Jaisalmer: A Desert Kingdom

From No Set Boundaries: Eleven Stories of Life, Travel, Misadventure | Townsend 11
Runner-up, 2007 Book Passage Travel Writing & Photography Contest

 Jaisalmer: A Desert Kingdom
by Jacqueline Yau

I hear the whisper in the arid breeze. Come. I close my eyes and lean into the wind, hoping to catch the elusive invitation again. Breathe. I inhale deeply. Beneath the earthy smells—dirt, grass, and cow—a whiff of cumin and cardamom teases my imagination. Taste. I lick my lips in anticipation of creamy curries and spicy masalas shooting flavor fireworks into my taste buds with onion, garlic, red chilies, and coriander. Warmth drifts over my eyes, nose, and cheeks, lingering for a moment on my lips. Flickering against my mental movie screen, I see a molten orange orb melt below the horizon with its golden fingers touching me as it descends. I send out a simple message to the universe. Jaisalmer, seduce me. I’m ready.

cover_VOL2_220_293I’m in the land of kings, standing in the middle of a sandy plain, looking out at a medieval desert fortress city in the northwestern fringes of Rajasthan, India. My two girlfriends and our driver are waiting patiently for me in the car, parked on the side of the road as they indulge my desire to experience Jaisalmer at dusk, lights blinking on, twinkling like stars from the fortress battlements. I’m not yet within the city limits, but already, something intangible has wrapped its tendrils around me. I want to absorb this ancient city’s essence through my pores.

Jaisalmer was founded in 1156 A.D. by Prince Jaisal, a Bhatti Rajput. It served as a staging post for camel caravans carrying silks and spices, linking India to Egypt, Arabia, Persia, and beyond. The city prospered until sea trade began replacing land routes. Now, tourism fuels Jaisalmer’s economy. Located near the border of Pakistan and in the heart of the Thar Desert where temperatures routinely soar above 110 degrees, Jaisalmer offers a glimpse into the past and continues to promote its celebrated textiles, mirrored embroidery, patchwork rugs, puppets, and golden fort.

We drive into the city and stop at Hotel Rang Mahal, a golden castle draped with bougainvilleas spilling over its square turrets. I wander through the lobby into a courtyard where the pool transforms into a mirror, reflecting the drama of day surrendering to night. I continue up the weathered red-tiled stairs and down the hall into our corner room where I peer out my window like Rapunzel waiting for her prince. I drift off, dreaming of knights, quests, and castles.

Early the next morning, we rise as soon as pink dusts the skies. Delicious butterflies tickle my stomach as I anticipate exploring this city. We schedule our trip like a three-act play: Act I: attend the Desert Festival parade; Act II: explore the fort, havelis (wealthy merchant homes with intricately carved facades) and textile markets; Act III: take a camel trek across the Sam Sand Dunes, 26 miles west.

* * *

Act I—the Desert Festival parade. This annual event showcases the region’s performing arts and crafts. The air fills with haunting ballads, reminiscent of minstrels past; blood-pumping rhythms of Rajasthani folk music; laughter and camels braying; and a cacophony produced by snake charmers, hawkers, and puppeteers. Many flock to watch the camel racing, turban-tying, and best-mustache competitions.

I am determined to see it all and experience the parade from every angle. Fortified with curds, cereal, masala tea, and fruit, we chase after Ali, our guide, and the hundreds of spectators jostling for the best curb-side position around the lines of resplendently-dressed, saffron-turbaned, military band members. They sit erect on their tasseled camel mounts, holding their gleaming horns in their laps—their elaborately curled-to-a-point mustaches (a la Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot’s) a throwback to an earlier era. We press in, peek-a-booing between people, catching glimpses of the opening procession.

Ali vanishes down a narrow lane and I race after him. I catch sight of him as I weave around turbaned and sari-clad villagers, single-humped cows, and camera-toting tourists. As I pass the open food stalls, I smell the yeasty aromas of rotis (wheat bread), parathas (unleavened flat bread) and the sweet scent of Rajasthani snacks like laddoo (sugary balls of flour mixed with ingredients like ghee and cardamom). The lyrical buzz of Hindi and other dialects trail behind me. I’m ducking and dodging through the rabbit warren streets, excitement pounding through my veins. I’m the Chinese, female Indiana Jones, playing out my childhood treasure-hunting fantasies. All I need is a whip and a fedora.

Out of breath, I catch up with Ali and we all finally stop to watch a parade of folk dancers, musicians, and children, dressed up as Maharajas and other famous figures from ancient legends. Men in red and white turbans twirl in their long, full crimson-and-gold skirts while wielding wicked-looking swords. They remind me of Russian Cossacks with their fierce energy. Close on their heels, dancers swathed in jewel-toned saris sway past. They fluidly sweep their bangle-covered arms from side to side, reminiscent of Hawaiian hula dancers. I imagine that they are my welcoming committee from the Maharaja, summoning me to help find ancient Indian treasures.

* * *

Act II—the Fort, Havelis, and Textile Markets. Perched 250 feet high on Trikuta hill, the desert fortress of Jaisalmer towers over the city. Like much of the town, the fort is constructed of yellow sandstone that turns a fiery golden hue at sunset. The compound represents one of the few living medieval forts in existence, housing more than a quarter of the town’s inhabitants. Most of them are Rajput (the warrior caste) or Brahmin (the priests) and have lived in the fort for generations. Within the fortress walls, havelis, palace dwellings, and Jain temples are among the treasures found. The most notable havelis such as Nathmalji-ki-Haveli, however, reside just outside the Fort.

Mighty sandstone elephants with tusks greet us at the entrance to Nathmalji-ki-Haveli, commissioned in 1855 by the prime minister of Jaisalmer. Like most havelis, it is a multi-storied wood and sandstone home constructed around a courtyard, decorated with intricately carved facades. But what makes it unique is that this airy abode was built by two brothers, each taking half to design and construct. The result is whimsical yet harmonious—my fairytale house realized. Stone figurines of horses, flowers, birds, and elephants ornament the walls alongside miniature-style paintings and mirrored jewels. Through the filigreed windows, we spy a row of quilted rugs, a patchwork of Crayola crayon colors brightly lit by the sun, and decide to next visit textile artisans.

“Kindly come in. Please take a look,” invites a clean-shaven gentleman, neatly garbed in a white collared tunic and tan trousers. We step into the tented lair of a textile cooperative where centuries-old tribal costumes are quilted into rugs wallpapering the high-ceiling space. We are transported into another world. Warm, diffused light filters down from the ceiling.

A young shop assistant approaches. “Would you like Chai or water, Ma’am?” His head bobs from side to side, listening politely while I answer. As I accept a cup of masala tea, I pretend I’m a Chinese trader on a mission to bring back the best Indian wares for my empress. Room after room off the main visitor area is filled with textiles and linens of every imaginable design: paisley shapes, geometric patterns, embroidered, sequined, and plain. I drape luxurious silk-wool wraps around my neck and shoulders and point out which rugs I desire. Twisting this way and that, I squint at myself in the mirror, imagining my subjects feting me and my maids attending to my every need.

Back at the fort, we explore the palace complex, now a museum. We walk past the women’s quarters, screened from the world through harem windows, carved so that eyes can’t peek in but women can see out. I squint to get a better look and am reminded of the paper snowflakes I cut as a kid. What would it be like to view the world through golden snowflakes?

Farther in, we stop at the Jain temples. Jainism is a religion originating with the teachings of Mahavira in ancient India more than two thousand years ago. Followers believe in the equality of all life and stress non-violence and self-control. Within the fort, seven Jain temples are interconnected by a series of courtyards and walkways. I take off my shoes and step inside the first temple, the air a cool respite from the dry heat outside. Finely carved figures in both marble and sandstone, earthy and voluptuous, adorn every surface of the temple from walls and columns to the ceiling. Benevolent-looking gods sitting in the lotus position line the walls. I bow and greet the temple guardian, a Jain priest, with “namaste” and run my fingers across the cool marble carvings. I feel peaceful here. I look up and trace the erotic figures circling the pitched ceiling. It makes me think that life and its many facets are on display here in Jaisalmer—raw, real, and relentless. Hunger, love, betrayal, passion, sadness, success, joy, peace, serenity, life, and death all coexist.

* * *

Act III—The Sam Sand Dunes. My Lawrence of Arabia moment arrives. My girlfriends and I travel west, sharing the road with military caravans going to the Pakistani border, while we go to the Sam Sand Dunes to explore the desert. I am eager to trek by camelback. No one, however, tells me how hard it is to get onto a camel.

I swing my leg over the saddle, covered in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie calico fabric. My legs dangle. I grip the horn until my knuckles turn white. I am not going to get tossed off this camel without a fight. But I have no leverage and am digging my heels into the poor camel’s girth until the camel handler slides the stirrup over my tense feet. The creature gets up suddenly, first tossing me back, then throwing me forward. I’m surprised I haven’t pitched over the camel’s head with a triple somersault. Somehow, I stay upright and in my seat.

My camel handler leads the way, pulling on the reins threaded through a peg in the camel’s nostrils. I sway back and forth in the saddle, adjusting my balance to accommodate my camel’s gait. As we travel across the dunes, I am mesmerized by our shadows lengthening against the caramel backdrop. Blue skies stretch infinitely across the horizon.

On my right, a full moon is rising. On my left, the liquid orange sun melts slowly into the dunes, the sand reflecting the changing hues of the sky. As I contemplate the 360 degree view, pondering life’s riddles, up appears a local musician from behind a sandbank. He’s dressed in a cap, tunic, and vest and carries an instrument that’s a cross between a maraca and clarinet but sings like a song flute. I’m distracted from my musings as he plays. As he interprets the music, his mahogany-tinted face reflects a shifting map of emotions. The creases around the corners of his eyes and forehead become more pronounced with every note.

Not long after, a beverage vendor appears offering us local favorites: “Thums up, Limca, or Kingfisher beer?” As the dusty sky turns a fiery orange and fuchsia, a little girl dressed in a blue-and-white tribal costume performs a series of dances for us. She sports a bright tangerine veil, her eyes lined in kohl. She dips and pirouettes as her father accompanies her with a mouth harp. There is a price for this magic, of course—100 rupees—but the experience is priceless.

I don’t want to leave. I’m being held by the desert whose spirit has touched mine. Sensuous curves define the dunes. This place tugs at the romance in my soul but I dare not linger. As the curtain falls for this play, nightfall reclaims the land. Under the rapidly darkening skies, we gallop toward Jaisalmer.