pakistan’s southern Punjab adjoins Jaisalmer district and is geologically a part of the Thar or Great Indian Desert. In fact, Rohi, the local word for Cholistan Desert in Pakistan, is the same word in Rajasthani to describe wilderness, space, and expanse. Everything a desert should be. Which is where the Bustard thrives, from North Africa all the way east to the western parts of Rajasthan. The centre of falconry though is the desert in Pakistan.
Cholistan is dotted with a vast network of mud forts, the most exquisite example of course being the enormous Derawar Fort in Bahawalpur. Rajasthan’s desert tourism triangle of Jodhpur-Jaisalmer-Bikaner would face a challenge if Derawar Fort were developed as a destination. But if better sense prevails the desert triangle in India could be joined by a magnificent fourth. For then, all of the cultural regions of the desert would be connected by travellers, again, just as they were when trade caravans rode the sands to reach difficult destinations. For these were once routes of the lucrative Indo-Persian trade.
For long, the Gulf Arabs practised falconry on the Tilor in the sands of Persia and Afghanistan. But revolutions and political upheavals changed all that, with both countries dropping out of the falconry range. For a while India allowed the Gulf Arabs access, but public opposition put an end to it. Now their hunting range is limited to the deserts of Pakistan, apparently with isolated private landing strips too. The range of the Bustard though moves across the arid region of South and West Asia, deep into the Arabian Peninsula, and across the Red Sea into the North African landscape.
It is on the Arabian Peninsula that the desert once again gets cultural, in form, in verse, and as a political statement. Similar to the Thar in the east, the Arabian sands are also divided by centuries of politics and culture. Mallani and the various other cultural subcomponents of the Great Indian Desert are repeated in Arabia Deserta, to use the title of Charles M Doughty’s 1888 masterpiece of writing. It wasn’t until the 20th century’s last great traveller, Wilfred Thesiger, got on the back of Umbrausha, his favoured she-camel, that the sands once again came alive, before changing in perpetuity.
For the longest time, the Arabian sands were divided along regional lines, defined by geography and the divisions enforced by clans competing with one another. Which had always been the case in the Thar as well, clans and sub-clans imposing ownership by the sheer force of sword and camel power. So the Arabian Peninsula had Najd and Nafud in the centre; Hasa centred on Bahrain in the east; Oman, Hadhramaut and Yemen in the south; and Hejaz in the west. The western coast was also referred to as Tihamah. All of these regions were enshrined in the pre-Islamic Arabic oral odes, Mu’allaqa.
Rajasthani epics, accounts and all of its old literature were carried over centuries in verse form, memorised and passed over generations. This being the rule of the desert, Rajasthan or Arabia. Repeated by bards and singers over a sparse wood fire on the cold desert sands, these verses captured romance or ritual in equally vibrant form. Ritual, of course, being the rules, regulations and rulership of the clan. The Mu’allaqa in Arabic also had its rituals, and also a strict regulation over its structural form. The overarching rule for making a Mu’allaqa is called the Qasida, deeply familiar in Rajasthan.
Kashida is an art form in Rajasthan that adds weave to the most mundane of items, from traditional leather footwear to camel saddlery and other decorations. Anything can be woven into a design, and it is the merrier when it comes to colour. The sand’s uniform colour broken by vivid creations of the human imagination and dexterous fingers. Kashida also mutates into Gorbandh, a local name for artwork used to decorate camels, a subsidiary of weaving. The etymologies of Qasida and Kashida would be an interesting study, one weaving words into verse, the other fabric, glass, beads and anything colourful.
Such weavers of verse and items are a dwindling lot, given the larger forces of change and economic compulsions. Sands once simmering with salt pans and winged visitors from Siberia are now dominated by steel towers reaching upwards. Dunes flattened by heavy machinery so that construction takes root. All of this uproots something older, something that cannot be bought off the shelf. A Palestinian professor sipping Arak in a Damascus refugee camp said to me in the late 1980s, “You’re lucky there is no oil in India, for when you find oil you lose your culture, look at us Arabs.”
In his Preface to the 1977 reprint of Arabian Sands Thesiger shared a painful reality of this changing world. He had returned to Arabia after decades and was reunited with his travel companions, bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha of the Rashid. He wrote: “I realised that after all these years and under these changed conditions the relationship between us could never again be as in the past. They had adjusted themselves to this new Arabian world, something I was unable to do. We parted before I went to Abu Dhabi, which I found an Arabian Nightmare, the final disillusionment.”
Abu Dhabi is part of the Hasa region, which British imperial authorities called the Trucial States. A string of villages on the Gulf that were dens of smugglers trading with India’s coastline. Pearls on the coast gave way to petroleum exploration in the desert; those villages transformed into global cities and now the epitome of everything nouveau, art and culture included. Doha in Qatar was also one of these pearl-gathering villages, now in the news for hosting the spectacularly successful 2022 FIFA World Cup. Its Museum of Islamic Art displays collections from around the eastern world, largely India.
Constructed on Doha Harbour, the museum invariably gets a lot of visitors. But there is another museum nearby, and unusual for the East in facing up to an uncomfortable past. Bin Jelmood House is the only museum devoted to slavery in the Arab world—Doha Harbour once being an important trading point for slaves, including to India. Slave dynasties from Delhi to the Deccan are a testament to this Indo-Arab exchange. The Indo-Arab relationship is now largely one-way, in terms of economic dependence and the import of labour from South Asia. Their contribution to the success of the World Cup was vital beyond compare.
So, as the dunes spread westwards, it seems the Tilor too stretches its wings across the transnational sands. Most of the range is that of its Houbara cousin. And that range actually ends on the Atlantic coast of North Africa, in Morocco which recently created a football miracle in Doha when it reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. Lionel Messi may have won, but football fans acclaimed Morocco’s wonder run, earning it a special place worldwide. At the western end of the sands from Mallani, Morocco and its neighbour Mauritania cover the spread of desert culture, culinary included.
Morocco, however, has always been the trendier one. So much so that the juiceseller on Baghdad Avenue in Damascus wouldn’t bat an eyelid whenever I ordered a glass from him. But the day I was fresh and cleanshaven from a luxurious visit to the hammam, he asked me, “Anta Maghrebi? (Are you Moroccan?)” I laughed and replied, “La, ana Hindi.” But after Doha and its spectacular performance, any football fan would say, “Waqur al-Maghrebi (We’re all Moroccan).”