Cholistan is changing amazingly. The desert was under perennial regular irrigated cultivation till 1200 B C and under seasonal regular irrigated cultivation till about 600 B C. The area turned into arid and desolate desert with drying up of River Hacra. These days again, the desert is under going a process of profound change because of canal system originating from the River Sutlaj. But one can still find people living in houses made of mud and straw almost as they might have been living 200 years ago.
The way of life is also about to change. The women folk in drab landscape of desert wearing nath (nosegay), katmala (necklace), kangan (big bangles), pazeb (worn on toes), bright color, and vivid pattern lehngas of 20 yards and high cholis may one day become part of history. Maybe not so in near future! Sufi poet Khawaja Ghulam Farid, who spent 18 years of his life wandering about in Cholistan, admiring its beauty and people wrote, “But what tongue shall tell the glory of it, the perpetual strength of it, and sublimity of its lonely desolation! And who shall paint the splendor of its light.” The poet was passionately found of desert milieus that are hard, dry and at first repulsive. His fascination for Cholistan was so rich that his poetry has woven melodious aura all around Rohi — as the desert is called in a local dialect. He has set the standards for desert wanderers. I can tell you something of what I have seen during my intermittent stay – from 1977 till 2000 – in the desert, but I cannot tell you the grander of the desert, nor the glory of colors that wrap the burning sand. The awesome vistas and richness of the desert are beyond description. Cholistan is a land of legends, myths, velor, romance, folk melodies and regal elegance.
At the tail of monsoon region, Cholistan stands as if petitioning the sky for rain. It very seldom falls. And whenever the prayers are answered, the water is stored for human being as well as animals in reservoirs known as `kunds’. Average rainfall in the area is 3 to 5 inches a year. Nomadic Holystones are constantly moving in search of water that is scarce, lies very deep, and is brackish. The lack of fresh water for drinking and irrigation controls the lives of the people of the region. A Saraiki poet once wrote, “Men tassel, merry dart tarsi, tee tarsi Rohi jai, melon ankh an pan dryad.” It seems as if Cholistan is still mourning for the demise of the River Hacra. Cholistan is one of the fantasy regions for local as well foreign tourists, geologists, historians, archaeologists and naturalists.
A part of Rajisthan desert called marusthali (region of death); Cholistan is an extraordinary place. The word Cholistan has got its origin from the Turkish word `chilistan’ which means desert. As per the local lore, the name has been derived from choli worn by women of the area. When you get down to dust and sand, the desert is a place of striking contrasts, of ruggedness, of delicacy, of big noise and long silence. The best way to see Cholistan is on dirt roads and trails, either in hiking boots or on something with four wheels or four hoofs drive with lot of water in the backpack.
Botanically divers Cholistan comprises of dry, wet, and green lands. Southern portion is called greater Cholistan with sand dunes rising high unto 100 feet. Even in dry tract there are hundreds of species of plants as Kandi, Ak, Wild Carper, Qatran, Ber and Khar with well-established root system in the environment. The loamy soil with lot of vegetation in northwestern portion is known as lesser Cholistan. Green areas are intensively cultivated with thriving plantation.
Wildlife in Cholistan (95 per cent of that has already been destroyed, though officially protected) has to blend rather than hide. On several occasions I nearly bumped into a flock of deer that was hiding into bushes as I approached. At night I once saw startled fawn gazing right into the headlights of my jeep. Many a times I came across feathers of Tiloor (Houbara Bustard) killed by poachers, though could not see one flying. Houbara Foundation International is trying hard to save the guest bird that is at the verge of extinction due to reckless hunting by ‘royal dignitaries’ who come in Cholistan every year. A renowned naturalist Jamal Hamid writes, “This desert is a particularly promising venue for the study of animals.” Cholistan attracts not only the highest number but also the highest variety of wildlife that is not found anywhere else in Pakistan. Most of the ‘honored guests’ come from north. Most famous variety of local wildlife (Parha (hog deer), Neel Gaee (blue bull), and Black Buck) are still available in the areas near border. Majority of these creatures is nocturnal and shy, so watching of these requires endurance and good pair of binocular. Wild cat, jackal, wolf, mangoes, squirrel, field rat, over 200 types of insects and as much as sixty varieties of snakes are found in 10400 square miles of this rain less tract.
Those who take their first chance on by train to Feroza, a small Railways Station on main track, find multiple tracks that originate from Feroza (more of a military railway station) and interlace the expanses of Cholistan. One has to muscle his way along these tracks lined with army camps: army personnel come to Cholistan for practice firing of heavy caliber weapons.
Cholistan has some fifty sites and forts of Harappan demeanor. Derawer (also known as Dera Rawal, Deogarh, Dilawer, and Derawat) is situated in a dry bed of lost river Hacra. Sir Aural Stein during survey of Cholistan described it as “a place where occupation continued beyond prehistoric times.” It was once the center of Aryan culture. In 1759, it was taken over by Abbasi Amirs and remained capital of Bahawalpur State. The city of bazaars, schools, madrassas, mosques and a headquarters of Bahawalpur Transport Camel Corps, in its hay days, lost its importance when it ceased to be the state capital. Now this place of antiquity is famous for the relics of the largest and most imposing of the Cholistani forts. Derawer Fort was built by Deoraj, a prince of Jaisalmir.
The lofty and rolling battlements of the fort are visible from a long distance. The fort has 40 battlements made of thin red bricks. There are two old vintage guns mounted on pedestals in the dusty courtyard of the fort. The Abbasi Amirs and Nawabs are buried in a hall with engraved doors. On the western side are old dungeons and under ground rooms now infested with bats and rats. As per the myth the secret to change metal into gold was told to Prince Deoraj by his mentor jogi and there still is a treasure hidden somewhere in the fort. In 1825, Nawab Bahawal Khan constructed a mosque with cupolas and domes of exquisite marble. The mosque is a living glory of the place.
The inevitable tide of human change – education, communication, and opportunities elsewhere – has yet to reach this part of the world. These elements are following the water as, when and where it reaches. During my visits and stay through out the active service, I have spoken with a few people who live in semi permanent settlements and watered nooks the desert provides here and about in greater Cholistan. An old man living near the Derawer Fort says, “All sorts of people (geologists, naturalists, archaeologists, travelers and hunters) are welcome here but nobody brings dams, roads, power lines, televisions and schools for our children from the mainland.
There is a large difference between rhetoric and realities in Cholistan. It is a tranquil, pollution free and quite destination. Visiting such a place is very simple and plenty of fun. The enjoyment increases exponentially with the level of interest. But, what of those who are living there. It seems pretty hard!