Jaisalmer – The Dream of a Desert
As the train pulled into Jaisalmer station in the hour before dawn, the platform was already showing the tell-tale signs to the start of a new day. People were already abuzz inside the station going about their everyday business and yet somehow, Jaisalmer seemed to lack the frenetic energy and intense pace that was the norm everywhere else in India. The damp chill of the cold desert night that hung in the morning air was also just cold enough to touch your bones.
We found our patiently waiting tuk-tuk driver, piled our backpacks and ourselves into the back, with Dad squeezing in right up front on the narrow seat next to the driver and we were under way. The sting of the morning air bit hard on my face and exposed skin, as the trembling wheels of the tuk-tuk zipped along. The night before had been a long and testing fifteen hour train ride. The only advantage was that we were able to stock up on Pyaz Kachoris in Jodhpur, from a vendor on the platform where we had to change trains. Having only 21 days in India this time round, we had set ourselves the very ambitious task of trying to see as much of Northern and Southern India as we could. This meant a very tight schedule, by no means the normal way we travel, but necessary for us to complete our 15 city degustation tasting tour of India. This somewhat over-enthusiastic schedule was to impact us today, as our time in Jaisalmer would permit us only a brief 24 hour stop, until we had to head on again using India’s incredible railway system.
Whatever drowsiness I had felt coming off the train was slapped off my face by the frosty wind of the seven kilometre open air journey. Arriving in the town or market square, I took in my surrounds. A cow with her calf close by meandered around the square, sifting through yesterday’s market rubbish, looking for something interesting to eat. The tuk-tuk driver called last stop, telling us that our accommodation, The Gajanand Guest House, was a short walk up a narrow thorough-way to our left. Here, the change in atmosphere we encountered was as apparent as the slowly rising sun. We stood out the front of what seemed to be a warm and welcoming family home, built in the traditional Rajasthani style. Waiting for us was an equally welcoming Mr. Kamal Singh, our gracious host. We were immediately made to feel genuinely at home and climbing the stairs to our first floor accommodations, we indulged in a lukewarm shower before the grasping hands of sleep finally claimed us.
When I opened my eyes it was as if not a second had past. The only obvious difference was the phone’s blaring klaxon alarm, coupled with a shining sun and the bustling noises of the market square down below – now in full swing.
After staring out of the window for a few moments, lost in groggy contemplation, my mind suddenly convulsed and our plans for the day came rushing back in a panicked flood. We had to get ourselves off to the Trotters!
Before you ask What?!, in a perplexed tone, please let me explain. Jaisalmer sits on the arid planes at the edge of the Rajasthani Thar Desert. It is known for its ancient civilisations, its rich history, and its Camel Riding Expeditions. Trotters provide what is just about the best experience you can have in learning about these civilisations, immersing yourself in ancient oases, riding a camel out into the middle of the desert and watching the sun set as your Rajasthani traditional meal is prepared for you freshly, by your own personal chefs of the desert.
I could tell from that moment I walked into the Trotters’ office, that today would create a story, woven on the loom of the silken fabrics of the many stories of the past, present and future.
It started with Jalam welcoming us with a warm smile and hearty greeting.
Then we noticed a young couple, who sat on the bench in the office.
I’m sure many of you can relate to that awkward silence between strangers where seconds seem to stretch into minutes… However, that was soon broken when we struck up a conversation with Axel and Marion, their accents betraying their French origin.
We were delighted to find out that they too were on their own world journey having taken a nine-month sabbatical from their jobs in Paris to set out and explore the planet that we all call home. Both were quite surprised by our story of traveling together as a family for almost four years without a job to come back to. Having immersed themselves in traveling over the passed two months, they too were wondering if it would be possible somehow to fuel their love of travel once they started a family, without having to wait until retirement and we shared with them many of our experiences. Just like Rick Blaine and Captain Louis Renault… it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Before we knew it, we were in the Trotters’ jeep, traveling deeper into the semi-arid desert, surrounding Jaisalmer. We ricocheted across the leather seats until, like a mirage in the distance, an alcove of green trees blessed the rasping landscape. We pulled into the beckoning oasis, the trees protruding from the surrounding rocky flats, providing the only inky shade for as far as the eye could see. As I got out of the jeep, I noticed the reflection of a small lake at the centre of all the flora and the veritable menagerie of birds it attracted with it. These included Mallard Ducks, cute yellow Wagtails, Egrets, Doves and even the Sandpipers we were so used to seeing in summer back on the Southern Victorian coast. Just like us, they had come to see the beauty of Rajasthan. Our guide explained to us that this oasis we were standing inside, used to be a sacred area and was, in fact, the burial site of a number of noted Brahmin priests. The weathered gravestones that lay here now, divulged that while this place was teeming with life, its human counterparts had not inhabited this place for hundreds of years.
I found this quite interesting considering that with the water supply, it had the opportunity to be habitable, even cultivated. My curiosity got the better of me and I asked our guide why.
His eyes slanted darkly, shrouding in mystery as he answered. “Why it is cursed. Cursed by the Brahmins who once walked these desert flats and those who choose to live here will surely die.”
An unexpected breeze tingled my arms as the humour returned to our guide’s demeanour. However, as we returned to the jeep, I couldn’t help but feel as if there was some inkling of truth behind the mystery.
Another 15 minutes into the desert led us to a fort, overlooking the ruins of Kuldhara, the once flourishing heart of this oasis community, now disappeared. Here are two stories as to how this curse came to pass. Both share the commonality that this place was once an incredibly prosperous society, founded by the Brahmin priests from Pali, sometime in the 13th century. They settled into over 80 villages around Jaisalmer and were known as the Paliwal Brahmins, a benevolent and strong community of generous people. It was their collective approach to working together and sharing a common-wealth that made their region so prosperous. They turned the arid dry lands on which they lived into a haven of abundance and community.
It is here, however, where urban legend, myth and history blur lines, making it difficult to know what is truth and what is fancy. The most popular urban legend is that Salim Singh, the Minister of the Region in the late 1700s, was one day walking through the village and his heart was captured by the beauty of the daughter of a high Brahmin priest, whom he insisted her father give to him in marriage. Being of Brahmin birth, this would have represented an anathema and disgrace, lowering the lineage of their family, so he was refused. Facing harsh reprisals, the village heads decided that they would abandon the villages and they did so in the middle of the night, leaving the deathly curse on anyone who dared inhabit their lands and were never seen again.
The other story, perhaps more likely, is founded in their wealth and their essence as a collective society, which often made them the target of Mughal invasions. They fought off these incursions, right up until the late 18th century, when it was said that a targeted campaign, which saw the martyring of many Paliwals and the poisoning of their wells with dead carcases, leaving them no alternative but to leave.
In either case, the locals continue to believe in the curse, often saying that the lands carry the spirits of Brahmins who come out at night to haunt the area. In fact, one Indian paranormal investigation team in 2013 spent a night in one of the main villages with high-tech equipment recording the anomalies, experiencing an array of weird and spooky things, such as being tapped on the shoulder, only to turn and find themselves staring into empty darkness.
More amazing than any of the stories, was to see and experience so vividly how nature reclaims its own, so quickly after man’s attempt to fashion it in his own image.
We moved on through the turbulent hot winds finally arriving at a gathering point where three other jeeps were also arriving. Filled with people from all around the world, they were eager to experience a camel ride out into the Rajasthani desert dunes. There were French, Spaniards, Argentinians, Australians, North Americans and Dutch people. We were quickly hurried towards our camel handlers and told to choose a camel.
Towards the corners of this makeshift camp, I spied a languid-looking camel, lazily licking its lips. It was only when I was right beside the camel, my hand instinctively reaching out to pet its nose that I realised I was entirely alone. My family was being ushered in the opposite direction and before I could protest, our guide bade me settle into the saddle and I was rising into the air, the knobbly legs of my camel strong underneath the blanketed weight. Not one to dally, our guide expertly tied the reins to the camel and set off across the flats. I passed by my family in shocked awe. With the comical snorting of my camel to keep me company, we crossed the barrier of desolate salt flats into the burning sands of the desert.
I am whisked away with a group of Argentineans whose Mate-filled clattering travel mugs are a constant source of amusement for my camel and her head dances back and forth in time with the sound of the sloshing drink. They chatter in rapid fire Spanish and I listen, my mind eagerly retracing the words. I don’t speak, I simply listen. There is something about this desert that quells my tongue and I am content to let the landscapes take my breath away.
As time wears on, our pace changes, slowly growing more sluggish against the sand. It is only a matter of a few more minutes until our first place position is relinquished to the second herd of tourists behind us. I watch with a pang as we begin to fall behind. Caravan after caravan passes us by until I look around and see nothing but the empty sands staring back. My camel snorts as if to console me.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always had a competitive streak. Many times I’ve found myself morphing leisurely fun into a competition, a race to see who would win first. It’s a flaw of mine that I constantly work on bettering. It was while walking the Camino de Santiago del Norte this past European summer, after a particularly exhausting day of trying to beat out a group of pilgrims to the albergue (pilgrim hostel) when I finally learned to take a step back. I pushed myself and my family to near fatigue just so we could win a competition that I had created in my mind and it was when we arrived (ahead of everyone) to discover that the Albergue wasn’t even open yet that I realised how I had wasted the entire experience of the day on pushing ourselves too fast and too hard.
Back in the moment, I smile at any qualms that I have. I am riding a camel through the breathtaking Jaisalmer desert, amongst new friends and my family. It is an experience that I am extremely grateful for, a blessing that I will never take for granted. I inhale the scent of the desert, the perfume of the flowers and the sting of the wind… then I click my camel onwards.
In the near distance, I see that the individual groups have converged and it is only when my camel joins the throng, elbowing its way through the buzzing crowd that I realise why.
We have arrived at a desert well, the wooden troughs filled with the cool sweet water that any creature of the sands craves. I am almost tempted to reach down and scoop a handful of water for myself until I see the camels spitting back into the liquid. I think I’ll pass this time.
A young boy who couldn’t have been older than eleven takes a liking to my camel and continues to guide from where his elder left off. I watch as he prances from smooth rock to rock, barefoot in the amber sand and I enjoy the new, lively pace that we begin to pursue. In the distance I can see Dad leading the pack, his voice floating back across the dunes, echoing behind me to where Lalika, Axel and Marion chatter against the wind.
The minutes stretch into hours and the sun’s rays begin to morph from a sizzling heat to a pleasant lustre, the rough sheen of the sand crunching beneath my camel’s feet. Over the golden dunes, I spy smoke, snaking its way into the sky. Rounding the corner, I make out a campfire stove, two jeeps filled to overflowing with food, water and blankets, a large tarp set out across the sand to serve as a dinner table and the sun slowly melting the sky. My feet nearly crumple underneath me as I slip from my camel’s side. We have arrived.
We scatter across the dunes like newborn spiders, trying to find the perfect vantage point to watch the sand swallow the sun. As we force our leg muscles to work again, the sky becomes a canvas and the sun becomes the artist and together they create a masterpiece.
We sit together, the four of us and then with Axel and Marion as the sun finally disappears into eternity, rising somewhere on the other side of the world… and throughout all of it, my smile never fades.
As darkness descends so do we too, back to the yellow tarp where we are each handed a silver platter overflowing with three different curries, roti and raita. Each time one of us comes close to finishing our food, the chefs are at our side, waving ladles in front of us. “More? More? More?” they ask and smile widely when we say yes and prop our plates up. They gain the same joy I see on my grandmother’s face after eating a plate of her delicious home cooked food and they hurry back and forth from the cauldrons of curry, their footprints silent against the sand.
Mini head lamps twinkle among us like stars but it is only after the final plates have been passed around and everyone is stuffed full of delicious Rajasthani food that we see the real stars. They are vivid, brilliant against the midnight satin of the sky, the true diamonds of the desert.
The night grows longer and unlike everyone else, we must leave the cloak of the desert behind. While everyone else will be sleeping out under the stars, we must return to Jaisalmer and to the beckoning horn of the early morning train that awaits us.
We exchange details with many new friends, snapping pics with lightning flashes. Then we jump inside the jeep and close the doors on the desert.
As I slip into a drowsy state, my head resting against the cold window of the chilled jeep, I contemplate our day. A treasure trove of Rajasthani experiences.
And now we leave behind the sultry whisper of the desert, the songs of stories, the cyphers of curses, the biting wind and the steady beat of a camel’s hoof and we return to the reality beyond the dream… the dream of a desert, the dream of Jaisalmer and a ride to remember.