Pushkar is a meat-free, alcohol-free town. The coffee is mostly instant Nescafe so I’ve been drinking tea. We participate in a blessing ceremony conducted by a Brahmin on the shore of the lake. We leave Pushkar feeling healthy and holy!
We drive to Ajmer for an afternoon train. Shortly after we board, a steward arrives to take our dinner order and, elated that there will be a meal, we gobble up the samosas and other snacks we’d bought in the market. At 6 PM the train stops at a major town and a man arrives with meals in a sealed tray called a thali. Thinking it is what we’ve ordered we take and pay for them. The train rolls out of the station, our steward comes by and, seeing the meals, gets a stricken look on his face. These are not the meals we’ve ordered from him and he is visibly upset. In very broken English we reassure him we will still take his food, which arrives in a set of stacking stainless steel containers, called a tiffin, the equivalent of an Indian lunch box. We get off the train over-fed and bloated.
We’ve ridden 10 hours north and west to Jaislamer, in the heart of the Great Thar desert. As we go farther into the desert and as the hot season progresses the temperature rises. It is mid-thirties during the day, making the hotel pool a nice touch after a day of sight-seeing. We’re told that during May the temps go as high as 50 degrees and that several days last year were a record breaking 57. Thankfully it is a very dry heat and not nearly as uncomfortable as it was in the south and Sri Lanka.
Because we arrive at midnight, we don’t get a full appreciation of our hotel until the next morning. The Mandir Palace https://www.welcomheritagehotels.in/hotel-details/mandir-palace-jaisalmer is one of the most spectacular places we have ever stayed. The royal family owns it and lives in one of the many wings. Like the other palaces, temples, havelis (noble and merchant family houses) and the fort, it is built in the style of carved sandstone for which Jaisalmer is renown.
Jaisalmer is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nicknamed the Golden City because of the sandstone buildings. I feel like I’ve over-used adjectives like elaborate and ornate and intricate to describe some of the architecture we’ve seen on this trip. Jaisalmer leaves me speechless. I’ll let the photos do justice to the elaborateness of the carving.
The crowning glory is the massive fort. Built in 1156 by the Bhati Rajput ruler Jaisal, the fort sits high atop Meru Hill, rising out of the earth like a sand castle. Its massive sandstone walls are a tawny lion colour during the day, turning to a magical honey-gold as the sun sets. It is a living fort, the largest and oldest on the planet, with about a quarter of the population living inside the walls.
Our guide Jaitu is one such inhabitant. While on a walking tour we stop in at his small house to meet his family. His sister makes chai masala (spicy tea) and we sit, on the bed his parents sleep on (it doubles as a couch) and talk about middle-class life in India. It’s clear Jaitu would prefer to talk about politics and economics more than about the history of Jaisalmer. It’s interesting.
Inside the fort we visit the small but impressive Jain temple and the old royal palace, now a museum. We linger at the many craft shops, but are told to only buy at a government approved co-operative.
The ancient Silk Road passed through Jaisalmer and for centuries it was an important trading center. Today tourism and handicrafts are the main economic drivers. Patchwork textiles are the regional specialty. Some of the quilts, bedcovers and carpets we see are made from pieces of old saris. We’re told that women living in remote desert outposts sew and embroider for weeks and sometimes months to produce a single quilt.
Our cynical selves wonder if there is a factory hidden in the suburbs where small children labour under inhumane conditions or a sweat shop in China where illiterate women are locked in and chained to sewing machines. We buy anyway. Craig comes away with a large patchwork carpet made of old opium bags.
A night in the desert is an opportunity to get away from the chaos of Jaisalmer. We leave mid-afternoon and drive into increasingly arid and empty countryside. Like mirages, camels start to take shape. At first we are ecstatic and ask Sunny to stop the van so we can snap photos, but soon realize that there are hundreds of them. Some are wild, others are beasts of labour, mostly transportation.
Yes, we ride them. It’s all part of the experience. For an hour just before sunset we shuffle among the sand dunes. Us and a host of Indian tourists whooping it up and having a good time.
Later, after dark, we sit under the stars, entertained by traditional dancers and musicians. The grand finale has us (well, them, not me … I man the camera) up dancing while Sunny makes a video.
The next morning we have the dunes to ourselves. India is a very noisy place and we savour the peace and quiet … a rare interlude.