When I think of Thar, I think of the beautiful Thari women. Slim and graceful in their colourful clothes and white full-arm bangles – their heads covered with bright chadars. I think of exquisite hand embroidery in very bright colours. I think of rillies (quilts) and marvellous block prints. I picture kilims (rugs) woven on hand looms from camel hair, and khadi-woven kambals or blankets; and hand woven woolen carpets of an Iranian design, woven by weavers in their village homes. In short, a paradise for artists and shoppers.
I think of the unique indigenous round mud-and-straw homes in desert villages called chaura – so environment-friendly and artistic, similar to the yurts of Central Asia.
I wished to visit Tharparkar for the past 20 years, and it was finally the Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP) which permitted me to do so. TRDP works with rural people, helping with development projects, and has operated for 22 years. It has a presence in four districts: Tharparkar, Umerkot, Jamshoro and Dadu.
Our drive from Karachi took us through Thatta, Sajawal and Badin; the superb roads and city bypasses made the drive comfortable and enjoyable. Rich agricultural fields along the road, growing sugarcane, yellow mustard and sunflower – miles and miles of blooming flowers – give these regions a distinctly Tuscan ambience.
I was expecting to see something like the terrain from Lawrence of Arabia, but I saw no such thing
The very knowledgeable driver gave us a running commentary and told us about the lives of politicians belonging to the towns we passed by; and the social and cultural norms of the inhabitants – shaped by the terrain, the crops and animals.
Five hours later we were in Mithi, after a short tea break at a roadside tea khokha. I was looking for sand dunes and desert along the way, expecting to see something like the terrain from Lawrence of Arabia, but I saw no such thing. A short distance from Mithi, there appeared small hills which, I was informed by my driver, were sand dunes and covered with thorny shrub, short kiker and other hardy local vegetation. Apparently we were already in the Thar desert.
I was to stay in a TRDP rest-house. It turned out to be a very comfortable, simple 4-bedroom house in the city on a narrow lane; equipped with all the amenities one can wish for: wifi, hot and cold clean running water, electricity – better than Islamabad and Lahore – and a backup generator. Since there is no access to the natural gas pipeline, cooking was done using a very large gas cylinder.
Mithi means ‘sweet’. Approximately 80 per cent of the population is Hindu. It is a town where people live in complete harmony. Muslims, out of respect for Hindus, do not slaughter cows; and Hindus, out of respect for Muslim rites, have never organised any marriage ceremonies or celebrations during the month of Muharram.
The peacocks are wild, but the villagers care for them as they would for their own domesticated animals
Not only that, the Hindus of Mithi also happily participate in providing food and drinks for Muslims during Ramazan, and both groups exchange sweets on Eid and Diwali. The crime rate in Mithi is at two per cent and never has anyone witnessed any incident of religious intolerance.
There are beautiful temples and mosques in the town.
For the evening, my colleagues Dr Ashok Bakhtiani and Nirmla had planned a visit to village Lobhar about 15 miles away, where the TRDP have provided solar power. We drove for about ten minutes. On turning towards the village, on a sandy road, the driver stopped the vehicle, making a delightful announcement: “Here are peacocks!”
I couldn’t put my camera down on seeing a large family of peacocks on the highway – in fact, crossing it.
It reminded me of signs on New Jersey highways, cautioning drivers to watch out for road-crossing Canadian Geese with their chicks. Here in Tharparkar, the Indian peacock is found in great numbers. They are wild but villagers track their numbers and care for them as they would for their own domesticated animals, providing them food and water.
A ten-minute drive on a sandy desert track through sand dunes covered by cactuses, thorny bushes and kiker trees, and we arrived at village Lobhar, where TRDP field staff and villagers awaited us. Here, of course, there were more peacocks and the air resonated with their sharp vocalisations.
The village had 38 households and numerous mud-brick homes, the chauras.A chaura consists of a round structure topped by a conical thatched roof. It is built over a plastered platform. It has a spacious courtyard enclosed by a fence of thorny bushes, or a small wall constructed from hand-made bricks.
It was dusk, but there was still light; the light bulbs outside the chaura were lighted, and the villagers – men, women and many children – awaited us.
Each house consists of three or more round independent chauras. At the village, we were guided to the house of Ranmal, Community Resource Person, and his wife, Kanhu, President of the Village Organisation. This turned out to be a very neat compound with a small mud-brick boundary wall, and neatly mud-plastered floor.
All office bearers and members of the Village Organisation are women and were present at this meeting, along with some males and lots of children. Most of the males are migrant workers in the larger cities.
Some hand-made intricately sewn patch work quilts, rillies, were spread on the ground for our seating: it became dark and the solar light bulbs provided us with light. Excitedly all speaking at the same time, telling stories of how the solar lights were installed and their benefits – the women explained how the TRDP project had literally lit up their lives. Each light system for a housing unit consisting of three chauras cost Rs. 33,000. Villagers share in maintenance at Rs 50 each per month.
Women informed us that with lights in their homes, they can now see snakes and scorpions at night and thus avoid a deadly peril. They can perform social and household activities much longer into the night. Women can do embroidery work and make rillies and children can study late into the night.
We talked about social problems. Women are married young and have several children. There is no birth spacing and no birth control. Kanhu has 10 children and Sheela 12 children. Their husbands labour nearby or in the cities.
Mothers as well as children appeared healthy and well – there was no incidence of malnutrition-related infant mortality. The government has even provided them with a water desalination plant. The village is running a school in one room and has a teacher: 150 children are being educated thus.
On our return to Mithi, we visited the highest point of the city, the Gaddhi Bhitt, a large sand dune overlooking the city, where the government has built a park along with a guest house, and a monument.
At night people from Mithi city visit Gaddhi Bhitt with families to enjoy the serene environment with clear skies and beautiful city lights. May the lights never go out in Thar.