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The Desert Beauty

Revathi Reddy walks us through the golden sands and shifting dunes of the historic city of Jaisalmer. (Photo slideshow in gallery)

We have grown up listening to tales of valour and chivalry of the Rajputs. We have read with enchantment, the romantic story of Sanyukta’s swayamvar and marriage to Prithviraj Chauhan, a valiant Rajput. We have watched with tear-drenched eyes the Jauhar of Padmavati. No wonder, Rajasthan beckons us with its colourful culture, history and folklore. A trip to Rajasthan is perhaps at the top of every tourist itinerary. It has always been at the top of mine, so much so that I have visited Rajasthan at least 5 times in the last decade. But of all my Rajasthan sojourns, the most memorable trip was to Jaisalmer, the Golden City with its havelis crafted in the local yellow sandstone, almost merging with the golden sand and dunes of the desert. The story of Jaisalmer is also very interesting. It is said that the eldest son of Rawal of Deoraj was passed over, for the throne of Lodurna. Angry and frustrated, Rawal Jaiswal, left his kingdom and went in search of another place to call home. It is said that, when he reached Jaisalmer, he met Sage Eesul who told him about Krishna’s prophecy that the heir of Yaduvansh clan would establish a city here. That was how, in the 12th century, Rawal Jaiswal claimed Jaisalmer as his own and established this Golden city with its fort, a sprawling hilltop citadel, buttressed by 99 bastions. 

We decided that a road trip to the Golden city would be the best as we would be able to see the countryside and get a feel of how people lived and survived in a barren desert. One misty, cold December morning, we started out for Jaisalmer in our car. The journey from Delhi to Jaisalmer was about 850 km, so we decided to break our journey at Jaipur and Jodhpur. We had explored these cities in our previous trips, so we just did a night halt at both Jaipur and Jodhpur and stacked up on food and fuel. We started from Jodhpur after a late breakfast and stopped for a late lunch at one of the many beautiful resorts dotting the NH 25-11 National highway. We reached Jaisalmer as the setting sun coloured the city a rich gold, a bit like the bright yellow ‘odnis’ (head scarves) worn by the women of Rajasthan. In the last leg of the journey, we came across terraced fields with water sprinklers economically spraying water on mostly cotton crops. We also saw some experimental farming of pomegranates. Caravans of camels dressed in bright colours with bells jingling as they walked their swaying and undulating walk (a bit like the undulations of the sandy dunes, I thought to myself) and gypsies attired in black were a frequent sight and added colour and warmth to a barren landscape scattered with thorny acacia trees. Even though it was December, it was too hot to wear anything but a thin T-shirt. 

We checked into one of the many havelis converted into a hotel. Our haveli had an intricately carved façade of sandstone, typical of the architecture of the city. The rays of the setting sun made the haveli glimmer gold. Our rooms had an old-world charm and were furnished with heavily carved beds, cabinets and dressing tables. The rooms overlooked the scrubby desert, its vastness making us feel completely insignificant. The evening turned chilly, as all desert nights are vaunt to. Tired from our drive, we retired early, as we had a full itinerary for the next day. The next day we explored the Jaisalmer fort and the intricately carved Jain temples in the precincts of the fort. These temples with Dilwara style architecture, were built in the 12th and the 15th century and were dedicated to the two Jain ‘Tirthankaras’, Rikhabdevji and Shambhavdevji. Our next stop was the Gadisar lake which was built in the 14th Century by Maharawal Gadsi Singh, to meet the water needs of this arid terrain. The entrance to the lake was flanked by ‘chhatris’ or carved canopies characteristic of all Rajasthani architecture. There were some carved platforms arising from the middle of the lake, decorated with the ‘chhatris’ and ghats constructed around the lake. The ‘chhatris’ were home to hundreds of pigeons. The place exuded a sense of tranquility, broken at times by the sound of flapping wings as the pigeons, startled by some tourist throwing a pebble in the water, rose into the air in tandem, hovered in the air and then slowly settled back on their perches. I have not seen so many pigeons together, except perhaps in Trafalgar Square or Connaught Place Delhi. At the far end of the lake, there were some buffaloes enjoying a dip in the water and a couple of egrets enjoying a free ride on their backs.  After this we headed to ‘Bada bagh’, which literally means the ‘Great Garden’, which was about 6 kilometers from the city. We were told that the sunset from the vantage point of Bara Bagh was spectacular. It was more than spectacular. The sky was a riot of colors- orange, crimson, gold and then a mellow pink. The last rays of the sun gently touched the cenotaphs of the royal kings as though bidding farewell. And then the sun sank and slowly disappeared into the outstretched arms of the sandy desert, leaving all of us feeling melancholy as we were brought face to face with the unrelenting cycle of life and death. After this we were in no mood for exploring further and thoughtfully trudged back to our hotel to rest and plan for another day.

Next morning, at the crack of dawn, we were at the Desert National Park. We piled into the open jeeps and headed into the park for our Jeep Safari. We had been warned that the sun would be strong and there would be a lot of dust, so we had covered our faces and heads with scarves, put on wide brimmed hats and popped on sunglasses. And of course, we had binoculars and our fully charged cameras to capture the inhabitants of the park. The landscape was vast and barren. After all we were in the middle of the Thar desert. There was nothing to be seen, except craggy stones, dunes and an expanse of golden-white sand. Our guide, attired in a white Rajasthani outfit with a bright colored ‘bandhini’ turban on his head, was a garrulous fellow who kept up a continuous chatter about the birds and animals that abound in the Park. He was probably trying to take our mind off what looked like a pretty hazardous journey, as we would often tilt alarmingly as a dune gave way under the weight of the jeep. He would slow the jeep at intervals and point out a monitor lizard or a spiny tailed lizard. That would set us off, clicking enthusiastically with our DSLRs. We asked him if we would see the great Indian Bustard. After all the park was said to be the only natural habitat of this endangered species. “Only if you are very lucky”, our guide said and laughed raucously at his own joke. We headed towards the Runi river that flows through the park. The Guide told us that birds and animals could be found close to the water. We eagerly hefted our DSLRs as we approached the river. The Guide stopped the jeep at a distance of almost a kilometer from the river, so as not to disturb the animals and birds with the sound of the jeep. He then shepherded us close to the river. Halfway through, he gestured for us to keep quiet, pointing towards the far end of the river. As we looked, we saw a herd of black buck antelopes. They were gorgeous. We had barely taken a few pictures, when the leader of the pack looked up suddenly as though he had divined our presence and then suddenly the herd bounded off with a grace that left us spellbound. (click here to watch the actual video on YouTube)

On our way back, the Guide pointed out some migratory birds like the Saker falcon, The Eurasian Griffon Vulture and an eastern Imperial Eagle. They were majestic birds of course but everything seemed to pale compared to the beauty and grace of the blackbuck antelopes we had spotted. Tired but happy, we headed back to our hotel to clean up after our dirt track adventure in the Park. 

That evening we had booked a camel safari. We reached the camp at about 4 pm in the evening and were served tea and biscuits. As the sun started to set, we climbed on to our assigned camels for our camel safari into the desert. Initially, as the camels heaved to a standing position, it looked like we would be dislodged and thrown down onto the unforgiving sand and trampled by the camel hooves. But our camel guides were very helpful and asked us to hold on to the saddle and simply move with the movement of the camel. Once we got the hang of it, it was fun to ride the camel. The camel ride through the desert sand was awe-inspiring. The memory of the still desert, the soft jingle of the bells tied around the camel’s neck and the setting sun is still fresh in my mind. We headed back to the camp after spending an hour in the desert. We were assigned a tent to freshen up and change for the night’s festivities. The tents were luxuriously laid out with bright bedspreads on the wooden beds and air conditioners fitted to alleviate the heat.  We changed and headed back to a block of mud huts surrounding an open stage. We were welcomed by girls dressed in a characteristic black gypsy dress and ushered to our table which was decorated with lamps and flowers. As the guests settled down, the evening entertainment began. We were regaled with folk music and dance. While the music of the folk artists was great, what impressed us the most was the folk-dance section. Queen Harish, an internationally acclaimed folk artist, danced into our hearts that night. A male artist, dressed up as a beautiful woman, his dance seemed to outclass the doyens of classical dance. We watched enraptured as he danced on an earthen ‘matka’ and then pirouetted elegantly on his knees. It was a breathtaking performance. That night we sat around a small bonfire, listening to the melancholy strains of the sarangi and watched the stars twinkling down from a clear sky. What a great end to a beautiful journey into the desert.

~Revathi Reddy

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