Thar Desert in Sindh, Pakistan - January 2011
The Thar Desert is one of the most beautiful places I have visited. It is not only a great place to watch birds but an area full of history. There are historical buildings belonging to Jain, Islam and the Hindu religions. It is a great place to visit in the winter, autumn and spring. After the monsoon rains the desert becomes even greener full of flowers. Temporary marshes appear. It is surprising how green the desert is. It is one of the few places in Pakistan where wild Peacocks occur in good numbers and the only place to see the Indian Wild Ass or Asiatic Onager. The main town is Mithi which is 4 hours from Hyderabad and 6 hours from Karachi. The journey is fairly pleasant.
The Thar Desert (Rajasthani: थार मरुधर), also known as the Great Indian Desert, is a large, arid region in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent and forms a natural boundary running along the border between India and Pakistan. With an area of more than 200,000 km2 (77,000 sq mi), it is the world's 9th largest subtropical desert.
It lies mostly in the Indian State of Rajasthan, and extends into the southern portion of Haryana and Punjab states and into northern Gujarat state. In Pakistan, the desert covers eastern Sindh province and the southeastern portion of Pakistan's Punjab province. The Cholistan Desert adjoins the Thar desert spreading into Pakistani Punjab province.
Location and description
In India the Thar Desert extends from the Sutlej River, surrounded by the Aravalli Range on the east, on the south by the salt marsh known as the Rann of Kutch (parts of which are sometimes included in the Thar), and on the west by the Indus River. Its boundary to the large thorny steppe to the north is ill-defined, about 3/5th of the total geographical area of the State.
In Pakistan, the desert covers the eastern Sindh province and the southeastern portion of Pakistan's Punjab province. The Tharparkar District is one of the major parts of the desert area. Tharparkar consists of two words: Thar means ‘desert’ while Parkar stands for ‘the other side’. Years back, it was known as Thar and Parkar but subsequently became just one word ‘Tharparkar’ for the two distinct parts of Sindh province. On the western side, Parkar is the irrigated area whereas Thar, the eastern part, is known as the largest desert of Pakistan.
Rainfall in the area is very low, from 100-500mm per year, all falling between July and September, and the climate is harsh with temperatures ranging from near freezing up to 50°C.
Physiography and geology
There are three principal landforms in the desert region — the predominantly sand covered Thar, the plains with hills including the central dune free country and the semi-arid area surrounding the Aravalli range.
On the whole the Thar Desert slopes imperceptibly towards the Indus Plain and surface unevenness is mainly due to sand dunes. The dunes in the south are higher, rising sometimes to 152 m whereas in the north they are lower and rise to 16 m above the ground level.
The Aravalli forms the main landmark to the south-east of Thar Desert.
Desert soil - The soils of the Arid Zone are generally sandy to sandy-loam in texture. The consistency and depth vary according to the topographical features. The low-lying loams are heavier and may have a hard panSome of these soils contain a high percentage of soluble salts in the lower horizons, turning water in the wells poisonous.
The origin of the Thar Desert is a controversial subject. Some consider it to be 4000 to 1,000,000 years old, whereas others state that aridity started in this region much earlier.
Another theory states that area turned to desert relatively recently: perhaps around 2000 - 1500 BC. Around this time the Ghaggar ceased to be a major river. It now terminates in the desert but at one time was a watersource for the Indus Valley Civilization centre of Mohenjo-daro.
It has been observed through remote sensing techniques that Late Quaternary climatic changes and neotectonics have played a significant role in modifying the drainage courses in this part and a large number of palaeochannels exist.
Most of the studies did not share the opinion that the palaeochannels of the Sarasvati coincide with the bed of present day Ghaggar and believe that the Sutlej along with the Yamuna once flowed into the present Ghaggar riverbed. It has been postulated that the Sutlej was the main tributary of the Ghaggar and that subsequently the tectonic movements might have forced the Sutlej westwards, the Yamuna eastwards and thus dried up the Ghaggar.
The studies about Kalibanga in the desert region by Robert Raikes indicate that Kalibangan was abandoned because the river dried up. Prof. B. B. Lal (retd. Director General of Archaeological Survey of India) supports this view by asserting: "Radiocarbon dating indicates that the Mature Harappan settlement at Kalibangan had to be abandoned around 2000-1900 BCE. And, as the hydrological evidence indicates, this abandonment took place on account of the drying up of the Sarasvati (Ghaggar). This latter part is duly established by the work of Raikes, an Italian hydrologist, and of his Indian collaborators".
Thar in ancient literature
The Indian epics describe this region as Lavanasagara (Salt-ocean).
Ramayana mentions about Lavanasagara (Salt-ocean) when Rama goes to attack Lanka with the army of vanaras. Rama uses his agneyashtra-amogha to dry up the sea named drumakulya situated on north of Lavanasagara. A fresh water source named Pushkar surrounded by Marukantara was created.
According to Jain cosmology, Jambūdvīpa is at the centre of Madhyaloka, or the middle part of the universe, where the humans reside. Jambūdvīpaprajñapti or the treatise on the island of Roseapple tree contains a description of Jambūdvīpa and life biographies of Ṛṣabha and King Bharata. Jambūdvīpa continent is surrounded by ocean Lavanoda (Salt-ocean).
The Sarasvati River is one of the chief Rigvedic rivers mentioned in ancient Hindu texts. The Nadistuti hymn in the Rigveda (10.75) mentions the Sarasvati between the Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west, and later Vedic texts like Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas as well as the Mahabharata mention that the Sarasvati dried up in a desert.
Most scholars agree that at least some of the references to the Sarasvati in the Rigveda refer to the Ghaggar-Hakra River, while the Helmand River is often quoted as the locus of the early Rigvedic river. Whether such a transfer of the name has taken place, either from the Helmand to the Ghaggar-Hakra, or conversely from the Ghaggar-Hakra to the Helmand, is a matter of dispute.
There is also a small present-day Sarasvati River (Sarsuti) that joins the Ghaggar river.
Mahabharata mentions about Kamyaka Forest situated on the western boundary of the Kuru Kingdom (Kuru Proper + Kurujangala), on the banks of the Saraswati River. It lay to the west of the Kurukshetra plain. It contained within it a lake called the Kamyaka lake (2,51). Kamyaka forest is mentioned as being situated at the head of the Thar desert, near the lake Trinavindu (3,256). The Pandavas on their way to exile in the woods, left Pramanakoti on the banks of the Ganga and went towards Kurukshetra, travelling in a western direction, crossing the rivers Yamuna and Drishadvati. They finally reached the banks of the Saraswati River. There they saw the forest of Kamyaka, the favourite haunt of ascetics, situated on a level and wild plain on the banks of the Saraswati (3-5,36) abounding in birds and deer (3,5). There the Pandavas lived in an ascetic asylum (3,10). It took 3 days for Pandavas to reach the Kamyaka forest, setting out from Hastinapura, on their chariots (3,11).
In Rigveda we also find mention of a River named Aśvanvatī along with river Drishadvati. Some scholars consider both Saraswati and Aśvanvatī same river.
The human habitations on the banks of rivers Saraswati and Drishadvati had shifted to the east and south directions prior to Mahabharata period. During those days The present day Bikaner and Jodhpur areas were known as Kurujangala and Madrajangala provinces.
The Desert National Park, Jaisalmer has a collection of fossils of animals and plants of 180 million years old. Some fossils of Dinosaurs of 6 million years old have also been found in the area.
Stretches of sand in the desert are interspersed by hillocks and sandy and gravel plains. Due to the diversified habitat and ecosystem, the vegetation, human culture and animal life in this arid region is very rich in contrast to the other deserts of the world. About 23 species of lizard and 25 species of snakes are found here and several of them are endemic to the region.
Some wildlife species, which are fast vanishing in other parts of India, are found in the desert in large numbers such as the Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), the Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), the Indian Gazelle (Gazella bennettii) and the Indian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus khur) in the Rann of Kutch. They have evolved excellent survival strategies, their size is smaller than other similar animals living in different conditions, and they are mainly nocturnal. There are certain other factors responsible for the survival of these animals in the desert. Due to the lack of water in this region, transformation of the grasslands into cropland has been very slow. The protection provided to them by a local community, the Bishnois, is also a factor. Other mammals of the Thar area include a subspecies of Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes pusilla) and a wild cat, the caracal.
The region is a haven for 141 species of migratory and resident birds of the desert. One can see eagles, harriers, falcons, buzzards, kestrel and vultures. Short-toed Eagles (Circaetus gallicus), Tawny Eagles (Aquila rapax), Spotted Eagles (Aquila clanga), Laggar Falcons (Falco jugger) and kestrels. There are also a number of reptiles.
The Indian Peafowl is a resident breeder in the Indian subcontinent particularly Thar region. The peacock is designated as the national bird of India and the provincial bird of the Punjab (Pakistan). It can be seen sitting on Khejri or Pipal trees in villages or Deblina.
The natural vegetation of this dry area is classed as Northern Desert Thorn Forest  occurring in small clumps scattered more or less openly. Density and size of patches increase from west to east following the increase in rainfall. Natural vegetation of Thar Desert is composed of following tree, shrub and herb species
Acacia jacquemontii, Acacia leucophloea, Acacia senegal, Albizia lebbeck, Azadirachta indica, Anogeissus rotundifolia, Prosopis cineraria, Salvadora oleoides, Tecomella undulata, Tamarix articulata
Small trees and shrubs
Calligonum polygonoides, Acacia jacquemontii, Balanites roxburghii, Ziziphus zizyphus, Ziziphus nummularia, Calotropis procera, Suaeda fruticosa, Crotalaria burhia, Aerva tomentosa, Clerodendrum multiflorum, Leptadenia pyrotechnica, Lycium barbarum, Grewia populifolia, Commiphora mukul, Euphorbia neriifolia, Cordia rothii, Maytenus emarginata, Capparis decidua. Mimosa hamata
Herbs and grasses
Eleusine compressa, Dactyloctenium scindicum, Cenchrus biflorus, Cenchrus setigerus, Lasiurus hirsutus, Cynodon dactylon, Panicum turgidum, Panicum antidotale, Dichanthium annulatum, Sporobolus marginatus, Saccharum spontaneum, Cenchrus ciliaris, Desmostachya bipinnata, Erogrostis species, Ergamopagan species, Phragmitis species, Tribulus terrestris, Typha species, Sorghum halepense, Citrullus colocynthis
Threats and preservation
There are eleven national parks in the Thar desert area, the largest of which are the Nara Desert Wildlife Sanctuary and the Rann of Kutch.
Others include: the Desert National Park, Jaisalmer (3162 km²) is an excellent example of the ecosystem of the Thar Desert, and its diverse fauna. The endangered Great Indian Bustard (Chirotis nigricaps), Blackbuck, chinkara, fox, Bengal fox, wolf, and caracal can be seen here. Seashells and massive fossilized tree trunks in this park record the geological history of the desert; Tal Chhapar Sanctuary a very small sanctuary in Churu District, 210 km from Jaipur, in the Shekhawati region. This sanctuary is home to a large population of Blackbuck while fox and caracal can also be spotted along with typical avifauna such as partridge and sand grouse; Jalore Wildlife Sanctuary (130 km from Jodhpur) is another small sanctuary that is privately owned where a sizeable population of rare and endangered wildlife is present including the Asian-Steppe Wildcat([Ornata]), Leopard, Zird, Desert Fox and herds of Indian Gazelle.