The pale shades of dawn spread gently upwards from the eastern horizon. The rest of the sky is still a dark indigo sprinkled with stars. Slowly, dim shapes emerge from the gently undulating land, like actors on a darkened stage waiting for the lights to come on. Birds twitter in appreciation of the dawn, deer emerge furtively from the scrub. Another day has begun in the desert, that vast expanse of stunning contrast and enduring beauty, where survival is both a matter of daily effort and exultation.

The Arna Jharna museum is located in the Thar bioregion, an arid climatic zone characterised by sandy soil, a rocky sub-strata and scarce water resources. The soil varies in depth, nutrient value and its capacity to retain water. With limited rainfall, the groundwater tends to become saline and suffers excessive mineralisation.

Despite the difficult terrain, at various times of the year, particularly the short rainy season, the brown and green landscape is enlivened by bursts of bright white, pink, orange, red and yellow as the various plant species flower and fruit in the Northwestern thorn scrub forest.

Low rainfall, intense sunlight and dry winds have led to numerous xerophytic plant adaptations. Xerophytic plants such as the kumatiyo, ber, and googal have fewer branches, smaller leaves, fine hair on the surface of leaves, wax coating and thorns/spines. Succulents like cactus are able to store water in their tissues.

The fauna of arid regions are similarly adapted to the extreme conditions. Of the 68 species, 29 species are listed in the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, requiring varying degrees of protection.

The desert cats feed on deer, rodents, rabbits and lizards. The perennial grasses and thorny shrubs provide fodder for chinkara as well as the livestock herds of local communities.

There are over 141 species of migratory and resident birds in the Thar region. The grassland patches of the Thar are now the last remaining stronghold of the critically endangered great Indian bustard. The vulnerable McQueen’s bustard and the mysterious lesser florican keep it company.

The Thar is also home to many varieties of raptors. Several species of larks, finches, wheatears and tits can be found in the region. Cream-coloured courser and chestnut-bellied sandgrouses often blend inconspicuously into the sandy-coloured landscape.

Come dusk, the harsh calls of the mor or Indian peafowl contrast with the softer tones of the tidodi (lapwing) and the kamedi (collared dove). Also to be heard are the insistent calls of the titars and the excited chirping of sparrows.

The Bishnoi tribe deserve special mention as they practice a form of ‘ecoreligion’ that holds all life forms, including trees, to be sacred and go to great lengths to conserve the ecology of their area. The story of the courageous Amrita Devi Bishnoi, who sacrificed her life and led by example to protect the khejri tree, is legendary and seen as a precursor of the later Chipko movement.

Traditionally, the tribal communities of Rajasthan are pastoralists. The varied grasses, shrubs and low branches of trees provide fodder for sheep, camels and cattle. Generations of lore and logic have distilled a bank of knowledge on the medicinal properties of arid plant species, which is now being used for commercial Ayurvedic preparations too. In times of crop scarcity, fruit, roots and seeds of wild plants supplement the diet.

Text by Malini Saigal