“Can you see the alternating bands of light and shadow in the sky?” Chattar Singh asks me. When I nod in affirmation, he continues, “This is Mogh. There are clouds where the sun is setting right now. If we get a favourable wind, these clouds will reach here and we may get rain by night. In desert, people live by such clues from nature.”
A scarcity of something makes it special. That’s the reason why Rajasthan has always sanctified water much more than any other place in India. Low rainfall and saline groundwater turned people into great conservers who not only built beautiful and durable structures but also developed sustainable practices around them.
Rain has just abated but the clouds are threatening to burst again. “Not a good time to visit, what with reducing light and imminent showers,” I tell myself. “Don’t worry, it would be a light drizzle, if at all,” the person at the ticket counter assures. My guide, Sachin, a young, stout man with a winning smile, arrives from a tea break armed with binoculars and a slim guide book.
Summers get hotter, rains decline and crops fail. The conflict between people increase and migration in search of better lands and skies begin. Sounds familiar? We are not talking about Marathwada here. This is how the lives of our ancestors played out thousands of years ago.
We were driving down the long desert road that runs parallel to the Indo-Pakistan border in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. There was little else to see except the surrounding sand dunes and desert grass.
As we leave behind the smooth, straight drive of NH 89 and take a dirt path that whirls around a few miles of undulating desert grassland, we end at a large patch of emerald green which looks outlandish. “The reason for such a spectacle in these harsh conditions lies close to the ground,” says Ravinder Chhabra, my local guide in Bikaner.
Western Rajasthan is dotted by thousands of ponds, many of which are architectural wonders. Among these, Gadsisar (also called Gadisar) stands out. Besides its unparalleled expanse and architecture, the pond narrates tales of sacrifice, dedication and ingenuity but more importantly, it upholds water as being superior to any class and caste divide.
As you drive from Jodhpur to Jaipur, the barren and desolate terrain underscores the harsh environment. The land is bleached due to high soil salinity, and there are no water sources in sight. This guarantees that there is no vegetation other than weeds like Israeli babool (akesia tortlis).
Water connects food and religion. Religious ceremonies often involve taking a dip in a water body, and any food or meal is incomplete without water. The same two things - food and religion - stand out in Bikaner. While hot kachoris and samosas line street stalls, Mata Karni Devi and Baba Ramdev (not the yoga guru) shower their blessings from billboards and wall paintings.
Author and conservationist, Anupam Mishra has spent decades promoting water conservation and management. Through his travels across various states of India, he has been studying and teaching the time-tested techniques of rainwater harvesting.