It was early on a hot summer day deep in the Thar desert. Chattar Singh — desert shepherd, farmer, my friend and guide — interrupted a deep slurp of chai to point out fruit to me in a far away tree. A wind whispered the boughs low before snapping them back upright sending oblong beans-like fruit into bright green shivers.
Voh dekho peD pe pakii hui saangri hai!”
Look there! That tree is full of ripe saangri.
It was pure love in his voice.
As I’d driven east to west in Rajasthan, deeper and deeper into the Thar, I’d noticed that the khejri trees (Prosopis cineraria) nearer Jodhpur were lopped. For firewood, for fodder.
But as the land got drier and sandier, as I pushed north and west into the desert, khejris were thickly full. Why did the deep desert dwellers not lop their khejris?
Singh took his time responding. For a while we both sat in silence sipping chai. Then Singh spoke in a measured, soft voice.
The Jodhpur area gets almost three to four times the rain the deep Thar gets. Young khejri saplings take root in monsoon when they get the water they need to survive. Hence, chances of their survival are good in the Jodhpur area. In western Jaisalmer district, it rains maybe one day a year, or two. Saplings that make it have to do so against all odds.
Singh smiled and asked me back:
How can you cut a tree that has made it under such conditions?
Chhattar Singh continued, “there is no tulasi here,” — no holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum). For them, the khejri is an emissary of the tulasi. If you cut a khejri, you are “bothering a tulasi, bothering something sacred. We start poojas here by first offering water to the khejri.”
We’d been wandering in the desert off and on now together for about three years. Each time Singh would always look out for a line of khejris. Where there are khejris, there must be water. For a shepherd in the desert, the khejri divines water.
Later that day, I sat in a sacred grove — an oran — of khejris with Singh, chomping on khokha – sweetish dried pods of the saangri.
For desert dwellers, every part of the khejri is useful. The wood, which is naturally pest resilient, is used to make pulleys for wells, in ploughs, in yokes, and as roof beams. The foliage is rich fodder for animals, the fruit is a staple food for man, harvested in spring and summer, then dried for use in the rest of the year.
Over the years, as I kept going back to this region, my respect and awe for this tree that thrives in the desert and keeps on giving against all odds, grew.
On one such visit in winter, while walking through a 700 year-old khadin (a rainwater harvesting structure, a farm, an oasis), we stopped by a khejri that wore its canopy, thick and feathery, like a good story woven over time. Singh showed me something else that was wondrous about these trees. With a twinkle in his eye, he asked me to look inside it.
I found a crack and stuck my head in.
When I re-emerged, eyebrows raised in surprise, he was smiling: old khejris are all hollow on the inside.