Magnetic charm of a
night out in the desert
MY wife’s voice quavered with terror as she woke me up. "There’s somebody in here," she whispered. I could sense the panic writ on her face even in the darkness of the night. But as I lifted the qulit, we both burst into laughter. For the intruder, we found out, was none other than the dog that had given us company at dinner and feasted on the leftovers. It had crept into our tent later in the night and snuggled up to us!
We were in the middle of the Thar desert near Sam, 40 km from Jaisalmer. Our tent had been pitched on a sand dune, the clear night sky outside was afire with glittering stars, the air was crisp and cold. The dog’s intrusion might have added to the thrill, but camping out in the desert was turning out to be a wonderful experience.
Opting to spend a
night in the desert was a sudden decision. When we reached Jaisalmer
by a night train earlier in the morning, we were planning to check
into the Narayan Vilas Palace, one of those architecturally splendid
heritage hotels dotting Rajasthan. But our taxi driver suggested the
desert stay alternative, and we jumped at it. It would be a new
experience, and also, as it turned out, cheaper than the heritage
Some distance before reaching Sam, we changed transport, getting off our taxi to ride camelback the rest of the journey. It was a bumpy ride, but fun all the same. The camels moved fast over the rolling arid scrubland; in the distance, other groups of camels with tourists bobbed up and down, and in the slanting afternoon sun, it all looked stunningly picturesque.
But when we reached Sam, the magic seemed gone. The sand dunes were there, but the desert did not "stretch lone and level." There were just far too many tourists, chock-a-block, in fact, all gathered to catch the sunset. The sunset was a bit of a disappointment, thanks to a haze on the horizon, but mercifully after the sun went down, almost all the tourists left.
That left just us and a handful of foreigners in the desert, and a few tents were quickly pitched up, all at a considerable distance from each other. As the evening descended and we sipped our tea amid the sand dunes, strains of folk music wafted in from the distance, transporting us to what seemed an enchanting, mysterious world.
Our taxi driver Jamil got busy rustling up a barbecue dinner over a fire. The moon was a slice but the stars shone brightly, billions of them, as you would never see in a city sky. We huddled around the fire and nursed our drinks with Jamil narrating old desert tales. It seemed the evening would never end, at least we did not want it to end. It was bliss!
We stayed awake long after dinner, talking little, just savouring the atmosphere. Next morning, we were us at dawn to catch the sunrise, and it was brilliant. The night wind had restored the lines on the said dunes that the tourists’ footsteps in the evening had messed up, and now as the golden rays of the rising sun shone on them, they looked like so many little tracks to heaven.
After breakfast, we made friends with inmates of the tent closest to us. They were a French family, and were on a camel safari, having made their way to Sam entirely on camelback. Their first stop was the Bada Bagh royal cenotaphs with splendid equestrian statues of former rulers. Further up, they halted at Lodhurva, 15 km from Jaisalmer, a ruined city. This was the ancient capital of the local royal family before Jaisalmer was built in 1156, today, some restored Jain temples bespeak of the city’s past grandeur.
But perhaps the most interesting place that the camel safari took the French family to Khuri village near the Pakistan border, 40 km from Sam. There weren’t any great architectural ruins there but simple mud and straw huts with Persian carpet-like decorations. The place, they said, evoked a sense of otherworldliness, a self-contained settlement with happy contended families right in the middle of nowhere! There were other abandoned villages and ruins that fell on the safari route, and all along, where there was some vegetation, however sparse, they came across shepherds herding flocks of sheep and goat with tinkling bells on their necks. "It was a great way to explore the desert," the French family agreed.
Our taxi driver Jamil brought us back to Jaisalmer by midday, with halts at Lodhurva, Amar Sagar and Mool Sagar (two lakes with old Jain temples) and the Bada Bagh cenotaphs. In Jaisalmer, after lunch, we hurried to the Golden Fort which dominates the city. We had been invited by the Maharawal of Jaisalmer, His Highness Brijraj Singh, to the palace to see the restoration work, on which I was doing a news article. Built of golden-yellow sandstone, the palace with its cupolas and chatris and exquisitely painted salons was built in the Rajasthani style. There are balconies with carved railings and narrow passageways to interior rooms and terraces. We had tea with the maharajah (or Maharawal, as he is called) in a cloistered terrace and had our photographs taken with His Highness.
If the palace is splendid, the fort that housed it is unique. Immortalised by Satyajit Ray in his film Sonar Kella, the massive Golden Fort is not simply an historical site; it is still actually inhabited. A warren of narrow, crooked streets with shops, bazaars and temples, with houses leaning on each other and dressed in fantastic architecture, the fort is a town by itself. A quaint, antique town, crowded and bubbling with energy. The new Jaisalmer has grown around the fort, but its massive ramparts still define this city in the desert.
Outside the fort, Jaisalmer’s greatest attractions are of course, the elaborately carved havelis or mansions of the rich and famous. The word ‘haveli’ comes from the expression hawa wali, or airy. They were built around inner courtyards open to the sky, allowing the rooms to be breezy yet protecting them from the harsh desert sun. But it is the incredibly intricate carvings, the delicate trellises, the ornamental jharokhas (balconies) and other exquisite architectural features of the havelis that take your breath away.
The 300-year-old Salim Singh ki Haveli, built by a rich merchant to whom incidentally the then Maharawal was massively indebted and who later became prime minister, has perhaps the weirdest design. Its top floor has a projecting, elaborately carved balcony running along all four sides; it looks somewhat like an aerodrome control tower with ancient Rajasthani architecture. The other two famous havelis, Patwon and Nathmal, are newer constructions but more intricately carved with exquisite latticework so delicate it is hard to believe they have been done on stone. Standing on narrow streets, the buildings’ exuberant baroque facades are an extravagant flourish of ornamentations, yet retain a certain harmony and balance. There is style and they don’t seem overdone.
Jaisalmer has more on offer than most
destinations: the Golden Fort, the havelis, the quaint medieval
ambience, and of course the desert. The highpoint of our visit was
surely camping on the sand dunes, and it is something we would highly
recommend. Better still, take a camel safari.