Anupam Mishra, noted environmentalist and Gandhian ideologue, died Monday at the age of 68 after battling cancer. In his work, he stressed the need to not follow modern technology blindly and to understand the importance of indigenous knowledge and traditional methods of water conservation.
His seminal work on water conservation, Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab, was not only an inspiration for those working in the field but an unusual book by any standard: his name did not appear on the cover, there was no copyright and anyone could publish the book for free. According to the Times of India, the book has seen 40 editions in 10 languages, including one in Braille.
Mishra was also known for his commitment to Gandhian principles and strict adherence to them in his own life. He was the recipient of the Jamnalal Bajaj Award, the Amar Shaheed Chandrashekhar Azad National Award and several others, and also the editor of the bi-monthly Gandhi Marg published by the Gandhi Peace Foundation.
As a tribute to the memory and work of a remarkable man, The Wire is reproducing an excerpt from his book The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan.
Once upon a time, there was an ocean here. Its waves would come pursuing each other. One does not know why and how the waves of Time dried up the incommensurable ocean. Now there is an ocean of sands. Even today, waves continue to pursue each other, except now they are waves of sand instead of water.
To change from one monumental form to another, i.e., from ocean to desert, it must have taken Nature several thousands of years, and even from the time this new form came into being until today, thousands of years must have gone by. In spite of the passage of Time, the people of Rajasthan have not forgotten the primeval form; they have kept it alive in the depths of their memory through the word hakdo – the sea. In the thousand year old Dingal language as well as in contemporary Rajasthani, the word hakdo has lingered on, passed down the generations to those whose ancestors too would not have seen the sea.
Apart from the hakdo which existed thousands of years ago, in the west of contemporary Marwar, the Rajasthanis have several other names for the sea; there are, of course, Sanskrit words such as sindhu, saritapati, sagar, varadhip but also others such as aach, uah, dedhan, vadnir, varhar, safrabhadar. There is also the word hel which combines the meaning of sea, immensity and generosity.
The fact that, while living in such a vast desert, the people of Rajasthan have so many appellations for the sea speaks of the generosity of their spirit. In fact this worldview itself seems to be nothing less than a miracle. Thousands of years have gone by since this happening of creation which in turn must have also occurred over thousands of years. If we were to start evaluating this phenomenon, we would just be lost in its eternal unfolding.
Astronomers measure thousands and millions of miles in term of light years. However the spirit of Rajasthan has measured the division of yugas in term of a twinkling; it remembers this big event as palak dariyav, ‘ocean in a twinkling’; this expression conveys both the idea of the ocean drying up in a twinkling and similarly that of the desert becoming an ocean in the same time.
This vision which could perceive in the unending March of Time the minutest division of instants, as also its gigantic expanses has lost sight of hakdo. However it can still recognise the water of hakdo in myriads of droplets as well as each of their particles. The people of Rajasthan have in a way fashioned themselves according to a tradition (riti) which has divided the whole expanse of the sea into multiples which have spread to various corners of the state.
From the fourth standard’s Hindi text book to planning drafts, all documents project Rajasthan, more specifically the desert, as a dry, desolate and backward state. In fact the description of the Thar Desert is such that it scorches your heart. Rajasthan is the second largest state of India after Madhya Pradesh and the ninth most populated but in matters of rainfall, all the Geography books place it last.
Whether rainfall is measured in inches, as in the past, or in centimetres as per today’s norms, it is the lowest in Rajasthan.
The annual average rainfall does not go beyond 60 cm whereas the national average is 110 cm. Rajasthan’s average thus amounts to only half of what the country receives. However the figures showing the average cannot give a true picture of the state’s rainfall for it can be up to 100 cm at some places and less than 25 cm at others.
Geography books represent Nature, in this case rainfall, as an ‘extremely miserly’ moneylender and the western region of the state is its worst victim. Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Churu, Jodhpur and Sriganganagar belong to this part. In fact here there is miserliness within miserliness. The distribution of rainfall is extremely unequal; as it travels from the east to the west, the rainfall goes on decreasing and just as the sun sets in the west the rainfall also decreases westwards, being reduced to a mere 16 cm here. Compare this figure with that of Delhi where the rainfall is more than 150 cm or with that of Goa and Cherrapunji where the rainfall can reach from 500 to 1000 cm.
In the desert, the rays of the sun pour down like rain pours in Goa or Cherrapunji. When water is scarce and heat strong, it is believed that life can be very difficult. In the other deserts of the world too the same amount of rain falls and it is practically as hot. That is why they are not heavily populated. However if we compare the desert region of Rajasthan to the deserts of the world, we notice that not only is it more populated but the very scent of life pervades it. In fact this region is considered as the most alive desert of the world.
It is thanks to the local society and indigenous culture that lack of rain was not translated into scarcity. The people of Rajasthan did not mourn the lack of rain Nature bestowed upon them. Instead they took it up as a challenge and decided to face it in such a way that from top to toe the people internalised the nature of water in its simplicity and its fluidity.
Without understanding the ‘savai’ nature of this princely people we will utterly fail to understand how in the last millennium big towns like Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bikaner and even Jaipur were established according to all the rules of town planning. The towns were moreover highly populated and yet, inspite of the scarcity of water, they were in no way less equipped than the other cities of the country. In fact each of these towns, at different periods of time and for long durations, were important centres of power, trade and art. Even when modern metropolises like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were yet in their infancy, Jaisalmer was already an important trading centre having links with what corresponds to today’s Iran, Afghanistan and the region going up to Russia.
The people of Rajasthan scaled the peaks of trade, culture, art and standard of living because of the depth of their philosophy of life. This philosophy gave a special space to water. It is true that the new developmental strategies have somewhat altered this exceptional water tradition; however they have not been able to completely destroy it. And we can only count ourselves as blessed that this was so.
Both luck and duty underpins the water tradition of Rajasthan. It was luck that after the Mahabharata war, as Sri Krishna was returning with Arjuna from Kurukshetra to Dwarka, his chariot passed through the deserts of Rajasthan. At the place where modern Jaisalmer stands, on mount Trikut, he met the Rishi Uttung who was practising austerities there. Sri Krishna bowed to him and pleased with his devotion told him to ask for a boon. The rishi was indeed a sage of high thinking and never asked anything for himself. Instead he said to the Lord: ‘If I have any merit, my Lord, may this region never suffer from scarcity of water’. “Let it be so”, granted the Lord.
The blessed people of Rajasthan, however, did not sit pretty on receiving this boon. Instead they consolidated themselves in various ways in matters of water. They elaborated a riti, a tradition of preserving the rain water in each nook and cranny of every village.
There is an ancient word for riti in the vocabulary of this place, voj. Voj means composition, system and solution but it also means competence, discernment and politeness mixed with humility. Thus it is that the people of Rajasthan did not measure their rainfall in inches or centimetres, not even in fingers and hands but in drops. They cherished these millions of golden drops which they gathered with vigilance according to the principle of voj in order to fulfil their needs in water: so doing they set up a tradition so marvellous that its course which starts in history flows towards the present turning the present itself into history, through the competence of voj.
Nowhere in the ancient history of Rajasthan can one find a description of its desert or even its other regions as a dry, desolate or cursed land. In fact we cannot even find the prevalent term Thar for the desert.
There have been periods of famine and at places even scarcity of water. However from householders to ascetics, poets to Manganyars and Langas, Hindus to Muslims, all have had no other words for the land but Dharati Dhoranri, the land of sand dunes. One of the ancient names for the desert is sthal, place, which refers perhaps to the space that emerged after Hakdo dried up. From sthal, the words thal and mahathal evolved; we even have in the common parlance the words thali and dharudhal. Thali gives a very rudimentary idea. For finer perceptions, different regions have coined different specific words. Mar, marwar, mewar, merwad, dhundhar, godwar, hadauti are used for large scale divisions and dasrek or dhanvadesh for smaller ones. And whatever may have been the number of smaller or big kings who ruled this vast desert, there is but one sovereign heir: Sri Krishna. He is very affectionately called Marunayak, Sovereign Prince of the Desert.
The boon granted by Marunayak coupled with the Voj of the local chiefs combined into a unique know-how. From this emerged vojto-ojto, that is a beautiful and simple riti (tradition), which everybody could adopt. Once upon a time, on this earth, Hakdo which spread itself to the horizon took the form of clouds to fly up to the sky. The clouds could not have been numerous; yet the people did not measure the water they contained in terms of inches. They saw instead an infinite number of drops which they gathered in their tanks, small and big kunds, kundis, beris and johars (reservoirs), nadis (canals), lakes, bavris (step-wells), kuins and kuans (wells) and pars, thereby bringing down the floating clouds and the indivisible Hakdo through its myriad drops and droplets.
Jasdhol means praising (literally dhol means drum and jas glory); Rajasthan, however, never blew its bugle about the unique tradition it evolved for collecting the rain water. Today nearly all the small and big towns of the country, the various villages, the state-capitals, in fact even the country’s capital, are extremely indigent in matters of collecting water, inspite of abundant rains. And before the country becomes hard of hearing, we must sing the praise of the marvellous tradition of water storage, which bloomed in the ‘desert state’ of Rajasthan. So, on that note, let me say – Welcome to my land!
The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan, the English version of Rajasthan ki Rajat Boonden, published by the Gandhi Peace Foundation, was translated from Hindi to English by Maya Jani, director of Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.