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Jaisalmer: In the realms of a grand mirage

“First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is”
- The Donovan

This is one post I have begun a dozen times, only to end in the first line. And then I remembered this old whimsical Donovan number and I thought, Ah well! I don’t think I can do better than that.
Jaisalmer was an obvious destination of choice on my trip across Rajasthan. I had heard distantly from friends and family of its eccentric populace and landscape. But I must admit amongst all the wonderous tales, Jaisalmer is undoubtedly at the core of Rajasthan’s commercial cesspool. Hundreds of tourists throng within the gates of the living fort. Unlike other forts of Rajasthan, it is said that the erstwhile king of Jaisalmer preferred to live among his subjects making the fortress grounds the abode of royals and commoners alike. The city flourished sitting on the ancient trading super-highway between the east and the west with silk and spices passing their hands.

Today this pervasive tradition of co-habitation exists only in name. The elites have long discarded the impregnable walls and migrated into the newer parts of the town. As the commercial success of the city withered over the decades, the impoverished remained to rebuild what was left of their dying culture. Staggering under the economic pressure of the 21st century, Jaisalmer now faces a new set of challenges. With tourism sucking more travellers and job-seekers into its walls, the ancient fort is crumbling in dangerous and unpredictable ways, slowly dissolving into the sand beneath.

Travelling on a shoe-string budget, popular resorts on the fringe of the city wasn’t exactly an option for me. Crafts and curio held little interest since I clearly didn’t have the funds to indulge my aesthetic whims. Instead I was after the desert. I imagined it would be something out of the pages of the Arabian Nights; exotic and exceptional. But nothing prepared me for the rollercoaster of surprises that Jaisalmer had in store. Making my four days the highlight of Rajasthan.

A story-teller’s paradise

The folks of Jaisalmer are friendly to say the least. Everyone is ready with a story and laugh to share. Some suspiciously incredulous and others of nostalgia and lost loves; conversations rarely edge towards the mundane and boring. And once they come to know you’re a story-teller of sorts (the anybodys and everybodys remotely affiliated to the writing/photography profession), you’re going to have a field day.

While the sceptics might say that an economy so dependent on the comings and goings of tourists, the locals might be adept at lying for a quick buck.
In fact it took me a while to get used to the idea of strangers sharing intimate anecdotes from their lives. I wondered if they got some sort of a sadistic kick out of feeding me lies. I guess I’ll never know and sincerely, I don’t care. I had a great time listening and to me, they seemed legit with the smattering of political and economical backdrop. Just because I think the stories might have come out of someone’s overworked imagination, doesn’t necessarily mean they are not true. Sometimes a story is just a moment captured.

Thar, the teeming desert

Empty. Inhospitable. Barren. If that’s how deserts are supposed to be, then The Great Indian Thar desert is one that breaks the mould. Despite the dearth of crucial resources like water and cultivable land, life in the Thar flourish in astonishing diversity. Making it the world’s most densely populated desert.
The nomadic way of life here has been well documented over the decades (my personal favourite is the first fifteen minutes of “Latcho Drom”. While it does not go into the details of their way of life, it captures the root essence of everyday living). But I had to of course see it for myself.

Unlike the run-of-the-mill desert safaris, go the distance and rent yourself a jeep for the day. While they won’t guarantee a grand meal in the midst of the desert with amenities like a tent and naach-gaana unlike the popular safaris, they make up for it with much-needed desert solitude. With luck I found two middle-aged Israeli women who felt the same way.
As you step out of the desert city of Jaisalmer, the land begins to even out in stretches of shifting sands and rock. The flat shadowless landscape stretches out for miles; burning up to create distant mirages under the sharp afternoon sun.

Our first stop was the abandoned village of Kuldhara, popularly known as Rajasthan’s ghost village. Legend has it that 300 years ago the Paliwal Brahmins deserted their home in protest of exceeding taxes demanded by the prime minister. Today, these forgotten homes make for an interesting tourist destination, giving us a chance to peek into the lives of the people who inhabited them.

To further stay out of the tourist trap, make your way to the Khaba Fort, yet another place deserted by the Paliwal Brahmins. The ochre yellow desert stretches out in all directions making the fort the farthest security outpost for incoming traders and in times of war, enemy troops. Watch the mesmerising shadow play of floating clouds against the indigo sky as you peer over the distant ruins of the Kuldhara village from the vantage point of the Khaba Fort.

Children of the sand

Mysterious, merciless and hostile; as dangerous as the highest peaks of glaciers, there exists a delicate balance of life within the Thar desert. The summers are hot and unkind, and the nights bitterly cold; humanity’s challenging relationship with their homeland is put to test every day.

But within its precarious ecosphere you will come across a unique way of living. On our way to the dunes, we made our final pit-stop at the driver’s home. Giving us a chance to learn about life in the desert. Greeted with hot cups of masala chai, we sat under a make-shift awning on the charpoi, surrounded by bleating goats and a couple of cows tethered to the far end. Children with rugged features and broken teeth played in what seemed like a common courtyard at the center of the circular settlement of roughly nine huts. They were more than eager to have their photos clicked and smiled shyly into the camera.

In some ways, it’s a miracle that anyone can make a home in such hostile lands. The men lead a nomadic life in search of food and water for the livestock while the women form the mainstay of the village; the very fabric that holds these communities together. Traditions that are partly scientific and partly religious passed down through these women; have enabled generations to grow and thrive in the desert. From food that don’t perish easily to conservation of water (ever heard of cleaning utensils with sand?) to fetching water to chopping wood... the women have their work cut out. Raising the young and passing on their tradition is as important to their survival as education is to us, in urban societies.

Arabian Night escapade

Apart from the exotic images of the Arabian Nights, I honestly did not know what to expect at the dunes. After an hour’s drive from Khaba Fort late in the afternoon, the tarmac abruptly ended in front of what seemed to be the edge of the dunes. Just in time for the sunset, we quickly parked our jeep and walked with unsure feet onto the sifting sand beneath.

You might have seen the vast never-ending dunes illuminated in its pristine glory numerous times in pictures. But nothing prepares you for the breathtaking moment; of the dizzying glow of the orange setting sun, peeking out from behind the over-arching peaks of golden stardust. It was here while drinking in the sunset and listening to Donovan that for the first time I understood (or so I think) what they meant by “First there was a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is”. Humming to the old number, I walked along the crest of a dune as narrow as the peak of a roof, watching the sand cascade on either side of my boots.

Dunes, nature’s version of the treadmill is much more strenuous to walk than firm dirt paths. As the evening’s shadows elongated over the severe topography, our small group of five found a flat piece of sand at the hollow of a shallow dune to park ourselves for dinner. Unlike other resort-like safari escapades, we made ourselves useful under the timid guidance of our driver to prepare dinner. From wood that we had carried from his home, we set up a small campfire where we cooked daal, aloo and hand-rolled rotis. The evening glory gave way to the pitch-black night where the infinite carpet of a million stars enveloped us in a soft cocoon. We dined on the cool sand watching shooting stars arc like flaming arrows across the Arabian Night sky.

Break a buck

As much as I may be disinclined to write about shopping, Jaisalmer without a mention of its wide array of hand-made crafts simply cannot do. Zig-zagging narrow lanes and bylanes warp around the fort where the locals have set up shop within hole-like crevices cut into the fort wall. From camel leather goods to intricate hand-woven tapestries and bed-spreads; local artisan works form a centre-piece of attraction for foreign tourists and even Indians.

But... be warned of the overzealous shopkeepers; don’t let your reason be swayed by the relentless men talking to you in a very very fake American accent (even to a discerning Indian customer like myself). This is their livelihood and believe me they kick ass at it.

Even as I come to the end of this reeeeeally long post on Jaisalmer, I have this nagging feeling that I haven’t said enough or may be haven’t said it in a way that’s more befitting the city that rose out of sand and dust. Of the beautiful mandolin serenading around every corner of the street; of the warm fuzzy glow of the golden sandstone walls reflecting the setting sun; of the bastions that have protected dozens of kingdoms within its hearth. Jaisalmer is a magical moment caught within the realms of a grand mirage. Fleeting and all-encompassing at once.


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