After a few kilometers, the city road swaps its black tarred coat for the Thar Desert’s sandy dust. On both sides, stretching as far as the eye can see is a dry landscape punctuated by the austere presence of caper shrubs or ker and various thorny bushes known for their pharmaceutical virtues. But the desert manna is called khedjri or sangri. The miracle tree spreads its umbrella like canopy and bears fine green pods, which look like beans. Once dried, they are mixed with other legumes of flat peas called kumti to create panjkutaor a five-ingredient meal. This precious dehydrated mixture kept in bags is a must-have for all families and it just requires to be immersed in water before cooking it with spices.
The road turns into a potholes trail and the driver bursts out laughing at every swerve which slams me against the jeep door. In the monotonous landscape, my eyes rove over herds of black and fawn spiral horned antelopes. In Mughal miniature paintings, they are the ones listening to the heroine playing an instrument while anticipating the arrival of her lover. The vision fades away with the approach of a dusty cloud which instantly shrinks the trail. Yet I distinguish very clearly the rhythmical jolts of jingle bells attached to the bow of the ravanhatta. A man appears, playing this rustic spike fiddle made of half a coconut and two main strings, one of horse tail and the other of steel.
A multi-coloured procession follows him closely, led by a dromedary hitched to a cart and loaded up with women and children. They are itinerant poet-singers called Bhopas who once upon a time narrated and danced the legend of Prince Pabuji in front of a painted scroll. Today, many musicians have adapted themselves to the changing demand and sing in hotels or in forts as soon as a cloud of tourists approaches. The troop is fading little by little and we pursue our way until the driver stops at the front gate of a house.
I get out of the jeep and accompany him to a bountiful shade tree. It is a neem or a margosa whose dense crown keeps cool two women sitting on a charpoy. The youngest one is my guide’s wife and the eldest, his mother. They know the reason of my coming and show me with great pride, the yellow ochre plaster smeared on a large portion of the court-yard of the house on the previous day. Thus begins the Dipavali preparations. The festival of lights celebrates Lakshmi, the prosperity and abundance goddess and drives away her elder sister Alakshmi, who brings misfortune, strife and poverty.
After a cup of tea and a few biscuits, my hostesses make their way back to the house and soon return with earthen jars in which they mix two distinct powders with water. Red, or gheru, is none other than iron oxide and white, slaked lime (chunna) or chalk (khadiya).
In the East of Rajasthan, it is a unique dish made of five specific ingredients harvested in the Thar Desert: « khedjri » or « sangri » (P. cineraria), « kumti » (Acacia senegal), « gunda » (Cordia mixa), « ker » (Capparis decidua) and « kachara » (Cucumis sp.)
A traditional woven webbing bed, perfect for a nap. On North Indian roads, at refreshment stalls, it is a common sight to see beds in a row to welcome sleepy lorry drivers.