Growing a Miracle in the Desert

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Natural setting The Manganiars perform at the Rao Jodha Park
Natural setting The Manganiars perform at the Rao Jodha Park. Photo: Arati Kumar Rao

A striking development has been taking place around the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. If you look at pictures of the fort from eight years ago, it was surrounded by a bare outcrop, with a heavily populated ring of the shrub Prosopis juliflora, or baavlia as it’s called in Rajasthan. This 70-hectare volcanic-rockladen hillock, much like the rest of the Aravalis, including parts of Delhi, had been occupied by the baavlia for close to a century. Till Pradip Krishen and his team of naturalists set out around eight years ago to wage a furious war against the shrub, and transform this place into its current idyllic setting. “Oh, it was sheer hard work, to say the least. We had to employ traditional miners to dig two feet into the rocks where the baavlia had sprung up. This plant can thrive in rocks, and it destroys every other plant in its wake,” says the famed tree man of Delhi, on this feat that took five long years.

The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park (RJP) has a cascading feel to it. Viewed from the fort, it’s all green undulating hills, with what looks like a stream carrying the runoff to a lake in a corner. For the amateur naturalist, there are no monolithic trees to instil awe, nor any dense forests to inspire fear. It’s only when you descend down the trail that the beauty of the park’s precarious existence sweeps over you.

With over 300 species of trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, grasses and sedges, Krishen has essentially set up a museum of Marwar’s ‘lithophytes’, plants adapted to rocky habitats. “Growing native species in the habitat is a simple and elegant idea, although one that eludes most of our planners,” says Krishen. “The native plant species do not require much care or nutrition,” he explains. Before he was given a brief to “green” this area by the Mehrangarh Memorial Trust (MMT), the place was dry and inhospitable even for the hardiest plants. What’s now a tidily and cleverly set up visitors’ centre was an erstwhile gate of the old city, lying ruined and forgotten. That is, before Krishen sorted it out into a beautiful interface of columns and stairs, housing the many pictorial posters of the plant species to be found in the park. Beyond them, the green hills roll down.

Once on the gully that leads around the park, the bristling heat of the sun dies down. The trail follows the course of an old runoff, and various exotic species of desert plants can be seen sprouting from the most impossible of terrains. “We just planted in the same pits left after digging out the baavlia,” says Krishen. It’s not just the plants that are thriving; the park is teeming with an assortment of garden lizards, wild fowl, butterflies, frogs and small mammals such as hares and porcupines. It’s not wide-eyed wonderment, but a rustling in the ears that best describes the effect it has on people.

“In fact, we have books being published on the fauna that thrive here. A book on the moths and butterflies of the Rao Jodha Park, and one on the migratory birds that flock here. Another one is on the geological terrain of the area,” he adds. If many of the plants look unfamiliar, it’s because the vast majority belongs to an ecological province that extends westwards into the great deserts stretching through Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East into north Africa. This, according to Krishen, is in contrast with the rest of the northern or south-east Asian botanic regions. If need be, he will even invoke the very ancient geological past of the earth, all the way back to the Tethys Sea, to explain the microcosm he is currently operating in.

Ecologically speaking, Krishen has struck gold. But it needs more takers to reach the next level: the masses. Krishen believes that the local population of Jodhpur will come in hordes only through the power of demonstration. “I’m hoping that if they see outsiders coming to check this place out, they’ll be at least curious.” Not just the plants, even the guides were sourced locally, by auditioning men and women who showed some interest in nature and wildlife. They finally chose two, Sachin and Denzel, who were trained by the in-house naturalist and who take people out on the walks now.

It’s not that ecological restoration doesn’t have too many takers. Many fringe movements, in varying capacities, have come up around the country to stem the tide of desertification and indiscriminate urbanisation. I Am Gurgaon, in, well, Gurgaon, The Timbaktu Collective in Andhra Pradesh, the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad, have all tried to resuscitate lands that have been exhausted by the demands of modern life.

But the biggest potential mover, the government, has been characteristically missing in action. Not just missing, but perilously callous, according to Krishen. “The problem with Delhi’s ecology is that most of the trees planted in the city don’t belong there,” he says, almost despairingly. “Why does the Delhi government keep planting 2,000 jamun trees every year, only to find them wilted or dead the next season?”

In Jodhpur, Krishen and his team reached out to schools and colleges, a move that has had a huge impact. Some of the teachers opted to be trained by the naturalists working with Krishen, so that they could conduct guided tours for the students. Many students from the National Law University in Jodhpur have been volunteering with the RJP for the past year.

But the most exciting way of spreading the word has been through a concert series called Chaandni. On every full moon night, since April this year, the Rao Jodha Park becomes the stage for a splendid performance by the Manganiar folk musicians of Jaisalmer. Illumined only by the moonlight and a few lanterns, the musicians put up a great show against the lit backdrop of the Mehrangarh Fort. It is similar to the music that was once played by the gypsies who migrated to Europe thousands of years ago. “The Manganiars are Muslim but they have traditionally played for Hindu patrons; it’s one of those great example of our syncretic traditions,” says Krishen, who has been documenting them since 1972. The instrument that comes closest to the Manganiars’ kamaacha can be found only in Iran, he says.

Krishen doesn’t, however, want the concert to become the main attraction or negatively affect the running of the park. Still, he concedes, “We have been doing it every month because many people were pleading for it. So it’s on for the next two months as of now.” The next performance is scheduled for 20 August. The Chaandni concerts serve as an audition for musicians to qualify for the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, an annual event that takes place in Jodhpur every October.

The best reason to visit this park would be to witness the almost miraculous transformation of the terrain. And there is a best time to visit too — late July to October. The best time to plant a tree may have been 20 years ago, but Krishen wants you to come back 10 years from now. By then, there will be quite a few big trees on show.

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