As a conservationist, I have witnessed many attempts at afforestation. Most efforts only yield spindly trees that stand like gaunt soldiers in a forlorn army. So when I saw over 300 species of plants, including an astounding 70 grass varietals, thriving at the edge of the Thar Desert, I was surprised. In a place with barely 300 mm of annual rain and a relentless sun beating down on hard rhyolite or volcanic rock, growing something is like squeezing life from stone.
It was dawn on a winter morning in November, and I was at Singhoria Bari, a historic 16th-century gateway to Jodhpur city, that now leads to Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park. This young forest of trees, shrubs, grasses, and herbs that typify the region’s unique floral heritage, is a miracle unfolding in the shadow of Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort.
Spread over 70 hectares in the area surrounding the fort, the park has transformed a wasteland in an awe-inspiring way. It shows visitors what this area must have looked like five centuries ago, when Rao Jodha arrived and founded the city of Jodhpur. In the 1930s, in a bid to provide his subjects with firewood, the then maharaja dispersed seeds of a hardy Mexican shrub—the mesquite or Prosopis juliflora. For all his noble intent, the action led to an ecological nightmare. The invasive mesquite spread like crazy, earning it the local name of baavlia, “the mad one.” It was a bully, its roots giving out toxic alkaloids that edged out all other vegetation.
From the terrace of Mehrangarh Fort, Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park stretches as far as the eye can see. The park clothes the rocky landscape in different shades of green and is a marvel of eco restoration and conservation. Photo: Pradip Krishen
In 2006, the Mehrangarh Museum trust called in one-time filmmaker and India’s “tree-man,” Pradip Krishen, to rejuvenate the degraded landscape, and he was the one taking me around the park. Krishen led me past gates fashioned after a delicate desert plant called tumba, and down the stony staircase to one of the walking trails. the “Gully Walk” winds through an ancient aqueduct where rainwater once flowed into Ranisar Lake below.
When he began this project, Krishen’s first and monumental task was to get rid of the baavlia. Uprooting or hacking it didn’t work as it grew back with a vengeance; neither did packing its stumps with cow dung. The solution came from the local stonemasons called khandwalias, whose forefathers had carved out the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort. They used their unique skills to root out the mesquite from the hard rock. This made space for other plants to grow—goondi, which has bright orange berries, the kharo jaal with its dropping canopy, the rotabel, whose lacy white flowers blossom at dusk and perfume the air to invite pollinating night moths. I took to the santari, with its lobed leaves that are reminiscent of a tiger’s pugmark. Krishen shared titbits as we walked. From him I learnt that the rubber bel that covers the walls of the gully is an import from Madagascar, brought into India around World War I, to make rubber for airplane tyres. Further into the park, we crossed a little stream and walking into the dense canopy, we came across a wondrous tree known as peeloo. It has a thick canopy and bunches of tiny, translucent, grape- like white fruit.
We saw evidence of wildlife: a moist patch that had been churned up by wild boars reaching for roots and tubers, and a few quills littered the earth, indicating the presence of porcupines. Denzil, the park’s remarkable young naturalist, pointed out an osprey, a harrier, and black kites circling the sky. The harsh, noisy calls we heard were traced to a couple of peregrine falcons. He also pointed out a pair of vultures roosting in the precipice of a craggy rock. In the matter of an hour we had ticked off five of the park’s 32 raptors. The return of native plants has ensured that the landscape is alive with butterflies, geckos, frogs, porcupine, hedgehog, hare, etc. Migratory waterfowl winter at Devi Kund lake at the foot of Jaswant Thada, a white marble cenotaph that is a five-minute walk from Singhoria Bari.
Meetha jal or peeloo is an evergreen tree which yields reddish-brown, tart fruit that can be eaten raw, cooked, or made into squashes and chutneys. Photo: Pradip Krishen
As we walked through sections of the park with volcanic rock, the character of the plants subtly shifted. I saw the rare succulent, googal, which is used in traditional medicine to cure ailments from obesity to high cholesterol. Cactus-like thhor dot the landscape, its shady thicket sheltering other thorny scrub and myriad spiders. These succulents trap water in their tissues to survive the harsh, dry summers. other plants survive by appearing dry and shrivelled in summers as they concentrate their life forces below the ground, branching their roots deep into the hairline fissures of the rock. They burst forth in the monsoon, painting the landscape a riot of colours. Yet other plants are ephemerals that live briefly in the season of plenty. They surface with the first showers, heavy with flower and fruit, vanishing as the soil dries, leaving behind seeds that will blossom in the next monsoon.
I know I will be there to watch the spring of the ephemerals, but I wish not for a brief fling; rather I want to come back, again and again.
Appeared in the April 2016 issue as “Desert Rocks”.
Cactus-like thhor stand out against the stark desert backdrop. Photo: Pradip Krishen
Rao Jodha Desert rock park is at the foot of Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. The park is open 7 a.m.- 7 p.m. Apr-Sept, and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Oct-Mar (www.raojodhapark.com; entry ₹30; guide ₹100). To explore, bring good walking shoes, sunblock, hat, drinking water, binoculars, and a bird book.
Prerna Singh Bindra
is a writer, conservationist, and a wanderer of wild places. She has served on India’s National Board for Wildlife, edits TigerLink, and has established Bagh, a trust that aims to secure India’s wildlife and its habitats.
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