Jaisalmer: The Western Frontier of India

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February 22nd 2008
Published: May 29th 2008
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Most of our trips around Delhi are weekend affairs - leave on a Friday evening and back in office by Monday morning. But this prevents us from venturing far from Delhi. It was time for a longer trip as the winter was drawing towards end. Searches were on among us to find a good place that merits applying for a leave from office. And, then I landed on this website -- http://www.aathitya.com/tourism/fair_festival/ -- that lists the fairs and festivals at different places of India. February was the month for the Desert Fair at Jaisalmer. For Bengalis (people from the eastern state of West Bengal), Jaisalmer holds a special place in their heart, having grown up watching “Sonar Kella” zillion times. This is one place immortalized by the famous movie director Satyajit Ray through the adventures of Felu-da. It did not take too long to convince my comrades, Nilanjan and Dipanjan.

Only thing that bothered us for a while was that the Desert Fair was right in the middle of a week, starting from Tuesday and ending on a Thursday. I wondered why would a fair be planned bang in the middle of a week when one can attract a lot more tourists with a weekend schedule for such a fair - till I found out later that the dates coincide with the lunar cycle in the month of February. The last day of the fair coincides with the full moon. There was another issue bothering us -- traveling to a tourist place during a festival implies the place would be crowded, accommodation in hotels will get harder to get and the prices of everything will be inflated. Well, having traveled to Rajasthan quite a few times, we knew that as long as we call up Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) and get their confirmation, the rest will be easy. We booked the train tickets well in advance, booked hotels from RTDC, even booked a desert safari!! Our leave also got approved smoothly. This was going great knowing our usual way of planning a trip, till at the last minute Dipanjan got a bad news and was on the verge of dropping out. He would have cancelled the trip, but for his determination -- he traveled across half the globe and still managed to join us only one day late. There were million other impromptu meetings among the three of us, several phone calls, and several discussions on the logistics, but I will spare those details because when the end is met, the rest becomes a blur.

On our way to Jaisalmer
On a Monday evening, after a short stint at office, it was Nilanjan and me off to our 3-day/2-night trip to Jaislamer. It takes 16 hrs by the Jaisalmer Express, which leaves from Delhi around 5 in the evening. I was traveling by train after a long gap. I was enjoying the ride to the fullest soaking in the ambience, watching the co-passengers, and sometimes overhearing the conversations. We were not missing a single snacks opportunity as the vendors were coming with their stuff. Barring the fact that it takes longer, I prefer train journeys to flights. Flights are boring in some sense because you miss the connection with people. We were fairly tired, and crashed as soon as we had our dinner. The next morning when I woke up, the train was at Jodhpur station. From Jodhpur, Jaisalmer is not very far. One can take a car from Jodhpur to reach Jaislamer also.

Many of the passengers got down at Jodhpur leaving the compartment fairly empty. Whoever remained was traveling to Jaisalmer, and I presumed, to attend the fair. From Jodhpur boarded Alain Vautrin, who is a painter from Canada. He has been traveling for the past 6 months in different parts of India. The conversation with him was most entertaining and stories of his wandering life in India for the past 6 months can easily form the materials of a book. Meanwhile, a group of ladies from a “Satsang” (a religious group) started singing. Slowly people started gathering around them, and then someone started dancing, and soon, Alain was dancing with them in full gusto. It was a fantastic environment. People started conversing with each other. There was a 2-member team from a magazine, called “Time Out” traveling with us. They started clicking pictures. Another group of ladies from UK came and joined the dancing. It was our little carnival in the train. I can easily rate this as one of my most memorable train rides. Few hours from Jodhpur to Jaislamer passed in a jiffy.

Jaisalmer is a really small town. Finding the RTDC hotel Moomal was simple. As always with RTDC, everything was in order. We checked into a nice looking cottage. I would not be shelling out the extra rupees for the cottage if only there was any other room vacant in the hotel. This is the trouble of traveling to a place in the high season.

Desert Festival
One of the primary reasons we were in Jaisalmer was for the Desert Festival, and we could not wait to catch the activities. We rushed to the nearby stadium to check out the activities. Not much was going on there, but we were lucky to catch the rehearsal of the camel dance that was scheduled the next day. It was fun watching the Border Security Force (BSF) jawans riding on their camels, and making the animals perform to their instructions. We waited for something special in the evening. It was a let-down because in the evening there was just a music fest, and that too of contemporary Bollywood songs. This was definitely not something for which we had traveled this far from Delhi.

The next day was the big day of the festival where most of the major events were scheduled - camel race, camel dressing, camel polo - the things which I was most keen to watch. We left early for the stadium where the events were to be. In India, very few things start on time. It was no different here. First there was a long wait for the dignitaries. However, we made good use of the time to squeeze through the crowd and find ourselves a vantage point from where to view and shoot the proceedings of the morning. We found that we were seated with the photographers from various magazines - yes, it was out in the open, and on the ground, but to get the best view you have to make a few compromises. It was scorching hot, and had it not been for the excitement it would have been quite difficult.

The camel dressing was the first event with different groups bringing their camels ornately dressed. You can see them in the pictures because I have never seen an animal dressed so gorgeously. This was a catwalk of the camels, as well as their riders. Soon after, was the camel race. This race is of a bit different nature. The race is not just a test of speed of the animals, but also their riders - the riders are in their bare minimum clothes at the starting point, and then onwards has to scramble to put on the full riding attire one by one before alighting his camel and riding off to glory. The hardest act was to put on the headgear. If you have seen a Rajasthani headgear, you will know what it takes to put that on in haste. This was a hilarious race, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Then there was the camel polo, which the organizers claimed has been started from this part of the world. I have never seen polo live. Watching the polo players ambling to reach the ball was a sight to see.

The abundance of non-Indian tourists among the audience was clear indication that this fair is quite popular among them. The organizers also left no stones unturned to cater to this set of the crowd. To my astonishment, there was a tug-of-war game, both for male and female, where the teams were drawn from the non-Indian and Indian tourists. This surely was a carnival in the desertland.

Exhausted by the morning’s events, we looked forward to the evening show. This time we watched the camel dance that was being practiced previous day. The show was so much better than what we had seen the previous day. I was satisfied, but there was something that bothered me. It was too commercial an effort, with a focus that was so blatantly on the tourists dolling out dollars. It felt a bit odd to me.

The final day of the festival is usually out in the desert at Samdhani village, which is about 50 km from jaisalmer. A traditional song and dance event is organized under the moonlit sky in the middle of the desert. We didn’t have the luck of enjoying it. But what I heard was that there was a sandstorm and it was cancelled in all probability. I guess we did not miss much, although I feel sorry for others who might have missed a spectacular evening.

Camel Safari
Second day evening, right in the middle of the show, we had to rush to Samdhani. We had a night stay planned in the tents in the middle of the desert at Samdhani village. This is again a RTDC arrangement, and as always there was little to complain about their setup. We drove part of the way in car, and then we were to ride on camels to catch the sunset in the dunes. Making yourself comfortable on a camel takes time, especially for people who are not used to riding at all. On top of that we were running late and were likely to miss the sunset if we go slow. The camels started off on a trot, throwing us up and down on its hump. It was as bumpy a ride as one can imagine, and a bit scary too. I was riding alone on a camel, and Dipanjan and Nilanjan were on another having each other to assure themselves of safety. Despite our speedy ride on the camel, we just missed the sunset, catching just a thin pie of the orange sun as it disappeared behind the dunes.

The sunrise turned out to be better planned as we woke up early and rode through the dunes to catch the best view. It was a marvelous site, as miles after miles of sandy ridges were gradually lightened up by the rising rays of the sun, revealing a gorgeous play of light and shade among the dunes. We watched mesmerized, loitered around in the dunes, trying to loose ourselves temporarily in the beauty of the moment.

The night in the desert also left an indelible mark on me. Three of us had ventured out at night quite far from our camp site to enjoy the nature in its grand solitude. We walked up and down a few dunes till the lights of the campsite were mere dots, but just visible to guide us back when we want to. At one point I walked down a dune into a trough. There was only little hills of sand all around me and the moon bright on top. There was a slight haze surrounding the top. I felt that I want to sit there forever, but there was a simultaneous feeling of awe which doesn’t let your mind at peace. If you have ever been in front of a raging sea in the middle of the night, I believe it evokes the same feeling. The sense of how insignificant we are.

Sonar Kella: The Golden Fort
One of the best part of Jaisalmer is the Golden Fort, the famed fort built by the Bhatti kings. The fort is made of yellow sandstone and shines like gold from a distance. Hence the name “Sonar Kella”, meaning the golden fort. We went to the fort several times during our short stay. This is one of the forts in India which quite densely habited. There are shops, houses, and even hotels inside the fort.

We met quite a few inhabitants who have migrated from Bengal to this remote corner of India drawn by the charm of one movie by Satyajit Ray. It was fascinating to hear their stories. One such guy, Swapan-da, had set up a popular restaurant inside the fort called the Sunset point which is rooftop café. You can sit there in the evening and watch the sunset and get a view of the entire city as you sip on your cool drink.

There were quite a few temples inside the fort, a museum preserving the artifacts from the Bhatti kings, and a few ornately architected palaces for the kings and queens. I have never come across such intricately designed palaces. Made of sandstone, the havelis looked like a jeweler’s creation. There is another haveli, called the Patwa haveli outside the fort which is a must-see for all.

I must mention that the guide made it a point to show us “Mukul’s house”. This is the house which was shot in the movie by Satyajit Ray. It seemed that the director had become a legend here as every now and then there is a reference to him by the guide.

Bitter Sweet Experiences
This trip was a bag of bitter sweet experiences for us. I must warn the unaware tourist to be very careful when dealing with the car operators here. Since it is almost impossible to go without a conveyance here, the operators take this opportunity to con the tourists. We were unlucky enough to be caught with one such operator, called the Lucky Tours and Travels. He made part of our sour to the extent that in the end we had to take police help to tame him down. But I would rather advise that if you can spend a few bucks extra and book the car from RTDC. It is much more hassle free.

This trip is memorable for a number of reasons: it was my first time to a desert, the number of people we met and made friends, learnt a lot from their diverse experiences. It was on the whole a trip that will stay with us for a long time. Jaisalmer must be visited once more, and this time I might consider going at a time when there will be less crowd to be enjoy the beauty of nature in peace and solitude.

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