The first thing you notice in Jaisalmer is the Golden Fort sitting proudly atop the Trikuta hill. A handsome structure, it is visible for miles around. Made from yellow sandstone it glows an ethereal glow in the morning rays of the sun. No wonder Satyajit Ray called it the Shonar Kella. And then you notice the cows… Dozens and dozens of them, dotting every street, infesting each square, pooping away without a care in the world. Every time we traversed the length and breadth of the town (which was quite often) we did a complicated hop-skotch to avoid cow dung .The sight of a busy posterior of these bovine creatures brought out the latent athlete in us. We almost broke Olympic records in long jump.
Located in the heart of the Thar desert, Jaisalmer boasts of one of the largest fortress in the world and beautifully sculpted Jain Temples. The town is divided into the fort area and the expanse around it. The fort built way back in 1156 A.D is now tragically listed as one of the most endangered sites. It is speculated that the leaks from the sewage system is eroding the fort’s foundations. The tourist boom has made it worse. The hundreds of mushrooming restaurants and shops drawing gallons of water are stressing the already overstressed open drains.
We mostly discovered the town on foot. The people are friendly, the shopkeepers aggressive. The displays in most shops looked like rags. How is it that the same skirts, shawls, kurtas with same prints and colors are available in all tourist destinations? Is there a “Great tourist con manufacturing industry” that retails all over the country with a statutory warning “To be sold to gullible tourists desperate for shopping”? Also spotted some innovative advertising. Stuck to an oversized kurta, “Makes your boyfriend look less ugly”. Excuse Me? I’d rather get a new boyfriend. On a bed sheet “Works better than Viagra” . Viagra makers eat crow, colourful ugly embroidery works better.
We didn’t just roam around like vagabonds scoffing at shop displays. Like most dutiful tourists we did the mandatory sightseeing. Visited Raaj Mahal , home to the Bhati clan. A seven storeyed structure, it has stunning lattice work and the terrace gives a spectacular 360⁰ view of the town. Near the superbly sculpted Jain temples we were privy to an impromptu rectal by a crazy balladeer. Man happy , woman Happy…happy happy he sang giving a full throated recital to an audience of amused tourists.
The town is dotted with a few notable havelis. These are palatial houses mostly built by wealthy merchants, with beautiful, ornate sandstone carvings. Some havelis are many hundreds of years old. Visited just one, Patwon ki Haveli sticking to the, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen all logic.
Eating out was always a dilemma. Where shall we have gatte ki sabzee and ker sangri today? The Rajasthanis are not very imaginative when it comes to their cuisine. And the arid conditions do not help either. But where they lack in imagination they compensate with oil. After a few days of eating out I had so much of oil in me that you could actually mine for it! Our first meal in Jaisalmer was a disaster. Little Tibet, our chosen one was akin to space-time singularity. The food was a dieter’s delight, the type you wouldn’t touch even with a barge pole. After a series of spicy and scary misadventures we were quite looking forward to a continental dinner at the much hyped Trio. In a fit of fevered excitement we ordered almost half the menu and waited in ecstasy. We smiled through the live folk music even though the notes touched new high and lows. We braved a sudden dust storm, a squall, napkins flying off our tables all in the fond hope of a decent meal. Alas it was too decent, insipid, boiled with sauces which bore no semblance to the exciting descriptions given to them.
When you are in Jaisalmer you cannot go back without an excursion to the Sam dunes. In our mission for a sand dune expedition we discovered that the travel agents in the town are a fun loving lot. Their offices were mostly sans their occupancy but outside they had giant advertorials promising to take us to “Non Touristic sites”. Touristy it seems is the new four lettered word in the travel agent’s lexicon. We eventually did locate a functioning in his office agent. Call me Mr. Desert he announced as he shook our hands genially. Apparently a local celebrity, in his previous avatar as a camel driver he has been featured in a few foreign publications as the face of Jaisalmer.
Quite a few friends, family members had waxed eloquent about the dunes and the desert’s vast expanse. Our take, the desert has deserted the desert. The sandy stretch had more shrubs that one could count. The dunes were littered with discarded bottles, kurkure wrappers and hordes of screaming excited tourists. Our camel ride was more memorable that the view of the desert. We swayed at an unhurried pace. The husband’s camel was quite an opinionated creature and made it’s displeasure known by emitting gurgly grunts. We just couldn’t stop giggling. But our bout of giggles was rather short lived. Our camel riders came to the hasty conclusion that we are a fun loving lot and threw in a free camel race (with us atop the camels) for our added pleasure. Imagine your organs doing a vertical jig all at the same time? We were holding on to the poor camel for dear lives with our emotions doing a kaleidoscopic flip. But when you are in Rajasthan you are expected to tip. Be it the pushy Rajasthani dancers doing the jig at the drop of a hat, the exasperating sarangi player who plays off key, the street urchin who annoys you with a rattle and the camel driver whose idea of amusement is a giddy marathon.
Later in the evening we had a prolonged faux Rajasthani village experience in Choki Dhani. The evening ended with a sumptuous dinner. The USP of Choki Dhani is force feeding. They will lament about your lack of appetite, look disdainfully at your trim frames. We had to manually grapple with the attendants to avoid dollops of ghee on our curries and rotis, much to the amusement of the other guests.
On our way back we were treated to the most spectacular sight. The Milky way embracing the inky gray sky. The stars seem livelier in the desert sky. We could see the golden fort twinkling in the distant horizon. Thankfully tourists cannot mar the pristine beauty of the sky, not at least for another decade.
On our way to Jodhpur I couldn’t help but ponder at the irony of tourism. Are we inexorably adding to congestion and encouraging blatant commercialization? Seeing dramatic transformations of, once upon a time pristine hamlets, I am overcome with an annoying sense of guilt. Are we like termites eating into the already crumbling infrastructure? I think next vacation I will just stay home.