The bus journey from Jaipur to Jaisalmer was very tiring. A straight 12 hours, out of which the last few hours was through barren sandy tracts, sand dunes and intermittent hamlets. This is where Satyajit Ray had shot his famous Bengali film Sonar Kella (Golden Fort). In my childhood, I had lived with each of the characters of this novel and walked many a time through the narrow lanes of Jaisalmer (albeit only in my dreams).
The town stands on a ridge of yellowish sandstone, crowned by a fort, which contains the palace and several ornate Jain temples. True enough, the sand and stones used in the buildings in Jaisalmer have a golden tint, from which the name of the novel was derived. After a brief check-in into the RTDC hotel, I started off for my photo shoot. First destination... the famous havelis of Jaisalmer.
Historically, Jaisalmer used to flourish from the taxes imposed on caravans, as it was located at a vantage position on the trading route linking India to Central Asia, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Africa and the West. When the land route was replaced by the sea route and Bombay emerged as the major port town, Jaisalmer started to lose its position and glamour. Again, with the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Jaisalmer further lost its importance except as an Indian base on the Western Frontier.
Its one-time prosperity led to the building of the fort and ornate havelis, fine merchant-built houses and pavilions in the city’s mediaeval lanes. The largest, most elaborate and magnificent haveli was built by Gunman Chand Patwa (enlarged later by his five sons). He belonged to the powerful Oswal Jain family and was a banker. He had three hundred trading centres from Afghanistan to China. This ornate five storey complex took fifty years to be completed. I also went to the other havelis around the city but none of them were as attractive.
Next was Gadsisar Lake, a natural water lake which supplies water to the city. It is surrounded by temples and shrines. This lake was built by Maharawal Gadsi in 14th century. In the evening, it becomes a hub of activity with tourists thronging the place, hawkers selling food items, makeshift stalls selling handicrafts and musicians playing their handmade violins. This lake has one more specialty. From the higher bank of this lake, one can see the Fort of Jaisalmer in its real avatar in the first rays of the morning sun.
For that I had to wait till the next morning. But the picture I liked most, came on my way to Gadsisar lake. It was quite early in the morning; I came out of my hotel and was walking down the road looking for an auto rickshaw when I noticed this play of colours in the sky. I was thrilled and awestruck. With the Fort as a silhouette, I took a picture of the sky on fire.
The majority of the inhabitants of Jaisalmer are Bhati Rajputs, named for Bhati, who was renowned as a warrior. This area was part of the Gurjar-Pratihara empire until the 11th century and was ruled by a powerful Rajput Bargujar King. Deoraj, a famous prince of the Bhati family, is esteemed the real founder of the Jaisalmer dynasty and with him the title of rawal commenced. In 1156 Rawal Jaisal, sixth in succession from Deoraj, founded the fort and city of Jaisalmer on the Trikuta hills and made it his capital.
During my stay in Jaisalmer, I went inside the Fort several times. It was always quite an experience. This Fort has witnessed many battles. In 1293, the Bhattis so enraged the emperor Ala-ud-din Khilji that his army captured and sacked the fort and city of Jaisalmer, so that for some time it was quite deserted. It now houses many shrines, hotels, restaurants and almost a full town. The Jain temple, particularly, has very elaborate carvings. Until a few years back, the entire population of Jaisalmer used to live inside the Fort.
I was able to witness the Manganyar musicians who have played the world over, and Queen Harish, the dancing desert drag queen. What I loved best in the Fort were the Sadhus and tribal folk. The Sadhus, fully decked up, were available in plenty and a few of them were ready to pose for a fee. They were an instant hit among foreign tourists.
The beautiful entrance to the Fort is made more colourful by the brightly dressed tribal women, selling their silver ethnic jewellery and knick-knacks. I also bought the leather messenger bags famous in Jaisalmer. But it is hard avoiding the aggressive hawkers selling you shawls, carpets, etc.
A trip to the sand dunes is a must while in Jaisalmer. So off I went on a safari...It was late afternoon and the desert came alive with tourists and the hooves of camels. The setting sun created a spell with magical colours everywhere; in the sky, on the sand and in the air all around us.
The colours on the dunes were changing every minute. I tried to capture a few moments of this natural drama. After allowing some time for every one to enjoy the drama, the sun finally dropped at Sunset Point. Until now I had never been to any desert, and the Thar could not slake my thirst on this first trip. Luckily, I was there during the desert festival held over three days in January/February every year, as it is the best time to witness performing arts like the Kalbelia dances and folk songs.
I went again on a desert safari package, this time in a jeep instead of a backbreaking ride on a camel, which included a cultural evening with a campfire, mashaals, musicians and dancers, followed by a wonderful Rajasthani thali meal in an open-air restaurant, in a desert camp resort in the sand dunes. The surrounding Desert National Park offers opportunities to observe blackbucks, desert foxes and chinkaras amid the rolling dunes, rugged crags and waterholes.
On my return, I was persuaded by a guide to drink the delectable bhang lassi at the government authorised shop close to the entrance of the fort. Packs of bhang-infused cookies and chocolates are also available as takeaways. But be careful to stay within limits or you will have an out-of-body experience.
The name Jaisalmer for me will always evoke the utter magic and vibrancy of the desert. It’s straight out of an Arabian Nights fable. The harsh climate notwithstanding, the warmth of the people and the call of the sand dunes will bring me back again and again.