When I first saw the Thar Desert, it struck me as remarkably green. A few sand dunes popped up here and there, but they were often covered in shrubs and scraggly trees. Most of the landscape consisted of neatly tilled farmland and grassy expanses known as dhanis, with huts and homesteads scattered throughout.
Where were the vast dune seas and the long camel trains trekking under a blazing sun? I had expected Lawrence of Arabia, not How Green Was My Valley.
I should have known better. The Thar Desert is the most densely populated desert ecosystem in the world, home to over 23 million people. It’s harsh and unforgiving but hardly a desert wilderness. The human communities of the Thar are what brought me to Rajasthan in the first place. Even though I work mostly in an office in the city, my ultimate aim is to better the lives of the rural poor.
GRAVIS, the organization I work for, is a Rajasthani NGO that takes an integrated, participatory approach to rural development. Its full name, Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti, is Hindi for “The People’s Center for the Science of Rural Development.”
At the organization’s core are two principles originally developed by Mohandas Gandhi, India’s most renowned thinker and social activist. The first is Sarvodaya, or “all rising, but the last person first.” GRAVIS focuses its efforts on those who need them most, regardless of gender, age, religion, or caste, and it emphasizes cooperation in a highly divided society. The second core principle is Gram Swaraj, or “village self-rule.” Rather than simply distributing aid, GRAVIS strives to empower rural communities, giving them the tools to build independence.
The people of the Thar face numerous, interrelated challenges, so GRAVIS’ initiatives must be similarly diverse. The organization works on projects relating to water security, agriculture, health, education, mineworker’s rights, and more.
Since my initial surprise at the prevalence of life in the Thar, I’ve learned a lot about the desert and its inhabitants. On my most recent field visit, I tagged along with one of the GRAVIS’ founders and most respected leaders, a woman named Shashi Tyagi. Reverently referred to as Shashi ji, she started the organization in 1983 with her late husband L.C. Tyagi. She continues to maintain an active role, serving as Secretary of the Board and involving herself in many different projects. Her son, Dr. Prakash Tyagi, is the current director of GRAVIS and also my supervisor and occasional physician. He was the one who suggested I should join for the field visit.
Shashi ji was headed to Jaisalmer, a city in the heart of the Thar Desert, to conduct a workshop on health. On the way, we stopped at a small village health clinic that had gone days without electricity or running water. The nurse who ran the clinic was supposed to be supplying pre-natal care, vaccinations, and tuberculosis treatment, but the lack of basic utilities made her job almost impossible. Shashi ji encouraged the village health committee to appeal to local officials, who have a responsibility to provide the missing services, but who knows if or when they’ll fulfill that obligation.
From the health clinic, we continued toward Jaisalmer. The journey took almost five hours in total, but it passed quickly. Long desert drives are one of my favorite parts of visiting the field.
Despite pervasive poverty, the Thar conveys a unique and mystical beauty. Peacocks perch on fence posts, dangling their impossibly long tail feathers toward the ground; illuminated in the sunlight, their necks project an iridescent shade of indigo, and the fragile crests on their heads form shimmering crowns. Stalwart cows graze between khejri trees and wander casually onto the highway, where they lie down to rest. In the village of Khichan, and only in the village of Khichan, flocks of migratory cranes gather in fields flooded from the recent rain. Their elegant black bodies stand out starkly against the still water. As evening draws near, the sun glows a perfect red circle before disappearing beyond distant hills. Trees and rocks turn to shadows against the dusk, and from the encroaching darkness, camels materialize in oncoming headlights. From behind, their tall, thin figures resemble lanky villagers, but soon the jutted humps and curved necks are unmistakable. More camels, cows, and cars briefly appear and vanish, until finally, long after nightfall, the lights of Jaisalmer glisten on the horizon.
The GRAVIS workshop, held in Hindi, was mostly unintelligible to me, but I understood that it was about challenges in the medical treatment of mothers, infants, and people with tuberculosis. The same sort of challenges I had seen at the village health clinic.
From the roof of the workshop venue, I could see Jaisalmer Fort, its sweeping sandstone curves overlooking an expanse of desert. Unlike other forts in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer Fort contains its own miniature city, with shops, restaurants, and hotels lining a compact maze of streets.
I got a chance to visit the fort after the workshop, along with another of Jaisalmer’s most famous attractions, the Sam Sand Dunes. Of all the places I’ve seen in the Thar, the Sam Dunes most closely fit the desert stereotype I’d imagined—bare mounds of sand traversed by riders on camelback. But instead a sprawling ocean of sandy waste, the Sam Dunes barely constituted a puddle. From any point, I could see the full extent of their area, and walking the perimeter would have taken less than an hour. As the boy trying to sell me a camel ride kept saying, a quick camel could make the “big round” in twenty minutes flat.
However, anyone traveling by camelback wasn’t doing it for reasons of efficiency. All the camel riders were either tourists or people clamoring to sell camel rides to tourists. The white-robed nomads trekking under a blazing sun were nowhere to be found, and in their absence, camel safaris seemed nothing more than glorified pony rides. I’ll still go on one at some point, but my romantic vision of the desert has been forever shattered.
While the Thar lacks conventional desert scenery, it offers other, more subtle charms. Rather than a movie set, it’s a real place with real people facing real problems. Over the coming months, I’ll continue to unravel its alluring complexity, and that’s far more exciting than a glorified pony ride around a puddle of dunes.