Return to ravishing Rajasthan I: Jaisalmer and the Thar desert

On our first trip to India, Rajasthan was one of the last places we visited on our three month-long trek around the country. By this time, quite frankly, we were starting to expire; our patience for some of the more trying and tiring aspects the backpacking the Subcontinent were wearing paper thin. Also, we thought we’d pretty much ‘seen’ India by that stage.

We hadn’t.

Rajasthan was a glorious revelation: a state and a people so vibrant and alive, so colourful and charismatic; a pride in culture and history worn in elaborate detail. We were quite entranced. There seem to be two narratives at play here.

Rajasthan is part of the Golden triangle of India’s tourism offerings: fly into Delhi, head south to Agra for the Taj, and then east into Rajasthan. It’s a well worn path, long on the tourist trail, so the state is well versed in selling its story. This narrative centres around the fabled histories of Rajput kingdoms, full of stories of gallantry, bravery, incredible riches and jauhar, or ritual mass suicide in the face of conquest.

The other narrative explains that the vibrancy of Rajasthan and its culture(s) is in direct contrast to the often arid and sparse landscapes in which its people live (although there are also many lusciously irrigated agricultural lands and valleys). Here, this sometimes desolation provides a blank canvas onto which rich cultural tapestries have been woven across millenia.

Put these together, and you’ve got a pretty intoxicating recipe.

It may be (a little) trite, I don’t know, but it does feels like it does ring true: the people here are just that little bit more flamboyant, loud, and charismatic. And whether true characteristics, ones created as tourist product, or, more likely, somewhere in between, it works: Rajasthan is an India highlight.

As we did the state’s big hitters last time – Jaipur, Jodhpur, Pushkar and Udaipur – this time was about finishing what we missed first time around, Jaisalmer, on India’s far western extreme, as well as a couple of lesser known stops on our way up to Delhi: Chittor, home of India’s largest fort, and Bundi, the achingly pretty, low-key equivalent to the State’s bigger tickets.

Overall, they were good choices.

Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer sells a most romantic and heroic story: a 12th century fort rising like a mirage out of the Thar desert; a place where jauhar was carried out by its women and children multiple times rather than allow themselves to be enslaved, its men riding out to battle knowing they would be slaughtered in the process.

While those stories are absolutely real, the mirage is just that: a bit of a far-fetched reach. You do have to come here with realistic expectations. The fort is surrounded by a town that sprawls outwards from its base. The town is itself surrounded by a lot of no-go defence land and dotted all over the landscape are wind farms. Jaisalmer doesn’t suddenly appear like an apparition.

However, in saying this, the fort is dramatically impressive. You can sit on any number of rooftops (hopefully your own guesthouse) and stare at its magnificence for hours, jutting out of the rocky hill with that most beautiful honey-hued sandstone. It’s an arrestingly romantic visage.

Inside the fort, the tour of the palace, with requisite Audiocasters guide, further brings its history alive. So does wandering around its lanes; it is a living museum. Everywhere you turn feels like a page from a history book or adventure novel. Walking right around its 99 lower ramparts affords views looking out into the Thar desert. From all angles (apart from looking down at the rubbish!), it is quite breathtaking.

It’s also imbued with that unique vibe that seems to be present in places located in extreme geographies on extreme edges of nation states; there’s always something just a little wild west about border zones.

The downside is that the fort at least is totally dependent on tourism; it is its lifeblood. And, with not that many tourists around while we were in town, there were a lot of people hanging loose. All over India, as well as Sri Lanka, the story has been the same: this year has not been a great tourist season. The notion of dependency on such a fickle, fluctuating industry, is an uneasy thought to ruminate on.

Tourism is also, slowly but surely, destroying the fort. The pressure of all those guesthouses and their constant running water is slowly causing the fort to slide down the hill. This, and the visible signs of waste creation, is a real risk to brand Jaisalmer, which is why, if visiting, you should really try your hardest to not stay inside the fort.

The sense of the extreme saw us take to the desert on our final day, for a single day safari. We took the advice – and are glad we did – of a new Kiwi pal we met in Goa, who said a single day was quite enough.

For us, we wanted to wander about on a camel for a bit, explore some sand dunes, and get a glimpse into the life of desert people, as they call themselves. We got all of those things.

(For the record, riding a camel was not really that comfortable. Once you stop tensing so hard, believing you might slide right off the plodding meanderer, the rhythmic monotony becomes somewhat hypnotic, but I can’t say it ever becomes comfortable. The one-hour ride more than ticked that box for me.)

Excuse you, gurrrl…

As for desert life, it is always astounding to me when you get insights, even if only momentarily and fragmentary, into lives that seem so impossible, so very different from everything you can imagine human existence to be. It’s not a case of deficit comparison, of wondering how people live without screens, fridges and WiFi (lord forbid), but of simply a reality so far removed from all that you know, it’s just hard to conceive the how of life: what the practices, norms and rituals of daily life are.

(And, of course, I’m just as sure it operates the same way in reverse. At dinner, around the fire, one of our hosts told us we were sitting, effectively, in his backyard, and how he loves the quiet and how noisy Jaisalmer is. Imagining him in the middle of Mumbai, I’m certain he might wonder exactly the same: how does anyone do life in such chaotic, crowded, and noisy spaces!)

So we got to see little settlements and villages, built in both sandstone and older mud-brick styles. And indeed life happens here; schools, shops, labour associations, and so on. We were told that the wind turbines finally brought them electricity, about six years ago.  

One of the most arresting images, aside from a sadly almost bone-dry oasis, was standing in a fort above a town abandoned some centuries ago. They were both stark reminders of the extreme nature of the environment here.

And the sanddunes, of course, were beautiful. For the briefest moment, we got our Lawrence of Arabia moment (you do also need to be realistic about what the (edge of the) Thar actually can deliver on a limited-time safari; this is hardly a trek across the great Shah expanse).

Most memorable for me, though, will be the moments of silence; actual, complete, silence. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in such a vacuum before, such a total absence of sound, a total void. For moments there weren’t even insect sounds. The true sound of silence is indeed extraordinary.

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “Return to ravishing Rajasthan I: Jaisalmer and the Thar desert

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