Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, in the deserts of Rajasthan there was a town which despite being located in what could be called a barren wasteland, was a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The town was beautifully built with lots of greenery around it which almost made it look like an oasis. People were honest and worked hard towards the well being of the society. For a long time it all went well until a madman fell in love with a beautiful girl of this town. His love was one sided yet he was determined to marry the girl. This love of his turned into a curse for the people and they had to leave the town in dead of the night, disappearing in the dark to no one knows where. Ever since then, no one has ever lived in this town except the curse that still haunts it.
Does this story ring a bell? If you thought that we are talking about Bhangarh then you are wrong. Surprisingly, Bhangarh is not the only place in Rajasthan to which this folklore of “people vanishing overnight” is related to. There is another small town called Kuldhara located around 15 kms from Jaisalmer that shares the same legend. The story is so similar that you could almost call Kuldhara a smaller replica of Bhangarh. These are both historical sites under the protection of ASI, both the places are in ruins, both are uninhabited but most of all, both these sites are considered haunted and under a deadly curse.
Kuldhara was a very small village of almost no significance and hence there is almost no mention of this place in history books. Whatever little is known places its time of origin in late 1100s. Historians believe that this town was established by Paliwal Brahmins who migrated here from Pali, a small kingdom in Thar Desert. A Brahmin whose name was Kadhan was the first one to settle here and is said to also have dig the first well, named Uhdansar, in Kuldhara all by himself.
Paliwal Brahmins were believed to be originally the inhabitants of ‘Garh Nanuna’ where they were famous as Nanwana Brahmins. From there they migrated to the Pah area in Marwar. It was around A.D. 1156 when Sihaji, the founder of the Rathaur dynasty and son of the King of Kanauj, caused the flight of the Paliwal Brahmins from Pali. Some historians however believe that the actual cause of their migration was a Muslim invasion of the district of Marwar. In order to meet the war expenses, the local ruler imposed a tax on rich Paliwal Brahmins calling it a “war contribution”. When they refused to pay, they were punished and ultimately banished from their home territory. In a bardic poem called “Paliwal Chhand” from 16th or 17th century, it is mentioned that a fearsome battle was fought at Pali between Sihaji Rathod and Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah I of Delhi. It was possibly this battle that the Paliwal Brahmins were asked to pay heavy taxes for due to which they quit Pali and moved towards west. After quitting their native place, they appear to have slowly moved and settled in the regions of Marwar, Bikaner, Dhat, Banner, Pokhran and Sindh. Largest of these settlements however was in the region of Jaisalmer and the most important was Kuldhara. 21 out of the 64 villages settled by Paliwals were in the region of Jaisalmer itself and it is said that each new Paliwal family was welcomed into the 64 villages around Kuldhara with a brick and a gold coin from every other family in the village. The brick was used in building of a house and the gold was used to start a business or a farm. The name Kuldhara is said to be derived from the word “Kuldhar”, which was the name of a sub-caste of Paliwal Brahmins who being the first settlers gave their caste name to the settlement itself. The first chief or ruler of Kuldhara was a Brahmin rishi Visahat whose subjects, including the warriors, were all Brahmins.
Even now, the living environment in this region is quite hostile so it can be imagined how it would have been 800 years ago. One thing that still made the Paliwal Brahmins prosper here despite the hostile environment was their hard work and understanding of both agriculture and trade methods. They were expert agriculturists, money-lenders and merchants and in a way the major mainstay of Jaisalmer economy. It is said during their flight from Pali, the Brahmins who took the west-gate to leave the city took the profession of agriculture and cultivation while the ones who passed through the eastern gate became bankers. It is not historically recorded, however the legend has it that upon reaching Jaisalmer, they became not only equal in number to the Rajputs but far surpassed them in wealth. According to a popular story, when the son of Maharaj Jaswant Singh [A.D. 1702] was married to the daughter of the Maharana of Udaipur and Maharana passed a comment on his financial viability, the young prince wrote a hundi of Rs. 2 lakh on a kothi of a Paliwal of Kuldhara. Rs. 2 Lakh is still a large sum of money but was huge in those days. When the Paliwal Brahmin received the Hundi, he commented, “I have a dukan in Mewar, from where you could have collected this amount. What was the need for you to dispatch it here for such a paltry amount? All the same, take it from my kothadi in whatever coin you need.”
Until this point is what history indicates. From here on, its all about what locals believe and legend states. It is said that for centuries people of Kuldhara lived in prosperity until one day when a Salum Singh set his eye upon a girl of Kuldhara. Salum Singh, also known as Salim Singh, was the “Deewan” or Prime Minister of the Maharaja of Jaisalmer. The Maharaja was just a titular head and most of the power in Jaisalmer laid in the hands of the Salum Singh, the malevolent Deewan of state, who was well known for his lecherous eye and evil disposition. The girl whose beauty mesmerized him and he fell in love with was the daughter of the Chief of Kuldhara. Salum’s marriage proposal was rejected by the chief on basis of him belonging to another caste. This however did not dampen the spirits of Salum Singh and he was still adamant on marrying the chief’s daughter, even if it required a use of force. He sent an ultimatum to Kuldhara, warning them that they must accept the marriage proposal or be ready to face the consequences. Paliwals were prosperous Brahmins but they were in no way ready to go to war with Jaisalmer and hence were left with no choice but to give their consent for the marriage. A letter was sent to Salum Singh asking him to grant some time to Paliwals in order to reconsider the proposal. This however was done in order to just buy some time as Paliwals decided to rather abandon the village and move again than bending their knee to Salum Singh’s will. As per the legend, on one dark night they gathered whatever they could carry, buried their treasures within the village and left it forever. Where they went from Kuldhara is not known but the evil Deewan could never saw the girl of his dreams again.
Another legend also revolved around the Brahmins leaving the village in dead of the night but the reason was different. According to another school of thought, Paliwals deserted Kuldhara due to repeated attacks from the Mughal Empire who wanted to plunder the wealth accumulated by the Paliwals. After an attack in 18th century, Mughals soldiers dumped animal carcasses in wells in order to weaken the opposition. All the wells in and around the village finally became poisonous which resulted in migration of the whole Brahmin community. This however is a little hard to believe considering the fact that Kuldhara is located merely 15 kms from Jaisalmer so it cannot be that the Mughals repeatedly attacked this small village without risking a war with Jaisalmer. Another fact here is that Mughal Empire was had already started to collapse after Aurangzeb’s death in 1708 so an attack on the Rajasthan in 18th century was way beyond their capabilities.
However as per both these stories, before the Paliwals left Kuldhara, they laid a curse on the village in order to protect the treasures they had buried there, hoping that they would be able to come back some day and dig it out again. Many stories are now floating around this small village that is nothing more than ruins. Some say that the power of the curse was so strong that it made the village uninhabitable for humans but attracted the supernatural elements to come and live here. Witches and ghosts are now believed to wander the village at night. Some believe that Paliwals did in death what they could not in their lives. After they were pushed out of their homes, they spent their lives longing to return which they did after their deaths, returning to Kuldhara as spirits and still reside here. Another legend states that no one can spend an entire night in Kuldhara without dying or at least losing his or her sanity.
One look at historical facts and you can disregard all this as myths. What made Kuldhara as uninhabitable after Paliwals was scarcity of water and not a deadly curse that attached ghosts. In fact, it was water that made Paliwals leave here and not some crazy Deewan or attacking Mughals. In ancient times, all major cities were established closer to a river. In a state like Rajasthan, it was of utmost importance that every major settlement has a reliable water source. When Paliwals left Pali, even they looked for a place where water was available in plenty. Kuldhara is located near River Kakni which at this point bifurcates into two branches. The first branch which is now known as Masurdi Nadi goes towards Khaba, around 15 kms west of Kuldhara, where it terminates and forms the Masurdi Khadin. This is where the Paliwals used to harvest the surface water and used it for agricultural purpose. The second branch of Kakni has now been converted into a drain.
Kakni is a very small river that runs merely 48 kms and the entire region of Jaisalmer heavily depended on it for water including Paliwals who also dug up their own wells as an alternate source of water. When the township was flourishing during the 17th & 18th centuries, there were at least five wells, two deep-wells and a massive baoli. In 1815 most of the wells had dried up. As the water table went down and the sources of irrigation dried up, the productivity of the soil kept on diminishing. The Paliwal cultivators and traders would thus have had little choice but to abandon Kuldhara and migrate elsewhere. It was the failure of underground water supply that forced Paliwal Brahmins to desert Kuldhara and it also did not happen overnight. Before the time when the flight of The Paliwals from Kuldhara had commenced, there were around 200 houses and 800 inhabitants after which people started to leave this village slowly until there was no one left to live here. In the year 1590, the population had already declined to a half.
Who started the horror stories is a mystery in itself. My best guess is that this small deserted village somehow got related to the legendary ghost town of Bhangarh. Someone spread the same story about Kuldhara that they once heard about Bhangarh. Kuldhara however has a couple of myths of its own as well. As per one such belief, Paliwals did not celebrate the festival of Raksha Bandhan because that was the day when they left Kuldhara overnight which is incorrect. Paliwals had not been celebrating Raksha-Bandhan even before they settled at Kuldhara. Another story is that some tourists were caught here at night digging buried treasures post which ASI restricted anyone entering Kuldhara at night. This is also entirely incorrect. All over India, there is not even a single historical site where a night entry is allowed for tourists. Even at Taj Mahal, they do not let anyone get beyond the gates anymore. ASI did not forbid people to enter Kuldhara or Bhangarh at night because they were scared of ghosts but because it’s a law applicable to all ancient sites. What really gave fire to the haunted concept is when a crew of a TV show spent the night in Kuldhara after which they narrated their experience as “terrifying”, but I guess they had decided to do this even before coming to Kuldhara or else who would watch their show. They probably spent the night in Kuldhara sitting around and finalizing the stories they were going to tell on TV the day after.
There are no ghosts here, no chudails and definitely no curses. The only curse and the only thing capable of killing anyone here in the old days was scarcity of water and in present day it is the scorching summer heat. Kuldhara now is just an ancient village that stands in ruins and is under the wing of restoration department of ASI who is trying to promote it as a tourist site.