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09 February 2014

Kuldhara – A haunted village near Jaisalmer

Some 20 kilometres away from Jaisalmer, stands the town of Kuldhara, as it did 200 years ago, with bats and an occasional desert fox taking over the homes, town square and the temples. The desert winds have snatched the timber roofs away, but the sandstone buildings stand firm, lining the deserted roads. It could not have been spookier—the city stands intact, not only the roads, homes, temples and buildings but also the wells and the city's drainage system

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Kuldhara is an abandoned town and the desert tale says that its residents were the Paliwal Brahmins who now are spread across Rajasthan. The community, though Brahmins, were traders and successful farmers and lived in Kuldhara, the largest of a cluster of 84 towns and villages that they dominated in a 30-km radius around Jaisalmer.

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  Kuldhara's story is a fairytale. It starts with a beautiful woman, a daughter of a Paliwal Brahmin who inhabited Kuldhara, and one powerful man's desire for her, the prime minister of the Jaisalmer royals.
Jodharam Babar, deputy director of the Rajasthan Department of Archaeology, narrates the story. Salum Singh, the prime minister of the Jaisalmer king in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, wanted to marry the girl. "Tradition was most important then and the Paliwal Brahmins refused to let a member of their community marry anybody considered lower in the caste hierarchy," Babar says.
"With a bruised ego, Singh gave the inhabitants of Kuldhara a choice: marriage or death and gave them a day to decide their fate," Babar says. But the residents decided on a third course of action: disappear. "In one day, the Paliwal Brahmins packed what they could carry and in the dead of night, left the city," says Babar. Kuldhara was the biggest of 84 villages and towns in the area, so the remaining 83 followed suit.
However, Nand Kishore Sharma, founder of the Desert Culture Centre and Museum and author of more than 40 books on Jaisalmer's history, believes the story has distilled into a fairy tale. "They were a very prosperous community that easily rivalled Jaisalmer. But when the trade routes began closing down and the rivers began to dry out, the Paliwal Brahmins bore the brunt of the taxes," says Sharma. He adds that while Salum Singh imposed heavy taxes on Kuldhara and other villages, bandits and dacoits, who knew of their wealth, began plundering them.

"There are some records of dacoits mercilessly looting the inhabitants of the 84 villages, primarily because they were well off. Later, they even started kidnapping the women of the villages and held them to ransom," says Sharma. This, he believes, was the prime reason for the Paliwal Brahmins' decision to clear out. "It could not have been a gradual process since they might have been tracked down," he says.

Though the Paliwals were Brahmins and scholars, they were also businessmen. "The city primarily depended on trade and they were good at it. At one point, Kuldhara was easily more prosperous than Jaisalmer city itself. So some believe that Salum Singh's overbearing attitude and excessive taxes forced them to leave," says Vyas.

"Once, the Kak River flowed through here and provided the inhabitants of Kuldhara the water they needed. But this river was dammed some 300 years ago and slowly dried up. This could be another reason why they abandoned the place," says Vyas.
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