Notes from Jaisalmer
Vacationing in the desert city of India.
A Village Abandoned
Our first stop in Jaisalmer was Kuldhara. Frozen in time, weathered by the desert, this village now stands abandoned. Hundreds of years ago, it was a village of the prosperous Brahmins who abandoned it en masse, all of 84 families, when marriage was being forced upon a village daughter with the king. As if cursed, no one ever came to live there except those who hang upside down — the bats and the imagined ghosts who the villagers claim to live there.
The beautifully carved sandstone temple and a few houses of the nobles and the rich surrounding it are the centerpiece of the village. The walls of the nobles’ houses are plastered with a mix of sand & cowdung; they have a inner courtyard and even a sundeck! Water from the roofs, whenever it did rain, was judiciously collected via channels that poured into the pots placed beneath it. The commoners’ walls are just plain stone — cut unevenly but fitted together in near perfect flat walls. The roofs though have long gone.
What was life like in Kuldhara? There is something about the settlement that will make you feel that it was not all so bad.
A Desert Safari
Riding a horse feels a little unsteady in the saddle, on the elephant you are a little too up for comfort but the camel just felt right. A big rocking motion as the camel gets up on its feet, and off you are pounding the desert sands with effortless ease, up and down the dunes. The evening sun casts long shadows on the sandy ripples carved by the breeze. The ripples broken only by the footprints — the large pits of your camel’s walk and the fine patterns of the tiny desert lizards, like the block prints on a saree. The sun meanwhile paints on the desert canvas with its magic brush — first white, then yellow, then orange, then crimson and the many shades in between. And when its done its time to head home, the 4x4 bashing the dunes, erasing the canvas, for the sun to come out and draw again a new picture tomorrow!
On the Border
The desert knows no boundaries. Ours though is near about Tannot. Travel 20 kms westwards from Tannot into the desert and one would land in Pakistan. For that though you would also have to cross the wiremesh fence that protects our land and moreover give a miss to the watchful eye of the Border Security Force (BSF) jawans who keep a 24x7 vigil.
If Jaisalmer is where the desert starts, Tannot is right in the middle of it. The tar road cuts straight through for 120 kms from Jaisalmer for a fairly quick arrival (by Indian standards) in Tannot. The landscape on the way is goats grazing on the desert shrubs and more goats grazing on the the low hanging leaves of trees with their fore legs deftly balanced on the slender tree trunks. There’s nothing else to see. The senses thus numbed and eyes further blinded by the scorching desert sun, the mind appears capable of reaching a deep meditative state … or is it just slumber? Whatever it was, you can only feel at peace when you wake up shaken up by the sudden braking of your jeep for a midway halt in Ramgarh. The dry desert air does something to the Bikaner Snacks’ pyaj kachoris, making them melt in your mouth and yes, the tea over there is legendary. Enjoy!
Tannot though is famous for its temple of Tannot Mata Devi. The temple survived shelling and firing from across the border in several wars. The shells landed but magically did not burst, thus becoming a sacred place for the BSF who now take care of it. In Tannot you are clearly in army territory — there are more military jeeps then cars, more caution boards then billboards, and a BSF man serving as the temple pujari! The harshness of the arid, extreme desert environment by now having truly sunken in, you will surely be overcome by a feeling — a mix of gratitude, patriotism and pride — for the tough uniformed men who stand guard there. That feeling is difficult to describe, to know it you must make the pilgrimage to Tannot, and become a believer.
The Living Fort
Forts I had been to before were all rocks and cannons on a perch. Long past their days of glory they stood merely as a memorial to better times it must have seen in some distant past. Jaisalmer fort is different. While it too sits high up on a hill overlooking the city and has several cannon pointing in all directions around, its gates do not close at sundown once the tourists have left. In fact the tourists don’t even leave at sundown, staying as they are in the many guest houses that are inside the boundaries of the fort. The guesthouses and the many rooftop restaurants are run by the local residents of the fort — numbering four thousand — who stay in its precincts in homes built several centuries ago by their forefathers. Their houses surround the palace of the Maha Rawals, the Yaduvanshi kings, who once ruled over this land. They are built along narrow maze-like lanes that go in circles all around the fort, faithfully bringing the lost back to the central courtyard — the Dussehra chowk.
Jaisalmer once upon a time was a glorious city on the silk route — trading in silk and spices. Fortunes changed when the ports of Mumbai and Calcutta connected by railroads to the hinterlands, opened up trade routes over the sea. The rich Marwaris sold their havelis and moved to carry on their business in the new centres of trade. The glory of Jaisalmer faded. But you can see a glimpse of it still carved in sandstone as magnificent motifs on the windows, doors, columns, arches, and roofs of the palaces and temples that stand here. You can see it from a distance too when the evening sun reflects a golden hue on the entire cityscape shaped of yellow sandstone, shining brightest at its heart — the living fort of Jaisalmer.