Ek samay ki baat hai… Sometime in the 13th century, a man named Kadhan settled at a place not too far from the city of Jaisalmer. He dug a pond nearby. Soon, other people from the community – the Paliwal Brahmins – inhabited the place. Perhaps because they were of a sub-caste called Kuldhar, the village came to be known as Kuldhara. Skilled and knowledgeable, the village folk were expert agriculturists – they could even grow crops despite the harsh, dry weather of the Thar Desert! They were great traders too. Not too surprisingly, their skills helped the community prosper and expand. The Paliwal Brahmins built 83 other villages around Kuldhara. And then suddenly, some 200-250 years ago, the community abandoned the village overnight never to return to it! Why did the entire community leave the village after living there comfortably for centuries? How did it come to be known as the “bhootiya gaaon” or the “ghost village”?

The abandoned village of Kuldhara. Photo – Archan Dave, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I heard about Kuldhara for the first time while chatting with Trishi – the coowner of the hotel where I stayed in Jaisalmer. Sitting in the terrace of the hotel, watching the sun setting behind the Vyaas Chhatri (sandstone cenotaphs) , sipping cups of chai, we chatted about topics ranging from career choices to marriage to travel to my plans during my stay in Jaisalmer. “Don’t miss Bada Bagh and Kuldhara on your way to the Sam sand dunes. We can arrange for your transfer from the hotel to the campsite and the driver can take you to these places at a small additional cost,” Trishi suggested. (She suggested adding Khaba Fort too to the list of places, but I decided to skip it since it was another abandoned village quite like Kuldhara).

Vyas Chhatri in Jaisalmer

The next afternoon, Javed bhai was at the hotel at the pre-decided time with his cab to take me to Bada Bagh and then to Kuldhara before dropping me at Sam sand dunes campsite. He was a rather chatty and jovial man. After initial 10 quiet minutes, he started pointing at different locations and telling stories about actors who have shot for different movies at those locations. Akshay Kumar has shot near these windmills, Aamir Khan was there to shoot for his upcoming movie, all Bollywood actors and actresses stay in this five-star hotel whenever they visit Jaisalmer etc. The afternoon was unbearably hot and Javed bhai tried his best to dissuade me from stepping out of the car, instead suggesting me that I see the places from afar, from the car window. But then, I’d spent 2 days walking around in Jaisalmer in sweltering heat and the weather that as hot and dry as those 2 earlier days.

Bada Bagh, on the way from Jaisalmer to Kuldhara, has memorial cenotaphs carved out of sandstones between 18-20th centuries. The big chhatris are built for the ruling kings and the relatively smaller ones for their queens and other royal family members.

When the list of Bollywood actors who had visited the Golden City of Jaisalmer had no more names remaining to be mentioned, Javed bhai started narrating the story of Kuldhara, which goes somewhat like this. In the olden days, the women from the village would have to walk miles to reach a water reservoir to fill pots of water. One day, the minister of the state – Salim Singh, who was known for debauchery and unscrupulous methods of tax collection – saw a beautiful Paliwal Brahmin girl when she was returning to the village with pots filled with water. He went crazy about her and wanted her – with or without the girl’s and her folks’ consent!

“Ab woh ladki brahmin thi aur jo deewan tha woh alag jaat ka tha. Uss samay pe kya tha ney, samaaj decide karta tha ladki ki shaadi kahan hogi. Ab kya hai… Miyan beewi raazi, toh kya karega qaazi wala zamana hai ney. Zamana badal gaya, madam!” said Javed bhai. (which roughly translates to – the girl was brahmin and the minister belonged to a different caste. In those days, it was the community that decided where the girl will be married off. Now, times have changed. If the man and the woman agree, there’s nothing anyone else can do to stop them from marrying).

When the father of the girl declined the minister’s offer to marry the girl, the minister threatened the people of the village of dire consequences. What would the people of the community do? Instead of giving in to the minister’s demands, the entire community got together and abandoned the village overnight! Before leaving, they cursed that no one will ever be able to settle in the village. That is how the village remains abandoned till date. Not only Kuldhara, Paliwals from the 83 other villages abandoned their villages. (Of these 82 have been reinhabited, but Khaba and Kuldhara remain abandoned).

“Par Javed bhai, koi khoon kharaba toh nahin hua tha ya kisi ki death nahin hui thi na? Toh bhoot kiska hai is gaaon mein?” I asked (But Javed bhai, if no one was killed, whose ghost is there in the village?

Javed bhai answered the question rather vaguely saying that it’s the spirits of the brahmins that roam around in the nights in the village.

Are there any incidents that make people believe it to be “bhootiya” or “haunted”? In response to this question, Javed bhai said (rather unconvincingly) that people have heard some voices in the night. You are not allowed to visit the place in the night though, he added. So then, how did people visit it in the night? Who were these people?

“Kisiko gaaon ki khabar padd gai. Phir kya tha, aane lage tourists idhar kahan kahan se. Idhar udhar se khandaharon ki, pattharon ki kya tasveerein lete hain kya pata, madam! Aise hi hai bass!” said Javed bhai, shrugging his shoulders as he drove on the rocky path that led us to the village. (Someone got to know of the village and then tourists started pouring in to the village from all over. They keep clicking pictures of ruins. That’s how it is.)

As we approached closer to the entrance of the village, Javed bhai pointed to the man sitting right outside the main gates. He sat on a thin cotton chaddar, seemingly talking to himself and occasionally smiling at passers by.

The old man who’s been spending days sitting at the entrance of the village since ages – Does he believe in the “ghost” story? Apparently not.

“Yeh buddha kai saalon se poora poora din yahin baitha rehta hai,” Javed bhai said. (This old man has been spends entire day sitting here since years!) He had two girlfriends, Javed bhai added. One was from Australia. “Dono hatte katte, jawaan, khoobsurat thay ney!” (both we young, healthy and beautiful) and they fell in love. When the woman asked him to move with her to Australia, the man apparently told her, “yeh mera watan hai!” (This is my homeland!) He asked her to settle in India and she refused and went back to Australia. The man got married to an Indian woman and has a son, who works at the ticket counter at the entrace, informed Javed bhai, just as the son approached our car to collect entrance fee from us. Was the story about the old man true? I didn’t get the chance to find out. 🙂

Sure enough, as Javed bhai had said, most part of the vast expanse of land is occupied by ruins – except the temple at the center of the village, which is in a better state. The place had more tourists than I’d anticipated. If you walked a little ahead though, you’d find yourself alone amidst the rocks and ruins. The only noise was that of the occasional hot, dry wind and my own footsteps. The place felt more peaceful than spooky or scary or haunted or cursed even!

Kuldhara ruins

Amid the ruins, there were some half-completed structures that looked like they’d been built recently. When asked about those, Javed bhai said that the local government had tried to start some eating joints for the people visiting the place, but any attempts by the government were foiled by the members from Paliwal community who kept insisting that the place be left in its current state. So it isn’t really the curse of the community members who left the place years ago that has resulted in the place being uninhabited then…? Many such questions have no convincing answers.

Fact or fiction? Truth or myth? Who knows! I can’t even say for sure that the version of the story that I got to listen from Javed bhai didn’t have any extra spice added by him. The devali (memorial stone) inscriptions at the place apparently suggest not much besides the fact that the village was once occupied by the members of the Paliwal Brahmins and was established by the 13th century. While the folklore suggests that the village was abandoned overnight, the historical records suggest that the population declined gradually due to drought and earthquakes. But it’s probably this very mystery along with the intriguing story that make the place compelling for travelers. After all, what’s travel… and life… without a bit of spice? 🙂

The note at the entrance states more acceptable reasons for abandonment of the village by its inhabitants