Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The White Desert

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I first went wandering about Thar Desert back in 1980. I had seen bits of the Thal Desert in Punjab some years before that and both deserts disappointed me. There were no real wind-sculpted sand dunes like I had seen in pictures of the Sahara, Gobi or Takla Makan deserts. As time went by, I got to know Thar much better. This included what was in those days called the Tharparkar district in the south and Khairpur in the north of Sindh. The one blank on my map was the desert part of Sanghar district. This tantalised because someone told me that the eastern-most part of the district that trod on the Indian border had a ‘different kind’ of desert.

About that same time (1980) I read a rather drab little report in Dawn about the desert lakes of Sanghar and made a mental note that this was something to see, a lazim. But years went by, twenty-four years in fact, before I actually got to see one of those fabled lakes. It was in the summer of 2004 and working on an assignment for a Hyderabad-based NGO, I was being driven into the desert when I asked about the lakes.
‘What lake?’ my friend asked with a lop-sided smile. ‘How can there be lakes in the desert?’

Then, barely half an hour out of the little village of Hathungo (near Khipro in Sanghar district), just as we went around a sand dune, we came in full view of a blue, blue sheet of water. It was unbelievable. From Cholistan in Punjab I knew of the ponds they called tobas that, being filled up after the rains, were used as reservoirs for the drier months by both man and beast. But I had never seen such a lake smack in the midst of sand dunes. The scene was replete with a few sheep grazing nearby and a village with those circular huts and pointed wattle roofs that typify Thari villages.

I asked my friend if the desert where we were heading was also of a different quality. Once again he joked about without coming to the point. And sure enough, as we neared our destination, this being village Rablahu, the quality of the dunes did indeed take on the same texture as I had seen in pictures of the Sahara. Only while the latter has reddish sand, this was rather pale.
‘It’s not for nothing that we call this part of our Thar “Achhro” or white.’ My friend explained.

The month was June and we had arrived shortly after midday. With the sun blazing directly overhead burning out every colour to half tones, I did not even bother to take any photographs – not even for the record. But I resolved to return to Achhro Thar at some more appropriate time of year. And so it was that my friend Pervez Akhtar and I were picked up from Karachi by Abubaker, the Sheikh of Badin, as I once used to call him. Himself a writer of travel tales, Abubaker now works for an NGO in Karachi and when work takes him travelling he produces yet more travelogues for the Sindhi press. For this outing Abubaker had brought his friend Majeed Mangrio along.

Overnight in Khipro, it was learned that the fancy pick-up truck Abubaker had brought was without a four-wheel drive. That was that, I thought. The White Desert would not be seen on this outing. But the following morning we drove out to Hathungo and after wasting some time about the village, hired a beat up old Suzuki jeep which was refitted with a noisy diesel engine. The young driver was a gabby smart-alec who seemed to know everything about everything. He made it a point to add his own two bits worth to whatever was said in the jeep.

Just outside Hathungo, we paused at the large lake I had seen in the summer of 2004. A solitary boatman was paddling about in the far distance hauling in his nets with the fish. On the near side a herd of cows browsed in the sparse vegetation and directly across them sat a little village amid rolling sand dunes and acacia and neem trees. In my memory from two years ago, this village comprised entirely of the mud-and-wattle huts, the chaunras, with their pointed roofs. That was perhaps how I had wanted to see it and adjusted the mental image accordingly for now I saw that there were few chaunras. Most had trabeate roofs while one or two houses were washed a brilliant white to contrast against the sand and the blue sky.

The next stop was a salt lake that was called Pani Wari Dhund – Water Lake. I observed that was a silly name for all lakes are by necessity water or they wouldn’t be lakes at all. Abubaker thought the reason for the name was probably that this one was miles from any other body of water. And being in the desert where little water was at hand, some poetic Thari of yore gave it that name. Salt lay in glittering white islands on the lake and in equally dazzling piles along the southern shore of the lake. A team of labourers was trundling salt-laden wheel barrows from the little islands to large piles on the shore.

I wanted to know if this salt was put to industrial or domestic use but with our smart-alec putting words in the mouths of the labourers failed to learn anything at all. He had to be told, in no uncertain terms, to shut up when he was not being addressed. That had good effect, I must concede.

In lower Thar, one is rarely far from some signs of human habitation. But here, we were travelling in an utterly lonely country. Even the ravens, vultures and mynas that one meets with in other parts of the desert were missing and the only bird I saw was the Indian Grey Shrike. Surely the sparse vegetation concealed some of the smaller ones.

About two hours out of Hathungo, we passed by the village of Rablahu that I had visited back in 2004. I asked the driver to swing in so that we could do some photos. But Majeed said these being all Hindus were averse to being photographed. In this part of Thar, for some curious reason, its not the Muslims but the Hindus who go totally paranoid when they see a camera. Even as Pervez and I photographed the village from what we thought was a safe distance, I espied a man hurrying in our direction. He caught up with us before we finished and Majeed ended up doing a song and dance.

Abubaker said if we had been in his pick-up truck, the man would never have bothered for he would have known us to be important people. But this lousy Suzuki gave us away as nothing more than bumbling boys from some college or the other. Boys indeed: middle-aged, bald and out of shape. It’s what you ride in, he insisted, that gives you away for what you may or may not be and promised that the four-wheel drive will be fixed and the next time we come out to Achhro Thar it will be as important personages.

Another half an hour later, driving over some dramatic looking dunes we saw the houses of Ranahu in the distance. This is where we were heading. Some years ago Majeed had worked in this village and was well-connected. He said the hospital had ‘four rooms with attached baths’ and because there were few in patients and also because he was good friends with Anop Singh, the medical technician who was in-charge, we could stay there. This was for the future because this time around we were out for just the day.

Ranahu is a village of Sodha Rajputs and Anop who belongs to the village is of the same clan. Long ago, in 325 BCE, when Alexander was in the vicinity of what we now call Rahim Yar Khan, he met with a warlike tribe that his historians called the Sogdii. Now, the people of Sogdiana in Central Asia were also known to the Greeks by this same name and one could not be faulted for wondering what a Central Asiatic tribe was doing in south Punjab. Scholars, however, told us that the Punjabi Sogdii were in fact Sodhas.

Throughout the long and creative course of history we hear of this powerful tribe ruling in various parts of southern Punjab and Sindh. The last we hear of them in our part of the subcontinent is from the early years of the 19th century. The Talpurs, having taken over the reigns of government from the Kalhoras, began to extend their sway and on the western edge of the Thar Desert near Naukot came upon them. The Sodhas were evidently on the wane for the Talpurs prevailed and that was the end of the rule of the former.

From being kings over the land of Sindh, the Sodhas are today reduced to isolated pockets in the desert where they assert their past power by telling strangers not to photograph their village, leave alone the women. But here we were not strangers for Majeed knew practically everyone in the village.

After the customary tea and biscuits we took off for the village well. In lower Thar, as the men drive the camels to pull out the bucket from the deep wells, there are always several women at hand to fill up their pitchers. In some isolated villages I had even seen women running the whole show. But here this chore was taken over entirely by men and young boys. Indeed, in the day we spent at Ranahu, I did not so much as catch a glimpse of any woman at all. Not even a girl child. The Sodhas do observe strict purdah.

It was the dunes of Achhro Thar that had brought us out this far and so we took a walk to the east side of the village. Here, swept by the wind into sculpted, rippled shapes with razor-sharp crests the dunes rolled away in all directions just the way one sees them in photos of the Takla Makan. As we hurried with our photos, Pervez the best photographer among us lamented that we were not staying overnight to catch the evening and early morning sun.

We left Ranahu in time to catch the sunset with some trees in the foreground. Later, as we were driving back to Hathungo, Abubaker kept muttering, ‘Something’s got to give. Something must go wrong now for how else can we call this an adventure.’ Then there began his tales of break downs in the desert that set me virtually on edge. I too had tales to tell, but I refrained superstitiously fearing that too many disaster stories would somehow bring something untoward upon us. Abubaker’s prayers were answered. Suddenly something began rattling under the jeep.

We stopped; the driver got under and told us a road spring had snapped. But not to worry, he said, and he would bring us into Hathungo all right. Shortly afterwards as the jeep was negotiating a dune, it got stuck. We got out and discovered that the rear wheels were digging in, which meant the four-wheel drive was not working anymore. Once again smart-alec got under and announced that the rear axle was broken. Hathungo was still thirty kilometres away!

He fiddled about a bit and said he would drive with the front wheels and that we would have to push every time we negotiated a slope. I don’t know how it was done, but we did carry on. At some point he said we ought to stop by a village and he would change the axle. This, he said, would take thirty minutes which I read as two hours. The axle evidently was something he carried around in his breast pocket. The common vote however was that instead of wasting time we take the risk and try to reach Hathungo.

And so we carried on with Abubaker still nattering on about the accident not having been drastic enough to make an adventure. When the lights of Hathungo were seen for the first time, I said to Abubaker now was the time for the jeep to fall to pieces for all I cared and we could still walk to our pick-up truck waiting in the village.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 27 February 2017 at 22:55, Anonymous Ayaz Parvez said...

absolutely fascinating account of the Thar of which I have very fond memories.....

At 2 March 2017 at 12:26, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Very glad to know you enjoyed this, Ayaz Parvez.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days