Saturday, April 5, 2014

Kuldhara - The Haunted Village in Rajasthan, India

Magnificient temple in Kuldhara displaying the cultural wealth of the Paliwal Brahmins
Kuldhara is an abandoned village on the outskirts of Jaisalmer (about 15 km west of Jaisalmer), Rajasthan, India. The desolate village, which was once prosperous and home to Paliwal Brahmins is now in ruins. It is the only place in the world where an entire population of over 17,000 people abandoned their homes on their own accord and vanished into the thick of the night. Kuldhara is believed to be established in 1291 by the flourishing Paliwal Brahmins who were astute businessmen and controlled the trade on the Silk Route to Persia (Iran) and Arabian desert. They were also well known for their agricultural skills. They had an overwhelming knowledge of water conservation and rain water harvesting, and miraculously cultivated wheat and gram in the barren wilderness. They were also very compassionate and cooperative.

Entry to the haunted village of Kuldhara

The Paliwal Bramins were natives of Pali (a small kingdom in Thar desert of India). Depressed by the oppressive ruler of Pali, they migrated to the area of Kuldhara in the then state of Jaisalmer in 1291. It is believed that each new Paliwal family was gladly received into the 84 villages nearby Kuldhara with a brick and a gold coin from every other family in the village. The brick was used to build a house while the gold was used to start a business or a farm.
The ruins telling the legend of the haunted Kuldhara village

Kuldhara was an excellent township, pretty big, well planned with structured settlements, and straight-wide streets which ran in grids with houses on either sides. There were about 600 households in the village, most of which were double storeyed, well designed and aesthetic, most probably designed to avoid heat storms of the desert. The inner courtyard, which had a bathtub, and a tulsi-pinda (a small elevated structure to grow tulsi plant) was basically meant for women.

Internal architecture of the houses now in ruin in Kuldhara

Ruins of Kuldhara

The outer surrounding area of the house was used by men and domestic animals such as cows. There also used to be an underground cellar which was used to store valuables as well as food grains. These cellars were sealed few years back, after some foreigners discovered gold and valuable ornaments by using metal detectors, and tried to make off with most of the valuables. The houses were painted yellow from the native yellow colored mud and stones, while the floor was plastered with cow dung and clay. There were structures similar to a garage which opened into the streets and may have been used to park carts in. There were temples, step wells, water tanks, water harvesting system and cenotaphs among the most prominent structures.

A temple in the ruins of Kuldhara

Cenotaphs or graveyard in Kuldhara

The Maharaja of Jaisalmer was only a titular head of the state at this period, and the Deewan (Prime Minister) - Salim Singh (also called Salum Singh), was the most powerful authority. He had the actual power which he misused to the fullest extend. According to a native folklore, Salim Singh, the malevolent Deewan of state, was well known for his lecherous eye, and evil disposition. On day his eyes fell on a beautiful girl, who was most probably the daughter of the chief of Kuldhara. Enchanted by her beauty, he asked to marry her, but his proposal was refused by the chief as the Deewan was from a lower caste.

Structures near the graveyard in Kuldhara

Marvellous architectural structures in Kuldhara

Infuriated by the refusal, he forced the chief to accept his proposal and gave an ultimatum of only a "single day" (24 hours). He threatened them to forcefully enter the village and seize the girl after the deadline. He also threatened the villagers to face grave consequences with heavy taxes if his marriage proposal was dishonored. The Paliwals were left with no choice then to accept the proposal, but their conscience didn't allow them to do so. The chief of Kuldhara desperately called for help, which was well responded by the chiefs of other villages. Out of anguish and despair, all the chiefs of 84 villages met in an emergency community council and decided to migrate from the village immediately, in the dead of the night to avoid death and dishonor. Hastily in dismay, they took whatever they could with themselves, buried the rest of their treasures and their belongings, and left their households and most of the livestocks behind, never to return.

One of the magnificient structures in Kuldhara

Structures in the barren wilderness of Kuldhara

However, before they left, they cursed that the village would remain uninhabited for times immemorial and those who attempt to dwell in these villages shall be death. If anybody tried to dig out their wealth and belongings, they would live to regret their act and suffer. As the whole community moved out, their hearts were filled with sorrow, and the thought of inhumanity and atrocities increased their pain and suffering. Many years before, human skeletons were found scattered in an alley off the road. It is also believed that the Paliwals left their villages in 1825 on the day of Rakhabandhan. To mourn the unfateful event, they do not celebrate the festival anymore.

One of the magnificient structures in the barren wilderness of Kuldhara

Since the hubbub of the villages had died down, they decayed spontaneously and were transformed to ruins, stretched out in all directions. The migrants had haunting memories of Kuldhara in their hearts which did not fade away even after their death. They returned to the village one by one as ghostly beings only to find that their native place is in ruins. As centuries passed, memories faded with time, and the legend of Kuldhara was forgotten. Piqued by curiosity, the only visitors to the ruins of the villages were some people from neighboring areas.

Houses renovated as they used to be in Kuldhara

A house renovated near the temple

However, in 1998, a couple of foreigners were seen wandering around Kuldhara, investigating and collecting the buried objects from the houses. The locals informed the police as soon as they noticed this unusual activity. The police arrived on the spot for investigation, and caught them red-handed digging the houses. Gold and silver items were recovered from their bags and they were jailed for the offense. Its rightly said "curiosity killed the cat". This event woke the archaeological department from slumber, and all of a sudden, Kuldhara was back in news as a major tourist attraction. The village was provided adequate security, and an entry fees was fixed for a visit. The local temple, and some of the houses which were the least damaged, were renovated and restored. People started worshiping in the temple. The visitors are only allowed during the daytime.

A renovated sample of a house in Kuldhara

Structures reflecting architectural marvel in Kuldhara

According to another school of thought, after migrating from Pali to Kuldhara, the Paliwals worked hard and with their knowledge and wisdom became affluent and prospered again, due to which they became the target of Mughal invasions. The Mughals wanted to plunder the wealth accumulated by the Paliwals but in most of the occasions, they stood against the raids successfully. The last raid in the 18th century, was a major attack in which the Paliwals lost lot of lives including their livestocks. Finally the Mughals soldiers were ordered to dump animal carcases in wells in order to weaken the opposition. All the wells in and around the village finally became poisonous which resulted in migration of the whole Brahmin community. The Paliwal Bhramins left Kuldhara and their surrounding villages overnight and moved to some other place. They also cursed the villages that it could never be inhabited, the fear of which still halts the natives from venturing the ruins. Neither did anybody saw the villagers leaving, nor could they figure out where they ventured. They simply vanished in the dead of the night never to return. However, it is now believed that they settled near Jodhpur in western Rajasthan, and in some areas of Gujrat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra.

Ruins of Kuldhara in monsoons

The deserted lane in Kuldhara

The fascinating potential of Kuldhara has even been tapped in mainstream Bollywood movies such as Reshma Shera, Kachche Dhaage and Agent Vinod.

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