Getaway to the Golden City

By Nirupama Subramaniam
There is an old saying in Rajasthan that one needs clothes of steel and feet of iron to go to Jaisalmer. For many years, Jaisalmer was a remote, sparsely populated settlement in the middle of the harsh desert. Today it has been transformed into a tourist spot, attracting visitors from all over the world.
It was early March when we arrived at Camp Sam Sand Dunes, a deluxe safari camp about 42 kms from Jaisalmer. The weather was still pleasant with a hint of coolness in the air. On the first day, we went on a desert safari with the promise of a sunset view in the sand dunes. When in Rajasthan, one has to travel as the locals do. We took the camel ride across the sand. Most of the camels in Rajasthan are domesticated and used for ferrying everything from tourists to sandstone from the quarries. Getting on top of the camel is the easy part; getting down feels like a free fall from a treetop as the camel lurches onto its knees and offloads its burden.

Thousands of years ago, the area had been a part of the ocean. Now tousled sheets of sand are curved into wave-like ripples by the wind.  Small black beetles scurried across the sand; the only signs of life apart from people and camels. We saw the sun congeal into a brilliant orange ball and sink slowly into the horizon. Enthusiastic shutterbugs including my husband clicked away trying to capture the amazing play of light and shadows and color around us. The wind grew cooler and it was time for us to shake the sand from our hair and return to the camp.

Rajasthan is famed for its hospitality and visitors are welcomed warmly, given a traditional feast and entertained well. It was a cool windy night, so we all gathered into a large tent for the evening’s entertainment. A group of folk singers regaled us with typical Rajasthani folk songs, ranging from “Pallo Latke to “Nimbuda, Nimbuda”, both popularized by Bollywood movies. Their main accompaniment was the “kartaal”, a pair of flat pieces of dark shisham wood, about six inches long, which when clicked dexterously together between the palm and fingers, produced an amazing medley of rhythms. The singers belonged to the same family and the art was handed down across generations. The youngest of the group was a small boy about seven or eight years old who had a perfectly pitched voice and nimble fingers. Then the dancers took over. One of the ladies amazed us by balancing seven pots on her hands while dancing on the rim of a steel plate. They invited the audience to participate and we took turns twirling and whirling to the desert tunes. After a dinner of Rajasthani food, bajra rotis, ker-sangri ( beans in gravy )and a Gatte ki sabzi( small balls of gram flour in a gravy), we retired for the night.

The next day, we left the camp and drove back into the city. All of Jaisalmer is made of yellow sandstone. Jaisalmer was founded by the Bhatti Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal, in 1156. On the advice of a local hermit, he chose the Tricut Hills as his new abode abandoning his vulnerable old fort at Luderwa. The most famous structure here is the Jaisalmer Fort, also called Sonar Quila- Golden Fort because in the afternoon sun, the yellow sandstone glows and glimmers as though it is actually made of gold. The Fort has inspired many travelers and I could recall a Satyajit Ray movie that was set here.

Jaisalmer also has several havelis, large houses built in the traditional styles, more than 100 years old. We visited Nathmal ji ki haveli. Nathmal ji was a Prime Minister in the Rajput court and his descendants still live in the upper parts of the haveli. The unique feature of this haveli is that it has been designed by two brothers, each trying to prove his craft to the other. As a result, the haveli has different motifs in each half; a peacock adorns the left window while a swan graces the right, yet the whole seems to be in complete harmony.

After touring the city, we ventured into the outskirts. We stopped a Kuldhera, a village about 30 kms from Jaisalmer. Legend has it that this village was once inhabited by prosperous Paliwal Brahmins who were a well knit community. When the king of the realm set his eyes on a nubile Brahmin girl and wished to “marry” her, the villagers were aghast. They could not afford to confront the king and nor did they wish to go against the conventions of their community. So, overnight the entire population evacuated the village, leaving most of their possessions behind. The Brahmins cursed the king who forced them to this extreme measure and the region has not seen rainfall since then.

That evening, it was time for some more entertainment. We went to the Desert Cultural Center for a traditional puppet show. The cultural center also houses a small museum of Rajasthani art and folklore. It is the “single man effort” of Mr. Sharma, a retired school teacher who is passionately devoted to the culture of this state. Puppetry is a thousand year old art form in Rajasthan but the invasion of cinema and television has seen this type of entertainment vanish from the villages. A few artisans still struggle to preserve the tradition. For half an hour, we saw the antics of puppets in the shapes of camels, horses, kings, and even a unique little puppet which alternately became a man and a woman. Each item was accompanied by a folk song which told a story-of wives waiting for husbands to return from long journeys, a boy who lost and found his ball and the Great Magician from Bengal who could detach his head with his feet . My daughter enjoyed the puppet show almost as much as her favorite cartoons. After two days, we took the train back to Delhi, carrying with us two small cloth dolls of camels in pink and orange, colors of the sun in the desert sky.

Jaisalmer is easily accessible by road and by rail from Delhi and other major cities. Flights are also available between September and March from select cities. Room nights for the more up market hotels are $100 and up.

Camp Sam Sand Dunes
Safari Tours

Pictures by Madhu Yerramsetty

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