Restoring the ruins or building a resort?

Restoring the ruins or building a resort?

Kuldhara in Jaisalmer district in Rajasthan is a deserted village. But those staying in nearby villages claim they occasionally hear whispering sounds from deserted lanes. A septuagenarian says he has heard rustling and whistling sounds from the abandoned huts in the village. Seventy-nine-year-old Bhim Singh could not muster courage to see what the sound is all about.

A visitor can hear scores of such tales from  young and old alike.

Now, Rajasthan Tourism Department has decided to make the abandoned Kuldhara village a tourist place and soon it will lose its eerie tag. Once a prosperous village inhabited by Paliwal Brahmins, it was abandoned in the early 19th century. But now on the map and website of Rajasthan Tourism Department, the village has found life.

Kuldhara is about 20 kms to the west of the desert town of Jaisalmer. The village has just patches of vegetation. Goats that stray into the village, which was a prosperous one when it was founded by Paliwal Brahmins in 13th century, feast on the vegetation. People abandoned the village, some 200 years ago, possibly due to severe water crisis. Local legend has it that the villagers fled because of persecution by the Jaisalmer state's minister Salim Singh.

The Rajasthan government and  Jindal Steel Works have decided to develop the village as a tourist spot under public-private partnership. The plan includes establishment of facilities for visitors such as a cafe, a lounge, a folk-dance performance area, night-stay cottages and shops.

To ensure that Kuldhara no more lives with the tag of a cursed village and to drive away the “evil” spirits, havan and prayers were performed in September 2016.

The three-phased work will take at least three years for completion. Shikha Saxena, developmental officer at Rajasthan Tourism, told DH, “Two tourist information centres will come up in the village. They will inform visitors about village's traditional farming techniques and water management.  In the next couple of years ,Kuldhara will become a must-see place for tourists."

Famous historian and professor at Aligarh Muslim University Ali Nadeem Rezavi, in his book: Kuldhara Social and Economic Implications, says, “In 19th century, the village had been deserted for unknown reasons. Possible causes proposed include lack of water and the atrocities of a diwan (official) named Salim Singh (or Zalim Singh). By 1815, most of the wells in the village had dried up. By 1850, only the step-well and two other deep wells were functional.”

When Rezavi surveyed the village in the 1990s, only stagnant water was found at some parts of what might have been a dried-up river bed. The dwindling water supply would have greatly reduced agricultural productivity, without a corresponding reduction in tax demands from the Jaisalmer state.

 According to him that could have forced  Paliwals to abandon Kuldhara. However, local folklore has it that Paliwals left the village to save the honour of one of the girls of the village with whom Salim Singh was besotted.  Tawarikh-i-Jaisalmer, a book written by Lakshmi Chand in 1899, states that a Paliwal Brahmin named Kadhan was the first person to settle in Kuldhara village. He excavated a pond called Udhansar in the village.

The ruins of the village include 3 cremation grounds, with several devalis (memorial stones or cenotaphs). The village had a settlement by early 13th century, as indicated by two devali inscriptions. These inscriptions are dated in the Bhattik Samvat (a calendar era starting in 623 CE), and record the deaths of two residents in 1235 CE and 1238 CE respectively. 

Attempts are being made to restore the place as it was some 200 years ago.  Tourists and historians disapprove of the restoration work conducted by Abha Narain Lambah Associates.  The company is not following the terms and conditions in the MoU, historians alleged.

Uma Devi, 44, a worker and a nearby villager, said, “The basic structures are being tampered with and old houses are being removed by earth movers and efforts are being made to give the place a new look. We have never seen Kuldhara like this. It is getting the look of a resort instead of ruins.”

Joy and Maria, a traveller couple who visited Kuldhara after five years expressed their unhappiness. Joy said, “we were shocked to see the concrete pathways. The construction going on amid old houses with a parking lot is not acceptable at a place like this. It has absolutely ruined the aesthetic look of the village. Thousands of people come to see this abandoned village, but if such work continues then Kuldhara will lose its charm.”

 Dharmendar Kanwar, state convener for the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Rajasthan Chapter, told DH, “We have condemned the act and also written a letter to Rajasthan's Archaeological Department. The district administration and art and culture department should keep a tab on the ongoing restoration work, as these ruins are historically important.”

Expressing her concern, Vibha Upadhyaya, Professor at History department, Rajasthan University, said, “Such places are to be kept as they are. This kind of restoration is not acceptable at all. Such a place does not need a concrete pathway or glass as construction material.” The restoration work  needs supervision.  Kuldhara today is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India as a heritage site.

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