Places - Desert

There are three main areas of desert in the Indian subcontinent.

Thar Desert

Photo of the interior of a tribal dwelling, in the desert of Rajasthan.
Tribal dwelling in the Bishnoi region of the Rajasthan desert.

The first is the Thar Desert, located mainly in Western Rajasthan and Northern Gujarat in India, and parts of Eastern Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan. The southern reaches of the Thar merge with a uniquely saline desert environment called the Rann of Kutch (in Gujarat). Though not completely dry, the Rann of Kutch is impossible to cultivate because of high levels of seasonal water logging and salinity. The Rann of Kutch is also home to various unique forms of game and wildlife that have come to colonise the area, while the Thar desert similarly supports wildlife that is unique to the area. The Thar desert, and the Rann of Kutch are both sandy deserts, and are often treated as typical deserts in that sense.

Desert in Pakistan

The second type of desert is to be found along the Western hill and mountain ranges of Pakistan, and rises from the Arabian Sea as the Suleiman - Kithar ranges, which then go north through Baluchistan and Waziristan, and curves eastwards as it merges with the Hindu Kush. This barren, desolate and rugged landscape makes up the bulk of the landmass of Pakistan, but supports very little population, and almost no agriculture beyond subsistence farming and some orchards. Indeed the capacity of the British and Pakistan governments to control this vast area, inhabited mainly by fiercely proud and independent tribes with strong affinities to Afghanistan and Iran, has always been extremely limited. Politically these areas have invariably been afforded a substantial degree of autonomy, at least until recently. Efforts to bring this area under control have been underway for the past couple of years.

Though barren and quite desolate, the higher hill ranges receive snow during winter, which feeds a rudimentary farming economy. The largest town in this area is Quetta, which is the provincial headquarters of the province of Baluchistan.

Tibetan Plateau

The third type of desert resembles the high altitude deserts of the Tibetan plateau, and indeed adjoins Tibet. These pockets are located in the district of Ladakh, in eastern Kashmir, and in Lahaul Spiti in northern Himachal Pradesh. There was another district east of Ladakh, called Aksai Chin, which was under Indian administration until 1962, but is now under Chinese occupation. Its importance to China lies in the fact that it connects the Tibetan plateau to the sensitive minority (mainly Muslim) areas of Western China, and the nuclear test sites at Lop Nor.

Ethnically and culturally, both these regions share more with Tibet than with the rest of the sub-continent, but because Buddhism is so much part of the Indian tradition, the degree of assimilation is high.

It could be argued that parts of the Deccan plateau, particularly in areas of central Maharashtra, are actually deserts (indeed they look bleak and barren), but this instead, exhibits the problems of desertification caused by excessive land use and overgrazing. Ecologically, there are several parts of India in similar danger, and scientists often point to the growth of the Thar desert to warn of impending ecological problems.