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Osian Deserted Desert Village

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The famous dune of Osian rises dramatically on the outskirts of the ancient pilgrim town. The little railway station at the base of this enormous sand cliff seems to cower in its presence even as gusts of wind whip fine grains of sand from the top of the summit into the sprawling desert surrounding the settlement. Millions of years of erosion seem to have had little or no effect on the size of the mound as it traps more sand on the face of its towering slopes than what it loses to the wind.

Likewise the town of Osian which is a bedrock of the Jain faith is in a state of flux. For like the grains of sand blowing in the wind, Jain pilgrims pour into the town each day to pay their respects at the town’s sacred Jain shrine and move on before the sun has set. For even though the town, which 5,000 years ago was the prosperous capital city of the legendary Jain King Utpal Dev and lends its name to the Osian sect of the religion not a single Jain has resided in it for thousands of years.

Followers of the faith left the town of their own accord and chose not to ever resettle in it again. Even the pujari who cares for their temple is not a Jain but a Brahmin priest. The origin of the this strange relationship between Osian and Jains goes back many thousands of years when the Jain king who ruled the town had a dream in which a celestial being delivered a divine message: a swayambhu or self-made image of Lord Mahavir was being created of milk and clay in the ground under a specific banyon tree. On the seventh day, the ruler should go to the specified spot, dig out statue, plate it with gold and enshrine it in a temple.

However, the impatient king dug out the idol a day earlier only to find that it was not perfectly formed and had an unsightly growth under its left shoulder. And even though he plated it in gold and built a magnificent temple in which it was installed the ugly blemish on the statue troubled him greatly and he instructed his royal artisan to amputate it. As soon as the deed was done, milk started to flow out of the wound. It continued to flow relentlessly until the entire town was submerged.

Meanwhile, Goddess Durga, enshrined in a neighbouring temple, was greatly perturbed by the catastrophe. If the Jains can do what they did to their god, there is no saying what they will do to me, she reasoned. And so she issued an ultimatum: woe be it to any member of the community found within the limits of the town the next day, he/she would be plagued by unimaginable disaster. Overnight, the entire Jain community in Osian packed whatever they could carry and left; never to return.

Historic fact or legend; it does not matter for tradition survives and even today no Jain family will settle in the town. Neither science nor legend matters when it comes to determining the era when the Jain temple was built. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) established that it was constructed in 8 AD; belief dates it to 3 BC. More often than not the streets outside the temple complex were quiet and devoid of the buzz that one generally associates with pilgrim sites in India.

In contrast, the Durga temple in the heart of the town is alive with activity. Devotees and cows jostle for right of way on the narrow streets lined with colourful stalls selling flowers, prasad offerings and religious icons. One leaves the turmoil of the streets and climbs a stairway framed in a series of filigreed archways up to the central shrine of the temple complex on the crest of a hillock… and into a world of glass; a crystal temple whose pillars and walls are embedded with a mosaic of mirrors and colourful chips of glass.

The courtyard of the temple overlooks the town of Osian which unraveled across the semi-arid plains of Rajasthan. As the sun starts its final descent camel carts lumber down the streets of the pilgrim town and wild peacocks perch on the rooftops of the town: silhouetted against the desert sunset.

File Facts
Osian is an hour’s drive west of Jodhpur, the closest airport

Osian (or Osiyan as the Railways spell it) station on the outskirts of the town lies between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.

Rajasthan state transport and private buses connect the Osian to most major cities in the state.


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