The Deserted Landscape

Down below is a river valley that widens in the southwest as it mixes with the Sunkoshi. This terrace is fertile, as evident from the cultivated farms. Less than 50 metres higher, where we stand, there is a different scenario. The soil is red, hard, and clayey. Trees, here are rare. Bushes are scanty and prickly. Cacti have reached heights of more than 3 metres.

A view from Ratmate

Are we walking on a desert?

When I say “desert”, the first image you usually come up is that of arid, sandy land with little to no vegetation, no water, mirages, and camels. You are not wrong. Your mind has what popular culture has engraved in it. The popular culture shows just one picture of desert that is actually a rare phenomenon. Only one of the things that you thought of is common in deserts: scarcity of water.

Does this area lack water?

We survey this area close to Ratmate[1] Bazaar, Sindhuli. The surface has been scoured by running water. These rills imply the relative impermeability of the soil. (We also confirmed the very low permeability by a simple infiltration test). This almost impermeable soil does not allow water to infiltrate (and so the rills form!). Thus, there is no possibility for occurrence of spring or well.

The redness suggested otherwise. We theorized, “Some time back in the past, the area could have been a lake, providing water required for oxidation of iron present in the soil.” Can we find iron here?

On examining the origin of the soil, we find allochthonous granite boulders. These boulders apparently settled here during a landslide event. When we produced “fresh” samples, we saw that the boulders themselves were stained in red. Only one of ten samples was unstained. A little further, we found quartzite, and saw similar scene. The red soil, the granite, and quartzite samples, all had high specific gravity. We could conclude: “The iron comes from both the granite and quartzite. This iron reacted with oxygen and produced haematite, a red and heavy iron oxide.

Later when I searched for the properties of red soil on Google, I found some useful information: 1) The red soil is generally acidic; 2) It is low in nitrogen; 3) It is suitable for rice plantation (because of water holding capacity) and some beans; and 4) The soil is naturally infertile.

The land we studied hosted some bushes, as I have mentioned earlier, but the lack of water, acidic nature of the soil and general infertility helped us conclude: “We were on a desert or were seeing some sort of desertification.”

What can lack of water do to villages? We observed this two days later.

That day, we climbed a peak of about 1400 m in Ramechhap and came down a trail. We had thought it would lead us down safely. But that was not to be.

A small landslide had occurred near the main trail. From there we could see a path that went downhill. As we walked, it suddenly ended into what looked like a same baari[2]. There was nothing but colluvium, but it was definitely cultivated in the past. (We had seen a cultivated baari some 10 metres above). We looked around and saw a heap of stones. This, we assumed, where the house was. After the owners left, people nearby might have demolished the house, taken doors and windows for fuel and heaped up the stones in order to take them later.

As we roamed around in despair looking for the main trail, we found four more similar scenes. This, we concluded, was a nice settlement until something forced them out. In our topographic map (some 26 years old), there are some clusters of houses. This, we concluded, was one of those clusters.

Finally, we found the trail but instead of taking us down, it took us up! Sometime later, it disappeared. On observing, the trail was still there but the grasses had made it invisible and slippery. Helping each other, we went down and finally reached the trail we had used to climb up earlier that day.

A Trail that Vanished

What drove off people from that place? The immediate thought was: landslide. But the slide looked younger than the desertion. Lack of water was another reason we discussed about. In that hill and in most of the hills in that district, there is scarcity of water. But was there another reason?

It did not come to me at that time, but the whole of Ramechhap was important place for the Maoists during the 10 years of civil war in the last decade. Many people in the district undertook the ideology and carried guns in the name of revolution. Some families were involved in entirety. Some families were driven away. Some left to safer places to avoid the war. Did the village we walked through die because of nature or politics? While I feel that the nature pressured the desertion, politics could have also played some role. The definite history, however, cannot be drawn unless we find the people who left the place.


[1] Red-soiled.

[2] a small land usually cultivated for flowers, fruits and vegetables by a single household

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