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Sambhar Lake and its Historical Connection with Savista

The Sambhar Lake, spread over 220 sq. kms of area close to Jaipur and India’s largest inland saltwater lake, has many noteworthy features. As well as an interesting connection with the Savista Retreat.

That it was the scene of mass bird deaths (over 20,000 migratory birds that perished after landing and feeding at the Lake within the space of one week in the month of November 2019), was one more alarm bell sounding the threats and challenges to sustainability in the face of extreme climate events and ecological deterioration of fragile habitats.

While this aspect is discussed in slightly greater detail in a separate blog piece, the focus here is on the Lake itself:  its unique wetland ecology, salt production, and historical events.

This is the first view you get of the lake – mile after mile of a surreal white expanse and hardly any human beings in sight

Sambhar’s Ecology

Sambhar Lake is one of the two Ramsar sites in Rajasthan – the other one is the Keoladeo National Bird Sanctuary at Bharatpur -, sites identified as ‘wetlands of international importance’ listed under the Ramsar Convention of 1971, an international treaty for conservation and sustainable use of wetlands (it was signed at Ramsar in Iran, hence the name). The Convention’s mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”. (There are 27 listed Ramsar sites in India,  out of a total of 2100 worldwide).

Formed out of a natural depression and surrounded by the Aravali Hills, the bed of the Sambhar Lake is richly silted in salts which rise to the surface with evaporation.  The waters of five streams feed the lake: Rupangarh and Mendha are the main ones, and the lesser ones are Samoad, Khari and Khandela.  Annual monsoon rains give fresh life to the waters. The specialized algae and bacteria growing in the lake provide striking water colours – colours that also impart their distinctive hues to the salt that is harvested – and support the lake’s ecology, that includes teeming populations of small fish and crustaceans that feed on the algae.  Together, these marine life forms sustain the migrating waterfowl that travel here from other parts of India (notably pink flamingoes that arrive during the monsoon) and from the cold regions of northern Asia and Europe (notably the Ruddy Shelduck, Black-winged Stilt, Temmink’s Stint, Northern Shoveler, Common Teal, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Black/brown-Headed Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Pallas’s Gull, Pied Avocet, Ruff, Common Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Lesser Sand Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Common Coot, Green Bee-eater, Black-winged Kite, Lesser Whistling Duck, and Mallards, all of which count among the recent deaths).

https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/avian-botulism-killed-18-000-birds-at-sambhar-govt-report-67866; https://www.conservationindia.org/gallery/thousands-of-birds-found-dead-around-sambhar-lake-rajasthan

Sambhar and Savista

Sambhar and Savista are at about 50 kms distance from each other (an hour’s drive) and have a connection in the distant past that goes back to over 600 years ago.  The family that owns Savista were once the rulers of this region.  The  values that informed their governance practices, and the tales of virtue that have come down over the years, such as episodes of valour, belief in the power of renunciation, and the value placed on the supremacy of intellectual and spiritual pursuits, are still part of the family tradition. The endeavour at Savista Retreat is to integrate with the local people, value sustainability over profitability, seek self-sufficiency with a view to reduce carbon footprint, promote eco-diversity, and offer the Retreat a base for those experiential travellers who broadly subscribe to the above values.    

Savista and Sambhar were once part of the same thriving kingdom which had its capital in the town of Naraina, close to present-day Sambhar city.  It was a kingdom carved out by a proud – if somewhat materially unambitious – Crown prince of Amber, Behrisal Singh, whose father was the then ruling  Kacchawa Rajput king of Amber (Amber was a still-small kingdom then, perched on the hill; this was much prior to the creation of the city of Jaipur).  In a story that almost defies belief, the youthful and prosperous kingdom of Naraina was renounced just a few generations later – around the mid 16th century – by one of Behrisal’s descendants, who bowed to the belief that the spiritual quest was superior to the bearing of arms and the acquisition of material wealth, and voluntarily ceded his capital city to a widely revered spiritual teacher whose followers went on to make Naraina their headquarters.  The king not only gave up his capital city, he walked away from the kingdom itself, and sought his fortunes elsewhere; as the legend goes, his search for a new kingdom led him to present day Kashmir. It is an intriguing parable of ambition tempered with detachment, and a willingness to search for new beginnings…

As the once-royal kingdom receded into irrelevance, the territory that once comprised it broke up into large dispersed landed estates – called jagirs – headed by a network of aristocratic descendants who were content to remain in the backwaters as tribute-paying kin of the by-then powerful Rajput-Mughal alliance that the House of Jaipur had become, cemented by the marriage of the Kacchawa Rajput Princess Jodha (sister of King Bharmal of Amber) to the Mughal Emperor Akbar.  It is interesting that Sambhar was the place where the Jodha-Akbar union was solemnised.  

A Modern Story of Neglect 

Regrettably, despite the above colourful history, for a first time visitor to Sambhar there is no access to any map of the Lake with its different physical features, road routes or bicycle trails, or any other informational resources that can act as a guide on how best to explore, understand and enjoy the rich and unique ecology of the region, or get a glimpse into its history.  One can keep driving for miles along the edge of the white, frozen-snow-like wasteland that is the lake, and see nothing and learn nothing more than getting directions to the Shakambari Temple dedicated to the goddess Shakambari,  which alone seems to have uppermost importance in the eyes of the local people. 

Two village beauties we stopped to ask directions from, who had come to fetch drinking water from a protected source; it was strange to encounter no one else other than a couple of small shopowners whose most striking merchandise were festoons of shiny paan-paraag packets.

We are told that the tourism department of the Rajasthan Government  is seriously considering promoting tourism at Sambhar.  We hope they will do it in collaboration with naturalists, bird enthusiasts and history buffs. The Sambhar Railway Station is the most easily identifiable place where satellite images of the lake’s contours, road and trail maps, the best sites for bird watching, and other informational resources about the local and migratory birds to be sighted, detailed information regarding the marine life, as well as the history of the place could be made available.  But at this point in time, there is nothing and nobody there to guide a bird enthusiast or curious traveller. This is such a pity, for Sambhar has as many hues to its history as the richly endowed algae that live in its waters. 

The earliest mention of Sambhar goes back to the ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata, which identifies it as the kingdom of the Puranic King Vrishparva whose guru was the Sage Shukracharya, and as the setting for the famous legend of King Yayati.  Sambhar is where Yayati is said to have married Devyani, the daughter of sage Shukracharya, after she had been spurned by the man she loved, Kacha.   There is also mention that archaeological investigations to date have unearthed evidence of civilizational activity that is over 2500 years old; these latter details, however, remain elusive and require to be made more accessible.

Very close to the railway station stands a cluster of monuments: a few ancient Muslim tombs in advanced decay, and cavernous rustic prayer halls that seem somewhat restored and probably in use.  The tombs, too, are being visited by faithfuls, going by the brightly coloured satin chadar offerings in evidence; it is a scene that is haunting in its desolate beauty.  But no signages exist to identify the structures for the visitor, nor does the lone caretaker care for more than being given a few rupees in return for opening the doors to the tombs.

The tombs

Other information that we have of a historical nature is a Wikipaedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambhar_Salt_Lake that says that Sambhar was the venue for the wedding of the Emperor Akbar with Princess Jodha of Amber, whose hand was given in marriage in 1562 by her brother, King Bharmal of Amber, as an attempt to forestall a Mughal invasion of his territory by sealing a strategic political alliance between the Hindu kingdom of Amber and the Mughals intent on expansion through north India.  King Bharmal astutely recognised the superior military power he was up against. Simultaneously, he saw the positive effects of long-term peace and stability for the quality of life of his people arising out of such an alliance.  Akbar on his part was keen to build alliances with the Rajputs whose martial spirit and valour he respected and admired. The Rajput-Mughal alliance went on to bring great peace, prosperity, political influence and cultural  enrichment to the kingdom of Jaipur, setting the stage for the future evolution of Jaipur into the premier city in all of Rajasthan in the modern period. 

At the time of the marriage of Akbar and Jodha, Sambhar was already a part of the Kacchawa Rajput kingdom of Amber  (as the kingdom was called before the establishment of the planned city of Jaipur by Jai Singh in 1727).  Prior to coming under the control of the Rajputs, the region around Sambhar had been part of a weak Muslim principality.  Behrisal Singh, Prince of Amber, looking to find his own space free from the intrigues of Amber, conquered these Muslim chieftains and carved out a small kingdom, well-endowed with natural resources, with its capital at Naraina.  This  kingdom included the region that is now Savista and its environs.  Impressed by the audacity of his son and the rich natural resources – notably water – of the new kingdom, the king of Amber persuaded his eldest son to give up his aspiration for total independence, and to bring his fiefdom within the ambit of the kingdom of Amber.  Being unambitious, Behrisal assented to his father’s request, retaining his autonomy in matters of administration and maintenance of law and order, but permitting the revenues from his kingdom to flow into Amber’s coffers;  he also maintained men and horses in the service of Amber’s army. He preferred to remain satisfied with his own space and never once laid claim to the throne of Amber. 

Within a few generations, even the notional kingdom ceased to exist, as recounted earlier in this article,  and Naraina went into eclipse as a royal seat.  It became instead the headquarters of the Dadu Panth, the spiritual community that follows the precepts of Dadu, a wandering mystic from Gujarat who came and settled at Naraina at the invitation of the last Rajput king there. 

Even today, Naraina is better known as the seat of the Dadu Panth than for its royal past.  All that remains of that past are the abandoned cenotaphs of the former kings and three majestic but crumbling entrance gates to the city.

The ruins of a kingdom: the central lake at Naraina with the entrance arches in the background
A forgotten palace
Cenotaphs that can no longer tell their own stories
And those that tell other stories…
The annals of the Dadu Panth, housed here in the headquarters of the sect, tell the story of Naraina’s transformation from a Kacchawa Rajput kingdom into a spiritual centre

On a mundane level, salt has been harvested at Sambhar for a known period of at least 1000 years. Even today, it reportedly accounts for roughly 9 percent of the total salt production in India. 

The government salt works at Sambhar Lake
The scene at at the Sambhar salt works that has Bollywood directors in thrall. Several Bollywood films feature scenes set in this stark landscape.
The engineer who graciously took us on a tour of the salt works

Actually, salt is not that mundane a commodity.  Without salt, none of our food would taste good. Salt is also the greatest food preservative known to man.  Salt was so prized that in ancient times it was both a medium of exchange, and a symbol of honour. ‘To be worth one’s salt’ was a sign of reliability and self worth. To ‘have eaten another’s salt’ was an acknowledgement of debt and loyalty. 

More recently in the early decades of the 20th century, the levying of a tax on salt by the British rulers of colonial India – seen as symbolic of their ultimate betrayal of their Indian subjects – acted as a major spark to the civil disobedience movement that marked the Indian struggle for independence.   Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March – where he led the people’s march to the seashore at Dandi in Gujarat, there to harvest their own salt and thereby break the oppressive colonial law – was a deliberate yet peaceful provocation to the powers that be.  

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