Jaisalmer: Poetry in Sand

The first thing that the travel weary tourist will see as he approaches Jaisalmer by rail or by road is the proud crest of the Jaisalmer fort towering over the golden city, as if it is keeping guard. Jaisalmer is a city at peace with itself. It is neither at odds with its heritage nor with the increasingly enveloping modernity. .  Yet it remains captivating and invigoratingly enticing.

Jaisalmer is located strategically on trade routes between India and Central Asia which made it immensely rich. This accumulation of wealth by the merchants and townspeople is evident in the spectacular residences and mansions intricately carved from wood and sandstone that abound in Jaisalmer. Wealth never goes unnoticed and for the same reason, Jaisalmer fort too was besieged by Ala-ud-din Khilji for nine years. It was during this time that the Rajput women created ‘jauhar’. However, having established fairly good relations with Delhi, Jaisalmer was rewarded with another golden age during which more striking palaces and stately homes sprouted up in the city. With the growing significance of sea trade and increasing importance of Bombay, Jaisalmer demurred from its place in the mainstream. But the India –Pakistan Wars of 1965 and that of 1971 resurrected the strategic eminence of Jaisalmer. Funnily, tourism now contends with the military base as the city’s fiscal bastion.

Rising out of the undulating masses of molten, shifting sand dunes akin to gold dust, the Jaisalmer fort is the crowning glory of the city. Amusingly, a model of the fortress in the museum housed in the fort shows that the outline of this epic structure, roughly resembles the outline of the Indian subcontinent.  The fort owes its enviable distinction to the superior architecture and artistry of countless intensely talented individuals. Another interesting fact is that this mega structure is a stranger to mortar or any binding agent. It stands proud, composed of giant blocks of golden sandstone that are placed employing a bamboozling interlocking technique. The insides of the fort are no less enthralling. A complex web of narrow streets decorates the interior of the fort. One can get lost in the interplay of colours, sounds, places, sights and people. The visual appetite is replete with the display put on by the palace complex that boasts of intricately carved ‘havelis’ which are a representation both of valour and wealth earned by their original residents. Speaking of residents, these highly ornamented residences are not only veritable pieces of art; they are also the only of its kind that can boast of uninterrupted human inhabitation. The golden yellow sandstone of Jaisalmer Fort, over 800 years old, adorns the Trikuta Hill. Within its walls, defended by 99 turrets, lies the aged city, encompassing nearly a quarter area of present Jaisalmer.

Still riding high on the grandeur of the fort and all the delights that it holds, one rides out towards the Sam desert. Fine grained fluid and brilliantly hued, the Sam desert steals the tourists’ breath. By paying a little extra, tourists can ride further out into the reaches of the desert towards the Pakistan border, traversing treacherous dunes on the backs of tricky camels. It is in this less frequented part of the desert that you will see patterns on the dunes that resemble ripples in a lake. The desert becomes an escape, so unreal and ethereal is its beauty and effect. As the sun, an iridescent ball of fire, sets, the sand assumes and discards different, fleeting colours. The eyes, if not the camera, will register colours that we all know exist, but can’t name, colours that lie beyond verbal expression in the spectrum. You may leave the desert with a sense of loss, not to mention slightly unnerved by the long camel ride and with muscle cramps that might annoy you but the thrill is far from over. City dwellers are starved of true darkness, because of a surfeit of light, and consequently of starlight. As darkness descends, starlight begins  to dispel the concealing blanket of the night. A persistent, greenish light illuminates the still desert. It’s starlight like no other. These weak but determined rays accompany us back to the main city where one can indulge their taste buds with a variety of delicious local food. The entire experience becomes all the more enthralling if one eats while watching traditional dancers and musicians work their magic on their audience by whisking them into another world with their sheer talent.

Jaisalmer may be the quintessential desert town, but it there’s more to it than just that. Resplendent with lakes, some perennial, others sporadic, Jaisalmer has its share of parks, museums, shops, eateries and places catering to different interests. Jaisalmer, in itself, is a world of its own.

Jaisalmer regained its strategic importance because of its role as a military bastion but tourism and trade still form an extremely important part of the economy. The fort itself houses innumerable stores selling traditional silver jewellery, tie and dye clothes, dazzling mirror-work, stone-ware and affordable miniature art. My favourite purchase was a bowl made of golden sandstone.  The exhilaration of holding something crafted from the same material as the fort within which you stand is truly unparalleled.

The colours of the stones will eventually bleed into the sand, but the memories of Jaisalmer will remain ineradicably imprinted upon the traveler’s mind.  Jaisalmer is a poem in sand. On one hand, it has a touch of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu in it and on the other, there’s plenty of admirable realism to tickle the heightened senses back to reality. You never know, on your way out of Jaisalmer, you may just hear gunfire at the shooting range while passing Pokhran. But that’s another story.

Anandi Bandyopadhyay