I visited the rock of Mehrangarh on the inauguration of Rao Jodha Desert Park in February 2012, and it took my breath away. The park was 70 hectares of solid stone — hard, volcanic, pinkish rhyolite found in only one other location in Asia, in eastern China.
I could see no soil, but there were plants aplenty — glorious stands of green leafless spurge covered with bright red blossoms, greyish-green clumps of seddera, latex-filled green stems of rambling milkweed, and fuzzy heads of young gum arabic trees. They had the uncanny skill of sending roots deep into fissures and finding a lick of moisture.
But what of the shallow-rooted grasses whose drying seed heads were ablaze with the warm colours of the setting sun? They lived abbreviated lives of fast-burning candles — germinating, flowering, and seeding after the scant, brief monsoon.
The rock wasn’t always bursting with native life. In fact, most of these herbs, shrubs, and trees had been planted in a restoration effort by Pradip Krishen, Delhi’s tree man.
From almost anywhere on the rocky park, I could see the towering six-century-old Mehrangarh Fort, the Citadel of the Sun. It rose sharp-angled and steep-walled out of the rocky hill overlooking the city of Jodhpur. The ramparts were cannonball-proof. The warren of staircases, audience halls, and private rooms of royalty long since dead was maze-like.
In 1900, Rudyard Kipling described it as “The work of angels, fairies and giants...built by Titans and coloured by the morning sun...he who walks through it loses sense of being among buildings. It is as though he walked through mountain gorges.”
Pradip introduced me to the descendents of some of these “angels, fairies and giants”. None was taller than five ft six inches; they possessed neither angelic wings nor the petiteness of fairies. The turbaned Khandwalias with ornament-studded ears and large calloused hands are a hereditary community of specialist rock miners.
Before the park could be planted with native flora, Pradip had to contend with a nightmare. The whole rocky expanse had been taken over by Prosopis, a Mexican invasive. If any native plant was to survive, the Latinos had to go. The only way to be rid of them was by uprooting their roots embedded in rock. After several unsuccessful attempts, a desperate Pradip, who’s as tenacious as the Prosopis he sought to eradicate, enlisted the Khandwalias’ help.
Just as desert plants sought fissures, these people knew how to find and exploit fault lines deep inside the rock. Like drummers tuning their instruments, the skilled artisans tapped the rhyolite around a tree with a mallet and listened to the tone, resonance, and pitch. Once they determined where the weakness lay, they knew how to attack rock and root.
In many places on the rocky hill, hard rhyolite is topped by soft sandstone. The Khandwalias’ ancestors probably used the same rapping technique to hew blocks of sandstone for constructing the fort.
Although work began on a hot summer day in May 1459, the castle reached its splendour two centuries later. In more recent times, it fell into disrepair. The current custodian Gaj Singh II created the Mehrangarh Museum Trust in the 1970s to restore the 11-hectare stone castle. The fine architectural shell of the Mehrangarh Fort, one of the best preserved in the country, harks back to the lifestyle of a historical past.
To the royal family of Jodhpur, the dense rock offered the best defence in preceding centuries; to the Khandwalias, the resonating rock sang its deepest secrets; and to Pradip, the cracked rock sustained delicate desert plants.
Although Rao Jodha Park is a contemporary living ecosystem, home to civets, boar, hares, and birds such as nightjars, it recalls an even more ancient time, one that precedes the fort.
The past rubs shoulders with the present, architectural heritage sits alongside the ecological, and human valour flanks botanical vigour on the rock of Jodhpur.