Kuldhara is where the haunted stories of Rajasthan Live. Located about 18 km southwest of Jaisalmer, Kuldhara is an abandoned desert village with many stories of its abandonment.
Legends of Kuldhara
There are a couple of versions of the story of Kuldhara and how it was abandoned. It is said that Paliwal community inhabited the 84 villages in this area.
The first version says that the Diwan or the minister of the ruler of Jaisalmer called Salim Singh, also called Zalim Singh, levied heavy taxes on them. He was also eyeing the girls of the community. In fact, the story goes that it was the daughter of the chief of the village.
When Salim Singh’s men came to take the girl, the villagers told them to come in the morning. Overnight, the villagers moved elsewhere – leaving everyone wondering where they went. Some version says that the girl committed suicide and to avoid a repeat of this, villagers decided to leave.
However, before leaving they left a curse on their abandoned houses that no one would be ever able to inhabit them. The villages and the house will stay abandoned as they leave them. Villages do lie more or less in the same state even today as if the curse lives on.
Rajasthan Tourism has restored the house of the village head, whose daughter was the target of the king. A room in the house is said to be the place where the chieftain left the dead body of the girl along with the curse.
Another Haunted site of Rajasthan is Bhangarh Fort.
Who were Paliwal Brahmins of Kuldhara?
A small group of Brahmins came from Pali region of Rajasthan and settled here on banks of Kakni river, sometime in 13th CE. They even excavated a pond called Udhansar. Since they came from Pali, they came to be known as Paliwal. You can still hear this surname in Rajasthan. They left Kuldhara some time in early 19th CE. This means for about 600 years, this was home to them.
Archeological evidence suggests that the villages may have been abandoned due to an earthquake. Drying up of the river, the primary source of water could be another reason to leave the villages. Another theory says the water levels went down, bringing down the agricultural produce but the taxes stayed the same. So, staying at Kuldhara was not possible for the Paliwal community.
Census records of various rulers show a sharp decline in population in 19th CE. 16th CE records in Lakshmi Chand’s Tawarikh-e-Jaisalmer put the population estimates at 1600, that was reduced to 30 odd people in 19th CE during British days.
The legend of Paliwal and their abandoned and cursed villages continue to live in their ruins. Rajasthan tourism has done its bit by converting them into tourists attractions without really disturbing them. They have managed to maintain the haunting essence of these villages wrapped in mystery.
Luckily, I got to visit the villages twice, once during the day and once as part of the haunted trail past midnight. These villages are spread across the outskirts of Jaisalmer city.
Late Night Chudail Trail at Kuldhara
This trail was organized by our hosts – Suryagarh.
Late night, Himmat Singh, our driver took us on the haunted trail curiously named ‘Chudail Trail’. Himmat Singh was the one who was most scared among all of us, though his name ironically means Courage.
It was well past midnight, we sat at the stairs of the Shiva temples next to a haunted well. Being a bunch of travelers, we got chatting about our travels. Himmat Singh kept giving us frantic signals by flashing the car lights urging us to get up and leave immediately.
We could have reasoned with him that we did not feel anything but then is it not all about the belief. If he believes that the spirits inhabited these places and they must be left alone at night, his discomfort at our casual attitude was justified.
The Chudail trail led us through
- A well where it is believed many people were killed and thrown
- A temple that was closed at night
- Many cremation grounds with memorial stones and cenotaphs called Deolis
- Abandoned and the cursed village of Kuldhara
The villages are completely in ruins now.
We entered the village chief’s house that has two floors. Some of my co-travelers felt that the haunted room in the village chief’s house felt spooky. This is the room where some people have recorded paranormal activity. Honestly, I did not feel anything. The only fear that played in my mind was the fear of tripping over the uneven surfaces in complete darkness.
However, this night adventure will stay with me for a long time.
Next day, we again visited the abandoned villages of Kuldhara.
At daytime, ruins in local yellow stones almost merge with the yellow sand of this region. From some angles, you feel you are surrounded by gold. No wonder the Jaisalmer Fort is Called Sonar Qila. Memorial stone and canopies sprout out here in the wide vistas of the desert.
We drove up a hill to admire these vast vistas of the Great Indian Desert. There is a small temple on top of this hill. If you go around the temple with your back to the temple, you see the 360-degree view of the vast expanse of the Thar desert.
Some depressions indicate the places where water would collect as and when it rains. It is probably an oasis in its dry state. Standing on this hill was like letting your eyes see as far as possible. It is something that you only get to see in the desert or on a long beach.
Remember, Jaisalmer is very close to the Indo-Pak border. At one point we were just about 20 km from the International border. Like every Indian, I wondered, what lies on the other side of the border?
Cenotaphs or Deolis
On our way to the lovely Lodurva temple, we stopped at clusters of cremation places. There are 3 in all in these ruins of Kuldhara.
Most of these cremation places have free-standing stone memorials. The milestone like stones have images of a man or a couple or sometimes a man with two women carved on them. It probably indicates the number of people who died together – a man, a man along with his wife or wives. Does it indicate the practice of Sati? Probably Yes.
There were cenotaphs on top of some of the memorials. These probably belong to important people. You can see the Rajasthani dressing style with women in Lehengas & Odhnis. Men’s garments seem to have been influenced by the Mughals.
All of these memorial stones have a citation in Devnagari and a date that as per my limited knowledge should put them in late 17th early 18th CE. Literature tells me that some of these date back to 13th CE. It also mentions them as Brahmins of Kuldhar or Kalshar caste. They may have been a sub-community of Paliwal Brahmins.
Read More – Royal Cenotaphs @ Bada Bagh, Jaisalmer
I learned that a freestanding tall stone with a figure of God carved on it indicates a water body close by. How I wish we could document these old techniques of mapping the places and creating markers to help people locate common necessities.
Khaba fort stands on another hillock. It can be seen from all sides as you drive towards it through a winding road. From the top of the ruins of Khana fort you see another village just like Kuldhara – abandoned but highly organized and urban.
Everyone kept telling us about villages and their abandonment. However, these ruins indicate an old urban settlement. Houses are along straight lines with wide roads running in between them. Construction of all the houses is very similar and they are bound together in close clusters.
Stone walls still stand as if they are outgrown from the foundation, but almost none of them had a roof on top of them. At one end, you also get an impression of a city wall.
It does not look like a village from a few centuries’ back but the urban settlement of ancient times. I would have been inclined to believe them as part of Indus Valley civilization. The facts that defy this is the fort and stone has been used in construction instead of bricks. I could not see the sanitation system, but since I spent very little time, it is possible I missed it altogether.
I hope I get to visit this place again with some historian who can explain more than what the tourism industry can.
Abandoned sites have energy from the times they were living, you have to be sensitive enough to feel it.
Travel Tips for Kuldhara
Remember it is very easy to get lost in the desert. At places, there is a no marker to help you find your direction & network connectivity can be choppy. So, always go with a local, who can bring you back to your base.
Do the night trail only with a local expert.
Carry a lot of water with you.
Cover yourself well to avoid heat.