Environment Feature

How one couple created a forest in the desert

A barren piece of land in the middle of a desert. The harsh climatic conditions of Rajasthan, one of the driest states in India. And a couple’s determination to transform this space into a thriving eco system for everyone. This is a magical tale of how a barren piece of land now hosts several wild animals, birds, a thriving forest, a self sustaining pond, and much more!

In the heart of the sprawling desert landscape of Rajasthan, Gaurav and Varsha Gurjar, native to the land, embarked on a transformative journey that would not only redefine their lives but breathe new life into the arid sands. Driven by a deep-rooted connection to their homeland and an unwavering commitment to environmental rejuvenation, the couple found themselves drawn to a seemingly desolate and challenging piece of land in Sangasani village, nestled just kilometers away from the city of Jodhpur. 

However, theirs was no ordinary aspiration; their goal was to rewrite the narrative of desert landscapes and demonstrate the resilience of nature through their ambitious project—Maruvan, “the forest of the desert”, that would flourish amidst the harsh terrain. 

The Barren lands 

This is how landscape looked when Varsha and Gaurav started their journey

“We wanted a challenging piece of land,” says Gaurav and challenging is what they got. The land they chose appeared unforgiving and inhospitable. Flood-washed soil, and saline terrain created a hostile environment. To add to everything, the native flora had been invaded by the encroaching Mexican mesquite brought in by the Maharaja of Jodhpur in the 1930s. Called baavliya (“the mad one”) this invasive species of plant had inadvertently disrupted the delicate balance of the local ecosystem. 

Yet, rather than discouraging them, these very adversities fuelled the Gurjars’ determination. With a shared passion to restore the land to its former glory and resurrect its once-vibrant indigenous plants, they embarked on the audacious journey of creating Maruvan—a living testament to the power of human perseverance and ecological revival. 

A Brown Symphony of Life

Indian deer spotted at Maruvan

Gaurav and Varsha, inspired by the nuances of nature, conceived Maruvan as a testament to the fact that “all jungles don’t look alike.” Recognising the intrinsic beauty of native landscapes, they envisioned a desert forest that defied convention—a landscape painted not in lush greens, but in earthy browns, harmoniously blending with the desert’s natural palette. With an average annual rainfall of around 320mm, the climatic conditions of the region provided the canvas upon which this distinctive ecosystem would take root and flourish.  

Learning from the Land

Gaurav’s prior experiences working on diverse parcels of land, where he would meticulously dig trenches to a depth of three feet and introduce organic matter, akin to a swift surgical intervention, marked the early stages of their journey. However, the arid expanse of Maruvan required a distinct approach. The ecosystem, a fragile tapestry of life, could not withstand the impact of heavy machinery. The quick “surgery” method that found success in more urbanised settings proved incompatible with Maruvan’s untouched wilderness.

Maruvan’s unique context, characterised by a pristine landscape and the absence of chemical agriculture or urban influence, prompted the Gurjars to chart a new course. Recognising the inherent resilience of native grasses and millets that already flourished on the land, they pivoted their strategy. This marked a turning point—an evolution from traditional methods to a symbiotic partnership with the natural order. 

Varsha and Gaurav have transformed a barren land into a thriving ecosystem

Upon some research, they found a type of local grass called Daab (Desmostachya bipinnate), especially used by the weaver bird population to build their nests, and attempted to restore it. Successful in their attempt, there is now a large weaver bird population that inhabits the land. Removing and replacing a single specie of grass made such an impact. 

Roots in History

Delving into history with an ardent desire to restore Maruvan’s former glory, Gaurav and Varsha meticulously studied ancient temples, orans (land protected by community laws), step wells, and bawadis (traditional water reservoirs) that once adorned the region. They delved into Rajasthani miniature art and folklore, which armed them with insights into the regions once thriving ecosystem and helped them piecing together a vivid tapestry of the land’s historical biodiversity. 

Mastering Water Management

The couple created a pond which has water almost through the year.

Maruvan’s formidable challenges extended beyond its barren appearance, into the complex issue of water scarcity—a fundamental concern in arid landscapes. Inspired by the works of Anupam Mishra, the Gurjars embraced the art of water harvesting, seeking innovative ways to harness and manage this precious resource. “It was all experimental and observational,” says Gaurav. 

Their rigorous research culminated in the creation of a pond, a central component of their intricate water management system. This pond not only acted as a reservoir but also nurtured a self-sustaining ecosystem, with carefully selected plants thriving on the moisture it provided. Along with that, they also built an open shallow well, whose functionality extended beyond its physical form. Positioned strategically to capture runoff rainwater and benefiting from a nearby seasonal river, the well’s capacity is bolstered during the monsoon season. Excess water is intelligently channeled into the pond, allowing it to seep horizontally into the well, further enriching its reserves.

The couple also dug a well with help of the local community.

With a depth of 22 feet, the well ensures a substantial retention period, preventing excessive salinity and sustaining Maruvan’s water supply. While at first the harvested water was enough for 8-9 months, today Maruvan’s water supply is entirely self sufficient. 

Gaurav also shared that they plant their saplings and vegetation based on the presence and absence of the seasonal rains. “The amount of area and the number of trees to be planted are decided after the monsoons.”

The Pond’s Role in the Revival

The pond serves as a safe space for several animals during harsh climate.

In crafting this aquatic haven, which went on to become a cornerstone of sustenance and rejuvenation, standing as the singular source of sweetness amid the vast expanse, the Gurjars drew inspiration from the wisdom of tradition—Rajasthan’s age-old open ponds, known as “naadis,” that integrated wells within their depths. These wells, nestled within the cool recesses of the pond, acted as temperature regulators. During the heat of summers, as most of the water from the pond would evaporate, what remained, cocooned within the well’s sheltered confines, became a lifeline. Taking cues from this timeless practice, the Gurjars artfully constructed their own “naadi” within Maruvan. 

Naadis are conceived with a keen understanding of hydrodynamics, their depths carefully calibrated to preserve every droplet. Some are excavated deeper, others with a more shallow disposition, all meticulously orchestrated to preserve the most precious resource—water.

Blossoming Life: Nature’s Secrets Unveiled

Wild boar in Maruvan

In their quest to align Maruvan with the rhythms of nature, Gaurav and Varsha observed animal behaviours as well. They found that the deers of the region were unwittingly sowing the seeds of future forests. The deers would select a spot for themselves, delicately scratch the earth’s surface, release urine and faecal matter. As the monsoons arrived, these designated sites would undergo a remarkable metamorphosis, evolving into vibrant centres of biological activity. The seeds encased within the expelled waste material find themselves in a rather naturing network, as the microbial life provided by the urine and faeces fostered tremendous growth. Consequently, the seemingly mundane act of excretion paradoxically assumes the role of an inadvertent sowing endeavour.

Animal droppings as nature’s seed balls

The narrative extends beyond the realm of deers to unveil a captivating dimension of collaborative symbiosis. Specific seeds, which remain dormant under conventional circumstances, gain new life once ingested by birds. As the seeds of these plants traverse the intricate digestive tract, they go through a reconfiguration of sorts, leading to their accelerated sprouting upon release. 

A Resurgent Ecosystem

Weaver birds nesting in maruvan

The resurgence of local biodiversity, exemplified by robust house sparrow populations, a diverse insect milieu, and the presence of cobras and vipers, stands as a testament to Maruvan’s commitment to ecological equilibrium. The impact extended to a confrontation with a locust swarm as “ducks, bee eaters, countless other birds were counterattacking the waves of the locusts.”

“These locust attacks have been happening for centuries. They become an issue only because there is no counter balancing”, reminds Gaurav. 

The habitat now thrives with weaver birds, monitor lizards, foxes, and peacocks. The introduction of the pond lured kingfishers and fish, while the successful return of Bee Eater birds, Cobras, Vipers, Fowls, Pheasants, and Desert Cats underscores the Gurjars’ accomplishment in creating a secure sanctuary within the rejuvenated Maruvan landscape. 

“Last year a wild boar gave birth to 9 babies in our forest”

A Partnership with the Community

Before and after images of Maruvan landscape.

The Gurjars’ journey towards ecological rejuvenation was intrinsically intertwined with the local community. Collaborating closely with villagers, particularly women, the couple shared their knowledge and expertise, training them to distinguish between native and invasive plant species. This collaborative spirit not only empowered the community but also served as a bridge between traditional wisdom and modern conservation practices.

Championing Local Artistry

Varsha, serving as a creative head, championed the integration of local art and artisanal practices into Maruvan’s framework. Her vision extended beyond ecological restoration, with sustainability and community engagement at its core. Varsha’s ethos centred around utilising locally sourced materials and techniques, for both Maruvan and her own home, demonstrating that artistry and innovation could flourish within the confines of ecological stewardship. Her unwavering belief in minimal consumption and utilisation of local resources exemplified the Gurjars’ commitment to a harmonious existence with nature.

Creating Thriving Habitats Beyond Maruvan

Gaurav and Varsha Gurjar’s horizon extends beyond Maruvan’s current oasis, aiming to create additional thriving forests. These forthcoming ecosystems will serve as balanced habitats, fostering the coexistence of all local species. Maruvan’s goal is to evolve into an integrated space, a natural synergy of life forms cohabiting harmoniously.

Amid the pressing challenge of global warming, the Gurjars emphasise collective action’s transformative potential. They assert that revitalising local ecosystems can drive impactful change, countering the overwhelming scale of global climate concerns. 

Collaborative Financing: Maruvans Sustenance and Support

A drone shot of Maruvan

Maruvan’s sustenance relies on funding derived mainly from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives and generous donations. It is supported by networks of forest creators who share financial assistance, while Maruvan reciprocates by imparting its accumulated knowledge to fellow environmental groups.

Maruvan’s journey exemplifies collaborative determination. Each contribution forms an essential part of a collective endeavour aimed at rejuvenating our environment. With each plant cultivated and every species provided a sanctuary, Gaurav and Varsha Gurjar inch closer to a world where nature’s symphony is restored. Maruvan also offers bread and breakfast services through airbnb where you can stay and experience the magic on your own. Check out their website for all the details.

Photo Credits: Maruvan

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About the author

Hemlata Chouhan