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Published: March 29th 2008
Jodhpur's signature clock tower was well lit by the time we reached it; the colors changing intermittently
. There, we paid and left an angry rickshaw driver who had wanted to take us elsewhere and we negotiated our way thru the quiet streets in search of accommodation. Sunshine Guesthouse offered up the biggest, liveliest room we ever had and the owner was a kind, friendly man. After check-in, he whipped out a pack of colorful bindis and pasted one in the middle of Shanna's forehead. Dinner was a grand affair atop a nearby rooftop restaurant overlooking the dark city and the shining clock tower.
Jodhpur was a sprawling, sweltering, smelly, over-populated city slightly on the grungy side. The attraction of Jodhpur lay in its history and the monuments which remain from its colorful past. Perhaps one of India's grandest monuments and certainly Rajasthan's largest fort, Mehrangarh
was precariously perched atop a hill 125 meters (410 feet) high. The fort is so gargantuan that poet Rudyard Kipling dubbed it “the work of giants”. The foundations were laid by Rao Jodha, the fifteenth Rathore ruler, in 1459 and the total construction, much smaller than the present structure, cost 900,000 Rupees. Totally immersed in
a captivating audio tour, we entered into history all Lilliputian-like thru the towering Fatehpol (Victory Gate).
Mehrangarh is the property of the living Maharaja of Jodhpur, His Highness The Maharaja Gaj Singh II (Maharajas no longer have their powers). With its towering battlements 120 feet (64 meters) high and walls 6 meters (19 feet) thick in places, Mehrangarh was one of the only forts that had never been captured. Its location, series of gates and courtyards and impregnable walls proved too much of a challenge. Lohalpol (Iron Gate), the third gateway before reaching the heart of the fort, was particularly interesting. It was positioned at a 90-degree angle from and at the top of a gradually narrowing, sloping passageway. The door itself was studded with thick spikes. We learnt that its positioning reduced the effects from charging war elephants. The narrowing corridor limited the charge to only one elephant at a time; the slope limited acceleration; the spikes 'fought back' and the 90-degree angle reduced the force of any impact. Inside Lohalpol, on the left side, were tiny handprints. It is said that the wives of Maharaja Man Singh made their marks here before throwing themselves into the cremation
fire of their dead husband.
Palaces, opulent rooms turned museums, courtyards, terracotta-colored havelis and breathtaking panoramic vistas spread out before us inside the heart of Mehrangarh. Priceless artifacts, royal carriages, decadent rooms and cutting-edge weaponry were brought to life by the voice in our ears. The narrator's voice possessed the right balance of timbre, suspense and drama. Around us, Rajput architecture sizzled with walls entirely covered with glass mosaics, gold-trimmed rooms, intricate painted highlights and brilliant colors. Phool Mahal (the flower palace) and Sukh Mahal (the pleasure palace) were particularly stunning. It required every minute of the 3 hours we spent to cover the complex and admire its splendor.
By the time we left, a mighty shadow from Mehrangarh was blanketing the old blue city of India's highest caste, the Brahmins. From our elevated position we looked out to Jaswant Thada - a memorial to Maharaja Jaswant Singh II. A closer inspection showed up the beauty of a white marble structure amidst the greenest of trees. Not too shabby for a royal crematorium
. On the way down from the fort we were mobbed by groups of screaming school children. A certain young entrepreneur, no older than 12, invited
us to his restaurant claiming that he was the 'manager' and that the food was 'always good and fresh'
. While Shanna tried to extract herself from the crush of gawking youngsters, Raja, the manager, was busy selling Vibert on the plusses of his restaurant. And what do you know; Raja was right on all counts. The food was great, the views outstanding and he had the business card to prove his managerial status.
Having seen and digested Jodhpur's best, it was time to push on. And when the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer express rolled out at 11:15 pm, we were settling in for an overnighter. Morning's golden rays glinted off the golden sands surrounding Jaisalmer's train station
. Talib, a young hotel owner recommended to us by our friend from Sunshine Guesthouse in Jodphur, fought off hoards of sharking touts, piled us into a rickshaw and roared off in the direction of the town center. Over cups of chai on the roof of Hotel Desert View we watched the sunrise illuminate Jaisalmer Fort - a massive, marvelous sandstone fortress atop a hill. Ninety-nine bastions circled the fort that Jaisala, a Rajput Ruler, built. Within the fort lay serpentine streets, decorative havelis and
sacred temples and, surprisingly, it is still home to a few thousand people. Imagine that! A living fort! We were itching to start the exploration.
Jaisalmer is desert country at the very tip of western India. Some 850+ years ago, a trade route between India and Central Asia passed thru town making Jaisalmer rich. Its nickname, The Golden City, is a throwback to both its prosperous past and its golden sands. All of the buildings are made from the same rich sandstone material giving the city a magical, almost storybook feel. But ocean trade mostly to Mumbai's harbor and water shortages have forced the city into decline. The fort itself is sinking into the hill; the devastating result of poor drainage, overcrowding and heavy monsoons. That this wonderful, majestic monument to camel trains and Mughal rampaging could soon fall apart is truly heartbreaking. "So, you want to take safari?"
. Talib's question disturbed the reverie. We nodded and then listened intently as he and Sunya, his Korean wife, described what the 'safari' was all about. At 1 pm, with little more than a change of clothes, insect repellent and sleeping bags, we boarded a jeep and drove for about
an hour twenty minutes. The driver pulled up, got out and introduced us to two men. The older man was Musa, the younger, Taleb. Musa introduced the camels, Queseria and Lalu. The jeep disappeared in a cloud of dust.
The air was deathly still except for when the camels flapped their bulbous lips to chase away legions of flies. On Vibert's watch the thermometer read 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degree Celsius) and a heat haze reduced visibility. Vapors from the super-heated soil rippled in early-afternoon light. The sun, almost directly overhead, bore down on us.
We swiveled around, taking in the landscape. Dry. Parched. Blasted by the ferocious heat. Nothing but scrub and sand. But scrub and sand was precisely what we were promised. This was The Great Thar Desert
. And we were only 80 km from the border with Pakistan. 😊
😊 Our friend at Sunshine Guesthouse in Jodhpur
😊 Yogesh, a good friend at Net Hut Internet Café in Jodhpur
😊 Talib and Sunya, Desert View Hotel in Jaisalmer
😊 Raja, of course
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