The temperature here can range from 50deg C to 5deg C. The moisture-laden monsoon winds pass over this desert unchecked, and years can pass by without any rain. Shifting dunes of sand make the land infertile, where not much can grow. Dust storms with wind speeds of up to 150kph tear through this landscape. This is the Thar desert. It covers about 3,20,000 sq. km running through Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. The Thar is an inhospitable place where life struggles to survive. It’s only stunted scrubs, like the hardy acacia, that have adapted to the desert that can grow here. As I look through the windscreen of my Mahindra Thar at the desolate landscape with undulating sand dunes stretching into the horizon, I wonder if this is the spiritual home of the SUV I am driving. I shift the Thar into first and let go of the clutch. It’s time to find out.
I have driven 12 hours from Mumbai to get here to Dasada, a village less than 100km from Ahmedabad. The excellent black tarmac highway in Gujarat meant that we could keep the Thar at a steady three-digit speed. The 106hp CRDe engine felt unstressed and the Thar just gobbled up the distance. There’s a certain charm in sitting high above the traffic and seeing the bonnet out of the windscreen scything through the highway.
Roughing It, At The Rann
Dasada is home of the Rann Riders, a resort located in the Little Rann of Kutch. This is a fantastic destination to see the endangered Indian Wild Ass. This area has been listed by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve. The next morning I drive into the Little Rann, a featureless expanse of shrubs and cracked earth as far as the eye can see. There are no roads here; you make your own way. Without a guide from the Rann Riders, I would be lost in no time. While in any other vehicle I would be tiptoeing through this terrain, here I have the pedal planted to the Thar’s floor. The Thar just bullies through the landscape in a trail of dust.
We suddenly spot what we have been looking for, a herd of Indian Wild Ass. The guide directs me to intersect the animals’ path. The herd passes by our Thar at a trot, though they can attain speeds of up to 80kph.
And that’s the special thing about the Thar. You want adventure? The Thar will take you there, in civilised and air-conditioned comfort. And then, when the road runs out, the Thar will continue going where few vehicles have gone before. Though there are no rocks to clamber over, no mud pits to bog you down or steep gradients to negotiate in this barren place, I know that if need be, it can. I know because I have.
Dune Bashing With Dilawar
Continuing through the desert landscape, I drive from Dasada to Jaisalmer the next day. And what is a trip to Jaisalmer without doing a little dune bashing. So it’s off to Sam Sand dunes about 50km west of Jaisalmer. And there I spot my CRDe Thar’s cousin, a Thar DI, zigzagging across the dunes. Though I have done dune bashing in the CRDe, I’ve never had the chance to do so in the DI. The driver of the car is Dilawar Khan, a slightly built young man. He graciously accepts our request for a drive through the dunes. Though the DI generates 64hp against the CRDe’s 106, Dilawar uses the Thar’s momentum to crest the dune, with the narrow section tyre effortlessly surfing through the sand. There are no winches or tow trucks here to pull us out if we get stuck but Dilawar is not worried. I ask him if he has ever considered the possibility of getting stuck, and he replies that his Thar will never get stuck. That’s the power of belief over reason. Anyway, we do get back without getting bogged down in the sand. I realise that in this part of the world the Mahindras are more than just a product, it’s a belief system. To understand it better, I need a perspective from someone who is a part of this land. I know just the man to meet, so I set course for Jaipur.
Collector And Restorer
Indra Vijai Singh, known as Tony Singh, among friends and Jeep lovers is a restorer and collector. He is also the president of the Rajputana Jeep Club. He has set aside 420 sq. mt. of his ancestral property in Jaipur where he, along with his son Adhiraj, runs a workshop restoring old vehicles. His personal collection includes two Ford GPWs, one Willy’s CJ-3A, one CJ-3B, one M38A1 and two models of Kaiser, CJ-4 and CJ-6. He has an interesting story about how the earliest of these vehicles forged for the war first came to Rajasthan.
Two shiploads of about 2,000 new Jeeps, despatched for the war effort reached Calcutta the day Japan surrendered to the Allies. Rather than sending them back, it was decided to auction the Jeeps. Since Calcutta is home to many from the Marwari community with roots back in Rajasthan, the word was sent back home about the auction. Rich merchants and princely families were the first in queue for these war machines. Roads were few in Rajasthan and a sturdy 4x4 vehicle was just what was needed to go where they, till now, had to rely on camels. That was how the love affair began.
The Mahindra DNA
Mahindra’s association with these vehicles began in 1947, with importing and assembling them at Mazgaon. Five years later, the first completely indigenous vehicle rolled out in 1954. For the next two decades, Mahindra continued to make the vehicle at its plant. Though they were being made by Mahindra, there was no badging of the company except for a plate on the dash. How authentic were they? Let’s just say that it wasn’t till 1968 that they switched to right-hand drive. And it wasn’t until the oil crisis in 1973 that they looked beyond the petrol engine, for a diesel.
Tony Singh’s house is a virtual museum of these legendary vehicles, and his knowledge about them is encyclopedic. But I have one more place still to visit before I turn the Thar’s nose back to Mumbai.
Customised For You
Dabwali is a nondescript town. Somewhere I had read that this town is a popular hub for refurbished SUVs. There are small garages dotting the town, but the case for it as a hub for refurbished Jeeps is a little overstated. I came across two showrooms selling these vehicles. They sell for anywhere between Rs 2-4 lakh, and they’ll customise it as per your taste. You can choose between the DI or Isuzu engine. Old Willy’s and Mahindra chassis are cut and beaten to any shape you like. These machines, all two-wheel drive, are best for slowly coasting down the streets for people to admire your taste while you blast Honey Singh songs at full volume.
After 10 days and 4,500km on the road by the time I return to Mumbai, I have a new perspective on the Thar. Though the Thar of today is a very different animal than the war machines that Mahindra started assembling in 1947, they share the same DNA. While there is a practical and logical side to these tough machines, what makes them special is the promise of adventure. It’ll take you to office without a fuss, but will constantly remind you that there is an adventure waiting for somewhere. And the Thar to take you there.