How The ‘Mad One’ Tames The Desert

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In 2005, environmentalist Pradip Krishen set out to build a nature park over a stretch of rocky wasteland near Mehrangarh Fort. He recalls the experience in an essay for the anthology Journeys Through Rajasthan

Green land Rao Jodha Desert Park as seen from the top of Mehrangarh Fort
Green land: Rao Jodha Desert Park as seen from the top of Mehrangarh Fort, Photos: Pradip Krishen

ROUGHLY SIX years ago, in the rains of 2005, I was invited by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust to ‘green’ an unruly, rocky wasteland of some 70 hectares adjoining Jodhpur’s medieval Mehrangarh Fort, on top of the hill. It was a daunting prospect.

In August, it was already green, but I knew this was a short-lived trick. As soon as the rains ceased and the moisture fled, the whole tract would quickly return to being bare and rocky. The area had suffered decades of disuse and was severely eroded. It was overrun by Prosopis juliflora, a horribly invasive, bullying shrub from Mexico whose seeds had been scattered over the city from an airplane nearly a century ago. There was hardly any soil and the underlying crystalline rock, volcanic in origin, was many times harder and more difficult to work than sandstone.

We set out to restore the landscape to a ‘natural state’ with plants native to Marwar’s rocky desert. We didn’t really have any means of knowing what this area looked like before it was inhabited five or six centuries before, perhaps even longer. But it was reasonable to assume it was once like other wild or semi-wild rocky terraces in the desert. Give or take a few pantropical weeds. Our ultimate objective was to create a Park that would be like an outdoor museum of rock-loving plants from this part of the world.

Finding the Rock Lovers
People occasionally ask why we chose to ‘go native’. It didn’t take genius to see that the only way forward was to draw inspiration from nature and plant the things that grow naturally in rocky parts of the Thar desert. Plants native to Marwar’s desert rock are adapted by a few million years of evolution to eke out a living in hostile, water-deprived niches. They prosper in precisely the same soil conditions, partnering with the same micro-organisms, adapting to the water regime, climate and temperature gradients that we had in our Park-to-be. Scientists call them ‘lithophytes’ — plants specially equipped to grow in rocky conditions. So it made perfect sense that our aim was to search out and bring back lithophytes from the desert and then try and rehabilitate them.

Journeys Through Rajasthan Ed by Amrita Kumar Rupa  252 pp; Rs 395
Journeys Through Rajasthan Ed by Amrita Kumar Rupa 252 pp; Rs 395

Making the inventory didn’t turn out to be very difficult. The desert flora is well documented and the doyen of the botany of the Thar desert lived in Jodhpur. When we began, in 2005, Prof MM Bhandari was nearing 80 but still had an infectious enthusiasm and an eagerness to share his knowledge with someone like me. Doct-saab became a crucial ally.

Over the next few years, I seized every opportunity of making short forays into the desert. Rocky hills and terraces became special targets for exploration. But it’s not possible to shut your eyes to the sandy wastes and dunes in Marwar and with Doct-saab’s help and remote control we explored the sandy desert too. Doct-saab drew on memories of trips he had undertaken 30 years ago — “When you find the temple near Barmer, go behind it and start climbing a small hill. Within 200 yards, you’ll find some small crucifers. Look carefully. White flowers. Four petals… like this… with a touch of orange in the stem. That’s Farsetia. This is the only place you will find Farsetia in India. Maybe it’s there in Sindh, Pakistan, I don’t know. But go, see if you can find it, then come and tell me.” Sure enough. Slender Farsetia micrantha, less than knee high, a touch of orange in its stem. Clinging on, somehow, 30 years later in the pediment of a dry, wasted hill. The only place in India. Wow!

Grubbing Out the Mexican Invader
In Marwari they call Prosopis juliflora ‘baavlia’ — the mad one. Probably because it’s crazy enough to seek out such inhospitable places, where it hunkers down and digs itself in. Baavlia seems to require no water or nutrients in the soil. It discourages everything else from growing by secreting toxic alkaloids in its root-zone. It is successful in an unlikely, maverick sort of way and fully deserves its Marwari epithet.

Ehretia aspera (left), Mimosa hamata (middle), Caligonum polygonoides (right)
Ehretia aspera (left), Mimosa hamata (middle), Caligonum polygonoides (right)

If you cut baavlia at ground level, it sprouts with redoubled vigour. Digging and pulling it out mechanically by its roots is difficult and expensive because of the nature of volcanic rock. Using chemicals to kill it is not feasible in a place where water runoff is collected and stored. What to do?

We received busloads of cockeyed advice. “Cut it less than an inch above ground and cover the stumps with green gobar.” Tried. Didn’t work. “Let goats nibble it — the stems will never re-sprout.” Goats don’t eat baavlia leaves. Too toxic. “Set fire to the plant on a full-moon night.” Didn’t even bother with that one. (Would you?)

Pulicaria crispa (top), Glinus lotoides
Pulicaria crispa (top), Glinus lotoides

I read about a successful eradication programme in Botswana. The magic formula is that you have to reach down at least 14 inches below the level of the soil when you cut baavlia, because it has a subterranean budding zone in its upper roots, from where it re-sprouts. We just had to find a way to dig baavlia out.

Compressor-driven augers turned out to be much too slow and expensive and impractical because of the extremely hard rock. Someone suggested we should try minuscule charges of dynamite. We were skeptical but tried it anyway and watched in dismay as it shattered the crest of a little rocky knoll — an element of the historic landscape we had set out to conserve. Dynamite wasn’t the answer.

Help came in the form of highly skilled rock-miners who call themselves Khandwalias (after the Marwari word for rock — khanda). Five centuries ago, their ancestors had chiselled gigantic blocks of sandstone from the hill to make the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort. Would they be able to handle rhyolite, the volcanic stone that underlies the sandstone on the hill but is so much harder?

We invited Dhan Singh Khandwalia to show us what he could do and led him inside the Park. He chose a small baavlia no more than a foot-and-a-half high. Around it, the rock seemed dourly monolithic with hardly a faultline. Dhan Singh chose a really heavy, short-handled hammer, squatted on his haunches and looked away while he smote the rock. I thought he was looking away to shield his eyes from flying fragments of rock, but the hammer blow wasn’t fierce and nothing flew. What he was actually doing was cocking his ear and listening intently. He rang the rock with his hammer at a few more places. Somehow, the sound the hammer made told him all he wanted to know about the underlying rock. Infrasound. How it was interbedded. How far the underlying layer ran. Where to go in from, at what angle. And how deep it was likely to yield. He shook his head at me, “Yes, I can go in here… At least two-three feet.”

So we left Dhan Singh there to cut and chisel away. An hour later, he had carved open the rootzone, digging down about a foot or so. Some of the baavlia’s roots snaked off into tiny crevices in the rhyolite and two short roots that Dhan Singh had pulled out were surprisingly two-dimensional, like ribbons. This was part of baavlia’s arsenal of adaptability. Ribbon-roots for linear crevices. Brilliant!

We decided at that moment to hire a platoon of 13 Khandwalias to be our permanent baavlia-removal squad. And pit-makers. Their job was to go down at least 18 inches ( just to be sure), pull out the baavlia, destroy it and then create pits in the excavated rock to receive new plants.

Almost inadvertently, we had decided not to create new places to plant in. Baavlia had already done the hard work

 

Almost inadvertently, we had arrived at a decision not to create new places to plant in. Baavlia had already done the hard work and shown us exactly where it was possible for a plant to establish itself in this difficult terrain. Provided we could find a means of selecting appropriate plants for these niches, we just had to follow the baavlia’s lead. It turned out to be one of the wisest decisions we made. No change of land use in our development plans.

Planting Hope
I remember standing on a small eminence looking at the Park three months after starting work. We had succeeded in excavating baavlia. The ground was now deeply pitted, like a piece of comic-book Swiss cheese. We wanted to try out slightly different mixes of growing media, so a team of donkeys and their handlers went back and forth tipping pre-mixed soil from side-hung panniers into new pits. A few pits were nearly four feet deep. Some were elongated, five or six feet long, following faults in the rhyolite. Many were less than two feet deep, where the bedrock was more recalcitrant.

The landform and plants have a spare beauty but it’s becoming clear that the experience needs to be potentiated for visitors

At that moment, looking around, it was frightening — the land looked stripped, violated. What if we failed to persuade our new ensemble of plants to take root here? What if our confidence had been entirely misplaced? What if we had removed the only thing that was capable of growing in that difficult spot?

It took a few months before we started getting answers. Most of the plants we put in had been grown from seed and were still small, at best about 9 or 10 inches high. As grasses and other ephemerals came up quickly in the wake of that first monsoon, our little nursery-grown plants all but disappeared from sight. For the first time in decades, it was no longer open season for goats and cattle and camels that used to enter freely looking for fodder — they had been walled out. The whole tract looked wanly beautiful even as the grasses started turning yellow in late October. We placed 2,600 plants in old baavlia pits. We still had no real basis to know if these newly introduced plants would survive. We would soon find out.

Some Brief, Wondrous Lives
Broadly, there are three strategies plants use to survive severe drought. Succulence — storing water in tissues (leaf, twig, trunk, roots) like a cactus does — is a good and widely prevalent tactic. Reaching moisture deep in the soil by means of enormous, penetrative roots works well too, but you have to be a tree to be able to do this — and it’s not so easy being a tree in a rocky desert. By far the most successful strategy involves crass opportunism — choosing to live only in the short period when there’s moisture around.

Imagine a small, herbaceous plant that does not have succulent tissues nor the time to grow long roots. There’s a small window in the year beginning with the first rains in July till late October or November, when the soil retains a bit of moisture and a small herb might be expected to survive. Just about. What it’s been kitted out to do (evolution, always evolution) is to germinate in the rains, rush through its lifecycle so that it flowers and fruits inside this period, dropping its seeds in the ground before dying out. These seeds — typically hard-coated, like a time-capsule — lie dormant in the soil, waiting many months for next season’s rains.

If you think about it, it’s a simple but perfectly adequate stratagem — avoiding drought, rather than surviving or tolerating it. These plants don’t need specialised tissues or organs. They’re just wily opportunists who live their lives breezily when conditions are good, and skip out as soon as it turns nasty. Leaving behind little time capsules that will perpetuate their genes when the rains return next season. This last strategy — life in the fast lane — is used by hundreds of desert plants and by a preponderance of lithophytes. Come to think of it, so do many toads and insects and a host of small critters who aren’t specially equipped to endure the harshest conditions.

Digging deep Khandwalia miners prised apart rocks in order to create fissures to plant in
Digging deep: Khandwalia miners prised apart rocks in order to create fissures to plant in

Let’s just call it ‘Dying to Live’. It works beautifully, and it was up to us now to learn to accept and celebrate this epiphanic moment in the year when the ephemerals come back to life.

Chloris barbata (top), Aerva javanica
Chloris barbata (top), Aerva javanica

Once we understood this strategy, it became perfectly clear that we needed to find a way of balancing the perennials that we were placing in old baavlia pits, with the amazing explosion of seasonal plants that germinated with the first rains.

Looking Out for the Long Distance Runners
The ephemerals could take care of themselves. They were superbly equipped to do so. We needed to keep tabs on our per ennials to make sure that we were doing the right thing by them. It was crucial to try and learn what worked and what didn’t.

We recorded vital stats like the depth of pits, the site quality (rocky or with some soil), soil mixes and species of plant… and so on. And then we held our breath.

In December, we painstakingly recorded how these plants were doing. Some had perished — we needed to know why, though it wasn’t always immediately apparent. ‘Nibbled by hares’. ‘Dug up by wild boar’. ‘Not sure why’. There were lots of question marks.

We analyzed the results using Excel spreadsheets, which allow you to conveniently lump and sort your data. When we brought all the kummatth (Acacia senegal) data together, for example, it told us clearly that while most kummatths were doing all right, they weren’t managing at all well in pits less than two feet deep. And that they showed a clear preference for a soil mix with a little less clay than we had initially thought. The datasheets were equally eloquent about nearly all of the other introduced plants. Slowly, over the next two years of continuing to record pitdata, a large part of the guesswork was being filtered out of the planting scheme. Survival rates improved.

Slow Speed of the Deities
Rao Jodha Park is now in its sixth year of development. That may sound like a long time but remember that out there, in the desert, time marches to an infinitely slow rhythm. In an average year, we contend with a growing season that is less than eight weeks long. If a small tree puts on five inches of new twiggy growth in a season, that’s a triumph.

How long will it take before the Park looks and feels like a natural rocky landscape with mature plants? Oo, that’s a difficult question. Seven years, I had suggested when we started out, to begin to see concrete results. Maybe another 10 or 12 before there is a substantial accrual of plant growth and biomass. I don’t know. This is still guesswork.

There are still imponderables. How will the rains behave in the next few climate- change years? Will we be able to win the crucial goodwill of the people of Brahmpuri who live right next to the Park? Crucial, because they have the capability of undoing years of careful tending. Will the Park be able to count on continuity of management and support, all of which comes from the Museum Trust now? How will visitors affect the Park now that the gates have opened?

Thought fields The ‘Gully’ was commandeered from a 17th century aqueduct to become part of the walking trail
Thought fields: The ‘Gully’ was commandeered from a 17th century aqueduct to become part of the walking trail

We have only just opened to the public in February of this year. Visitors coming to the Visitors Centre at Singhoria Bari buy their tickets, then descend into a 17th century aqueduct that we’ve commandeered as the start of our first Walking Trail. A half-kilometre long canyon of hand-hewn rock, built to funnel water down to a small lake at the bottom of Rao Jodha Park. Slowly, the walls of the canyon start falling away to reveal the Fort to the left, and the Blue City shimmering in the distance. It’s a wonderful way to enter the Park and get an entirely new perspective on Mehrangarh.

Next? It’s all about guiding and interpreting now. The landform and plants have a spare beauty already but it’s becoming clear that the experience needs to be potentiated for visitors. That’s what we’re gearing up for in the next few years. We want to tell stories. About the desert and lithophytes and strategies that plants use for surviving drought.

Any more planting, did you ask? A little. Mostly ‘painting with grasses’. That’s what we wish to learn about and do, because rock-loving grasses in this part of the world are delicate and beautiful and will spread their loveliness through the landscape.

Come! The rains are the best time, July to September, and November and December are good too when the grasses turn golden as the moisture recedes. But there’s enough to engage you and fill your mind even in the driest months…

Extracted from Journeys Through Rajasthan (Rupa Publications)

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