The Freshwater Trail

The Memory Of Wells

Traditional desert dwellers, semi-nomadic shepherds, call upon ancient wisdom to survive in the deep Thar desert of Rajasthan. This is a story about people who remember where the wells live

Arati Kumar-Rao
Photographer & Journalist

This is part of a series on the deep-rooted Water Culture of the Thar desert. 
Also see: A Landscape GlossaryForty Names of Clouds;
Miracle Of Sky-River; Wasting The Desert; In Search Of A Minstrel

The desert road stretched ahead of us, disappearing into nothingness. Our GPS had stopped refreshing. We had no idea where we were; we hurtled along, blind. There was no traffic ahead of us. Behind us a yellow sandstorm loomed, its wind-whipped tentacles rising up to bully the sun and bury it behind dunes.

To drive on was futile and even possibly, dangerous. There was no way to see, no place to hide. Ahead of us was a clutch of houses — a shepherding outpost, a dhani. There was no one about except goats, sheep and cows ambling in unhurried fashion into uncovered corrals.

We crouched behind some scrap metal and watched as the yellow deepened to an angry orange that turned into coral and swiftly engulfed us. Flying arrowheads of coral sand pierced cloth and skin and infiltrated our lungs with every breath. Commonsense dictated we turn our backs to the storm and protect our faces, our eyes – but what unfolded was too mesmeric to miss. Steadying my camera, I squinted and recorded the storm rage and eddy and rage again, obliterating from view the few trees, the far-off cattle, the goats, the huts, our car, and everything else in its path.

As I watched, deep coral turned to doom black.

A sandstorm in a desert is an augury. It blots out the blazing summer sun, it drops the mercury levels, it prepares the path for the monsoon. A monsoon in this desert is unlike the rest of the country: here there are no interminable days of rain, no rushing rivers of water taking over the streets and roads, no clogged drains and clotted traffic, no breached embankments, no floods that sweep away everything and everyone in its path.

This part where I am – deep within the Thar desert of western Rajasthan — gets the leftovers of the southwest monsoon. In a good year it rains for a day or two – a total of 100 -150 mm of rain, against the national average of more than 1200 mm. 

Yet, in some of the wettest regions of India, wells go dry in summer and drought conditions prevail. Precious fossil water — groundwater — is sucked up, bore wells sink ever deeper in a desperate push to find water, and the water table sinks dangerously lower with each passing season. 

But in this, the driest of all regions, I have seen wells brimming with fresh, sweet water at the height of the desert summer. I’ve watched women eschew tap water, preferring their hand-dug freshwater wells. I’ve watched shepherds draw on ancient knowledge to survive, and thrive, amidst the desiccation.

They know where to dig wells, how to find water. Their existence is centered around one tenet: Water is Life. 

This is the story of those people. 

The Desert Gets A Lease Of Life

I lay on a charpoy in the still summer heat of the June night, staring at star patterns in a cloudless sky. 

Ek boond nahin gira, sa,” the shepherd had said. 2014 was an awful year in the recent history of the Thar. 

I had earlier run a finger down the print-out recording monthly rainfall in Jaisalmer’s Ramgarh area – a monotonous procession of “0.0 mm” all the way from January to December, with just two aberrations: 1.7cm in July and 0.8cm in August, teasing drizzles that tormented a parched land and likely, evaporated even before it reached the scorched sands.

The sun beat relentlessly down on the desert all year, baking it, desiccating any vegetation, permitting no new growth. Under its onslaught, four million head of livestock roamed hungry. Hunger begets sickness. Sickness means death. Death means loss. Loss equals debt. Debt spells doom.

The deep Thar needed one good rain to save it from spiraling down into this abyss.  

It was now 22 months and counting since the last rainfall. Shepherds were in despair, their losses mounting with each dry month. Weary eyes turned upwards; their phones were constantly to hand as they checked with their fellows to the south and north, east and west … 

“Any rain there?” they asked. The answer was always the same: no, nothing here.

Then came the evening of June 2nd. Chhattar Singh, a soft-spoken 50 year-old shepherd-farmer who has been my friend-philosopher-guru and guide to the desert for three years now, called me on the phone. He was excited. 

Tees mm baarish hui hai, sa. Mokal ke paas.” (There has been 30mm of rain near Mokal.) 

Over two thousand kilometers away, in my home in Bangalore, I thrilled to the news. If I had an eye in the sky that week, this is what I would have seen: meager rain flowing down gentle slopes and collecting in the khadeens around Lanela, Habur, Badhasar. I would have seen it sink into the sand dunes and seep into the ground that holds 36 different seeds in it, waiting for the cue to sprout.  

First to grow will be a carpet of green ganthia grass. Then sevan, the most nutritious kind of grass and a favorite of sheep and goats, would begin to push out new, bright green, moisture-filled blades. One shepherd would call another, who would call another. The word would spread exponentially: “It has rained!” And a mass movement would begin in the desert. 

Thousands upon thousands of sheep, goat, cows, camels, donkeys, the bells around their necks ringing wildly, would romp towards the aroma of rain, towards the promise of food.

They would converge upon Mokal, grateful for this temporary lease of life.

A Shepherd's Instinct

Babu Singh’s instinct was firing on all cylinders. As soon as he heard of the rain in Mokal, he and his family began to pack. His brothers and nephews  took their cue from the patriarch and did likewise. They marched 10 kilometers to where the grass was greener and set up a gowal, a shepherding outpost, near two freshwater wells. 

A rounded hut, its walls made of a mixture of dung and mud and hand-patted in herringbone patterns, its roof thatched with kheemp twigs and propped with kair branches, served for each household, doubling up as women’s quarters and kitchen. A long rectangular room built of the same materials served as a meeting room for the men. Here, over cups of chai  and small mounds of opium, everything from the status of fodder to the price of cows to the goings on in the community was discussed.  

The occupants of the gowal had 2000 sheep and goats and about seven cows between them. Babu Singh had in the intervening dry spell of 22 months played his cards well. Staying continually on the move, he had maintained his flock without losing a single sheep or goat. His flock hadn’t grown, he admitted, nor had anyone come to buy from him. In the prevailing drought conditions they had not fattened, but Babu Singh had made sure none of them had fallen sick either.

Now they were over the hump. After the rain of early June, the ganthia had sprouted strong in the area around this gowal, and sevan was on its way. The flock had plenty of food and they were gaining in strength, in weight, in value. 

Chattar Singh and I caught up with Babu Singh as he minded his flock. Squatting in the feeble shade of a kair tree, we chatted. 

Forty-two years ago, at the urging of his father who was also a shepherd, Babu Singh had set out for Nagaur with 2000 rupees in his pocket. He had purchased 40 sheep and goats and started his own flock.

Animal husbandry contributes 8 per cent of the GDP of Rajasthan, and is the mainstay of the deep desert. The vast desert commons of Rajasthan supports goats and sheep on natural native grasses, and the investment required is minimal. These animals ship to the Arab countries and, in cooler seasons, to Punjab. The returns, at 4000-5000 rupees per sheep and 2000-3000 rupees per goat, suffices to ensure that no shepherd lacks a roof over his head, clothes for his back, and food for his table.

Babu Singh had through a combination of instinct and acquired wisdom grown his flock tenfold, and five times as much again when you tallied up the flocks of his five relatives. He was unafraid to range far and wide in search of the best fodder. He usually went on foot, but twice during his lifetime he had trucked his animals to faraway places of plenty in order to escape famine.

His flock was his mainstay, his gold; it was the wealth that walked beside him. As long as they ate well and stayed healthy, his family would eat well and be healthy too. To ensure that his flock was fed, Babu Singh, his arms draped over an axe slung across his shoulders, will walk to the ends of these sparse grasslands.

Gaji's Gamble

Gaji Ram (More about him in Miracle Of Sky-River) also received those calls about rain in Mokal. For the first time in a decade, his khadeen lay useless, cracked like camel poop on a high dune. He had done everything he was supposed to, and had waited for the rains that never came. 

Farming is never a desert dweller’s mainstay. The black and white, ear-flapping, pooping, bleating animals, flocks of walking gold, was always what carried the day. 200 sheep and goats and a few cows were Gaji’s giving wealth, his fixed deposit. Gaji’s khadeen earnings, while substantial, were always meant to be just a bonus.

He squatted now on the sand in the setting sun, slurping chai. Chhattar Singh, relaxing on the charpoy Gaji laid out for him, was guide, philosopher, and friend to the Bhil too. The two caught up on news of the last twelve months.

Gaji spoke a lot, eyes downcast. The strikes against him in times of adversity had begun adding up, he said. Lulled by the agricultural prosperity of recent years, he had ignored his instinct. His walking shepherd-legs had leadened.

He had not gone far afield in search of chaara — good grazing grounds for his flocks.  He had not saved up from his bumper crops of 2013 for these days of famine. He had sunk all his earnings from livestock sales into a tanker-cart for water. He had fed his animals his stock of fodder even when there was plenty of grass around. He had lost two-thirds of the season’s new born animals — 34 of 51 had not made it. His cows had nothing to eat, and gave no more than one cup of milk.  And still he waited for rain on his land, his eyes trained on his khadeen.

Gaji had forgotten a basic instinct of survival in the desert, and nestled into the complacent mentality of the settler. Traditional semi-nomadic shepherds of the Thar know never to linger in one place for too long. Lands get overgrazed, recovery takes long. The mechanics of finding water in the desert has that need to keep walking built into it. The well needs time to recharge and the land, to reverdure. 

Gaji now regretted having used up fodder in the good times. By way of contrast, he told us of Kilana Ram, his neighbor, who had saved for such an eventuality. He had sold no fodder, nor used it up in the time of plenty. 

Main chaara khilaoonga to sirf akaal mein.” (I will use up this fodder only in times of famine.) Gaji gave a wry, self-deprecating laugh. Kilana Ram had done the right thing; he, on the other hand, had gambled, and he had lost. 

Gaji’s instincts — so keen when it came to managing the khadeen — seemed to have dulled. Even after getting news of rain from Mokal, he had not left lock, flock and barrel as his innate shepherd’s survival instinct urged him to. In contrast, Parbat Singh, Gaji’s neighbor had walked away from the dry lands with his flock, to join Babu Singh 15 kms away in lands made newly lush. 

“I’ll wait for rain here, on this land, for another few days,“ Gaji repeated half-heartedly, as if trying to convince himself of the soundness of the decision. “If it does not rain even this year …” his voice trailed off into a hearty belly-laugh, surprising in context of his words.  

Deep down, Gaji could never be easy.  Ghosts of his past, of time served in jails, of begging, and of hard road-work haunt him. In this past year, he had tried to earn by working on lands other than his own, and had returned with a pitiful 4000 rupees for seven months of work. He pulled out the receipt from his shirt pocket, again laughing at the absurdity of the amount. 

Gaji’s family is deep in debt. On average, they burn 10,000 rupees per month on fodder, fuel, and food for eight adults and 200 heads of livestock. Now, with no income either from the sheep and goats or from agriculture, they were borrowing heavily for wheat, vegetables, fodder, everything. 

His wife Jethi and I sat in the kitchen of her clean little homestead, chatting. She pulled back her dupatta and showed me her wrists. “See how thin I have become. We have no food. When there was rain, there was food to be had (on the khadeen), there was income (from livestock). Now our goats are as skinny as I am – who will buy them? Look at my cow. She gives one cup of milk. Enough for two cups of chai. We will be in dire straits if it doesn’t rain this year.” 

As I prepared to leave, Jethi took my hand in hers. We were standing under an audacious blue sky. The sun, a fiery orange, had slunk into the horizon. “Pray, won’t you please? Pray for one rain this year.” 

I have seen what she and Gaji can do with one rain, what the desert can do with one good shower. 

I promised her I would pray.

Where The Dunes Spring Wells

The Mahabharata war was over, and Sri Krishna and Arjuna were returning to Dwarka. Their chariot passed through the deserts of Rajasthan. At the place where modern Jaisalmer stands, on mount Trikut, they met the Rishi Uttung who was practising austerities there. Sri Krishna bowed to him and, pleased with his devotion, told him to ask for a boon.
The rishi, a high-thinking man with no thought of self, said to the Lord:
“If I have any merit, my Lord, may this region never suffer from scarcity of water”.
“Let it be so”, granted the Lord. 

~ Anupam Mishra, adapted from “Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan”

Undisturbed soft ripples gather into giant arcuate waves of sand that rise rapidly and fall gently. Dunes run lengthwise for tens of kilometers, riding winds that blow north-east to south-west and back. The dunes fall away into valleys of green — kair trees, grasses, desert plants — and rise and fall again. This alternating pattern of dune and green, when seen from above, looks like the stripes on a tiger, giving this desert landscape the moniker brousse tigre

There is no elegant way to climb a dune. You step into it and you sink. You clamber out and sink in again. Each time the sand rolls down around you, you feel like you’re falling backwards. It’s a sandbog treadmill. The trick is to slouch forward and keep going. Eventually you will reach the top. 

I was now atop a dune I had walked on two years ago. Higher and longer than the touristy ones more to the south in Sam, these saw no tourists at all – only shepherds, their flocks, and traders looking to buy animals. Today, there was no one here. Chhattar Singh sat cross-legged on the dune, in a quietude untouched by the wild wind. I sat down beside him.

I had learned to hold my peace. He would speak only when he was ready. 

As the sun climbed the summer sky, Chhattar Singh stuck his hand into the sand and pulled out a clump of darker sand. It was wet. He dug again, barely six inches deep. More wet sand. This was the height of summer. These dunes had not seen rain in many months. How could this be? 

Jahan lagav hota hai, wahan algav bhi hota hai,” said Chhattar Singh.
[Where there is attachment, there is also separation] 

I waited for him to explain. Sand particles, he said do not coalesce like clay. When clay hardens, it cracks. Any moisture underneath it escapes through the cracks. Sand however stays separate, and does not harden or crack. Hence, the moisture that has seeped into the dune does not escape. The dune’s heart was probably a haven of moisture, a water-storing machine in the heart of the desert. 

Even as I absorbed this, Chhattar Singh was at the bottom of the dune. I scrambled to follow, step by awkward sinking step. There, at the bottom of a sand dune, in the middle of the Thar Desert, at the height of summer, was a hand-dug well full of water. A “beri”, a percolation well, sucking the water from the dune drop by clean, fresh, filtered drop.

I saw a line of beris along the base of that dune.

Any hint of moisture in a dune was the cue to make a beri at its base. In past centuries, during the time of the silk road, traders from Samarkand and Persia would use these paths along the Thar to reach Jaisalmer, a vital trading post. Their lifelines were beris like these. 

The explanation of the magic well at the base of a sand dune in summer lies in geology. In the subterranean regions of the desert run lengths of gypsum — a hard layer, impervious to water. This layer prevents rain water from sinking into the water table, which is often salty. Fresh water, thus, stays above the gypsum layer, available for use. This water — which is neither surface water, nor fossil water — is called rejwani pani

For eons, shepherds who graze their flocks among the dunes have depended upon rejwani pani. They know where to make beris. They know how to use them, and how much to use them. They know when to linger, and when to move on. They know to give the beris time to recharge. The shepherds who walk the deserts also know how to recognize the invisible borders on the land, beyond which there is no rejwani pani and all you can find is fossil water. 

Wells Of The Netherworld

Deep in the desert, beyond the gypsum belts and very close to India’s border with Pakistan, you will find no beris. What you will see are fossil water wells. One meter wide, plunging 200-300 meters into the bowels of the desert. They are hand dug, and the making of these wells is a dangerous undertaking. Sand caves in easily, and the well walls collapse as the digger bores down. Chhattar Singh, whose father has dug many of these wells, tells stories of near escapes and of wells with men still buried in them. 

This kind of a well, called a patali kuan — literally a Hadean well, a well from the netherworld — is vital to survival for desert dwellers. 

Chandar Kunwar’s extended family was camped in a sand bowl not far from the border. They belong to Seuwa, a village about 70 kms away, but had settled here for grazing their flocks, much like Babu Singh had settled near Mokal. The lifeblood of the sand bowl was a patali kuan worked by two camels, and home to numerous little bats. 

Each mid-morning, hundreds upon hundreds of sheep and goats and cows arrive to drink. Two camels, walking abreast for some 200 meters, pull a rope attached to a massive skin-bag over a wooden pulley. The bag plunges 200 meters into the well with a crash, fills with water, and rises slowly with each stride of the camels. 

The shepherd working the well has a loud signature chant for when the skin bag reaches the top. This is the cue for the shepherd walking with camels to stop. The water pours out of the bag into stone vats. Animals rush in to lap. The shepherd at the well chants again, to signal for the release of the rope. The rope rushes back through the sand, screaming dust, until the shepherd grasps it with both hands to stop it from whiplashing into the well and taking the bag with it.

It is a mesmeric performance of coordination, and precision, and strength, and timing that I never tired of watching.

“Has the rope ever gone into the well with the bag?” I was curious. The well was deep; I wondered how they could possibly retrieve the precious bag and rope in such an event.

“Have you ever allowed your camera to slip from your hands?” was the response. 

The water from this well had a hint of salt, but was not offensive. The level never goes up or down, unlike in a beri which depends on percolated water and has to replenish. A fossil water well taps the water table. The one we were at was at least a hundred years old. Another, in a village further into the desert, was over 700 years old. 

We sat around drinking chai made of sheep’s milk — the creamiest of them all (camel’s milk, they said, runs the thinnest). A shepherd about ten meters away slapped a pound of wheat into a rota — a thick flat bread that keeps shepherds going when they walk the deserts — and stuck it into the sheep-dung coals. 

Nawab Din, a trader, was with us, waiting for the flocks he had ordered months ago. He would take 400 today and truck them to Amritsar and Delhi where they would be slaughtered for meat. “This meat is garam,” he said, high in calories. It is also in high demand in northern India and Hyderabad as it is supposed to be great for biriyanis. As we chatted, the flocks tinkled down the dunes to the well. Nawab Din got up and started patting sheep on the back. He could thus tell quality, he could gauge health. He could tell if they’ve seen sickness in the intervening months. He was going through the check as a matter of course – he had already committed to the buy and would now cut his losses and take them anyway, whether he was satisfied with the quality or not. 

As he walked around patting the animals, the shepherds began working the wells again for the milling, baa-ing, thirsty flocks. A small boy carried a newborn lamb to its mother to nurse. As the camels began to walk, pulling the rope between them, Chhattar Singh sat down beside me and began to speak.

Planning Waterwise

Every village in this area is planned around water. If planned right, each will have access to all three types of water: palar pani, rejwani pani, and patali pani — surface water harvested from rain on the aagors, percolated water (capillary water) siphoned by beris, and the deep water table reached by the kuans. This way, no one source would get over-used or sucked dry.

Each had its place — the monsoons and the months after the rain would be palar pani-time, the months after the lakes dry up are for beris, and in the deepest sandy desert where is no gypsum and hence there are no beris or lakes, it is the kuan to the rescue. 

Muslim and Hindu shepherds access the same lakes, the same beris. Everyone is allowed to access water sources in the desert. This sensibility comes from remembering the oldest rule of the desert — you never deny anyone water. Beris and kuans are never on fenced-off or private lands; all water sources are community owned. No one, driven by their own moral compass, will ever squat on a water source. No one, based on religion or caste, appropriates a water source. The villagers or shepherds that dig the wells have first use rights in times of drought – but even here, the digging of beris and kuans is a community effort. 

It all begins with one person expressing intent. Water-work, considered auspicious and spiritual, attracts people. They join in out of love and respect for the activity, expecting no payment, nothing in return. They even have a word for this — lashipa, the joy of working for the pure pleasure of creating something. Thus, the people who dig wells are never referred to as “workers”. They are all artisans. This is the old way.

This is also the reason so many beris and kuans have outlived their makers. Creating a water source in the desert, in a way that harms nothing and benefits thousands, has always been considered punya, sacred, work. 

Every shepherd and each villager knows this, and they all live by the one vital rule that allows them to thrive in the desert: Water is Life.

(How does this water wisdom remain in memory? How has it been passed on through the generations? I will explore a lexicon for water wisdom, and what it means, in the next part of this series.)

Other articles in this series:

Blind Men & The Desert;
Forty Names Of Clouds
Miracle Of Sky-River;
In Search Of A Minstrel

Contribute to The Landscape Glossary

These stories from the desert bubble up slowly; I’ve been going back month on month (2013), year on year (since 2013) and I have barely scratched the surface. None of it would have been possible without the unstinting hospitality of Farhad Contractor.I must also mention the immense inspiration I draw from Anupam Mishra’s works; they inform and educate me. Most of all, I am indebted to Chhattar Singh who, over the years, has been by my side patiently introducing me to the old ways of the desert. And the people of the deep Thar who welcome my intrusions with unflinching love and copious cups of chai. 

I am conscious that I’m only telling their stories — these people, on ground, are living embodiments of a precious water culture. I bow deeply to them. 

21 thoughts on “The Memory Of Wells”

  1. Intriguing….waiting for more…

  2. Vasanthi Hariprakash
    June 22, 2015

    Beautiful. Moving. Some of it gives me gooseflesh. Thank you storyteller:)).

  3. Lovely narrative of water wisdom, reminds me of my hometown days where conditions similar to the Thar exist. Wish our urbanites understand the worth of water.

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      June 22, 2015

      Lovely to hear from you, VMR! Really? Would love to hear those stories some day.

  4. Rini Simon Khanna
    June 22, 2015

    Arati…I just got caught in the water tales as you gently shared the stories from the deserts…..these barren expanses have always fascinated humankind and hold within themselves so many mysteries….thank you for the pictures and more for the words that show you a thousand things……wishing you many wells and springs and Chhattar Singh and his ilk many rains…..

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      June 22, 2015

      What a heartwarming comment, Rini. Indeed, i too fervently hope it rains there.
      (Grew up listening to you, it’s wonderful to hear from you!) thanks, hope to have you along on this Freshwater Trail.

  5. Poornima kumar
    June 23, 2015

    Spent the last hour reading the most wonderfully written article and learnt so much from it. Thank you. Proud of you.

  6. Methods you are trying to explore about water and life there really interests me. Loved the story on the whole..

    Keep it up!!!

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      June 23, 2015

      Thanks so much. Hope you will keep visiting. there is more to come …

  7. Whatchu doing in a human body, its only demigods who allow people to live through them. We are living some of life’s special droplets through you Arati, thanks for that.

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      June 23, 2015

      So glad you enjoyed it, means a lot. Thanks, Hozi!

  8. Great stuff Arati! Best writing I’ve read in a while. You ought to write a novel. I’ll crowd fund it!

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      June 23, 2015

      What a generous comment, Anand. Thanks so much, very glad you liked it. I might take you up on that offer someday … soon!

  9. Veenu Seth
    June 25, 2015

    Hi Arati
    That was beautiful and provided insight into something one never thought about earlier! And that too via amazing research and writing. look forward to more from you!
    Veenu aunty & Dev Uncle

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      June 25, 2015

      How lovely to hear from you both! Really glad you liked it. There is much more to come, please do return soon. Much love and warmest of regards, Arati

  10. This is fantastic Arati. Can’t wait for the next installment. I just saw the desert through your eyes! Thanks for that.

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      June 25, 2015

      Really appreciate you reading and writing in, Monisha. Super glad you liked it. Yes, there’s more where this came from. Stay tuned, do 🙂

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    July 1, 2015

    […] installment in a series of photo essays about water culture in the Thar desert of Rajasthan, India. “The Memory of the Wells” tells the story of a semi-nomadic tribe that can locate freshwater reserves in one of the […]