When a fellow traveller at the hotel in the desert town of Jaisalmer told us there was a haunted village nearby, well, how could we resist? I’ve always wanted to see a ghost on my travels, perhaps late at night somewhere, in a remote mountain cabin, down the wooden panelled hallways of an old mansion, or in a graveyard. Here in the Rajasthan desert? That would do too.
I suppose I’d like to see one because I’ve always imagined ghosts to be like people, perhaps shy at first, but then once you’ve got to know them, conversational, polite and kind, not prone to jumping at you at speed or trying to scare you with outstretched fingers and shrill cries. In my mind, ghosts are in the mould of Hamlet’s father, or Casper, not the librarian in Ghostbusters or in those in Paranormal Activity 2, 3 or 4.
And like people, I don’t care about the colour of the ghost or its format – apparition, phantom, genie, doppelganger all suit me fine. It wouldn’t even have to be slimy ecto-plasm; a white wisp or even an object moved by a poltergeist would do.
I blame Scooby Doo for a paradox and this is that although I would love to see a ghost, I don’t actually believe in them, if that makes sense? Every Scooby Doo cartoon I ever saw ended with the phantom unmasked, or the ghoul exposed as a petty burglar. The irrational and the paranormal, ended in the mundane, just small-time crooks and the lasting image of Shaggy and Scooby eating a huge Scooby snack saying in his inimitable way, “Scooby dooby doo.”. Scooby Doo was more like Scooby Don’t.
I digress. We were in the fort town of Jaisalmer and the auto-rickshaw driver who was parked just outside the fort’s stone walls looked perplexed when I told him we wanted to go to ‘Kool-daaa-raaa,’ as I pronounced it.
‘Kool-daaa-raaa?’ he repeated, and gave me a vacant look as if I asking for Clapham Junction.
One of his helpful peers down the taxi rank shouted:
His face lit up and nodded to the back seat.
Two hundred years ago, all one thousand inhabitants of the desert village of Kuldhara (evidently pronounced Kool-draah) in Rajasthan, India, suddenly left in the middle of the night. Just like that, they simply upped sticks and left without a trace, never to come back.
A local legend has it, the village headman left a curse – that death would befall anyone who tried to inhabit it and ever since that day, locals don’t visit as they fear it’s haunted by evil spirits, and only tourists like us, with piqued curiosity and desire to see the paranormal walk its falling buildings.
The road to Kuldhara was made of smooth tarmac that crossed arid scrubland, past ragged road-workers, smashing bricks and boiling drums of steaming tar, past thorny bushes and fall-apart homesteads contained in blue plastic-sheeting and dry stone walls .
Our taxi driver fancied himself as a bit of a tour guide. He stopped the car suddenly and pointed.
‘Look. Camel,’ he said. He pointed to a line of trees and sure enough, under them was a camel licking the perfectly horizontal leaf-line. A few miles later he stopped again and pointed to a wall.
‘Look. Goat,’ he said. Sure enough, in the narrow fissure in a dry stone wall was a black goat suckling its kid .
The 15km journey took longer than normal, and certainly felt longer in a spine-compressing tuk-tuk, up and down the inclines. My prostate took one hell of a beating.
In the breezy air the auto-rickshawallah told us his version of the story. There was once a boy who loved a beautiful girl but there was a stumbling block to their marriage: ‘Boy is non-veg, girl is veg, marriage not possible. So girl’s family leave village.’
Was that all? A marriage never to happen because of the love of chicken bhuna? This sounded a little too convenient an exit strategy; there was more to this story for sure.
He dropped us off at the main entrance and told us that due to the evil spirits he wouldn’t be coming inside; he lit up biri in the shade of the nearby fruit juice stall.
The village was filled with lot of sandy, crumbling brickwork. The place would have been in its hey-day quite prim and proper with 3 well-planned and paved streets and a thick perimeter wall.
There were few signs of life, not even litter, just lizards and occasionally the graffiti of young lovers. The area looked much like a desolate building site, but here time was wearing them away stone by stone over the centuries. It was bizarre to observe its abandonment when we’d passed ramshackle homesteads, when here, there were ample bricks which after a little graft would make sturdy homes.
One of the houses had been re-built with adobe walls, making courtyards and dark rooms, some with small alcoves where butter lamps once flickered. On its rooftop a temple had been recreated and we bumped in to a few more tourists, young Indian teenagers talking selfies in cool sunglasses and playing Bollywood ringtones.
A large puffing bald man wearing a handkerchief cap was resting in the shade of the stars and we got chatting to him. He’d clearly researched Kuldhara and explained that there had been a village of Brahmins here for hundreds of years. A local ruler, a diwan called Salim Singh, would levy exorbitant taxes on the village – one day when he came to collect the money, his gaze fell on a beautiful girl, the village headman’s daughter. He fell in love with her and sent guards to take her. The villagers pleaded with the guards to come back and take her the next day. It was a clever ruse, for in the middle of the night over a thousand people left the village never to return. The headman cursed the village on leaving, saying that anyone who tried to occupy the place would be vexed by evil spirits, and this local lore prevented anyone from occupying the place ever again.
Other theories abound: the lack of water making the village unviable; that the Mughals threw animal carcasses down the well to stop the vegetarian and pious villagers from ever using it; there’s even a theory that an earthquake caused the place to fall down.
Whatever happened, it certainly true that the place is a odd. It’s not eerie until dusk, when the inky shadows cast by the walls in the rooms carry a tinge of mystery and the evening breezes push along the dust and twigs. For if there are ghosts there, they certainly would be a little disgruntled about the manner of their abandonment.
I never minded the reluctant ghosts. The scariest part of the day was the night-ride back in the auto-rickshaw, overtaking on blind bends and peaks, past oncoming cars with their headlights off, some on the wrong side of the road. Yes I think it’s things like that, normal activities like Indian traffic, not the paranormal activities, that scare me the most.
I still hold Scooby-Doo partly accountable for that.