The jewels of Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer Fort on a sunny winter day

As the train chugged into the station while  I rolled up my sleeping bag, I caught a quick glance of the fabled yellow stone. And felt the familiar little flutter. This wasn’t my first time in Jaisalmer. And this wouldn’t be my last. What keeps bringing me back to this glitter of a tiny fort town, I wondered.  Even though it is quite the way out. Folklore? Fable? Fascination with the bustling life inside the fort? Melodious street musicians? The vast magical desert surrounding the city? The simple people in the tiny villages around Jaisalmer? Hardened by the harsh sun and the lack of water yet smiling warm and welcoming? I think maybe more. Even if you keep aside the bengali & Sonar Kella factor[ yes, all bengalis have been dreaming of Jaisalmer since Satyajit Ray cracked it open in his movie in the 70s], there is much more to Jaisalmer than just another fort town.
The city has the facade of a jewel, the heartbeat of a holiday, and the hazy happiness of bhang [ cannabis]

The bustle of the city

On way to Patwon ki Haveli

Winter is busy. Four months of in and around winter are the only months that people throng to this town in the heart of the Thar desert. There is a tiny city inside the fort with narrow lanes, medieval havelis, colorful shops and friendly brahmins. And then there is the city that spreads out and surrounds the fort. With more bustling market lanes, yellow stone havelis with  generous amounts of the gorgeous filigree work [ fine, intricate stone carvings], a busy and friendly bhang shop and many tasty treats in nooks and corners.
The best way to discover Jaisalmer is on foot. Inside the fort, make your way to the palace museum. Take the audio guide if you can, because it is more authentic than the local guides. Visit the Jain temples. Walk around the lanes and browse through the antique jewels, leather products, old bookshops jutting out of a sudden turn, colorful patchwork hanging from walls in clothes, sheets, bags and the works. Eat a bite in the little Tibet eatery. It’s got a good rooftop view of the city and some decent chicken momo. Stop at the German bakery on your way up into the fort. I found it warm and fulfilling, specially late in the night when the town is packing up. To sit with travel buddies, a slice of  lemon cake, some peanut cookies and big glass of tea, is a perfect way to wind up the day. Once you step out, try and catch at least one haveli. The most magnificent out of the lot is Patwon ki Haveli– a lavish ancient structure that takes you into the prosperous lifestyle of the moneyed Jain traders of ancient Jaisalmer. Another place to spend a couple of hours would be the shimmering Gadsisar lake. You could pack some lunch and make a picnic out of it. Sitting in the bright sun, staring at the lake, it is easy to imagine how this was a sight for sore eyes for the caravans and travelers in old times in the scorching heat. Jaisalmer was a strategic town in the silk route connecting India with Persia, Egypt and farther west. And many a long and difficult journey through the arid desert found solace at this lake.

The glitter and the sounds

Smiles and silver

Jaisalmer is a color explosion. Everything is in deep saturation mode. From the golden sandstone, to the bright patchwork hanging around. Glittering jewels, flashing silver, lots of fake metals too, and the bright signature turbans. And then there is the music. Not so out there as the color, but more blended  into the fabric of the town.The sounds of ravanhatta [ a folk music instrument] will float into your ears at strategic places. Like when you are walking uphill into the fort.Whilet getting in and out of the palace museum. Or near the shimmering Gadsisar lake. And almost all of them seem to be only playing ‘ kesaria balam, padharo humare desh. Not because they do not know anything else, but because it is probably the most popular folk song catapulted into nationwide fame by Bollywood. Bound to stop a few visitors in their tracks. Taking them closer to a penny or two. Some voices are sweet and piercing at the same time. High on talent, they too look for some encouragement as most artists do. This is their only stage and if you spend as little as 5 minutes and 50 bucks with them, the tune seems to get sweeter. The smiles wider.

The magic of the desert

One hour of a jeep ride will take you closer to the scant desert. The  Sam sand dunes have become quite the hot spot on the tourist line, with big crowds landing up to catch the sunset or spend a night at one of the elaborate tented settlements. And while the people running these camps try their best to give everyone a good time, with folk music and dance, buffet, bonfire and the whole paraphernalia, I think the soul of the desert is best felt far away from the noise and the lights. Riding into the sunset, a camel ride will take you further away from the highway and the camps,closer to the nomads of this region. A night under the bright stars on the sand dunes, with a crude fire for warmth, few people for a close conversation, and a meal cooked in a thatched open hut is what memories are made of, this part of the country.

The little fables and folklore

Patwon ki haveli

All you have to do is start talking. And there are so many stories floating around. Jaisalmer is the home of the Bhati clan of Rajputs. Also known as descendants of Lord Krishna. Who happened to be chandravanshi [descendants of the moon].There are stories of valor. Of the art of war and great strategy. And trade. Between cities, countries, dynasties. And then there are stories of tragic love. With treachery, jealousy and death. The Palace museum audio guide will tell you the story of  Princess Soomal and how she messed up her sister Princess Moomal’s love life, just because she wanted to get a glance at her secret lover.  Or then there is the story of Kuldhara, indulgently told by the old man sitting at the  gateway to this deserted village. About how a villainous ruler who cast his dirty glance upon the head priest’s daughter caused a mass disappearance overnight, of 84 villages, leaving the land cursed. Even though now the deserted village has become a must tourist stop, it still deserves a touch and go. And maybe even a bit of wandering away into the stretch. Of course there are more stories of ghosts and haunted trails. Best to consume after special lassi and with a pinch of salt.

The sense of humor

Well, what do I say, when pictures like these say a million words. Since one of the main sources of livelihood for the locals come from the tourists, they have their sharp wit and a catch phrase handy, just in case it hooks up a conversation. If you head to a shop called Shiva bike rental, the owner is a garrulous man and calls himself Al Pacino. Urging people to Google him as ‘Al Pacino Jaisalmer’, just in case they didn’t believe him. And damn right he shows up. So take to the people. They are friendly, polite and extremely welcoming.

Rajasthani thali

The tingling taste buds:
It did take me a while to find the real stuff here. There are many a tourist haunts with the Indian-ized Italian, Mexican and other global fare. The usual Indian thali is also around in plenty. But the special yet simple Rajasthani thali, with their vegetables- ker sangri, gatte ki sabzi, and a few more names that I cannot recall, is best served with a lot of love and authenticity in Swadan. A simple terrace restaurant that gets unanimous recommendation across the city from all locals.  Try the Rajasthani thali there [ the sweet bajra choorma was delicious] and the Dal baati choorma. A satisfied burp is almost a guarantee. My search for good Lal maans however remains. Though I was told by my camel rider that next time I should make it to his little village very close to the Pakistan border. And his wife would make the most delicious Lal Maans ever. Good enough reason for my hungry soul to start plotting the next when and how.

There is still a month  of winter left. All you need is one long weekend. See if you can catch these jewels before a whole year passes by.

Stay tips: If you are not too fussed about great luxury, try and stay inside the fort in a haveli. It is quite the experience that another city may not be able to offer.And if you want the top notch luxury, do look up Suryagarh, followed by Fort Rajwada.

Gadsisar lake