India Interior

A desert that bloomed rock by rock

N.Shiva Kumar | Updated on April 05, 2019

Rock-solid appeal: Entrance to the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, abutting the Mehrangarh Fort wall in Jodhpur old world town

Thhor, a cactus-like shrub adopted as the emblem of Rao Jodha Park

Vinod Puri, the man with a green thumb

Senior naturalist Denzil Britto

How the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park in Jodhpur was nursed back to its original vegetation

Snugly located alongside the mighty walls of the magnificent Mehrangarh fort of Jodhpur is the fascinating Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park (RJDRP).

However, what one sees today is a vastly different picture from what it was many years ago. Choking the landscape then was mad-weed or Prosopis Juliflora, locally called baavlia, a hardy shrub, introduced almost a century ago into the terrain.

But how did baavlia take root in the Park, in the first place? Denzil Britto, senior naturalist at the RJDRP, narrates an interesting story.

The then Maharaja of Jodhpur was a kind-hearted king who diligently served his people. To fulfil their daily need for fuel wood, he imported sackloads of weed-seed. A pilot himself, he aerial-seeded the entire region in his kingdom.

Soon, scanty rains nourished the Vilayati Keekar (Prosopis Juliflora), a species originally from Mexico, and it started growing everywhere. The plants did green the region for years but greedily sought water, and pushed local species into extinction in pockets.

It was then that a meticulous environmental amalgamation was carried out to remove invasive plants and restore the original desert vegetation of this region, says Britto.

Khandwaliya expertise

The Prosopis, which grows with a vengeance from the rocky surface by taking deep roots, was removed with the help of local Khandwaliya people, experts in rock lore. They may not have attended any geology classes nor even been to normal school but are masters at reading the temperament of rocks and boulders. One smack with a hammer and the stones silently reveal their inner secrets.

The Khandwaliya combed the 172 acres of the Park to remove hidden roots without damaging the terrain.

Also, conservation teams, under the aegis of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, worked hard for years alongside the Khandwaliya to uproot stubborn invasive species and re-establish the park’s near-original ecology.

“I began the eco-restoration project for purely practical reasons. The site was intensely rocky with hardly any soil, it was large and it was arid. It would not have made sense to bring in (literally) several million tonnes of soil to create a planting substrate and then water, akin to a municipal-type garden (with lawns and ornamental trees) every day, for all time.

“Restoring the natural ecology of a rocky parcel of land seemed the only sensible way forward but there were no precedents, nothing to lean on. So we had to proceed slowly, making mistakes, learning from them, before taking the next step,” says Pradip Krishen, a self-taught ecologist, who gave up film-making in order to understand and explore the botanical bounty of India.

His books, Trees of Delhi and Jungle Trees of Central India, are a must buy for connoisseurs. He also practises as an ‘ecological gardener’ by re-wilding the unique landscape of Rao Jodha Park, perhaps the first of its kind in the country.

Protecting ‘welded tuff’

Denzil, formally educated as a geologist, now an expert naturalist, who has been with RJDRP for seven years, explains that the park is not just about native floral diversity but also preserving volcanic rock formations. “Welded tuff” is a product of emanations from volcanic vents carried away by air.

Composed of glass, quartz and feldspar, welded tuff, on cooling, developed into columns and terraces. All this happened about 750 million years ago. Welded tuff is an unusual formation and is listed as a geo-heritage of India with international importance. It occurs in and around the Mehrangargh fort of Jodhpur and is well-preserved within the boundaries of RJDRP.

Today, the park has about 300 species of native plants, 200 species of birds and 50 species of butterflies flourishing in the lap of nature. Created in about five years from 2006 and opened to the public in 2012, the park is a delight for nature lovers. Four different trails take visitors along designated paths to explore the scrub jungle. For greater understanding, one can utilise the services of trained naturalists at the Centre.

A self-sustaining venture with minimum intervention, the RJDRP attracts visitors from India and abroad.

To make it a viable venture, there is a seed bank and sapling store maintained by Vinod Puri, a man with a green thumb, whose father is also an ace gardener in the region. The nursery has over 200 species of trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs and grasses and Vinod claims that he has nurtured over 20,000 plants since 2006. Native rock-loving plants are tenderly propagated from seeds and cuttings in the nursery and thereafter planted in the park.

The spirit of thhor

The special attraction at Rao Jodha Park is thhor (Euphorbia Caducifolia), often mistaken for a cactus plant. “Thhor, the most prominent plant of the Thar Desert, grows well on rocks and provides protective habitat that allows other flora to engage around it. That’s why thhor is the emblematic plant for the park. In about 14 years, we have tamed the volcanic terrain to flourish,” says Denzil, with pride.

The visitor’s centre of RJDRP is housed in a restored 17th-century gateway and features an interpretation gallery depicting desert plants, rock samples, even fossils, and booklets about the park.

The Rao Jodha park is about conservation of natural history through relentless efforts. It’s an outdoor museum for desert loving plants. sums up Denzil.

The writer is a wildlife enthusiast and photographer based in Noida

Published on April 05, 2019

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