Jaisalmer looms out of the desert like a fairy tale. The desolate roads, the pastoral calmness in the air, the hue of the mud changing from yellow to amber to white, the feeling of nothingness for miles in the Thar, the golden hue of the monuments set against a backdrop of clear, blue sky, the nomadic hue in the lifestyle, the ubiquitous tea by the desert stalls: thin, frugal brew – hot, sugary, and laden with spices, camels engineering themselves to look both regal and dim-witted at the same time, wandering aimlessly down the streets, pulling low carts with frustrated owners behind them; this city is painted with many colours – mostly dull but inviting.
Stories fail as realty unleashes itself in this golden city. Every structure from the famed fort to the humble bank building is laden with golden hue. My first tryst was with the golden mirage floating above the city, stubbornly gazing at the humble city, appearing and disappearing in the play of light and shade, boasting of a confluence of living and the dead, a symbol of simultaneity of a collective owned culture and a privately managed property – this is the only living fort in the world, a fort hosting 5000 people in it. The fort looked organic, as if had risen from the dust, brushed in yellow changing from yellow to amber to honey to camel and so on; yet it was no ethereal structure, a mammoth building symbolic of human definitiveness and creativity. It stands tall against the city. The tall gates made me recall the story of Ali baba and the fort thieves, the massive gates leading you to an alley with obstinate cows. The similarly intricate carvings outside of the fort walls, a number of ‘Havelis’, homes to the super-rich merchants of the past, all making the living fort are now open to public viewing. The alleys are dotted with some intriguing and bizarre exhibits ranging from opium-smoking apparatus to keep the interests of the on-goers alive. A short glance of the lives of 5000 people the fort embraces and the odd seamlessness of the public and the private ethos; where the golden walls contrive an image of metal grills with gracefully echoed intricate carvings blushing with a garrulous lady peeping out of an elaborate balustrade from beneath the drying clothes. There is a subtle candidness in the simultaneity and the spontaneity of this fort. It blends the two worlds – one which refuses to die and the other which fights to breathe.
The random havelis are emblematic. They are redolent of lost pleasure, wealth and easy life. The intricate Islamic styled chatris, with abstract geometric patterns are today dwelled by pigeons and the ornated walls of rooms that would have once provided space for studies of paintings and architecture today gasps for some fresh air to hold them. Many of these Havelis have now been converted into heritage hotels. The most interesting of the Havelis is the Patwon ki Haveli in the Patwon complex. A walk through the complex takes one to the times frozen in layers of time.
I made a quick way to the hotel – Suryagarh Palace some 12 Kms outside the main city. The roads leading to the hotel were desolate, with a sullen felling of absoluteness, the white grains of sand bejeweling it and the music of silence taking me. At Suryagarh the modern and the medieval go together. In the first sight, it seemed an image drawn from thousand pictures all smeared in gold. The place looked like a leaf taken from the books of history, full of historic memorabilia and object d’art. The place stands like a jewel in the Thar.
A short interval for lunch and then a fulfilling ride to drench my being in other jewels dotting the desert lands – the Jain temples. The spot was the 400 years old Jain temple at Lodrva, once the capital city; the temple stands as a dot in miles of land, left uninhabited, with the secluded Acacia trees only to give it company. At a little distance only is the Amar sagar, a lake built by Amar Singh and the jain temple standing at its banks built by Patwai, rich merchants of Jaisalmer. The splendid carvings and the intricate interiors call for sharp photographic moments to capture the details.
The clock had taken two full rounds and settled at 4’ O clock when we made our way to the desert photographer’s feast – the sand dunes. A visit to jaisalmer, without a stay under the clear sky, baring the icy winds of February, in your list is a job ‘no-done’. The wind carved ripples on the sand created a magical feast for the eyes. Flashes of colour and music of bangles draws one’s attention to the road side shelters where women stand as if they had come out of an ‘Incredible India’ advertisement. Bright colours, heavy jewellery and bangles running upto their arms; these girls have mastered coy smiles. The men too grim in their insouciant manner. A random look at the roads dotted with mud plastered huts, humble gumti in the name of tea stall and the camel carts eyeing at the frequenting visitors; symbolizes the emptiness of the place. I hurriedly mounted on a camel back to take a ride of the Thar and feel the essence of its beauty as the Sun melted. You can even take a camel cart to skirt into the villages or wheel the deserts. A camel ride deep into the deserts can cost around Rs 300-500. Camel ride always come in a package with incredible stories of the camel hauler and short distractions from young girls heavily dressed and ornamented for dancing for money. A peculiar sort of peace descends on the dunes in the late evening, when the icy cold desert wind begins to blow, and this is the most enjoyable part of the dunes experience. The clear sky spells a magic and the camps organize the famed ‘Kalbelia’ dance. What an experience!! the fire taking the center stage and visitors accommodating themselves around it in a circle. The stillness of the night is interrupted by Rajasthani folk songs and dances in rhythm with the ‘Kalibeliya’ dancer. Kalibeliya is a tribe also known as ‘nat’ or ‘snake charmers’ and still live their vagabond life. The music makes your heart feel vagabond as well. A group of musicians sing, play the harmonium, clash cymbals and beat percussion instruments. A sharp call of the peacock from desert resonates in the calmness of the place. The loud, melodious songs of the desert fill the nothingness, and the rustle of the wind seemed to be carrying it for miles.
I had to make our way back to our hotel, but before that it was dining time for me – desert beans ‘Khair sangri’ and daal bati – proved out to be a desert feast for me. A quick dinner and a quicker goodbye to the dunes and I reversed my steps for the hotel. From one heaven to the other. Gracefully lighted the hotel seemed nothing less than a palace standing on the hard rocks overlooking the Thar. It was surely an indulgence in luxury. Giant walls narrating unheard stories, diyas ostentatiously showing their golden hue, inner walls beautifully carved and dressed with arms, and the ornate Jalis mimicking the unparallel architecture of the place – all weaved a desert fairytale. The sumptuous indulgence in wine and food and the unchallenged comfort the décor gave to the beauty thirsty eyes veneered with the ethereal softness in the winds; provoked some poetic thoughts in me. It’s difficult imagining such still nights in Metros and even those few minutes spent in whiffing the desert odour seemed worth giving this place one more go. I shivered at the thought that would be my last night in the desert.
The next morning was to bring a welcome recipe on my travel plate – the Desert Festival. The Desert Festival is organized every February and is a major attraction among the visitors. The Golden city had got costumed in myriads of colours. Organized in the lap of the living fort, in the Shahid Poonam Singh stadium, the festival hosts a list of wacky activities; but it definitely gives another reason for this desert city to dance exuberantly. I was a little late to reach there, having taken a detour to the Gadisagar Lake. The charm of the lake is buttressed by the beauty of its beautifully carved sandstone archway – Tawai ka pol. The Golden city had got festooned with colours. The festival kicks off with a possession, exhibiting the life and culture of Jaisalmer from Sonar fort to the stadium. The festival had a list of quirky competitions including the best moustache and the best turban tying competition. The real pleasure was in seeing the foreign visitors getting soaked in the festivity and colour of Rajasthan and dancing on the tunes of ‘Padharo mare des’. Tailored especially for tourists, the festival is an extravaganza of cultural vibes, vibrant dance, indulgent local food and exquisite local art. It is an effervescent glimpse of fading arts like snake charming and acrobatics, endearing puppet shows, splendid display of moustache, germane display of colours of turban, mouth-watering Rajasthani snacks, and adventure of fire shows and delight of camel polo.
The morning was canvassed in a poetic easel of exhilarating competitions and as the fierce sun rays softened and changed into a pleasant hue, stars filled up the sky to be an audience to the magical music performances. The night was embellished by the impeccable settings offered by the Fort in the background. The night seemed to have been woven with a golden thread. A host of artists sang ballads and folk songs. A festival spanning for three days could bring so many shades on my plate and make me feel and live a different life every moment was just unimaginable. While the first day had quirkiness, the second day had a sporty offering and the camel played the protagonist. From camel decoration to camel tattooing to a special camel parade by the BSF and the game of camel polo beholds you to their magic. It works as a magician casting his spell on you, leaving you bewitched, wowed and enraptured. The three days are marked with such competitions, dances, sports, desert adventure activities etc. The last day especially celebrates the fineness of the desert by hosting a list of adventure activities in the sands. Just three days and an experience to relish memories for years – this was Jaisalmer to me.
Travelling in desert is a like a shift in perspective. The landscape is both amazing and tricky. The colour palette – a thousand shades and the intense sunlight reflecting off the sand tricks the eye into seeing things that don’t exist. The simplest moments are the most exciting – learning to tie a turban, singing with the camel boy as we moved a herd of camels, standing atop the mountainous dunes at sunset, and lazing beside a crackling fire by the light of the full moon and hundreds of things you don’t attempt to do in your daily life. And above all, the tricky sands offer the greatest luxury – silence.