In the distance, the brawny edifice of Mehrangarh Fort seemed to soften with the golden evening light. It was early February and I was in Jodhpur. At my feet, dry grasses were aflame with the setting sun’s fiery colours. Candelabras of cactus-like leafless spurge (Euphorbia caducifolia) grew out of crystalline, volcanic rhyolite rock. Within the shelter and coolness created by the thorny plant, creepers and seedlings of other species reared their tentative heads. Tiny red flowers sprouted from the tips of the spurge’s green columns. The remarkable survival of plants in the almost complete absence of soil in the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park inspires awe.
Plants lead schizophrenic lives, and none more so than the ones of the desert. Their focus above ground is to produce leaves and flowers, set seeds, and handle the summer harshness as best as they can while below ground, their roots single-mindedly snake through any crevice all year round, not only to gain a root-hold but also precious moisture. Botanists call these plants of the rocks, lithophytes.
The meagre average annual rainfall of twenty-three centimetres disappears within hours in the desiccating dryness of Marwar. But deep within rocky fissures, where no ray of sunlight or wisp of dry wind can penetrate, moisture clings long after it has disappeared from the surface.
When summer reaches its peak, some plants look dry and dead. They have withdrawn all their life forces below ground, cutting their losses, leaving their resource-sucking limbs to crumble. To them, retreat is the better part of valour. But once the rains arrive, they miraculously burst forth, painting the entire rocky landscape green. It’s an unimaginable transformation when rocks spring alive. The sap-filled columns of spurges, however, are the Rajputs of the plant world, braving the seasons with showy greenery year-round. For them, there is no hiding underground, waiting for good times.
Although the landscape is old, the scenery is not. The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is the handiwork of a team led by Pradip Krishen with support from the Mehrangarh Museum Trust. About a million tourists visit the Mehrangarh Fort annually, spectacularly located atop a 125-metre rock. Steep rhyolite columns would have afforded no easy access to an invading army and, indeed, it is said that this fort was never taken by siege.
While the foundation of the Mehrangarh Fort was laid in 1459 by Rao Jodha, it was not completed until two centuries later. It’s possible that before construction began, humans lived and grazed their livestock in this inhospitable rocky landscape that was later to become the city of Jodhpur. Ancient paintings illustrate the rulers’ lives in the fort but Pradip found no chronicle of the wild flora and fauna. Not only had centuries of colonisation, building tenements and grazing sent native plant life into retreat, they were just not appreciated enough.
The newly repaired 9.5 kilometre city wall afforded protection to the freshly planted native shrubbery from grazing cattle and donkeys. But the main threat to any plant regeneration, mesquite (Prosopis juliflora), a Mexican interloper, was already well established within the precincts. Pradip said its roots produce a toxin that prevents other plants from growing. The only way of eradicating it is by uprooting it, root, stock and barrel. A local community of stone miners, the Khandwalias, liberated the expanse of rhyolite from mesquite, one tree at a time.
While teams of these stone workers chipped laboriously, Pradip made exploratory forays to other rocky outcrops in the region to catalogue species, and collect seeds and cuttings. Since mesquite had already indicated which locations had cracks that would foster plant growth, Pradip intuitively set down native species in the same holes. In all, thousands of members of about 130 species of plant life populate the seventy-hectare landscape.
A five-minute downhill walk from the Mehrangarh Fort’s main entrance is Singhoria Bari, a sixteenth-century gateway to the city that was renovated to serve as the Park’s visitor centre. Just off the main road, the rhyolite walls and rippled sandstone walkway were designed to blend stylistically with the ancient monument. Pictures of the place before renovation show a boarded-up gateway falling into disrepair, its courtyard piled high with concrete rubble. Former guards’ rooms now house attractive posters of native plant life, a souvenir shop and a ticket counter.
This is where the Gully Trail begins. Following Pradip’s lead, I walked down a staircase of stone into an ancient aqueduct. It was carved through rock to channel water from an upstream catchment to the Ranisar Lake down below the fort. By leafing through the handy guide, I could identify some of the plants by matching the unobtrusively placed numeral-carved sandstone blocks. Since only a few plants were in flower, pictures in the pamphlet illustrated what I was missing, the many gorgeous flowers and fruits that even rocks can foster.
During the heat of day, the aqueduct is cool and shady. It affords a good place to marvel at the neem trees emerging out of rock, and the delicate little herbs with tiny pink, yellow and white flowers.
Pradip pointed to a small herb sprouting out of the masonry wall. The leaves of the wall lindenbergia (Lindenbergia muraria) were dull green turning brown and it is partial to the lime grouting used in old construction. The attractive rubber vine (Cryptostegia grandiflora) with waxy green leaves lines the walkway. A Madagascan import during World War I, its milky latex was to be used to produce tyres for aircraft but the effort proved too costly to be a commercial enterprise.
The masonry walls also provide ample shelter space for lizards and a toddy cat had deposited a round jalebi-shaped turd in a little gap. Moths, bees and butterflies arrive with the changing seasons to exploit the glut of flowers and provide their pollination services. Huge clouds of house sparrows and bulbuls twitter from the shadows of large bushes. Fat rock pigeons, fed grain by the many people concerned about their rewards in the after-life, fly through. Partridges engage in a round robin of calls reminiscent of creaky hand-pumps. Black-shouldered kites and shrikes perch on a steel cable above. Large numbers of black kites wheel overhead. With the original flora coming back, no doubt there will be a cascade of benefits for local animals and birds. In addition to the rich auditory, olfactory and visual feasts of the rocky desert, I gorged on the luscious, yellow fruits of the jujube bush (Ziziphus nummularia).
The aqueduct takes a bend and suddenly the vista opens up. The imposing fort dominates the view on the left, while the dramatic spurges silhouetted against the azure blue sky on the right are magnificently picturesque. We followed the trail’s signature yellow arrow as it led away from the aqueduct and along a ditch, rich with riparian reeds, grasses, trees and herbs. There is evidence of small wildlife, porcupine nibbles on the bark of a bitter drumstick tree (Moringa concanensis), and at dusk, a wild boar snuffled along the slope looking for tubers and meagre pickings. Pradip mentioned hares killing seedlings. The rocky path winds back to Singhoria Bari. In February, the café was under construction and, in time, will serve refreshing beverages and snacks.
A brisk five-minute walk from Singhoria Bari is Jaswant Thada, an elegant, white marble mausoleum for royalty. Just before the driveway to the parking area, we jumped over the low wall onto a rocky slope. The small Devi Kund lake busy with water bird activity stretched out in front of us. Spot-billed ducks, grebes, coots and shovellers swam in flocks, herons, egrets and ibises stalked the water’s edge while darters stood on dead neem trees drying their wings. I didn’t notice the pintails and stilts until they were airborne and the fast whirring of wings made identification impossible. I could have stood there for several hours watching birds but, this time, I was more eager to hear of the heroic lives of plants in these parts.
The walk took us around the lake. Several plants were in bloom while the toothbrush tree (Salvadora persica) was in fruit. Its tiny, translucent, ruby red fruits have a sharp mustard-ish taste. It could be the ‘mustard tree’ of the Old Testament. Pradip said in some places, existing cracks in the rock were enlarged before wedging plants into them. Had he not pointed them out, I would not have noticed the chunks of rock grass (Oropetium thomaeum) turf that had been tucked smoothly into crevices. Most of these valiant plants have made one of the harshest landscapes their own but they look dusty, insignificant and self-effacing. Eyes saturated by the showy extravagance of plants in water-rich climes need to look again to appreciate these resource-frugal plants. They are at the centre of the universe of the many local insects, bats, birds and animals.
Clumps of the herb seddera (Seddera latifolia) dotted the rock. This hardy resident often grew in straight lines, exploiting the linear chinks barely wide enough to slip in a one-rupee coin. Here and there, the gum arabic tree (Acacia senegal), emblematic of the rocky desert, emerges head and shoulders above the rest. A clump of green twigs with blunt ends called the rambling milkweed (Sarcostemma acidum) never sprouts leaves. Right after the monsoon, beautiful, fragrant white flowers erupt out of the stem tips.
When the walk ended at Jaswant Thada, we wandered onto its well-maintained gardens. Amongst the green sprinkler-irrigated lawns were two gorgeous desert teak trees (Tecomella undulata) in profuse bloom. One had yellow flowers and the other was bright orange. Sunbirds flitted from flower to flower while spotted doves preened under its cascading foliage, vaguely reminiscent of pomegranate.
While visitors can go on these two walks now, six more are planned for the near future. This is, perhaps, the only location where one can see, for the first time in six centuries, what these rocks might have looked like before they were degraded. The Rao Jodha Park is a story of some peoples’ immeasurable capacity to set right historical neglect and resurrect an entire ecosystem that had gone to seed.
The desert didn’t just make warriors out of humans. When caught between rocks and hard places, even gentle beings such as plants have turned a liability into an opportunity. The life and death struggles of these frail-seeming yet tough-at-heart warriors, played out in such inhospitable conditions, are no less dramatic than tales of human history. I was hooked. The by-line of the Park couldn’t be truer: “It grows on you.” Come monsoon, I want to see for myself the miraculous transformation of browns to greens. The ephemeral herbs and grasses blanketing the landscape will probably push all memories of the harsh summer into the remote past. All that matters is the here and now.