The Story of the Thar Desert Through Its Brooms
Tucked away on the outskirts of the Blue City of Jodhpur in Western Rajasthan is a very unusual museum. Its exhibits are neither rare nor prized; there are no opulent jewels on display and none of the items in this collection holds any antique or monetary value.
This is a museum of jhadus, yes brooms. This unassuming museum sits quietly atop a hillock in the village of Moklawas. What makes a museum of jhadus a popular attraction in a land known for its rich and colourful heritage? Called Arna Jharna, The Thar Museum, it leaves visitors awestruck because of the narrative it spins via its mind-boggling collection of brooms.
Literally meaning ‘forest’ (‘arna’ from the word ‘aranya’) and ‘spring’ (‘jharna’), Arna Jharna was built in 2000 and was a labour of love of Padma Bhushan-awarded folklorist, Komal Kothari, who spent his life collecting, understanding and deeply researching the songs, stories, beliefs and folklore of the region, under the aegis of his NGO, Rupayan Sansthan.
It is said that Komal da, as he is affectionately called, was convinced that there had to be a way to celebrate the day-to-day life of rural folk and showcase the deep connect and understanding they had with their natural surroundings. This was his inspiration behind the museum and hence its name. But why use brooms?
All the jhadus in this museum can be classified broadly into the three key agrarian zones of Western Rajasthan – bajra (millet) jowar (sorghum) and makai (maize). Komal da believed that an object of daily use could be understood better in the context of its agrarian zone. Instead of demarcating the region of Western Rajasthan administratively, he advocated the understanding of its boundaries based on the three major crop zones that grow there.
Kuldeep Kothari, Secretary of Rupayan Sansthan, explains that his late father understood that in rural Rajasthan, women made brooms with whatever natural material was available, such as twigs and shrubs. This helped the women engage with their environment more deeply. The result is a burst of creativity which is hard to believe. On display in the museum are 180 types of brooms made of a variety of grasses that are customised to sweep different areas and surfaces, such as sand, mud, clay, stone, cement and so on.
The jhadus are even assigned a ‘gender’ based on the type of grass, twigs or bark they are made of. So you have brooms called buari and havarni, which are ‘female’ and are generally used indoors, as opposed to bungros and buaros, which are sturdier and used to sweep cowsheds or mud surfaces and are hence ‘male’.
There are brooms made of thicker grass and used daily to clean camel dung; others that are used to clean cowsheds and horse stables; smaller ones used to brush away cobwebs or even clean anaj or fresh crops. Every broom in this museum served an everyday purpose. They are handmade and since they are fashioned from locally sourced materials, they are sustainable as well.
– Every broom is tagged according to its name, material, community as well as staple crop zone.
Interestingly, the villagers insist on keeping the ‘female’ brooms in a horizontal position since they are associated with Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity. In pointing out these practises, the museum also sensitizes visitors to the local people’s rituals and beliefs.
Apart from being a testament to the sheer craftsmanship and skill of rural folk, the museum also displays how grass such as khemp is used not just to make brooms but also to make ropes that are tied to pots that draw water from wells. Khemp is also twisted into rings that are used to seat earthen pots as they are carried for miles on the head. Other types of grass such as daab are turned into thicker ropes that are used for charpayis or cots.
A conversation with the resident caretaker can be quite revealing as he shares how different communities are associated with different types of broom-making. This is determined by their caste as well as their location. So, while the nomadic community of Banjaras produces brooms made of grasses or panni, the migratory Kolis use khajur or date palm and the Harijans often use baans or bamboo.
Besides its fascinating collection of jhadus and the stories associated with it, this open-air museum also has a section dedicated to Kathputli (kath - wood; putli - dolls) or puppetry, one of the oldest and most entertaining forms of Rajasthani folk culture. There is also a section dedicated to folk music instruments, including some endangered and not very commonly played ones. The museum holds regular workshops on crafts such as paper mâché as well as musical performances by young and upcoming musicians or baal kalakars.
Enriching the experience at the museum is a series of videos which highlights the communities who make these brooms, the skills involved and the cultural significance of the jhadus they use. It was Komal da’s vision to sensitise visitors to the lives of the people of Marwar, their culture and, most importantly, their intuitive connection with their natural surroundings and natural resources.
Located in the Thar bioregion which is an arid zone, the terrain around Arna Jarna is rocky and rough. The museum is situated on 10 acres of land surrounded by protected forest. It is encompassed by a rocky outcrop and a ravine, which includes an old stone quarry-turned-watershed. The view from here is breathtaking. Gazing at the wide vistas reveals an interesting feature of the landscape. These are thorny succulents like the cactus that grow taller than most humans.
Since the museum oversees a lake, it is a fantastic spot for birding, especially in the evenings when the shrill cries of the peafowl meet the softer ones of the many lapwings and doves. If you’re particularly lucky, you may even spot the endangered Indian bustard, which is drawn to the grassy patches of the wilderness. Many of the animals here are covered by the Wildlife Protection Act as they are rare and endangered but it is never too hard to sight a grazing spotted deer or two.
If you visit Arna Jharna, you can pick up a book or a CD of the folk music of the Langas and Manganiyars recorded at Rupayan Sansthan, as a memento. But if you want a more natural souvenir, you don’t have to stroll far to find a freshly shed, striking blue peacock feather. It’s just the kind of natural connect that Arna Jharna’s jhadus reflect.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Supriya Newar, the author of acclaimed Kalkatta Chronicles, is a communications specialist, music aficionado, writer and avid traveller.
All photos courtesy: Rupayan Sansthan