India: At peace in the desert

By Paul Rush


Sajan Ram is a man of principle, believing in non-violence, non-absolute viewpoints and the interdependence of all existence. He is one of an army of turban-clad, earnest, devout farmers who work the parched land of the Thar Desert using centuries-old methods.

The wiry 80-year-old greets me cordially in his hamlet, 5km into the desert from the small settlement of Rohetgarh in Rajasthan, India. As the head of his family he is dressed in white cotton, a dhoti around his waist falling to the ankles and a chola over his shoulders. The pure white garments contrast markedly with his dark, swarthy complexion and black-rimmed spectacles.

I bow slightly and bring my palms together in respect for the patriarch of this family, which comprises his wife, four married sons, their wives and 18 grandchildren. He tells me through an interpreter that all the children attend school, going in the mornings to avoid the intense afternoon heat.

While Sajan and I sit facing each other on sleeping stretchers in the middle of the compound, his tiny wife sits cross-legged outside their sleeping hut. The hut's walls and the hard-packed ground have been expertly plastered with a smooth, yellow ochre mix of sand, hay and cow dung, which, because of its antiseptic qualities, resists termites.

The roof has been thatched with woven straw. The interior is light, airy and very clean.

I'm intrigued by the practical layout of Sajan's compound. Low walls separate the four dwellings and the associated utility buildings such as cookhouses, stock shelters and storerooms. My visit is part of an exciting 16-day tour of Rajasthan with a contract driver and vehicle.

One daughter-in-law is resplendent in a pink sari and veil with a large gold nose ring and a red dot on her forehead signifying her marital status. She smiles sweetly, tugs her veil down to partly obscure her face and beckons me towards a storeroom where a modern motorcycle leans against the wall. Clearly the machine is her pride and joy.

She finds the ignition key, turning it until the engine kicks into life and her face glows radiantly. Sadly, religious beliefs prevent her from riding solo. Protocol and propriety demand she sit side-saddle on the pillion seat behind her husband, often doubling with a third family member.

With a swish of her sari, the young woman walks briskly to her bread-making hut and demonstrates the efficiency of the family's millet grinding stone. I take a turn on the handle as she drops in a handful of seeds, which instantly turn into a fine powder. A broad smile and an unexpected song follow. No lyrics are discernible, just a repetition of the "la, la, la" sound. I capture this musical interlude on my recorder and play it back to a very appreciative audience of one.

The final stop on my impromptu tour is the cooking hut, with its meagre stack of pots and utensils and a small fire. The families here strictly observe the 29 Bishnois and Jainism rules of life conceived by a 15th century guru, and treat animals, birds, trees and plants with great respect. They would never think of killing the abundant deer, cows and goats that surround their compound.

The Bishnois people are vegetarian and never use opium, tobacco, cannabis or liquor. They pledge to remain content with their lot, meditate twice a day, recite the holy name of Vishnu and eat food cooked only by one who is pure of heart.

Their spiritual mentor, Guru Jambheshwar, Avatar of Lord Vishnu, laid down the 29 tenets to conserve the biodiversity of the land and ensure a healthy life for the community. The triple gems of Jainism are "right view, right knowledge and right conduct", which provide the pathway to divine consciousness and lead to the ultimate goal of nirvana.

One fascinating aspect of this austere, ascetic way of life, which is traditional for Hindus and Jainists alike, is the emphasis on conservation.

The guru was probably the first spiritual man to teach ecological awareness. Since then, countless millions of people have treated all animals as sacred, with the gentle bovine, Mother Cow, standing high above the pantheon of blessed creatures. The monkey, cobra, bull and peacock are also revered as they are associated with gods.

The special relationship that Indians have with other living things has resulted in the country having the world's richest variety of flora and fauna. This immensely crowded continent has 340 species of mammal, including lions and tigers. The Bishnois can claim credit for the survival of the black buck antelope. The herds stay close to their hamlets and display complete trust in the people.

I meet one of Sajan's sons, a handsome young man whose wife brings out their little daughter, Buja. The child emerges wide-eyed at seeing the strange, pale-faced visitor. She clutches a large painting of Lord Vishnu, the only decorative object I've seen in the hamlet.

I photograph a jovial group of Bishnois ladies with lovely smiles lighting up their faces.

Despite the hardship of living in the Thar Desert, the people here are satisfied and happy. Like most hamlets, this one is a fair distance from the nearest drinking water. One young woman shows how she carries a metal water container balanced on her head. I attempt to do the same and find I cannot take a single step without supporting the container with two hands. The women chortle.

Sajan's family derives only a small income from rearing milking cows and goats. When there is rain, fodder for the cattle is plentiful. My visit coincides with a two-month drought, which threatens the well-being of the animals and crops of millet and pulses. In spite of the food shortages, life goes on. The people are resourceful and resilient.

A typical breakfast is millet chapatti bread, milk and yoghurt. Lunch consists of dhal, black lentils boiled in water then cooked with garam masala, red chillies, cumin seeds and fresh coriander. Dinner is usually fruit and vegetables with balls of steamed maize flour cooked with coriander, spinach and mint, plus milk products.

I return to the Hotel Rohetgarh in a contemplative mood, after an experience among warm, hospitable people.

This ancestral home of the Thakur Dalpat Singh family has been cherished by generations of noblemen since 1622. It's a venerable heritage hotel with sprawling lawns, manicured gardens and peacocks, a haven of peace and tranquillity in the desert. Each room is beautifully furnished with colourful frescoes on walls and ceilings.

It is also a world far removed from that of the Bishnois people a few kilometres away. May they continue to be happy and blessed for their steadfastness in keeping the faith.

- Hamilton News

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