An otara serves as a centre for cultural activity
Jan Otara Adaya Oar Dharm Badhi Paar
Tani Sando Pariwar Raj Kando Rajaya
he Thari poet Rajaya prays, “May they never face poverty, the ones who have built the otara, because they offer meals to the poor and are involved in philanthropic activities.”
In the Thar desert, human settlements are scattered wide apart. There are no patterns of dense population. The weak connectivity is the primary reason for establishing otara(s).
Even though roads and communication networks have improved in Thar in the recent years, otaras are still operating as centres for social activities and gatherings. The otaras continue to fulfill the purpose they were built for in the first place, i.e., serving people in need.
Known as otara in the Thari language and autaak in most of Sindh and some parts of Balochistan, the place is not a structure built without purpose. It is more than a symbol of hospitality built for travellers and a place for socialising. Over centuries, otaras have been public places for trade and discourse. They are the resting places for locals and travellers alike. A villager looking for their lost cattle in the desert could be without bed for days. Otara offers them a place to rest and regain their energy.
These are quite different from the serais along the Grand Trunk Road and Silk Road which are frequently a commercial operation. The otaras are built primarily for local use. These resthouses are built to provide basic facilities and essential services. They offer water, charpoys and shade. Typically, there are trees in the courtyard. In the mornings, peacocks visit the otara looking for food; dogs come at night hoping to find shelter in the summers.
Mostly located away from urban centres of Thar such as Virawah, Nangarparker, Islamkot, Dhaboo, Odigaam and Dongri, the otaras are the local centres of community meetings.
The Thari people are known for their hospitality, but their otaras are not merely symbols of hospitality. These are also places to maintain and promote the oral tradition of storytelling and poetry recitation. Otaras are central to cultural activity. The elders often gather here and narrate tales of all kinds, entertaining and teaching the younger Thari folk. Otaras provide a space to share ideas and exchange views.
These spaces bring people together through culture, tradition and sharing of language. They also serve as places to settle disputes peacefully.
The ownership of an otara resides with the locals. Those living closest to one manage the availability of food and water for the travellers.
Otaras over the centuries have shaped the economic, social and cultural life of the region. As a point of stay, otaras became the centre for sharing and accepting new thoughts.
Building an otara or autaak is a costly endeavour. The minimum cost of building even a basic otara now comes to Rs 500,000. It can be a lot higher in case of a more spacious and decorated otara, built possibly as a symbol of power and influence in the area.
Most otaras can easily seat a hundred people. Nearly half as many can share the roof for the night. These traditional Thari mud houses are built with landhi and chura, their roof or chitt with bushes of khipra tree. To hold the weight of the roof, there are balanced bamboo supports and the ceiling is made from hardwood.
Many parts of Thar remain unexplored by travellers and tourists, but with increased tourist activity in recent years, the purpose of these resting places has been re-established. Otaras near main roads are now run as small tea stalls. Many of these sell basic grocery items as well to facilitate the visitors.
The large, open-air space with a concrete floor is used as a gathering place during early morning hours and through the slow evenings. They are turned into small farmers’ markets whenever the need arises.
Otaras and autaaks do not have doors like most traditional houses in Thar. This is reflective of the welcoming, peaceful and harmonious nature of the Thari people.
The writer tweets at @Ammad_Alee