India’s desert city enchants visitors

There were times in India when we would have parted with our last rupee for a comfortable ride in a Greyhound bus. Our destination was Jaisalmer, a city in the very heart of the Great Indian Desert, or Thar, and for five long hours, we two tall, well-padded Canadians were wedged into a bus seat wide enough for one and a half slender Indians.

Unconcerned by the overcrowded conditions where surplus passengers were coaxed onto the roof, our fellow travellers sang, breast-fed their babies, ate gargantuan meals from greasy newspaper wrappings and smiled shyly at these two pale foreigners sitting in their midst.

Worth the effort
Travel in India is not for the faint-hearted but definitely worth the effort.

The splendour of the desert region is particularly striking in Jaisalmer, where the golden sands provide a backdrop of drama for sylph-like women clad in saris of saffron, carmine, emerald green, fuchsia, blue and gold.

Located on the ancient Silk Road linking China to the Mediterranean, there is an aura of mystery that surrounds this desert city.

Low yellow sandstone buildings cluster around a fort founded by a prince, Mahara Jaisal in 1156. The massive structure rises nearly 100 metres above the desert, with gateways tall enough to accommodate elephants with ornate seats, called howdahs, complete with canopies to shade the riders from the sun.

Old caravan route
By the 17th century, when the city was a bustling metropolis catering to camel caravans carrying jewels, silks, spices, gold and ivory between the great trading centres, Jaisalmer’s population and the wealth of its citizens reached its peak.

Palatial havelis, or manor houses, were built within the walls of the fort for the wealthy. Some of them still stand, their splendid sandstone carvings intact. Not even the searing desert winds have obliterated the delicate work of those ancient craftsmen.

Wander old city
My husband, James, and I wandered for hours along the narrow cobbled alleyways in the Old City where little has changed over the centuries.

Traders sit cross-legged on the floor at the entrances to Lilliputian shops. Chewing betel nut, a popular stimulant in southern Asia, they spit streams of brick red saliva on walls long stained with splashes of crimson.

Their merchandise ranges from shawls and silk carpets to hand-painted miniatures, silver boxes designed to hold chapatti (unleavened bread) and opium canisters.

Ate local food
At midday, we sheltered from the heat beside a fruit and vegetable stall where the sweet aroma of peeled mangos mingled with the pungent odour of over-ripe vegetables.

Like the locals, we ate nan (flat bread) and biryani (vegetables and rice) with our fingers. Risking a dose of India’s notorious Delhi Belly, we quenched our thirst with lassi, a delicious iced drink made of yogurt.  

In the shade beside us, a slender Brahmin wife with her green-eyed child astride her hip watched as sacred cows mooched along, nosing into garbage mounds and sipping daintily from open drains.

Piglets, striped, spotted and plain, screeched and squealed as they slid delightedly in oily black puddles. Children ran alongside anyone with a camera, pleading “Rupee for a good boy.”

Next page: Handprints on wall

Handprints on wall
Most of the fort’s inhabitants are traditionally Brahmin caste. Their homes are tucked away in the curves and hollows of the 99 bastions forming the walls of the fort. On one of these walls, we discovered a poignant memorial: a display of tiny handprints.

Suttee was once a customary practice wherein a widow immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Before mounting the pyre, she would dip her hands in henna and press them on the wall of the fort as a final gesture. To this day, these places of “the hands” are considered sacred and the women who sacrificed their lives are venerated.

Other nearby sites
Just three kilometers north of Jaisalmer but seldom mentioned in guidebooks is the fertile oasis of Bada Bagh. On a stony hill silhouetted against the sky are the tombs of former rulers.

Built 500 years ago, they are elegance in stone. Each tomb is protected by a carved ochre sandstone cupola supported on slender pillars.

Also within easy reach of Jaisalmer is the small village of Lodurva where an ornate Jain temple is entered by way of a carved toran (arch) that dates back 1,000 years.

Legend has it that Dunendra, a five-foot cobra who lives in a hole in the temple wall, emerges daily from her lair to drink from a bowl of milk put out by the priest. To see Dunendra is considered a harbinger of good luck.

Transport no problem
Transport to these out-of-the-way places is not a problem. We found the most convenient was an auto rickshaw, a diesel-driven three-wheel conveyance with a back seat for two.

Most are in an advanced state of dilapidation, but some are lovingly restored and would suit the extravagant tastes of a maharaja: decorated with silver tinsel and marigold garlands, plastic sweet peas in vases attached to the metal frame, door-to-door carpets, white lace curtains and photos of Indian movie stars.

The ultimate “luxury” is recorded music. Our driver played his at full volume as our chariot bounced along pot-holed roads, the throbbing melody drowning out all conversation.

Ride saddled camels
Jaisalmer’s pièce de résistance is a three-day camel safari in the desert, a journey that follows a meandering trail of craft villages and sweeping dunes – a glimpse into the life of the nomad.

But pressed for time, we settled for a Sunset Tour, a brief but pleasant compromise. Leaving from the Tourist Department’s Hotel Moomal, we travelled 42 kilometers to the Sam Sand Dunes in the back of a jeep.

At our destination, at least 200 saddled camels decked out in embroidered quilts with tassels and pompons, beaded necklaces and bells hanging from their necks awaited us.

Within 10 minutes of our arrival, James was up and away. Like Lawrence of Arabia, he and his camel galloped off over the dunes and that was the last I saw of him for two hours.

Camel corral events
I chose instead to photograph the camel corral where things were far from peaceful. A scene was playing out that rivalled a Laurel and Hardy movie.

Six cameleers struggled to heave a dishevelled buxom Indian lady in a green and gold sari onto an upright camel. Her husband and young daughter were already aboard, having mounted the conventional way with the camel kneeling.

Finally, the animal, irritated by the jostling and shouting men, pulled itself free with a roar and tipped the whole family ignominiously onto the sand. Amid shrieks of protest from the three ditched riders and the hysterical laughter of the cameleers, the young camel owner grabbed the animal’s halter and the two fled across the sand.

Desert sunset experience
For almost two hours, I wandered in a desert setting where exotic turbaned men with hawkish features gathered companionably around smoky fires.

Beside me, a sea of grunting camels rested on the sand. Chewing incessantly with a strange jaw-swivelling motion, they watched as their owners sipped char (tea) from murky glasses.

In the distance, amid dunes tinged with orange, cream and gold, hundreds of camels and their riders served as the perfect backdrop to that magic moment when the sun vanished below the horizon.

For more information about India, contact the Government of India Tourist Office, 60 Bloor St. W., Ste. 1003, Toronto M4W 3B8. Phone toll free: 1-800-Go-India or visit the web site.