The desert coolers of Rajasthan

In the desert state of Rajasthan, the Khejri, Jaal and Kair, are considered life-giving trees, and there is a wealth of history, culture and cuisine surrounding them. Sadly, they are slowly disappearing from the eco-system.

Sumer Singh Rathore
| Updated: June 9th, 2021

The khejri is the state tree of Rajasthan. Photo: Sumer Singh Rathore

Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

Much before it became fashionable to love trees and discuss the environment, the people of Rajasthan have revered, nourished and been grateful to the three trees that grow there even in the hottest of seasons, in May and June — the Khejri (Prosopis cineraria), jaal (Salvadora persica) and kair (Capparis decidua).

For people of the desert state of Rajasthan, these trees are saviours and a part and parcel of their lives.

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An old khejri tree in the Thar desert. Photo: @AratiKumarRao/twitter

Sacred connections

The khejri is in fact the state tree of Rajasthan and it has a long hoary history. The trees were considered sacred by the Bishnoi community and when in 1730 a royal decree said they needed to be cut down, women from the Bishnoi community in the village Khejadi in Jodhpur hugged the trees and would not allow it.

These women were killed and according to legend more than 350 people of the community sacrificed their lives protecting these trees. This was the forbearer of the Chipko movement of the 1970s which demanded local communities should have control of their natural resources.  

Over 350 Bishnois were killed while protecting a grove of Khejri trees. Photo: @DelhiTreesSOS/twitter

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The local communities refer to the trees with affectionate familiarity, as one would a friend. And indeed, in the scorching summers and blistering heat of the desert sun, the trees still grow and provide shade and sustenance to the people. In fact, the tree grows in extremes of weather, summers or freezing winters.

In the great famine of 1899, referred to locally as the Chappaniya Akal, it was the bark of the Khejri that people stripped off the tree, ground it and ate for sustenance.

Almost every village that falls in the Thar region of Rajasthan has khejri trees.

Khejris are considered sacred too and a vital part of the ecosystem.  Its fruit, called sangri is made into a delicious curry and eaten widely in the state. The sturdy tree is also planted on embankments to strengthen the area and hold the soil in place.

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Not just to humans, the tree provides sustenance to the livestock too. The sangri and the leaves of the khejri are an important part of the diet of camels, sheep and goats.  Sadly, the numbers of the khejri are dwindling day by day.

The jaal tree bears the piloo, which is used to make pickles and chutneys. Photo: By arrangement

Sustenance from the Jaal

The jaal appears more like a thorny scrub, but often grows to be as tall as trees. It bears the piloo, and in the month of May in the early mornings or evenings, children can be seen around the tree collecting the piloo into vessels tied to their waist. They take it home where it is cleaned and added to pickles and chutneys. The dried fruits are called kokkad, and used all year around. Piloos come in two colours, red (raatiya) and yellow (piloo).  They are also put to medicinal use.

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A care for the Kair

The kair is more of a bush, but is a source of food for the desert inhabitants. It bears berries that are used extensively in their food.

The fruit is tangy and bitter and added to pickles, chutneys and curries.  

They are usually first soaked in buttermilk before being used. They are also called dhalu in some places. It is a common sight in the flowering season to see men and women using their dupattas and men their towels to collect the berries which they then bring back home and use through the year.

Sadly, the enthusiasm to connect fresh kair is diminishing and less people bother with it now. And, many of the bountiful khair trees are also disappearing.

Capparis decidua or commonly known as Kair tree. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Noisy children gathered around jaal trees picking the piloo, men and women collecting berries and taking them back home in anticipation of turning them into delicious fare, people sitting in the shade of the trees in their yards on hot afternoons enjoying the precious shade… These are sights one does not see anymore. Instead, all we hear is news about the felling of hundreds of trees in villages to make way for some project.

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Read the Hindi story here.