The ruins at Kuldhara only add to the mystery surrounding the village, whose occupants vanished without a trace, leaving all their belongings behind, perhaps to escape persecution by a minister. Image Credit: Supplied

It was a full moon night with a crystal sky full of glittering stars in the early 19th century. The hot summer breeze offered little respite for the 1,500 odd men, women and children who had gathered at the central village of Kuldhara in the heart of the Thar desert in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, assembling meticulously through the evening from the cluster of 84 surrounding villages.

They were all Paliwal Brahmins — an ancient Hindu clan famed as much for their business acumen as for their agrarian innovation. Their ancestors had migrated to what is now western Rajasthan towards the end of the 13th century to set up the sprawling community of Kuldhara and its adjoining villages.

Thanks mainly to their ability to grow bumper crops in the arid desert climate, the Paliwals’ prosperity and spirit of kinship with the surrounding communities grew manifold over the next few centuries, until that fateful night in 1825.

It should have been a night of celebration and harmony — it was Raksha Bandhan, the Hindu festival when a sister ties a thread on the wrists of her brothers to symbolise the eternal bond between siblings. But on this night, the distraught Paliwal fraternity stared instead at disharmony and disintegration.

Chandra Prakash Vyas, the secretary of Jaisalmer Vikas Samiti, debunks the idea of paranormal activities at Kuldhara.

Some historians faintly trace the roots of the tragedy about to unfold in Kuldhara to the machinations of a contemporary powerful minister of the state of Jaisalmer, Salim Singh — who allegedly fell in love with the beautiful daughter of the Kuldhara village chief and was desperate to marry her. Singh gave a deadline of two days and threatened the Paliwals that if his request was denied, the villagers would be burdened with massive taxes that would essentially cripple the agrarian community. However, in the ultra-conservative Paliwal Brahmin society, getting a woman married outside the clan would be the ultimate act of dishonour and disgrace. And so, with Singh’s deadline about to expire, the entire clan gathered in Kuldhara at night.

By next morning, they had all disappeared.

It was as if every single resident of the Paliwal community had vanished into thin air, leaving behind nothing but their memories and mementos. Nobody saw them leave, and till date no one has discovered any trail of a mass migration to a possible distant land.

It was a night in history that has continued to baffle historians and the Indian society at large, spawning a range of conspiracy theories — from metaphysical to mundane — with no clear answers in sight nearly 200 years after the disappearance of more than 1,500 people from the face of the Earth.

Except that Kuldhara has in recent years gained prominence in history as a haunted hub of paranormal activities, inhabited by spirits and forever carrying the Paliwals’ curse of death and destruction should anyone attempt to settle there.

Indian Paranormal Society’s Gaurav Tiwari, who died earlier this month, claimed to have recorded odd goings-on in Kuldhara.

“We have collected significant anomalies and evidence to suggest that there is something really going on in Kuldhara, which cannot be explained by a simple scientific theory,” said Reverend Gaurav Tiwari, the founder of the Indian Paranormal Society.

Incidentally, Tiwari died under mysterious circumstances at his home in Dwarka, New Delhi, this month, a few weeks after he spoke to Weekend Review for this article, and investigations into his death are under way.

The Indian Paranormal Society had grabbed headlines a few years ago when it sent a team of 30 volunteers to spend a night at the abandoned village. “We have organised several night campaigns at Kuldhara. Though we survived the nights, one can’t deny that something unusual happens there ... Disembodied whispers, screams, noises are common at dark hours. Many of our members have witnessed apparitions, heard footsteps, experienced unusual touch and so on. But no one has been harmed or hurt in any of our expeditions there,” he said.

Tiwari claimed that the real aim of his Society’s trips was to dismantle the myths surrounding the village and encourage more people to visit it — even though he believed not everything that happened in Kuldhara has a rational explanation.

“The Indian Paranormal Society is always focused on finding out a reason for an unexplained event ... At Kuldhara, we monitored a lot of such unexplained electro-magnetic fields [EMFs] that responded to our communication, we captured disembodied voices, found variations in temperature and static charges. There was one instance when hand-prints of a child started appearing on all the parked vehicles in front of our eyes. This was also captured and witnessed by many journalists ... We believe that these ruins are haunted,” he said, before scrambling to list a glossary of instruments his team used to capture such apparently abnormal activity — from infrared and full spectrum cameras and CCTVS to EMF meters, EVP recorders, thermal imagers, motion sensors, REM pods and static detectors.

The ruins of the village — about 20 kilometres from Rajasthan’s tourist hub of Jaisalmer — are today a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and a daytime visit would certainly reinforce such theories, should you dare visit.

While a daily flock of bewildered tourists besieges the village during the day, no one is allowed to stay in the area after 6pm or sunset — one of the pre-conditions of the visit enforced by tourism officials.

Some say the stories of ghosts have been spread to safeguard the gold and other treasures buried in the village.

Once in the village, old men with wrinkled faces and sunken eyes appear out of nowhere like ageless apparitions, and beseech you to sit patiently as they narrate the tragic tale of a ghost town. Climb up the rickety stairs of one of the many terraces still intact, and the vast stretch of ramshackle houses, crumbling blocks of ancient brick walls, narrow bylanes, intact wells, ruined town squares and underground structures set amid the parched earth reveal a landscape both sublime and surreal.

It’s hardly a wonder that the lines between history, folklore, myth and paranoia blur at a place such as this — leaving you with an eerie experience never felt before.

Tiwari said that while a majority of the villagers living near Kuldhara did believe the village was haunted, a small minority suspect a more sinister motive behind branding the village as such. “Many of the villagers swear that they have had very horrifying experiences at this place after dark. But some people feel that this was only a rumour to get Kuldhara a heritage site tag, and ensure there is less public interference and tourist influx. Some also believe that there is a huge bounty of treasure and gold hidden under the ruins of Kuldhara.”

That theory is partly corroborated by Kamal Singh Bhati, a member of the Jaisalmer Vikas Samiti (JVS) or the Jaisalmer Development Society, an NGO dedicated to the conservation of ancient heritage sites in Jaisalmer and its surroundings. “In 1997, there was a house in Kuldhara where a Japanese archaeologist team found gold and other expensive items. The government took possession of the items,” Bhati said.

But Bhati also throws in a more mundane explanation of Kuldhara’s unsolved mystery. “When the Paliwal Brahmins settled in Kuldhara, lucrative trade consignments from what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan used to pass through Jaisalmer. After Vasco Da Gama traced a new sea route to the Indian subcontinent, trade on the Silk Route declined, affecting the business of the Paliwals. Against this backdrop, the diwan [minister] of the then ruler of Jaisalmer wanted to impose steep taxes on the Paliwals, which they were not in a position to pay. Further, the minister wanted to marry a girl from the Paliwal community. Since inter-caste marriages were not allowed, the Paliwal Brahmins asked the minister for a respite of two months, during which they connected with community members in and around Jaisalmer and decided to leave the villages. People from all 84 villages left on the night of Raksha Bandhan and settled in other parts of the country, based on their businesses,” he said.

That’s an explanation that Ajay Kumar Upadhyaya, a long-time teacher at a senior secondary school in Jaisalmer, largely concurs with. “The Paliwals were a prosperous community with advanced knowledge of agriculture and town planning. They knew the technique of cultivating water intensive crops such as wheat in a desert, and their irrigation system, known as khadeen, is still taught as part of the Rajasthan state government’s education curriculum. The local kings used to bother them, and they left simply because of that. They are now spread all over Rajasthan,” he said.

Yet more mundane reasons behind the disappearance of the Paliwals can be gathered from historical anecdotes, since no authentic written records exist of the community itself. Originally the inhabitants of Pali in Rajasthan (hence the community name), the Paliwals’ wealth became the subject of constant conflict between the tribes of the adjoining Aravali mountains and the Delhi Sultanate. The threatened community fled Pali in 1291 to settle down at Kuldhara — where each family was welcomed into the 84 villages with a brick and a gold coin from every family in the village. The brick was used to build a house, and the gold was meant for starting a business or a farm. But then, history repeated itself after a few centuries — the prosperous Paliwals became the target of Mogul invaders. During a raid in the 18th century, the wells of the strictly vegetarian Brahmin Paliwals were said to have been contaminated by animal carcasses by the Moguls, forcing the community towards a mass exodus from Kuldhara.

While Bhati and Upadhyaya both acknowledge such possibilities to explain the Kuldhara conundrum, they vehemently disagree on the so-called paranormal problem. Upadhyaya said irrespective of what happened to the Paliwals, they cursed the land and that’s why it is haunted. “Nobody goes there after 6pm — I have heard reports of lurking spirits.”

Bhati plainly dismisses the idea of paranormal. “I have been to Kuldhara many times but I haven’t seen anything paranormal. I have spent so many nights there but didn’t see anything.”

The secretary of JVS, Chandra Prakash Vyas, agrees. “I don’t believe there are any paranormal activities in the village. I spent several nights in Kuldhara with people who went there to check if the place was haunted. I never saw anything, I cooked and stayed with labourers while we were working there,” he said.

Vyas also disputes Indian Paranormal Society and Tiwari’s version, with whom he claims to have spent several nights at the village. “I cannot challenge science. I spent many nights in the village with Gaurav Tiwari but I didn’t experience anything,” he said.

Vyas, 66, a long-time resident of Jaisalmer, is still a regular visitor to Kuldhara, thanks to restoration projects undertaken by JVS in the village. “The JVS is a society with 15 members. It was established in 1994 with an agenda to protect, conserve and maintain old monuments in and around Jaisalmer. With that aim in mind, we have developed five model houses in Kuldhara to showcase the lifestyle of the Paliwal community, who migrated from Pali in Marwar many centuries ago to settle in Jaisalmer,” Vyas said.

While the origins of the Paliwals remain undisputed, their fate following the mass migration on the full-moon night of August 1825 still remains unclear — if that theory of disappearance is subscribed to. Historians say some Paliwal clans are Rajputs whose ancestors migrated to the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In turn, these families moved to the adjoining states of Uttarakhand and Bihar, where pockets of Paliwal patriarchs still rule the roost. Yet other members of the Paliwal community remained scattered within the desert state of Rajasthan.

But questions still linger — questions such as why no one noticed even a small group of migrants, or how could 1,500 people travel without anyone acknowledging their presence, and why there are no recorded historical texts of what actually happened in Kuldhara?

Arjun Singh Bhati, a senior schoolteacher, has a nostalgic association with Kuldhara.

For Arjun Singh Bhati, a senior teacher at a school in Jaisalmer and the author of “Desert Teacher”, who also conducts a popular programme on Rajasthan for a US-based radio station, the mere mention of Kuldhara brings back memories. “I completed my primary education from a village about 10 kilometres from Kuldhara. I remember how scared I used to be while passing through Kuldhara on the way to school. It was said Kuldhara is a village full of ghosts and spirits, and I’d close my eyes every time the bus passed it,” he said. “But when I visited the village after completing college, I actually felt the pain of the villagers who had to leave the place overnight, without taking any of their belongings.”

Explaining the irrigation system pioneered by the Paliwals and their contribution to the success of Jaisalmer’s growth, he says: “With their superior farming skills, the Paliwals developed khadeen technique to harvest rainwater. They manually made small dam-like structures to store the water, which was used for farming. With passing time, they played an important role in the making of Jaisalmer, until their disappearance about 200 years ago. In 1978, as tourism began to flourish in Jaisalmer, this abandoned village was back in the picture. As it is on the way to Jaisalmer’s famous Sam sand dunes that straddle the border with Pakistan, tourists found Kuldhara more interesting as a historical monument. Now it’s become popular with the locals because of its location — several Bollywood movies have been filmed in the ruins and dunes of Kuldhara.”

Partly capturing our fascination with the paranormal and partly the pain of exile, is Kuldhara then a truly haunted village or merely a lesson on the unrelenting march of time? Perhaps the future will bring us more concrete answers, but until then Kuldhara remains an enigma, its forlorn ruins enduring the ravages of time in the crippling heat of the Thar desert.

Chiranti Sengupta is a Deputy Travel Editor at GN Magazines.