RAJASTHAN’S CITY OF GOLD – JAISALMER
“I can’t!” I wail, looking at the camel kneeling on the sand, “I can’t climb onto it!” The camel, eyes hooded and disdainful, turns its head to look at me. We are in Khuri, Rajasthan, 41 miles out of the city of Jaisalmer, and heading into the Thar Desert, to view the sunset – reputedly a dramatic sight as it sinks into the rolling sand dunes.
The camel driver, an ancient twig of a man, with an enormous turban, is nonplussed for a second; then he brightens. “Okay, I get cart for you!” The cart and camel are hitched up and I’m helped onto the wooden contraption by the driver’s teenage grandson, his eyes dancing with suppressed amusement. The camel driver urges his beast into movement. It farts in protest, disgorges a copious amount of shit, snorts, belches and finally begins to move. Dee, my Australian companion on this trip, already aloft her camel, is convulsed with mirth. And so we set off: me unceremoniously bumping along on the cart, and Dee astride a loping camel.
We proceed at a majestic pace, and all seems well, until we are faced with a long climb up the first of the dunes. My camel baulks. It bawls mightily, and despite the driver’s pleas, interspersed with curses, it refuses to budge. Arthritic knees or not, I decide to walk the rest of the way.
Walking uphill in the sand is a slog, but as we crest the top of the highest dune, the land falls away, and the desert stretches to the horizon in waves of light and shadow. Other than a group of ant-like figures in the distance, we are alone in the vast, silent sweep of the Thar. The sun is low in the sky and Dee and I pour ourselves a libation of rum and coke from a flask, to toast the dying day. The light is copper-coloured now, and the orange sun, magnified into an enormous ball, sinks to the horizon. Once gone, the sky turns flamingo pink with small floating puffs of gold-rimmed clouds, and the brief tropical twilight fades quickly into dusk.
Back at the village, we are guests at a traditional Rajasthani dinner of rotis, rice, and a variety of curried vegetables and lentils. Along with a group of visitors, we dine under a sky thick with stars. Musicians squat on the ground, and sing plaintive melodies to the accompaniment of a harmonium, and women with black, bold eyes and swirling skirts sequined with mirrors, dance to the rhythm of a tabla. The cool night air smells of spices and dust. Magical.
Jaisalmer is India’s only “living” fort and its history goes back to medieval times, when it was founded by the Bhattis (a tribal people) in the 12th century. Lying at the crossroads of Asia’s trade caravans, it teemed with merchants, adventurers, bandits and pilgrims. Today the walled old fort-city still teems, its narrow, winding streets seething with the rush and clatter of scooters and motorbikes, meandering cows, goats, vendors, shoppers, pedestrians and tourists. I pick my way between refuse heaps and cow dung patties and breathe in the heavy aromas of cooking spices, mingled with gasoline fumes and animal urine.
All of which may sound repellent, but isn’t. Graceful women dressed in saris of peacock blue, emerald green and bubblegum pink, flit from shop to shop like brightly coloured butterflies.
Magnificent havelis (mansions) line the lanes, their sandstone facades boasting elaborately carved “jali” (net-like) screens, fretwork balconies and arches, domes and cupolas.
“Rajasthan” means “Land of Princes” and it abounds in tales of romance, chivalry, heroism and tragedy. I listen to tales of lost loves, of pride and valour, of death and glory. One of the massive entrance gates to the fort bears the handprints of women who committed jauhar, or ritual suicide following their menfolks’ defeat on the battlefield.
Dee and I drive out into the countryside. Low, round mud-sculpted houses with thatched roofs dot the fields and kejri thorn fences demarcate property lines. Women herd goats and sheep across land that has a thin film of grass like a worn billiard table. Desert hawks swoop and circle against a cloudless afternoon sky.
Later, from a hilly viewpoint we watch the sun sink to the horizon, and in its dying rays, the sandstone walls of Jaisalmer’s fortress glow mellow and gold. As ethereal as a fairy-tale castle, it floats – a desert mirage, a place of dreams and fantasy. And home to today’s descendents of ancient and noble Rajput clans.
IF YOU GO:
Best time to visit: November to February.
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Sunset over the dunes at Khuri
2. My camel cart – with chair aboard.
3. Camel driver and great-grandson
4. After dinner concert by musicians at Khuri
6. Traditional haveli (mansion) with pierced sandstone embellishments, in the old fort city of Jaisalmer.
7. A mother and her baby peep out from their haveli and smile for my camera
11. A milkman with canisters slung on his cycle delivers milk door to door in the narrow lanes of the old city.
12. A camel and cart makes its way through the old city lanes
16. Graceful and colourfully dressed Rajasthani woman
18. Handprints of women who committed ritual jauhar (ritual suicide) on receiving news that their menfolk had been defeated or killed on the battlefield.
20. Jaisalmer Fort – the City of Gold glows like a desert mirage in the setting sun
[SLIDE SHOW PICTURES ABOVE THE HEADING OF THIS ARTICLE]
5. Village scene en-route to Jaisalmer
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