Kuldhara is an abandoned village situated in the Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan in Northern India. The written record of the village can be traced back to its establishment in the 13th century, and shows it was once very prosperous.
Since then, it has acquired the reputation of a haunted site and survives today only as a tourist site for curious visitors The ruins of the buildings and the once-bustling streets lie empty, a pale shadow of what was once here.
But why was it abandoned? And what happened to the people that lived there?
An Auspicious Founding
The village is located in northern India and is very well organized. The buildings and streets were laid down in a careful system covering a rectangle approximately 861m by 261m (2,800 feet by 850 feet) aligned north-south. The town itself was centered around a mother goddess temple and had three longitudinal roads cut by latitudinal lanes.
Today, the remains of a city wall can still be seen on the north and south sides of the village. There is also a river bed that used to flow from the Kakni river located on the eastern side whilst the western side is protected by the man-made defensive structures found there.
The village was originally settled by the Brahmins who had migrated from the city of Pali, east of Kuldhara, to the Jaisalmer region. Due to this, the Brahmins came to be known as Paliwals.
The historian, Lakshmi Chand, wrote in his book Tawarikh-i-Jaisalmer, that the first person to settle in the area was called Kadhan who gave the village its name. Whilst there he excavated a pond that he called Udhansar in the village to help with the water supply in the village.
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The date given to the village has been identified from the 3 cremation grounds, which have several gravestones or cenotaphs known as “devalis”. At least two inscriptions date from the 13th century referring to the deaths of two citizens in the years 1235 and 1238.
The residents of the village have been identified as Vaishnavites, one of the major Hindu denominations. This sect considers the god Vishnu as the supreme being. The main temple in the village had sculptures of Vishnu and Mahishasura Mardini, another principal goddess in the Hindu religion.
The inscriptions found at the site, on the other hand, all start with invocations of Ganesh, the bringer of good luck and remover of obstacles. Additionally, there have been sculptures of a bull and a local horse-riding deity that may have only been worshipped in the community.
The villagers were mostly traders in agriculture, bankers, and farmers. Lots of pottery has been found that suggests they used ornamented pottery made of fine clay. Water from the local Kakni river and close wells kept the villagers supplied with fresh resources.
The villagers also used water from an artificial depression called a “khareen”. Once the water evaporated, it left an irrigated and fertile soil suitable for growing wheat, chickpeas, and jowar.
Despite its promising start, the village of Kuldhara was deserted in the 19th century. In the 20th century, people supposed that the abandonment was due to the lack of water access and the atrocities of an official named Salim Singh.
The theory of the water drying up is supported by evidence: by 1815 most of the wells in the village had indeed dried up. By 1850, the great step-well of the village and two other deeper wells were the only functional ones.
The site was surveyed in the 1990s and the only water that was there was stagnant water located at the bottom of the dried-up river bed. The lack of water will not have only made life difficult for the villagers but would have also slowed agricultural productivity.
Salim Singh was an official who levied taxes from the village. Local legends suggest that he raised the taxes so much that the villagers could no longer afford to live there and thus moved away.
Another legend suggests that Salim Singh set his heart on a girl of Kuldhara. He was the Prime Minister of Jaisalmer at the time, and the girl was the local chief’s daughter.
Despite being refused, Singh sent an ultimatum to Kuldhara to accept the marriage proposals or face his wrath. As opposed to acquiescing to the demands of Salim or going to war, the village instead chose to leave.
The historical record however does not support such a dramatic turn of events, and suggests that the population declined gradually, rather than immediately. It has been estimated that in the 18th century, the population was somewhere around 800 but by 1890, the population was only 37.
A more recent study from 2017 though, suggests that the village could have been decimated by an earthquake. This is evidenced by the ruins still standing today that show marks of earthquake damage. Was this the final death knell for Kuldhara?
The Enduring Legend
Local legends and rumors claim that while deserting the village, the villagers imposed a curse on it so that it would remain unoccupied. Those who have tried to settle the area have experienced supernatural and paranormal activity ensuring that nobody settles there for too long. Throughout the 2010s the local government has promoted this site as haunted to attract tourists.
There have been investigations by the Indian Paranormal Society who claimed that they have experienced supernatural activity and had paranormal experiences. Whilst at the site, they claim that they saw moving shadows, heard haunting voices and talking spirits as well as other activity.
Since 2015, the Rajasthan government decided to actively turn the spot into a tourist site. In the plans, there are blueprints for facilities such as a café, lounge, and a folk-dance performance area.
The village of Kuldhara has a long and rich history. It shows an example of man-made waterworks and industry as well as the development of the Hindu religion in the area. The site itself is marked in mystery due to the lack of full written accounts but there is enough there to provide an overview of what has happened in the 700 years of its existence.
Its haunting may or may not be true but the fascination with the village will continue until its mystery is solved.
Top Image: The abandoned village of Kuldhara. Source: Raja stills / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman