Jaisalmer is the most western and remote of the Rajasthan cities: the golden jewel right on the edge of the Thar Desert. Formerly a prosperous camel-trade route between India and Asia, its fortunes dropped drastically after Partition in 1947, and the area seemed destined to dry up. Ironically, its proximity to the Pakistan border gave it fresh importance and today the economy is bolstered by a massive tourism revival, numerous military installations and countless kilometres of wind farms.
The city is small – just 65,000 souls, and golden – most of the buildings are of shade of tan and gold, which reflect the desert sun and heat. This is not the landscape bold colour. It is dominated by the mammoth Jaisalmer Fort; which from a distance looks like a giant sandcastle constructed by an army of six-year-olds armed with inverted sandpails. (Please forgive the poor, fuzzy and distant photo quality, but this is the best shot I have – taken from our hotel rooftop).
The main attractions of the fort are the Jain Temples and Fort Palace; but inside the fort walls is an actual small city, with people who have lived there since its founding in 1156. Currently there are about 3000 residents, whose homes and shops are lined along narrow winding lanes. For centuries, residents have necessarily been meticulous about water conservation and have lived without incident until recent years when tourism and its incumbent unrestricted water use has brought about extremely serious consequences.
And herein lies yet another example of how untrammelled tourism has the potential to take away so much more than it brings to a community. Water usage and disposal have not been monitored nor restricted and the Fort is under serious threat unless appropriate measures are taken to restrict water use and/or continued guest occupancy within the fort. It is built of sandstone, and part of the wall fell down because of water seepage; an ongoing issue as there is nowhere for the water to drain away. Tourists are encouraged to book rooms outside the Fort, but certainly guesthouse owners inside are not willingly giving up their revenue streams. It is shocking to think that irreversible changes to such a treasure could be allowed to happen and yet it appears headed in that direction.
This is the entrance to the Fort – on overview of some of the exterior details.
Once inside, one runs the gauntlet of shop after shop selling colourful and really beautiful hangings, rugs, tablecloths and cushion covers. Although we’re not in the market to buy, it is still a pleasure to stop and admire, and that becomes impossible as the slightest side glance turns into a full-on sales pitch. “Come in madam. I have more inside. Lots of colours. Good prices. What are you looking for?” Since entreaties to be allowed to quietly look are ignored, I freeze and panic at the onslaught and keep moving.
The Fort offers endless glimpses into people’s private lives, but then that could be said about the rest of India – much of life is lived publicly and outdoors.
The Jain Temples date to the 15th and 16th centuries, and the opulence and carvings are extraordinary.
Jain religion forbids the wearing of leather and all shoes are left outside the door. I wondered how many leather belts made it inside, or small leather bags and wallets.
The temples forbids menstruating women from entering the temple as they are “unclean”. This is not restricted to Jain temples but it was the first time so far we had seen the sign. Since proving menstruation is difficult, women between the ages of 10 and 50 are simply banned from some temples at all times. Encouragingly, protests against this shameful notion have been ongoing in India for a few years; another sign of the push-pull struggles of modern India.
The interior of one of the temples:
A closeup of some of the carvings:
Back in our little ‘hood, lots going on as well. Our hotel is called The Secret House, a brand new build by the extremely charming Naru, and designed by his Spanish wife. After some of our less than pristine guesthouses, arriving here was a gift – of comfy bed, immaculate bathroom, fluffy towels and scented air – along with sweet design touches and very professional service.
This became our refuge from the blistering 38 degree mid-day desert heat.
Not all our neighbours live as comfortably as The Secret House.
We met some of the locals on our walks, including this little gang of kids who waved and smiled and yelled out to us like the bold little kids they are, and the second I asked for a photo, this happened:
Next time we take a tuk-tuk, you can bet we’ll be checking the seats carefully for signs of goat-hair.
In the market, we came upon this stall of amigos – one of them giving his friend a strenuous leg rub with what looked like coconut oil. In India, the land where PDAs among opposite-sex couples are not considered appropriate, it is open-season for great physical affection between men. Some young girls walk together with arms entwined, but it is the men who have cornered the market on touching. They hold hands, fingers spread and clasped tightly. They walk with arms around one another. It is unabashed, seemingly without any sexual intent or overture – just the way it is. This is a man’s world.
I’m trying to imagine this same gentleman sitting there, with his wife massaging his legs in public – just wouldn’t happen. Another of India’s many mysteries and contradictions.
Camel safaris are one of the biggest tourist draws in Jaisalmer: half-day, full-day, or multi-day excursions. The most popular one is an overnight safari leaving mid-day, with two hours of camel riding, camping for the night and sleeping under the stars. By all accounts it is magical.
Before I go any further, I must tell you both Stephen and I had been extremely sick for four days leading up to our arrival in Jaisalmer. Delhi Belly hit with a vengeance as we arrived in Jodphur and after a night to remember, we then just fell into a waking/sleeping/sweating/shaking/ fitful limbo where the hours slowly crawled by and day turned into night and the nightmares were horrifying and we didn’t seem to be getting any better. Then, bit by bit, we emerged and made it to Jaisalmer in what could be described as 70% function and health. Unfortunately we missed Jodphur entirely.
I’m telling you this for two reasons – most visitors to India have similar stories to tell and now we have ours. I was going to use it as an excuse not to go on a camel ride. “I don’t think my tummy can take a camel ride – let’s just go on a jeep safari.”
Stephen was not all that keen to ride camels either, so we chose to book a jeep safari and it ended up being a highlight of our time in Rajasthan. Our guide Papu grew up as a camel driver and still lives in a village out there. He spoke perfect English and was extremely knowledgeable about everything.
We drove through a small village that is populated by “untouchables.” This low caste, called Dalits, have been ostracized from the rest of society and consigned to do the dirtiest work such as cleaning public latrines. There is much effort to do away with the caste system, but it still exists in remote places. Naturally we did not take photos.
Our next stop was a typical village – neat and orderly and modest and similar to the one our guide lives in.
A source of income in this area is goat farming – the males are sold for their meat.
Papu brought us into this home to learn a little about village life and be served chai. A single-room cottage with no electricity or running water, it was spotlessly clean and swept; the pots shone and gleaming. We sat on a thin carpet on the ground and talked.
This woman lives here – photos of her family are prominently displayed, most notably several large ones of her husband, retired from the military. Hers has not been an easy life, I wouldn’t think, but she has family, friends, community, income and a home. She seemed quite interested in learning more about us.
On to the main event – we off-roaded up into the desert (or at least what I think of as being desert – it’s all desert). As we passed a few camels, Papu casually mentioned that we should consider going for a short ride – even 15 minutes. Stephen really warmed to the idea and considering we were there, and would likely never be back, we went for it.
Like a mirage – two drivers and three camels soon appeared! They brought their animals down to allow us to climb on ( if you are looking for ways to feel ungainly, this would be one), and then gave us instructions to hang onto the pommel and lean back as the animal rose to its feet. Whoa – up, up , way up. There…we did it.
And away we went – with me gathering promises from the driver that he would go slowly and not let the camel trot. You’re about 10 feet off the ground and the gait is rolling – you have to let your body follow the animal (as opposed to hanging onto the pommel for dear life and hyperventilating as I did for the first five minutes). If you ride horses, you would likely take to this in a snap.
The driver took us up into the higher dunes – a ride of about 15 minutes in total. I’m very happy we did it (that Stephen talked me into it) – I think we would have been so disappointed to have missed out on our tiny camel adventure. We were then directed to climb the top of the dunes to watch sunset before being picked up again.
An example of the dunes – as Papu noted, “not the Sahara” but good enough for us.
Another camel train going by.
A driver collecting his animals for the night.
Good-bye beautiful Jaisalmer – thank-you for providing us with such memorable experiences.
Tomorrow we fly to Amritsar, home to the sacred Golden Temple.
P.S. A few hours ago, we went to the local lake to witness the Gangaur festival that was pure joy. Women and girls celebrate the monsoon, harvest and fidelity; hoping for marital happiness. Today was the final celebration after the 18-day festival; culminating in a procession leading to the lake, with groups of women carrying offerings to the water, and enroute, dancing to Lord shiva and Goddess Parvati.
It was an incredible spectacle, with hundreds of beautiful women of all ages taking part. We are including the photo of this little boy (whom we suspect is a girl in costume), because he reminds us for all the world of our friend Nick McAnulty. He was our son Alex’s best friend since they were five-years-old, and are friends to this day. This is what he looked like back then, and it made us feel sentimental.
The street dancing and drumming was fabulous – many groups performed as they travelled down to the lake – this was one of the more energetic ones, thanks to the drummer.