How a desert park brought back plants Rajasthan hadn’t seen for two generations

“I was the first visitor in 7 days to the Rao Jodha desert rock Park in the shadow of the magnificent Meherangarh Fort. The extent of eco-preservation work I saw left me stunned.”


It is mid-morning as the rickshaw drops me outside the most intriguing looking gate I have ever seen. It swings open easily and noiselessly into an empty courtyard.

r1

Beyond the courtyard is a beautiful building, built in traditional style. Through its archway I can see an enticing view of rocks, green plants, and a meandering wall. There is no one in the courtyard except the woman you can see in the photograph below, who watches my coming, with curiosity.

r2

A pathway made of large slabs of rippled pink sandstone beckons me into the building. It is a pleasant surprise to see rippled sandstone in a public place, outside museums and laboratories and hopefully for people to notice and admire.

r3

As I reach the building, which turns out to be the Visitor’s Centre, a young man comes out of one of the rooms and greets me with a smile and a “Welcome to the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park. My name is Denzil and I will be your guide.”

“Thank you, Denzil,” I reply. “I don’t see any signboard for the park entrance fees or camera fees or guide fees.”

“There are no fees, Ma’am, for visiting the park or using your camera or for the services of a guide,” said Denzil.

So far, in the course of my travels in Rajasthan, I have had to pay for visiting every monument, museum, temple, cenotaph, palace, fort, park, etc., as well as for the privilege to photograph them. This is the first time (and as I discover later, also the last time) that I don’t have to pay. And I am getting a guide for free ? Wow! When I mention this to Denzil, he only says, “It is our pleasure, Ma’am.”

Saying this, Denzil leads me to the exhibition on the origins and history of the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park displayed in the building. He begins by saying: “The story begins over 80 years back when the present Maharaja’s grandfather decided to green the area quickly by spraying the seeds of Prosopis juliflora from the air…”

Prosopis juliflora (commonly called baavlia in the local Marwari, kikar in Hindi, and ganda baabul in Kachchi) is an invasive shrub not native to the region. It is a fast-spreading plant (some consider it a weed) and does not allow any other plant to grow or thrive in its vicinity. The then Maharaja of Jodhpur must have meant well with his intentions to green the area, but must not have foreseen the problem that the baavlia would bring in its wake — animals refused to eat this shrub and since native plants had started dying out, this resulted in a serious shortage of fodder for animals. The natural ecology of the region was gravely disturbed with the introduction, growth, and spread of baavlia.

Baavlia flowers. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Baavlia completely disrupted the natural ecology of the region. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

And so, in 2006, an ambitious project got underway with the aim of eliminating the baavlia and bringing back the native plants and restoring the natural ecology. A 175-acre area adjoining Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort and bounded by the original City Wall, was chosen as the place to begin. It was also hoped that in the years to come, the Park would develop into an outdoor museum showcasing the region’s lithophytes (plants that grow in rocky habitats).

Part of the original City wall of the Jodhpur

Part of the original City wall of the Jodhpur

The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is situated on an outcrop of rhyolite (a volcanic rock). The rhyolite is present in the form of vertical columns, a feature so special that it has been designated as a National Geological Monument. The deep, dark red of the rhyolite is easily distinguishable from the pink sandstone that everything in Jodhpur is built of.

The project hit an enormous hurdle at the very first step — removal of the baavlia plants whose roots reached deep into the rhyolite rocks. Cutting the shrubs did not work as they would grow right back. Attempts to kill them with acid was also unsuccessful, as was using dynamite to blast the rocks. It was at this point that local khandwalias or rock miners were brought in. These miners knew how each rock type was to be mined, broken, or cut, including the hard and brittle rhyolite. When Denzil described how the khandwalias worked, I was left shaking my head with disbelief:

khandwalia would strike a hammer near the baavlia and from the sound made would gauge the depth and reach of  its roots. He would then set about digging at the correct spots and manually remove each baavlia and its roots. Though this was a painfully long process, it was the only one which removed the shrub completely in the Park.

r5

In the spaces where the baavlia once grew, native seedlings carefully cultivated in the Park’s nursery were planted. Each plant was numbered and its progress carefully charted. Slowly, the rocky land started filling up with plants and when the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park was inaugurated 6 years later in February 2012, it was a place teeming with plants that had not been seen in the area for over two generations. Today, the Rock Park reportedly has over 300 species of trees, shrubs, herbs, climbers, and grasses. In addition, native fauna like the desert hare have also taken up residence here.

After this comprehensive and exciting introduction to the Rock Park, Denzil and I made our way through the archway, which was originally a gateway into the walled city of Jodhpur and built in the 16th century, to see the Park. We descended a stone staircase into what looks like a trail, but is actually a stormwater aqueduct that fills up when it rains.

The aqueduct / walking trail

The aqueduct/walking trail

This aqueduct is a clever piece of construction. The people who built it some centuries ago exploited a fracture/fault/ fissure in the rock and widened it. Though it is not perceptible, there is a natural slope which ensures that the rainwater flows into a lake at one end of the aqueduct. The walk was a revelation both in terms of the variety of plant life and of the complex geology, which I had only read in textbooks. But first a glimpse of some of the plants I saw:

Thorr or Leafless spurge

Thorr or Leafless spurge

Kheer khemp or rambling milkweed

Kheer khemp or rambling milkweed

Kumatiyo or the gum arabic tree

Kumatiyo or the gum arabic tree

Sargooro or Bitter drumstick tree

Sargooro or Bitter drumstick tree

Oont Kantalo or Knapweed

Oont Kantalo or Knapweed

The aqueduct is a geologist’s delight. Not only does one get good exposures of rhyolite, I was delighted to see products of other volcanic activity. The fracture/fault/fissure along which the aqueduct is constructed is also the contact point between two types of rocks—compacted volcanic ash and rhyolite (see photograph below):

On the left is compacted volcanic ash and on the right is the rhyolite

On the left is compacted volcanic ash and on the right is the rhyolite

And then further down the long and winding aqueduct, just as it opens out, is a rhyolite dike of a startling red colour I had never seen in rocks before. It was not surprising to see the profusion of plant growth in this part of the Park, as dikes are generally rich in minerals which are conducive to plant growth.

The rhyolite dyke

The rhyolite dyke

I am so taken in with all the geology of the Park that it takes a while for me to notice that the aqueduct has opened up in to a great view of the spread of the park and the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort in the distance.

The Mehrangarh Fort

The Mehrangarh Fort

I spent three extremely happy and informative hours in the Park, and would have spent more time if only my skin had not started to burn. Part of the reason I lose track of time at the Park is the geology that leaves me wondering as to why my college and university never brought us here for field work.

But the bigger and real reason is that Denzil is an exemplary guide — articulate, knowledgeable, quietly passionate, not afraid to offer opinions, sincere, and well read, who brought the place alive with his narration. Yes, he is a rare breed indeed. To my delight, I discover that he has a Masters degree in Geography and has a brother who is studying to be a geologist. Walking around the Desert Rock Park is about its history and origin and current work. It is also about the geography, geology, geomorphology, ecosystems, human intervention and so much more.

The Park’s website says (sic), “Ecological Restoration…is this term [that] describe[s] what we do at the Park. We set out to try to restore this tract of land to what it might have been like before it was ‘interfered’ with by human activity.”

And after visiting the Park and seeing the efforts made, I can only say that commendable work has been done and efforts are on to make the experience of exploring the park an even more memorable one. Future plans include mapping the rocks in the Park in include it as part of the tour, selling plants from the Park nursery, an outdoor café, etc.

As I am leaving, I ask Denzil as to how many visitors they receive every day.

“Not many,” he says.

“How many?” I persist.

“Well, you are the first Indian visitor in 7 days,” he replies.

Though a part of me is really happy that I did not have to share the guide or the Park with others, a place like this needs a lot of support and encouragement via its visitors. I really hope that discerning tourists will take the time to visit the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park and see for themselves the effort taken at ecological restoration step by step, using indigenous knowledge and methods at every step.

Republished from That and This in Mumbai blog. Click here for the original article.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
   FOLLOW US

   SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
  Top Stories on TA






  Top Stories in LIFESTYLE






   Get stories like this in your inbox

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Discuss this article on Facebook