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Tales from the Golden Sands
April 11, 2013 COMMENT comment
     
Tales from the Golden Sands
By Purva Bhatia
 
All of Jaisalmer is either a stage or nature's canvas. Colours come alive and there is energy and activity that keeps the entire city buzzing.
 
Sitting on the golden sand, silently gawking at the sunset, five of us finally found our 'happy' moment in Jaisalmer. Nature must have used extraordinary colours that evening to paint the evening sky and give it a fairytale look. Or maybe it looked so astonishing because the scene finally resembled the image of Jaisalmer we had carried in our heads. You know how they depict this city in movies, travel brochures, television ads and what have you: Men in red turbans, vast stretches of sand dunes, camels, jeep safari, et al. It was a complete visual delight. That picture-postcard Jaisalmer was here in Sam Sand Dunes. We were thrilled.

After a wearying, long bus journey from Delhi (we were unfortunate to not get a train or air ticket), we did not appreciate much what we saw. The local drivers were geared up to loot us tourists; buildings seemed to have taken over the original landscape; and the 'Golden City' as in our imagination was nowhere to be seen. Even the proverbial Rajasthani hospitality did not live up to our expectations when we reached the hotel.

Nothing was going right ... until later when we reached Sam Sand Dunes and before that when we tasted rich Rajasthani flavours in laal maas, chicken and biryani. It might sound preposterous but the royal Rajasthani cuisine set a lot of things straight for us.

Less than 50 kilometres away from the city, this tourist attraction is best explored by a camel safari. However, just before the sunset, we chose to walk up to the desert area where we were to experience the magical moment. Upon returning, a bonfire in the evening along with folk singers and dancers dancing to the tune of songs like Padharo maare des just outside our tented accommodation made the picture perfect.

Even though the night was long, the thought of seeing the rising sun, sitting on the ship of the desert, excited us. The view was breathtaking just as we had expected. Amuse yourselves by asking the name of the camel you ride on. Five of us sat on 'Hrithik', 'Shahrukh' and 'Salman'. Exciting as it was, a long ride on the camel, however, can strain your thigh muscles! An alternative then is the jeep safari, that is if you're adventurous. Bargain hard, especially if you, like us, go during the peak season. You can visit nearby villages and explore the local culture and witness various shades of the life in a desert here.

Forts and Mansions
We chose to acquaint ourselves with the main city too. Our first stop was Patwa Haveli. Built by Guman Chand, a wealthy trader, for his five sons, the 19th-century haveli housing five mansions looks majestic with intricate carved-stone decoration. The lack of any Western influence in its architecture and décor gives it a very authentic appeal. What's not authentic, however, is the placement of the artefacts inside. Our imagination of the life of the owners was marred by relatively modern objects like a telephone and contemporary furniture, which we were kept there “just like that”, said our guide, who was already doing a very bad job of taking us back into history. Only two areas of the premises managed to fascinate us: The outside gallery from where you can admire the picturesque façade of the mansion and the terrace area, offering a splendid view of the entire city and attractive rooftop restaurants on various terraces.

The 800-year-old Jaisalmer Fort, popularly known as the Golden Fort, appears to come straight out of an Arabian fairy tale. One of the world's largest forts, it was built by Bhati Rajput Naharawal Jaisal. With narrow winding lanes, private homes, small restaurants and cafes and vendors selling trinkets and souvenirs, bikes roaring past us and even cows strolling about, it is clearly one of the liveliest areas of the city.

Salim Singh Haveli was named after its first owner (Diwan of Jaisalmer), who was notorious for his unscrupulousness. The haveli was meant to display his stature in society at large and the royalty in particular. Ironically, it is now infamous for its poor maintenance.

Nathmal Haveli, built by two brothers in the late 19th century, is still partly inhabited. The exteriors of right and left wings look identical at first glance, but a guide can help you spot the differences.

The Haunted Village
Of the several villages on the outskirts, one which sounded most interesting to us was Kuldhara, the haunted village. The story goes that 170 years ago, residents of 84 neighbouring villages including this one vacated the town overnight. This was because Salim Singh had a lecherous eye for the village chief 's daughter and he was keen to add her to his harem, failing which he would impose unreasonable taxes. To keep their pride and honour intact, the chiefs decided to walk away leaving behind a curse that whoever tries to live in the village would perish. The story sounded surreal, and the experience a bit inauthentic. Come to think of it, all of Jaisalmer seems like a stage where the locals are playing bit roles – camels have filmi names, men wear turbans, women dress up in traditional attire, and sadhus happily pose for pictures. Add to that astonishing colours of nature, and it becomes a spectacle to behold!

MUST SEE & MUST DO

Dine at rooftop restaurants: We recommend Trio at Gandhi Chowk for lovely views and delicious food.
Eat laal maas: It is worth the hype.
Brave a bhang lassi: An intoxicating traditional yogurt drink laced with cannabis, it is legal in Rajasthan and is sold at governmentapproved outlets.
Desert camping:To explore it to the fullest, stay at Sam or Khuri for at least three nights.
Jewellery shopping: From local to exquisite silver jewellery, you can find yourself a good bargain at the local markets.
Click, Click, Click: The entire city is picturesque especially at dusk and dawn.

GETTING THERE
By Air: Several airlines are linked well between Jaisalmer and Jaipur, Jodhpur, Delhi and Mumbai.
By Train: The railway station is 2 km east of the city. It is connected by rail with Jodhpur and Delhi, which is in turn connected to major cities and towns.
By Bus: Jaisalmer is well connected by a good road network to Jodhpur, Bikaner via Pokhran, and Barmer.

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