The Deserts of Thar: Jaisalmer

Traveling to Jaisalmer was like entering a story book and becoming one of the characters of the unfolding tale. There was a detective book and then a movie by Satyajit Ray named Sonar Kella which has introduced Rajasthan in an altogether different light to almost all Bengalies. The morning train journey took us past stations like Ramdeora and Pokran which are an integral part of the story and finally landed us in Jaisalmer, possibly the biggest town on the western border of India in Rajasthan.

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The Golden Fortress model carved in wood

The railway station is a small one but the fact that Jaisalmer is an internationally renowned and sought after tourist destination is evident the moment one sets foot there. The speakers at the station were blaring out Rajasthani folk songs as we made our way through the crowd of porters, auto-walas and taxi drivers. This was the first “railway” station where I saw tourist agents standing with placards for receiving their guests. Within 5 minutes of conversing with our auto driver, it became evident that Bengalis consisted of 90% of the Indian tourists who visited Jaisalmer and were held in high regards by the locals. For them, Satyajit Ray was God, for he had singlehandedly transformed the destiny of the then god-forsaken place. In fact, the famous Golden Fort came to be known so after the movie Sonar Kella. Not many people remember what it was called before.

My Uncle had heard of a place called Hotel Prince that serves Bengali food. We made our way there for lunch. We were starved and stuffed ourselves with Alu Posto,  Daal, Tarkari, Maacher Jhal and Chatney. We had our bookings at the Rajasthan Desert Safari Camp around 40 km from Jaisalmer in the midst of the Thar Desert. We rented a car for 1200 bucks from the same hotel and embarked on our journey through the deserts. We encountered beautiful chatries and local villages on the way. It was an hour’s drive on the deserted road where sand and thorny bushes lay on either sides till the horizon. The sun shone brightly on the tar road and we even managed to see a few mirages!

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The Desert Safari Camp

We reached the camp at around 3:15 in the afternoon with the scorching sun burning down onto the sands. To my surprise and relief, the place turned out to be exactly what I had read and seen on the internet. As one enters through the gate, on the left hand is the big courtyard with cane chairs lined on three sides and a stage facing them. As one proceeds straight, the small lane lined with hand paintings on the mud capped walls opens into a huge ground which is lined with Swiss tents and mud cottages. The porter led us to our tents. They were unbelievably white and cozy. The inside had a comfortable double bed and a few wooden easy chairs. The most surprising of all were the clean and well equipped washrooms. We knew we were going to get our money’s worth.

We had tea and refreshments and then rested for an hour. I guess it was the hot weather which prompted such an afternoon siesta with the tent fluttering in the desert winds. We had been told to assemble in the lobby at 5 pm for the camel safari to the sand dunes. Our camels were named Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan and were pulled by two boys Salim and Ali not more than 12 years of age. Camels are definitely tough animals to ride and the ride is not a cakewalk. They tend to plunge you forward as they lift their hind legs and then backward as they get up completely. The elders were scared and so was I praying that they dont fall off else it would have been a disaster!

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Camel Safari!
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The Thar desert lay till the horizon and view from the back of a camel was incredible.
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The locals with their camels
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The flowing Sam sand dunes

The ride on the back of a camel through the arid desert landscape is an experience of a lifetime. Some things cannot be photographed or recorded. They have to be experienced to be felt. The camels would stop in between to munch on the cactus that grew on the way. After a bumpy ride of a couple of kilometres, we finally reached the Sam sand dunes. The Thar desert in Rajasthan is not like Sahara or Gobi where one is surrounded by sand till the horizon. In fact, the west Indian deserts are more of a sporadic mix of acacias and cactii and sand dunes. We were followed by many other groups who were heading for the dunes to enjoy the sunset. The colourful camels and the locals dressed in traditional Rajasthani attire looked amazing against the barren sands. We were only around 10 Indians in a crowd of more than a hundred. There were tourists from America, England, Germany, Chile, Holland and God knows where. The guides accompanying them spoke fluently their respective mother tongues. Tourism is huge in Rajasthan is a major understatement.

I found some dunes which were untouched by human or camel feet and clicked away in glory. It was fascinating to watch the sun disappear into the sands. The locals danced, played and sang. It was Rajasthan in the air!

Finally around 6:30, it was time to go back to the tents. The ride back was fun as almost 50 camels laden with tourists made their way back to civilization. Once back at the camp, we found that a group of over 50 Germans were already seated in the entertainment arena. We sat in the back rows where we were served evening snacks. The local artists performed traditional Rajasthani song-n-dance and in the end, a bonfire was lit and the guests joined in with the dancers to have a gala time. Soon it was time for dinner and we eat platefuls since the adventures of the day had left us starving.

The heat had disappeared and we were literally shivering as we made our way to the tents. We spent some time chatting inside the the dimly lit tents. The desert sky seems to have more stars over it than elsewhere. The fluttering of the tents was audible against the silent night. The tents were warm and cozy and the little light that flickered inside cast long shadows. It was beautiful. I dint realize when my eyes closed. I went to sleep with a smile on my lips.

The sun rises pretty late in the deserts. It was still dark when I woke up at 7:15. The camp is so beautifully located that one can watch the sunrise while sitting in the verandah outside the tents. I stood there with my camera and watched the sky turn crimson and then the sun popped out of the sands. We found Mahendraji, our cabbie waiting by the time breakfast was done. The staff of the camp need to be applauded since none of us can forget the experience we’ve had in the last 24 hours. We made our way back to Jaisalmer and checked into RTDC Moomal where we had our rooms booked.

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The alleys in the town of Jaisalmer
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The gorgeous havelis of Jaisalmer

We had ample time in hand that day since we were going to visit the fort only the next day. Today we were going to explore the town. The best part about this place is that anywhere one wants to go; its 20 bucks in an auto. Our first stop was Patwa ki Haveli; an incredible haveli tucked in the bylanes of the Jaisalmer town. The architecture of the place stuns you. Every photo clicked there turns out to be a masterpiece with no credit to the photographer. The rooms, the furniture, the wall paintings, the crockery, the scriptures, everything was so rich and royal. All the major tourist places in Rajasthan provide audio guides which are a nice buy because forts, palaces and havelis are made more intriguing with their history.

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Patwali ki Haveli
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The Jaisalmer Royal family residence

There are a couple of havelis more but none as impressive as this one. Jaisalmer is a pretty small place and almost everything can be reached on foot. We walked through the bazaars which are narrow lanes with shops on either sides selling colourful handicrafts, clothes, shawls, handbags, hats, leather items, etc. We visited the Mandir Palace where the present descendents of the royalty reside. Although a small place, its got some exquisite architecture too. Its made out of yellow limestone; the same as the fort and it appeared gilded as the sun shone brightly over it. Its terrace gives an impressive view of the Golden Fort. We went back to the Prince hotel for a bengali lunch. That day being saturday, they served us fish curry as well. Walking in the sun and having our stomachs full made all of us extremely sleepy and we decided to return to our hotel for an afternoon siesta.

We went out again at around 5:30 to the Gadissar Lake which has some beautiful chattris constructed within the lake. Many foreign tourists were already there enjoying the water, breeze and the sunset. Many ducks paddled in the water. The lake has an enormous number of fishes and they arise in hundreds out of water for little titbits that are sold inside the lake campus. The sun went down as we spent over an hour sitting on the ghats. As the evening drew to a close, we made our way to the markets again where we bought some momentos made from yellow limestone to take back with us. Finally we walked back to our hotel. We went up to the terrace to get a glimpse of the lit up fort against the backdrop of the dark skies. A fascinating sight! We were tired from all the walking of the day, had dinner and called it a day. The next day was going to be big. It was for the sole reason of visiting the Golden Fortress that I had made this elaborate plan 🙂

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The Chatris at the Gadissar Lake

An overcast sky greeted us the next morning as we made our way to the dining hall. A breakfast of bread, eggs and cutlets; and we were ready for our excursion to the Golden Fortress. Since we were not sure if we could get back before 12, we completed the checkout formatlities and left our lugguage at the hotel reception. We walked to the Hanuman Chowk and hired an auto for 50 bucks to the only living fort in India. As soon as the auto stopped in the main courtyard, we were mobbed by guides. We hired one for 100 bucks. He turned out to be quite an enthusiastic guy called Gajendra. He took us around the lanes which feature in the movie Sonar Kella.

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The Jain Temples inside the Golden Fortress complex

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Our first stop were the exquisite Jain Temples inside the 800 year old fort. The carvings and architecture have to be seen to be believed. They were incredible. Jains have two sects –  Shwetambaras and Pitambaras. These were Pitambara temples with almost all the Mahavir idols being yellow in colour; they were in fact made of the same yellow limestone as the fort. I found one white idol of Mahavir which seemed to be made out of marble. The priests inside the temples were highly co-operative and one of them even clicked a group photo for us. The inside of the fort is indeed like a labyrinth where one would definitely get lost without a guide. We went up and down steep stone steps as we made our way from one temple to another; each one more beautiful than the previous.

After about half an hour, we came out to the central courtyard once again. Now it was time to enter the Raja and Rani Mahal. We made our way up the steps to enter the Raja Mahal. There were beautiful jharokhas all around. The Rani Mahal had a chess board flooring which guarantees good photographs. One could peek out of the small windows to get a glimpse of the golden city that stretched below. Interestingly, almost all the houses, hotels and other buildings in Jaisalmer are made from the same stone as the fort and when the rays of the sun light up these houses, it gives the illusion of a city of gold! Finally after a lot of climbing through the rooms and halls, we found ourselves on a terrace which gave an unhindered view of the city that lay below. The golden city glittered under the morning sun. The deserts lay beyond and stretched to the horizons. We learnt that the border with Pakistan lay about 75 kms away. We also caught a glimpse of the famous Palace on Wheels parked at the railway station.

The way down took us again through a labyrinth of steps and we finally emerged into the central courtyard again. The guide led us through winding bylanes which had shops selling colourful handicrafts on either sides. We entered a shop selling curios and bought some glasses made from the golden stone. We went up to a point where a cannon was perched on the very edge of the fort wall with stone cannon balls lying below which were dropped on enemies if they tried to enter the fort. We spent some more time walking in the lanes. I somehow did not want to leave so early. At around 12, we made our way out of the fort; this time on foot. Right outside the fort, were many shops selling colourful bags, bedsheets, leather hats and lots of other interesting stuff. We stopped at a tea shop for a cup of tea and then made our way to our hotel.

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The Golden Fortress in all its splendor
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The entire fort is carved out of limestone rock.
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Tourism is huge here.

A light drizzle had started as we sat in the hotel lobby. I went out and had a walk in the hotel garden area. It would be inappropriate to call it a garden. It had some big trees swaying to the breeze and sheltering me from the drizzle. The fort was visible from in between the trees. I spent around half an hour taking in the sight and feeling a little melancholic that I would be bidding farewell to this town in the next few hours. We discovered some modern huts behind the hotel. They looked like huts only from the outside; inside, they were modern hotel rooms. A couple of puppies were playing outside and one of them came running as he saw me. He rolled over my feet and started playing.

By 1:30, we’ve had our lunch and by 2:30, were at the Jaisalmer Railway Station. Our overnight train to Jaipur was at 4:30. So we had solid two hours in hand. We spent the time visiting the special train celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. Around five to six coaches had been converted into a mobile museum displaying the poet’s life, relationships, poetry, dance drama, paintings and finally his role in the Indian Freedom Struggle. His songs played as we moved from one compartment to another. We bought a momento as well. The Palace on Wheels was currently halted at Jaisalmer and was parked on platform number one. One interesting thing was that each of its coaches was named after the places it was supposed to halt at. I noted the Jaisalmer Saloon, Jodhpur Saloon, Jaipur Saloon, Bundi Saloon, Ajmer Saloon, Udaipur Saloon, Kota Saloon and  Bikaner Saloon. Our train was on time and it was time to bid goodbye to Jaisalmer. As soon as we left Pokran, it started raining. Rain in the desert makes a very unusual sight.

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