Jaisalmer is very British. And I don’t mean the relics of the Raj—the accoutrements and memorabilia used by the kings, queens and ministers who lived in this fortress town in the 19th and early 20th centuries—preserved in dimly lit chambers behind glass cases in its many havelis.
The stiff upper lip is in evidence, mostly, in the fort’s numerous tentacle-like alleys. The conviction with which the man dealing in sundry knick-knacks argues that the wooden horse in your hand is sourced directly from the junk room of Nathmalji ki haveli, and cannot be a day older than 1890, can only rival the way the British try to pass off recent constructions as Tudor cottages. And if you can’t appreciate “antique”—as the toy’s chipped colour, grainy feel and rusty metallic embellishments with a bronze finish indicate—and pay up a price that’s close to what it should have been if the object was made of solid gold, you clearly do not deserve to take home a slice of history.
A temple in the abandoned village of Kuldhara.
It is another matter that you find similar stuff at far more easily negotiable prices on Janpath in New Delhi. Buying from the cozy alcove-like shops, beneath the cute trellised windows, standing on the cobblestoned path between the crenellated yellow sandstone walls is, admittedly, not the same thing. Do rows and rows of turbans, vegetable-dyed in fuchsia pink, turquoise blue and vivid green look the same behind the glass shutters in a city mart as they would when laid out in the sun, on the slightly powdery matt yellow surface?
They call it the golden fortress after Satyajit Ray’s much-loved crime thriller Sonar Kella, produced around 30 years ago (Ray, in fact, is credited with putting Jaisalmer on Rajasthan’s tourist map). But the stones are more yellow ochre than golden, absorbing more light than they reflect. They are a perfect neutral base to offset the merchandise that seems to issue out of the yellow earth, like plants sprouting from the soil.
There is lots that comes with the flavour of this rugged country, standing out in vibrant contrast against the buff-coloured walls: wooden puppets with lanceolate eyes and skirts in cheerful colours; camel-skin folios; wallets and shoes; notebooks with hand-embroidered cloth cover, tearing off at the edges to assume the “authentic” antique look; chunky, layered jewellery in white metal and beads that looks equally good as a showpiece on your wall as it would on your waist.
A typical haveli with hanging balconies and trellised windows.
More than half the charm of buying lies in picking up the goodies from the tattooed hands of a woman in a skirt and tie-and-dye odhni, the colour of the sky before daybreak, or a moustached and turbaned gent who nonchalantly plays on his morchhang (a mini harp held between the lips when strummed) during the transaction.
And if you visit Kuldhara, 18km west of Jaisalmer, you would know what I mean when I say that the people of Marwar really know how to sell their antiquity. An apocryphal story—of how the scholarly and prosperous Paliwal Brahmins of Jaisalmer abandoned their 84 villages overnight around the year 1250—is fraught with tragedy and mystery at the same time, and hence the touristy allure.
There are several versions of what really happened to trigger the displacement. It might have been heavy taxation by the local Rajput ruler, who was obviously jealous of the Brahmins’ contented lifestyle, or a bid to protect the women after the chieftains began picking up defenceless Paliwal girls, or even something far more banal such as a famine.
The ruins of Kuldhara seem marvellously well preserved for a village abandoned eight centuries ago. The clay oven in the kitchen seems sturdy enough to cook a meal, the tank for storing water is still functional, and the figurines on the stone pillars of the temple show little signs of erosion. But the story of the overnight exodus continues to entice and fascinate even cynics such as me, despite the possibility that what the Paliwal Brahmins supposedly left behind in 1250 has since been touched up.
A banjara woman selling her wares.
A cultural spin in Rajasthan is incomplete unless you find yourself sitting astride the hump of a camel, on a patchwork and mirror-embellished saddle, on the dunes of Sam. It’s exciting to see the crescent-shaped dunes one first read about in geography in Class VII, and even more so to be riding around them in a desert wilderness. The camels often tend to be somewhat temperamental—first, they refuse to budge and after they have got a few lashes, they seem to run for their lives. The stirrup tassels whirl, the bells jangle like crazy. “Aah, not so fast,” says the pilot. “Don’t go too close to the border, you never know if there are snipers around,” he adds in an obvious attempt to impress the rider. The Indo-Pak border, however, is at least another 50km away.
There are few pleasures on earth that can rival the experience of going to sleep under an inky blue sky, lit by a thousand pieces of crushed mica, glittering and blinking. Before turning in for the day, we spent the evening sitting beside a campfire, listening to the raw, earthy music rising and floating through the smoke, and the crackling embers. The musicians—clad in short, white double-breasted tie-up shirts, gathered at the waist, and voluminous red turbans—sang in a timbre that seemed to rise directly from the pit of the desert.
The folk instruments played make a quaint collection, as visually distinctive as they are in terms of tonalities. We spotted the dhibko (drum), pungi (snake-charmer’s flute), algoza (two flutes played simultaneously) and the ravanhatta (the Rajasthani violin with small bells tied to the bow). When the rural orchestra pipes up and the ladies dressed in jet black skirts and odhnis with silver trimmings come out to twirl on brass plates, perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to call it “the music of the stars”.
How to go:
Jodhpur is the nearest airport with regular connections to New Delhi. Air Deccan offers economy round-trip fares from around Rs2,000, plus taxes. From Mumbai and Bangalore, you may need to fly to Jaipur (Rs1,000 and Rs4,400, respectively, plus taxes), and then catch a connecting flight to Jodhpur (from Rs500, plus taxes). From Jodhpur, hire a cab or sleeper bus to Jaisalmer, 10 hours away, over very good roads.
Where to stay:
Hotel Victoria (AC double rooms from Rs4,000, www.hotelvictoriajaisalmer.com,) comprises two in-fort town houses thrown together. The rooftop deck promises magnificent sunsets and views of the walled city. Double rooms range from Rs1,000-4,000 per night. Garh Jaisal (www.garhjaisal.com) is also built into the fort. Double rooms cost upwards of Rs4,000 a night; deals available. Also try www.rajasthantourism.gov.in/destinations/jaisalmer for the lowdown on RTDC-run hotels. Spend at least a night in the middle of nowhere, at either of the safari camps in Sam or Khuri (45km west of Jaisalmer). One gets to stay in Swiss tents and enjoy a campfire and cultural performances. Camel rides are usually part of the package. A double-bedded tent with attached bath in the Rajasthan Desert Safari Camp at Sam costs Rs4,800 per night, including meals/entertainment. Details at www.holidaymakers.in/packages/explore/desert-safari-camp-sam-sand-dunes
Where to eat:
For authentic Rajasthani food, try a Rajasthani thali, featuring ‘dal bati churma’, which is as heavy as it is nutritious. For finger food—potatoes, cauliflower, onions, green chillies, just about any vegetable dipped in gram flour and deep-fried—try the roadside eateries around the golden fortress. If you have a sensitive stomach, it’s probably best to stick to the regular roti, dal-fry and sabzi that a hotel’s in-house restaurant would serve. For the connoisseur, there are delicacies such as ‘murgh-e-subz’ —succulent, boneless strips of chicken stir-fried with shredded vegetables and ‘kadi pakora’, flour dumplings cooked in yogurt sauce, or ‘bhanon aloo’, potatoes stuffed with mint paste and simmered in gravy.
What to do:
Must-visits include Jaisalmer Fort, Nathmalji ki Haveli, Salim Singh ki Haveli, Patwon ki Haveli, Jain Temples. A desert safari to Sam will include a camel ride, sleeping in tents or under the stars on the sand, and listening to local folk music around a bonfire. Don’t miss the deserted villages of Kuldhara and Khaba.
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