Roopmati’s pavilion

When we first visited Mandu almost a decade ago, The Family and I had just read a book where the sultan Baz Bahadur of Mandu and his queen Roopmati make a fleeting appearance. Enchanted by the fable of a singer-shepherdess marrying a musician-prince, we decided to start our trip from the very end of the citadel, where a former guard post had been converted to the private quarters of the queen. Baz Bahadur was the last independent ruler of Mandu, and ruled in the middle of the 16th century CE.

Walking up to the pavilion, it was not hard to believe that this could have once held a garrison of soldiers. Looking out at the view, it was not hard to switch frames of mind and believe that it could have been a queen’s palace. Perhaps the most definitive evidence that a singer queen could have lived here are the two domed structures, one of which you see in the featured photo. I am no singer, but acoustics under this dome could almost make me sound like one.

Little seems to be known about the queen beyond the obviously embroidered love story. Comparing versions of her story from the early 20th and 21st centuries shows how the legend of Padmini has now been mixed up with the story of Roopmati. Even a cursory reading of a paper on her shows the degree of confusion amongst professional historians. Her story seems to have been first written down more than thirty years after her time, and copied from one manuscript to another until the middle of the 18th century CE. The painting of the couple which you can see in Delhi’s national museum was executed a century or so after their death. Some songs are ascribed to the queen, but they were first collected decades after her death, and may have been added to in the later manuscript which comes down to us.

We looked out on the enchanting green landscape, a photo of which you see above. The green land around the citadel is watered by low hanging monsoon clouds. It struck me that the weather in the time of Roopmati was very different. The monsoon was well below today’s levels in the 14th and 15th centuries, leading to widespread droughts. Even as late as the 16th century, monsoon rains continued to fail in central India. Roopmati, if indeed she stood in these pavilions, would have looked out on an arid land, with the glint of a distant stream providing the only water in view.

The concern with water management and harvesting is very clear in Mandu. The multiple tanks and step wells are just one sign of this concern. We descended to the basement of Roopmati’s pavilion to look at water cistern there. My personal trawl through those photos threw up forgotten images of The Family and me walking through the wonderful chiaroscuro of the basement. The photo which you see above is the only one which does not contain us.

The cistern is a terrific water harvesting system. Rain falling on the pavilion and around it drips into the cistern, presumably to be used by the garrison or the household of the queen. A paper on the water systems of Mandu says that the water was filtered through coal and sand; that’s the same principle as the charcoal and zeolite filter which gurgles away in a corner of our kitchen, five centuries on! In the brief two centuries since the little ice age the improved monsoon and irrigation systems have led to an amnesia about water harvesting. That period of plenty could come to an end soon, and the now-obscure methods could have a resurgence.


The making of the Thar desert

As we drove through the Thar desert, I wondered about the mysterious landscape around me. India receives so much rainfall from the monsoon that it is hard to believe that it contains a desert. The popular belief that the monsoon winds are “depleted” of moisture by the time they reach the desert is false. The distance to the sea is rather small, and the air is generally moist. In just three winter months, when the rest of India is dry, the amount of water deposited by dew in the desert is between 30% and 40% of the total rainfall. Something prevents the western branch of the monsoon from penetrating into Gujarat and Rajasthan.

It is believed that this is the immense high-pressure anti-cyclone that exists over the Sahara and West-Asian desert. In fact, the claim is that the monsoon winds prevent the spread of this pattern to the rest of India. Evidence for competition between the two systems is what happens when a third factor occasionally intrudes. In the infrequent episodes when a Western disturbance hits India during the monsoon, causing immediate heavy rainfall and flooding over a wide area of the desert. This means that the monsoon winds are not depleted of moisture in this region, but are obstructed from flowing by the anti-cyclone. If this conjecture is true, then a weakening of the monsoon due to climate change could allow the anti-cyclone to extend across India, making it an arid habitat.

Our jeep had long wandered off the road. The flat landscape that I’d grown used to gradually gave way to undulations. There was still a strong wind blowing dust and sand into my face, so I had my mask on. But when I looked around, the ground had changed. Until a minute ago we were driving through hard packed sand (see the featured photo). Now, all around us I could see something different poking through the sand. The photo above shows the surface. The broken flat stones are made of a material called calcrete. This is formed by the action of water and atmospheric carbon dioxide on wet dust and sand (the word calcrete seems to be a portmanteau of calcium and concrete). The presence of calcrete means that wet lands turned to desert at some time in the past. Dating of calcrete in the Thar desert shows repeated cycles of wetness and desert starting from 1.5 million (15 lakh) years ago to 250,000 years ago.

I walked across this landscape in search of a wheatear, but my attention was on the landscape. A short walk through sand brought me to something that looked like a dry riverbed into which sand had trickled: calcrete was overlain with sand, as you can see in the photo above. Aerial and satellite photography shows evidence for a well-organized drainage system of interlinked rivers in the far past, disrupted by climate change. Successive surveys and dating showed brief re-emergence of local drainage systems over a period of a million years, which were disrupted within a few tens of thousands of years.

The wheatear perched briefly on a bush and I managed to take a photo. After it had flown off, I looked at the land behind the bush (photo above) and it became obvious that it had been shaped by flowing water. The surface was covered in calcrete, which it why it had not been reshaped by the wind. Studies of pollen around Didwana lake in the eastern part of the desert have established that about 6500 years ago the area was wet enough to support a large variety of grasses and flowering herbs and shrubs, of the kind which are usually pollinated by butterflies. This dried up around 4000 years ago. When these studies were first published, there was speculation in the press about the connection with the mythical river called Saraswati. More studies revealed a fluctuating boundary of the desert over human history and pre-history. Palaeolithic tools and sites have been found buried intact in the sand, showing that the desert shifts fairly abruptly. The gradual abandonment of Harappan cities could also have been partly due to such climate fluctuations.

The bird gone, I climbed a little bluff to join The Family, and saw immediately clear evidence that I had walked across the bottom of an ancient river. The photo above makes it very clear. How old was this? I’m sure it has been mapped out. The geological and climatic history of the Thar desert has been examined in great detail in the last 60 years by a large number of scientists working in India. There is a group in IIT Mumbai who examined the age of sand dunes, and found some as old as 160,000 years, and others as young as 11,000 years. In several of the photos above, you can see distant dunes. It gives me shivers to realize that they were being laid down at the same time as glaciers advanced across the north of Europe, Asia and the Americas. As water got locked up in ice, this part of the world turned dry.

Geology and climate sculpt the land over periods longer than our lives, even longer than our civilizations. As a result, it has been hard to see the forces which shape our societies. Walking across that river bed I thought that I had a tiny view of these forces. In the past our actions have been too weak to shape the planet. No longer. We need to understand the Thar desert to plan a way ahead as the climate changes.