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Water and Cattle Raids in Historic Jaisalmer — Part I

Bhati  inscriptions  clearly indicate that water was a scarce commodity with  differential  access in the Thar desert  of  historic Jaisalmer.  Cattle raids indicate contestation over limited livestock and vulnerability of the north-west  frontiers. — Prof. Nandini Sinha Kapur


This essay highlights the essential components of the environment in shaping historic Jaisalmer and its neighbourhood in medieval times. The socio-economic profile of the Thar Desert in the historic times offers case studies in contrast to the environmental history of southern Rajasthan In terms of water reservoirs and cattle raids. Water, cattle, and desert vegetation were the lifelines of the agro-pastoral economy of north-western Rajasthan. Aridity and trade routes through Jaisalmer also created favourable conditions for a flourishing trading community Water, cattle raids and trade distinguished different groups in this desert society. The sources for this essay are drawn from inscriptional records from Jaisalmer area dated between BhattikaSamvat 577 and 850 (henceforth, BS). Bhattika era commenced on 16 November 624. Hence, these inscriptional records are dated between the early thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. These the records throw light on construction of water tanks and occurrence of cattle raids. It is important that the inscriptional records under study belong not only to the members of the ruling elite but also to some local communities like Jogalias and to Jain monasteries If the Bhati state of Jaisalmer survived frequent incursions in an essentially desert economy based on the conservation of water. cattle wealth and trade, the Rathaur states of Jodhpur and Bikaner founded in the fifteenth century benefited from the spread of the Bishnoi culture of conservation of natural resources in an extremely fragile ecology of the Thar.

The current historiography of early medieval und medieval Jaisalmer ranges from dynastic histories,’ detailed survey of history, political, social, economic, cultural and religious profile of Jaisalmer and geographical and ethnographical notes on historically important settlements like Pugal in view of the above historiography, this essay fills an important gap by high lighting the environmental components and their political importance in the process of Bhati state formation and in the historical interpretations of recurrent incursions into western Rajasthan. 

Frequent cattle raids and external incursions do not as the conventional view holds, necessarily mean Central Asian onslaught on the Brahmanical religion. Cattle raids were an essential part of the desert economy and Jaisalmer, being on the main trade routes, alfred passage to a Central Asians im. migrating into north-western and northern India. This essay briefly describes the landscape and climate of Jaisalmer region followed by a discussion on the historic, socio-economic and political significance of water tanks and cattle raids in the early phase of Bhati state formation in Jaisalmer.

A popular tradition in describing the landscape and natural environmental of Rajasthan is to make a comparison between Jaisalmer and Godwar (south-central Rajasthan/southern Marwar). Sixteenth-century Caran poet Surdas Rhodium alias RangreloVithu (c. 15201608 in his composition, Jaisalmer Jas, speaks of Jaisalmer as follows:

The queen consent is like a beast of burden She has no company while fetching water from the pond. Peacocks are conspicuous by their absence throughout the country Jaisalmer). But there are creatures like rakh ‘Meh’ and ‘poli in abundance. 

In contrast, RangreloVithu describes the plenty of Godwar the land is full of rich and dense mango groves, rivers abound in sweet water, cuckoos greet one with their melodious notes, know   you traveller, you have set foot on the land of Godwar.

Carol Henderson in her essay, Famines and Droughts in Western Rajasthan: Desert Cultivators and Periodic Resources Stress’ observes that 

The socio cultural study of arid western Rajasthan is important because the high frequency and severity of drought presents an opportunity to examine interaction between external constraints and behaviour Monsoon failures occur during 40 per cent of years, and normal rainfall during the monsoon occurs only during 26 per cent of the weeks when it is expected Since drought leading to agricultural failures have occurred throughout the historical period of settlement, it is evident that the adaptive strategies of residents are adjustable to circumstances

The problem of drought in Localities bordering the Thar Desert is acute. Historically drought has been the main cause of famine in this area. If this has been the case with Jodhpur district. scarcity of water has been a permanent feature in Jaisalmer district. The only semi-permanent water course is the Luni River. which passes through the southern part of westem Rajasthan. 

Ground water is mostly saline, brackish and unfit for drinking or irrigation. Westem Rajasthan is characterized by dunes and stretches of sandy plains interspersed with small rocky bills Sail is not fertile. Sandstorms destroy newly-germinated crops and re-sowing is often necessary because of heavy dust and sand deposits that cover the plants. The plains are covered with widely spaced khejri-branches, stumps and thoms during the dry season and can survive with minimum water in severe drought conditions (we shall mention famous folklores about the conservation of khejri trees by the Bishnois in the next chapter). 

A fall of rain brings new shoots, buds, rapid growth of branches and foliage. Local people have adapted to this water regime and carry out cultivation generating crop-research sch as fodder for the livestock. Cattle tends to collect near water sources and destroys surrounding plant growth. 

It is historically significant that Paliwal Brahmins have been a major source of revenue for the Jaisalmer state They have been known for their skill in growing a winter crop of wheat without irrigation after preparing the field following seepage of rain water.” The agricultural activities in medieval Jaisalmer contributed to the royal exchequer for records mention division of land between khalisa (crown land), jagir (estates granted to Rajput chiefs) and bhumi held by Bhomias/allodial proprietors who looked after villages, law and order, justice and punishment and sending revenue to the government). Wheat, chana, bajra, ril, moong and moth have been principal crops. Bajra is the most important crop occupying nearly 80 per cent of the crop area in the Kharif season Col James Tod mentions about the cultivation of cotton but Laxmi Chand informs about its discontinuation due to its unprofitability during drought. 

The deens or small tanks provide water to hard soil, and wheat is usually grown in such areas. It is important to note that most of these Aliens were constructed by Paliwal Brahmins. Paliwal Brahmins have been significant part of the agricultural population in Jaisalmer region. There are no wells for irrigation as the water is brackish and available at depths of 250 to 450 ft.” Charans and bhars (Brahmanas) were granted tax-free land while jagirdars, soldiers, Rajputs and Sindhi Muslims were exempted from land-tax during drought.”

Sheep, goats and camels, who can live in the arid desert atmosphere form the major part of the livestock of the area Fodder is grown plentifully during rains. Cattle breeding is the mainstay of the economy in arid Jaisalmer while agriculture is practiced seasonally. We have noted that certain social groups like the Paliwal Brahmanas specialized in agricultural operations. However, a large proportion of the local population depended mainly on their herds subsistence. 

The cow served as a source of milk and ghee is exported The Three bullocks and the Rathi breed of camel were and are well known Camel was an important transport while sheep rearing was an important Occupation for a large part of the population Anthony Gordon O’Brien makes a significant observation that water must have been crucial to the early Bhattikas. Autumnal harvest followed the rains and flooding of Wahind and Kak rivers, particularly near DerawarLodurva. Chatrail and nearby Aharins (seasonally inundated areas) By the early eighth century. The Bhatti Has migrated to the doab of middle Sindh from the north-west of Sindh at this point of time Sutlej abandoned Ghaggar for Beas in this period te is significant that one of the earliest record of the royal Bhati family, the Asnikot inscription of Paramabhattáraka Maharajadhiraja Paramevar Vijayarajadeva commemorates (probably the building of the Vijadasar Tank in Rs 541 (AD 1164-5) Construction of water tanks was not only economically important in the Thar Desert but also politically significant. It is evident from the annals of Jaisalmer that the mandate of royal power was based on the provision of water for the local people. It is evident from the Bhatti- Varnsa Prasasti that Vijayaraja had to contain the locally entrenched Rajput chiefs such as the Varahas, Channas and Langhas, who laid claim to a part of their territory and founded the town of Bijnor (now in Pakistan),” However, the title of Paramabhattaraka Maharajadhiraja Parameshvara for Vijayaraja indicates that he was trying to integrate the non-Bhati Rajput chiefs into his dominion The processes of military conquests and political integration ran simultaneously to the process of legitimation While Bhatt Via-Pra fast mentions the blessings of deity Sainath,” contemporary records like Ashokan inscription indicate that construction of water tanks played no less a significant role in popularizing the political establishment of the Bhatis in and amund Jaisalmer.                

Author is a Ph D Programme Coordinator, SOITS, Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi

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