Steeped in sagas of royalty, bravery, conspiracy and scars from many wars, this city of sun, sand and ship of desert, has abundance of history, art, architecture, and desert adventures on offer for the inquisitive and intrepid travelers besides being a shopper’s delight and I knew from the word go, when we planned a trip to Jaisalmer that it was not going to be one of those lazy weekends.
I was proven right as soon as we ventured out of one of the white tents at the desert camp site. The site was teeming with tourists and hoards of camels adorning bright seats with mirrors, sequins and tassels in most colorful patterns clamored for attention with each owner offering a better deal for a ride on the sand dunes…few enterprising ones even offered to carry beverages on a spare camel cart.
We decided to watch the setting sun from the highest dune but with the sun already on its westward journey, it only seemed logical to hire a camel to quickly cross the vast desert. We selected a fairly less crowded spot to wait.
There is something about the soft carpet of sand that invites and tempts even grown-ups to forget their age and indulge in some uninhibited frolic which is denied in a city life not only due to lack of space but also because of the garb of urban civility that we cloak ourselves in. But out there, in countryside away from all pretenses, we can let the child in us express its unadulterated happiness. And so we laughed out loud, slid, slipped and climbed the dunes with bare feet even as with each step we sank in the sand.
A while later a little local ten-year-old girl walked up to us and requested to perform folk dance right there on the dunes. Her father tagged along with his small palm-sized instrument. I joined in for few seconds trying in vain to copy her moves, before rewarding her for the little jig.
The horizon soon turned deep yellow and crimson, shadows darkened and transformed into a picture postcard…breathtakingly beautiful.
As the moon rose up to claim the night, the sand shimmered in silver and we stood there, in absolute silence holding hands bathed in moonlight; romance taking a new meaning altogether.
With temperatures plummeting close to freezing point and cold winds adding to the chill the raging campfire was a welcome sight. The evening culminated with the Kalbeliya dancers taking center-stage swaying in a snake-like charm to the folk songs. But later as Bollywood songs took over and camp guests broke into frenzied dance, not in mood to gyrate at those out-of-place songs, we retired cozying up under ‘Jaipuri’ razais and dohars with delicate floral block prints.
Old world charm of the fort city
The next morning we went for a tour of this ‘golden city’ nicknamed so because it lies in the heart of the amber-colored sandy expanse of Great Indian Thar Desert and as far as eyes can see, yellow-brown sandstone walls sizzle in the golden sun.
A six-seater deposited us till the large age-old wooden fort gate from car-parking at the foot of fort. Soon we were walking through those meandering narrow lanes of the old city enclosed by the massive tawny ramparts of the fort sitting on the ridge of Trikuta hill. Unaccustomed to walking up and down the sloping stone pathways with uneven steps at intervals and a blazing harsh sun for company, it wasn’t long before I started sweating and panting. Few areas shaded by walls of bigger houses brought much wanted relief and I paused to catch my breath.
Negotiating a bend here, an open drain there past the big and small houses still occupied by the descendants and converted to home-stays and shops, I was intrigued to see old brass locks and latches of the kind I had never seen with locking mechanism cleverly concealed in the shapes of fish, elephant trunks, peacocks and even daggers, being sold at a shop. Another antique shop sold the old window frames carved with ornate floral patterns. All around me, the city proudly showed off a delicate artistry and the greedy bystander in me, marveled at all the old world charm that all those jharokhas and jalis exuded.
Among those shops I was in search of one owned by artist Mr Kanu Swami who known for his erotic miniature paintings still practices old techniques in his art. It was easy to locate with paintings covering every inch of his shop. But the erotic art was kept hidden from fear of vandalism. Convinced of our genuine interest he let us have a look at the paintings…and honestly even with all my advocacy of liberal thinking, I felt scandalised.
Street food to shopping
Our little excursion had parched us. Back at car-parking, from the tour of fort city, the smells of the freshly fried kachoris and dal-pakwan did nothing to ease the hunger pangs. We soon succumbed to the tempting aroma wafting from the way-side food-cart next to a government authorised ‘bhang shop’ that proudly displayed its Lonely Planet recommendation.
The sweet chilled mango flavoured lassi brought back much of the sapped energy and spicy pakoras and dal-pakwan never tasted better. With a satiated hunger we were ready to mosey on another set of narrow lanes at foot of the fort for a shopping spree. Streets overflowed with foreign tourists and zealous shop owners engaged in ruthless selling. The shops spilled over on to the streets further obstructing the limited width.
To me, all shops looked same and yet I stepped in quite a few of them rummaging for that one perfect piece. I shopped for everything from leather mojris, bags, belts, block-print skirts, kurtis, scarves and saris to mirror-work bed-sheets and cushion covers and never realised how the hours flew.
A taste of cultural fest
It was almost noon and time for us to drive back home. However, we decided to stretch our stay a little longer and rushed to the venue of desert festival which was in its second day of celebration. The opening ceremony where elaborately decorated camels with equally dressed up royal riders paraded had concluded the previous morning. Though we missed the extravaganza but there was enough royal flavour on display. The perfect attire affects the persona of an individual and with each turbaned man in white dhoti-kurta coming forward to flaunt his carefully coiled long dense moustache, gleaming sword and martial skills on the stage I got a glimpse of days of yore when warriors raised their swords to rend the skies with thundering war-cry. With the honey-gold fort as the backdrop, the gait and stance of those men oozed pride for their Rajput blood and watching them I felt strangely braver than usual.
My fascination for stories of royalty deepened with this short trip to city named after its founder Maharawal Jaisal, Jaisalmer which literally means ‘Hill of Jaisal”. And as the ochre landscape disappeared gradually behind our car, I looked back at the magnificent fort-city which like a lion sat claiming its ridge keeping an eye over the expanse of kingdom.