Rajasthan. The western sector.
Part 2 of Rooh – E – Rajasthan.
To read part 1 – Click here.
Western Rajasthan, not a soul in sight.
A true desert town and on this day Barmer also seemed like a deserted town as I thumped in at around 12 pm. The sidewalks were empty and all the markets were shut. As I made my way through the empty streets, the noise from the bike’s exhaust echoed off the shops’ shutters. Later I was told that it was the day after Diwali and hence everything was closed. With the sun right over my head and the temperature rising, I was beginning to feel the sting of being out in the open. Riding the bike with all my gear strapped to me like a non air conditioned space suit I was feeling very warm. Even the breeze was hot. There was a stark difference at this point in my head. I had begun my journey from Mount Abu in the morning, a chilly hill station and now, I was quite literally in the middle of the desert with the sun bearing down. Such is the truth of travel, never before had I dealt with such contrasting vistas and weather, all in a span of 6 hours.
To be this far away from home and to realise that no one here knows you, it’s a strange feeling. I would talk to my motorcycle when we were on the road. My motorcycle and I, we communicate better than most humans do. I tell her where to go and she takes me there, anywhere. She also throws her tantrums and I deal with them. It’s one relationship I’m great at maintaining. Lunchtime was closing, for the both of us. At the fuel station, I was given a direction where I was told one could find a decent hotel.
Beautiful too, are the people of Rajasthan as I was about to find out. I put up at this hotel which had opened just 10 days prior to my arrival. They gave me a huge discount as they were new and my god what a place that hotel was! Key-card entry, sliding doors and flat screen TVs the works. In the western most part of the desert region of India, who would have thought? Their kitchen wasn’t yet operational, so I made my way to the only restaurant in Barmer which was open on the day and treated myself to some of the most amazing mutton I’d had in a long time. Back at the hotel, I was the only guest but as the evening came, came droves of people from Gujarat, travelling on pilgrimage to Tanot – a highly frequented Temple near the Pakistan border. The staff at Madhav Paradise – my hotel was limited but very courteous and they made sure I was comfortable, right from the start.
3 star comfort at Barmer!
Madhav Singh Rajpurohit, the owner of this almost 3 star hotel in Barmer, became my friend in the first instant of us starting our conversation. He was a fellow Bullet (motorcycle) man or ‘Bult’ as it is referred to in this part of the country. In the evening, we rode together to a place little away from the town centre where there were sand dunes! As we rode together, we spoke to each other about our lives, he seemed very intrigued by my escapade. He constantly asked me why I was doing this and each time I found myself wondering the same but tactfully answered with ‘Photography’. It’s not just photos for which I travel, no. There was something else which was pushing me, something which I couldn’t put a finger on just yet. Here was a man with big dreams for his town. Mr Madhav told me how he planned to change the face of Barmer by making it a healthy touring town. I could see in his eyes the fervor he harboured to make things happen in Barmer.
This was the first time I had ever seen dunes of sand and my friend was at his amusing best as he showed me how to make a miniature avalanche from sand. As the sand flowed over small sections of the dune, it formed pillar like structures of compacted sand. This was interesting! I never knew that could happen! The sun slipped behind the crest of these static dunes and the light was fading. Crickets had the right of way now. To be honest, I wanted to see and possibly shoot a scorpion. I had an image in my head for a picture that I wanted to click, a scorpion on the fuel tank and the setting sun in the background. I wondered if I’d be gifted with a chance to do this. Riding back to my hotel, through the village, the rear wheel occasionally skid on the sand covered road and each time it brought a smile to my face. Multiple realisations of being in the desert. I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.
Here, in Barmer, I witnessed the true Rajasthani spirit of hospitality. As soon as the sun went down, I was asked my preference of food for dinner. I responded by asking Mr Madhav what he would be eating. I told him that I had never really tasted true Rajasthani food. He smiled and told me that he would take care of my dinner. I was served traditional staples of an Indian desert home, from Mr Madhav’s home! Crushed ‘bajre ki roti’ with buttermilk, a very spicy dish of fried okra and some kheer – an Indian desert. Can’t say I was bowled over by the food but it was the gesture and the friendship which had been extended to me by a stranger which touched me.
Yet again, the motorcycle was the icebreaker. Especially the Enfield and its charms have formed many a friendships over the years I’m sure. Here and now, in Barmer too, she was the reason two complete strangers spent an interesting evening together and ended up being friends.
I was riding along the National Highway 15, the next stop was Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is the flagship city of Rajasthan. Smack dab in the middle of the Thaar desert, it is a real oasis of sorts. I readied myself for the ride and hit the sack.
The next morning, I rode a hundred and fifty kilometres north to the golden city of Jaisalmer. Golden it really is. This is the stretch of road when I really came to terms with my reality. I was singing songs which reminded me of my days as a child, hearing stories of the sand. Dad and his Army regiments had been posted here for years. I couldn’t help but feel patriotic as the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war was fought on these very sands. At every few kilometers, there were rural roads leading off the main highway heading into the yellow sands towards the border. I almost gave in to my temptations for a ride along the border but that needed permissions I didn’t have.
Arriving at Jaisalmer.
Within three hours of high speed riding on the NH 15, the Marauder and I were closing in on Jaisalmer. One could now clearly see the windmill farms which supply the border with electricity. I rode on further and the road now cut through the landscape with towering wind farms on both sides. A rest stop here and again the silence of the desert breeze hit me. Punctured only by the distinct ‘tink tink’ sound of the motorcycle’s engine cooling. India is a huge country, at no point is it possible to sum up its vastness and variety in a single breath.
It’s just gold.
They say the friendships that start with a fight are the ones that are the strongest. Jaisalmer and I, had a rough start. I was greeted with a bee sting on my neck as I entered the city, after which I found out that there was no hotel willing to accommodate me for 5 straight nights. So I made a few calls. The beauty of the city kept distracting me from my predicament. Sweating in the sun, making phone call after phone call and simultaneously trying to tend to the bee’s doings, I kept looking around as if to try and take Jaisalmer in, all at once. Suddenly it dawned on me that there was no point in fretting over accommodation. Even if I didn’t get a bed at a hotel, the Indian Army was everywhere and being an army kid I would at least get a safe place to park my motorcycle and at the end of the day that is all a biker needs. Just like that I felt relieved. Sat down on a sidewalk as the wind threw fine grains of sand into my face I looked over at my motorcycle, honestly, she wasn’t doing too well. The mighty Marauder wasn’t all that mighty anymore, there was a faint slap in the engines tone. Yet again I wondered if she could do this trip in its entirety and take me home.
As the pain in my neck became more bearable with each passing minute, things started falling in place, almost magically. Joy of joys, I was now put up at an RTDC (Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation) tourist bungalow. They were kind enough to let me stay at my own mud hut (which is a theme of accommodation) for 5 straight nights. The RTDC setup at Jaisalmer was a very comfortable setting for me. Being a typical government guest house, I had complete peace of mind when it came to leaving equipment in my room or even parking my motorcycle. My mud hut had the basic needs taken care of, a usable bathroom, a fast enough fan and a nice big lock to put on the door.
Cuisine is important to me. Everywhere I go, food or should I say good food is a major priority every time. I was curious to find out what Jaisalmer had on offer for my taste buds. It was lunchtime by the time I settled myself and got ready to head into the city. Just about ready to leave, I was informed that my room tariff included one meal. Suddenly Jaisalmer’s ethos, it seemed to me, was trying to make up for its earlier misalliance with my arrival. I decided it was worth giving the guesthouse food a shot as I was going to be staying here for a while. I was greeted warmly at the dining room, which was like a fruit punch of sorts. The buffet spread had in front of it at least a hundred hungry travellers from all over the country, waiting on their turn to serve themselves. I joined the jamboree and soon found myself sitting at a table and chomping. The food was decent oily but edible. This was the first time I felt slightly lonely, looking at the other travellers and their self serving families.
After lunch I rode out onto the streets of a town I had already begun to get used to. Without all the riding gear, the afternoon temperature comforted me. I had begun to like Jaisalmer, a place that I was uncomfortable at only three hours ago. From my RTDC standpoint, I could see the Jaisalmer fort a small distance away. Just 10 minutes of riding in the same direction brought me to the foot of the fort. Only when standing close to the fort does one realise the scale of this structure. The road led to a monumentally congested makeshift parking lot and after a while of asking for directions and witnessing some quirky marketing I managed to break free and reach the actual Fort entrance.
Quirky marketing and the Fort entrance
Let me now try and explain what Jaisalmer really stands for. About a thousand years ago, the Jailasmer Fort was built and even today it stands tall with all its might. The fortress is visible from miles away and one wonders how in that age did they manage to build it. A king called Rawal Jaisal was behind its construction. The interiors are highly intriguing as this is the first ever fort I visited where I rode my motorcycle all the way to the top. All through the afternoon it looked brown in colour but as the sun’s light becomes softer one can make out the change in the fort’s mood. The Trikut ka teela or the Trikut Hill plays host to its massive three walled defenses. As I read up on the history of the fort, I begin to get an idea of Jaisalmer’s importance. In the medieval period it saw the rise and fall of many a ruler and was also a major bastion of trade in the Indian sub-continent. Even in the present day, Jaisalmer and its sands hold a strategically important place in India’s Geo-political existence. This part of the country has witnessed two wars between India and Pakistan.
At any point of time, there is heavy Indian Army presence in these parts of the desert all the way up to the border with Pakistan. Having said so, in and around Jaisalmer, one has to make an effort to spot a soldier on duty. You know they’re there but not always in sight, something which I believe helps the traveller feel more comfortable. I was certainly at ease. There were no restrictions on movement and one could walk the streets without nervousness. The streets of Jaisalmer are paradise for photographers and people watchers alike. In the morning as fresh yellow rains down from the skies, the golden streets light up and present a very pleasant ethos.
The Jaisalmer fort interiors were no different. The once royal pathways had now given way to cobbled roads which bear the weight of hordes of tourists, two wheelers and auto rickshaws. During the day, if you do take your vehicle inside, you will witness a very amusing game of incessant honking being played out. It can get so loud while you and your vehicle are waiting for some space that it could actually bring a smile to your face. I was amused all the way!
More than five thousand people actually live in this fort. Also, most of the fort has been converted, over time, into a one of a kind tourist’s shopping centre. Handicrafts, clothing, memorabilia and international cuisine roof-top restaurants are just some of the money spending options you will find here. Everywhere you look, from the walls to the smallest corners, one can see some item which is on sale. Not to mention the tens of ‘guides’ who will offer their services to you on your way up. At this point I caught myself thinking, this is not what I’m here for. A sudden second of realisation told me that the history here had been overshadowed by the rampant overuse of tourism for daily bread. Like a snail touched by a twig, suddenly I went back into my shell. In the middle of touring the fort, I stopped and turned back. My mind was a fistfight of thoughts. On one side stood the ‘image’ I had of this place and the other was defended by what I had just seen, reality. Was this Jaisalmer?
I spent the entire evening, having probably the slowest cups of tea I must have ever sipped on. Ogling at the fort from a distance, I sat on a flimsy ‘chaiwallah’s’ stool and watched the structure as it changed it shade with every falling photon of evening light. All through I kept thinking about whether it was a mistake coming here and changing that image of the desert in my mind. The conclusion came in the most uncommon of ways.
The fort over evening tea.
As morning came the next day, sipping on an early morning cuppa’, I stood at the outer courtyard of the guesthouse, an empty street in front of me and the breakfast buzz coming from the dining room inside. I was trying to formulate a plan of action as I had pretty much spent my entire first evening in Jaisalmer taking time-lapse footage of the fort. This morning I decided I should tour the fort like a tourist and not have preconceived notions about anything, it is what it is. On this day I chose to walk to the top and spent my time clicking pictures of the city architecture all day. The Patwa Haveli and Salim Singh ki Haveli that I toured, offer a small insight into the daily life and times of Rajasthani upper class. How they lived, how they cooked and how they got together in their homes.
The Patwa Haveli interiors.
Come afternoon, still pretty grumpy, I sat down to have lunch under the sun at one of the many roof top restaurants atop the fort. Coming back to cuisine, the food at these restos is more or less decent. The fact is, the economy of Jaisalmer thrives on tourism and hence competition is fierce, which in turn results in reasonable prices and decent quality. At least by my standards.
Roof top refreshment.
I was now wondering what to do for the rest of the day when suddenly I got my answer. Three Jaguars roared a thousand feet above my head and in formation they barrelled towards the open desert. With a morsel of laal maans (red meat – a Rajasthani specialty) in my hand, I looked on as the aircrafts disappeared behind the yellow buildings. My mind now was blank, the sound of those jet engines still echoing in my head. I made up my mind. I would head to the desert and by five the same evening, I had touched the sand.
I asked the guesthouse staff to arrange some transport for me and at three pm I was off towards the open desert but before the sand dunes there were a couple of other places to be seen. I wanted to give the bike a little rest and although everyone told me the road conditions were good all the way to the dunes at Sam I didn’t want to take a chance. A short drive out of the town had brought me to a place called Badabagh. Badabagh or ‘big garden’ is where one can see Chhatris or Cenotaphs belonging to long gone Bhatti rulers. It is a site which seems, for the most part, neglected by the development authorities, nonetheless it offers an interesting look at the past. If you take a guide, he will probably charge you 50 rupees and give you a small background about Badabagh. The carvings and the arches here bear reference to the number of wives each king had, amongst other things. A short tour of these cenotaphs might leave you thirsty for more but in your haste, don’t forget to look back as you drive out towards the main road. The open expanse is punctuated by the arches of the Chhatris at Badabagh and is a sight no photograph can do justice to. Try and be here around four in the evening.
Next comes Amar Sagar. A collection of temples sits off the banks of this almost dry lake. It is not the place a typical tourist will dedicate much time to though the architecture here, just like all over Jaisalmer is worth commending. Lodhruva and Kuldhara are two more sites in the area which are of historical importance and have interesting stories behind their existence. But the time for the sun to set was just a couple of hours away, so I instructed my driver to take me directly to Sam. I had waited too long to shoot in the dunes here. After spending a while at Amar Sagar, we made a dash for the sand.
Amar Sagar and its architecture.
Silhouettes. Sand. Serenity.
(Pronounced: ‘sum’) The first grains of free sand dunes hit here, about 5 kilometres before the desert village of Sam. On the way one passes the village of Kanoi, a village which is home to many a musical prodigy. A narrow and almost snaking road heads out from Jaisalmer and after driving for about 40 kilometres you will see tourists lining up to take camel rides up to the sand dunes. Even here, the chaos can get to you, if you let it. The most common camel ride is a 200 rupee, kilometer long trip to the sand dunes and back after the sunset. The photographer in me wanted more, a lot more!
I put my haggling skills to work and and got myself two camels. Sultan, the camel jockey, told me that he would be taking our team out into the expanse. For about half an hour we kept riding and swaying in the sweet desert breeze. For those of you who think ‘oh I can ride a horse, how hard can this be?’ think again. Hold on tight is my suggestion to all things camel riding. We made our way through the chaos of people and camels. It takes a little getting used to, riding on the camel, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy. As we left the ruckus behind, I looked around. The sun had now become a constant companion on my trip. Early mornings, late evenings and even hot afternoons, the sun made sure the bike and I had company. Six days into the trip and already I had gone through so many emotions in my head. Those ‘feelings’ that shrinks talk about.
The wind picked up slightly and I could barely hear the hordes of people we had left behind. It was a pleasant feeling, although I had my hands full. In one hand I was holding my still camera and in the other was an improvised video camera, simultaneously trying to shoot every second of this seemingly short journey.
Sultan asked me, ‘uunth chalaoge’? (Do you want to ride the camel?) I gestured to him and as soon as my gear was safe inside the bag, he threw the reigns of my camel to me and the camel took off. Riding a camel is not all that different from riding a horse as I learnt. Sultan and I were soon trotting alongside each other over the crests of dunes. Now THAT was fun. As I rode directionless, Sultan let me lead and feed my ego just a bit before asking me where I wanted to stop. I chose myself a virgin sand dune and we dismounted. An intelligent man he was and equally enterprising as I found out. He volunteered to parade the camels as I prepared the lenses I wanted to use this evening. Felt a little like a sand box dream, I ditched the footwear and let the sand tickle my toes to happiness.
Sultan, doing what he does best.
Within seconds of putting my feet on the sand, desert beetles crawled up out of the sand and started racing around the crest of the dune. These quirky creatures of the desert were something I never knew existed, all I could think about was scorpions and sidewinders. The beetles are amazing fun to watch and are really fast movers on the sand. It’s was pretty tough to get a good shot of them strutting their stuff. I did however manage to get a decent photograph of a beetle as the camels sat in the background.
Struttin’ its stuff!
In the next two hours, the sun went down and I kept clicking. Taking a break to watch the sun slip under the horizon, I could still see tourists in the distance, oh what a view! The sand in the air and the suns’ dwindling light made a beautiful soup of red. As numerous camels took their tourists back to campsites, I sat there on the sand with two puffing camels behind me. Lalu and Kaalu, the two camels had been good to me, like old veterans they looked over my shoulder unto the crimson horizon. To think of how far I had come, on a motorcycle, felt great. From my home in Pune to the middle of the Thaar Desert in six days flat. This wasn’t the end though, this was the start. I had ridden more than a thousand kilometers up until now but there were a lot more milestones to be seen. A long line up of destinations was ahead of me but before that, I still had one more day here.
Laalu and Kaalu. – Tourists heading back.
How serene this place has been. What with the numerous battles and wars having been fought on these very sands, like a sponge these grains absorbed what human life threw at them. Then it was the marauding enemy and today, the marauding tourist. Stoic. With that thought we saddled up. There was a cultural programme which had been organised by the RTDC at their campsite, where dinner would be served. Sultan, my driver and I rode on camel back all the way to the parking lot where Sultan said to me, ‘agli baar aur door jayenge’ (We’ll go much farther next time). I shook his hand and thanked him as I left for Dangri, the RTDC desert campsite. All these interactions this far away from home had made me understand how goodness, is present everywhere in this world. People here were the kindest and what about me, I was barely a stranger on a motorcycle. I can’t help but mention how beautiful Rajasthan is, not just for its sights but also from its people. My over speeding thoughts were cut short by our arrival at the campsite. I was greeted with a glass of water, which by now I had understood, in the desert is the best welcome drink anyone can gift you with.
The evening was off to a great start! Folk music, dance and some really interesting fire spitting was the order of the night. The open sky stretched across like a dotted blanket over the proceedings. It got much colder as everyone finished dinner and the customary final cup of tea. I met with the musicians and dancers after dinner, I wanted them to sing to me some of their folk songs. I wished to record them and then use the music for a short film I planned to cut later. They obliged me with open hearts and sang to me while I sat in front of them bewildered by their prowess. Bismillah Khan and his troupe were very amused and intrigued by who I was. Yet again, here in Rajasthan, the simplicity of these beautiful people touched me. It was time for me to head back, to Jaisalmer. In all honesty, I did want to spend the night at the campsite but my pocket just would not permit.
Fire spitting at the campsite.
The night drive back to Jaisalmer was nice too, cool wind and not a light in sight for miles.
Sleeping that night, I kept having visions of myself riding the motorcycle in the desert, next to the sand dunes. When I woke up, I just had to take the bike to the dunes and come afternoon, I did! Oh! The dunes seemed even more beautiful as I rode on past them and further towards the border. With grassland on both sides I kept riding for a long while, till my adrenalin settled. A water stop in the middle of nowhere bought back that silence of the desert wind. The Sun, yet again, our only companion.
Where the roads end.
One can’t miss the music here. Omnipresent notes will somehow catch the wind and reach your ears. The quintessential description of these desert towns and villages has to carry the words sand and sound. Life here revolves around the two. I made two very inspiring friends here. Mr Hariram Bhopa, a khandani musician from Jaisalmer itself and Mr Etienne Lauth, a French flutist who stays at Tiruvanamalai in Tamil Nadu but comes here for a few days every year, just to play with Hariram ji.
The Jaisalmer trio!
To them, my story of a lone man, riding across the desert in search of a muse was intriguing but above all, we all shared an unparalleled love for music. That is probably the only reason we became friends. From that moment on, music is what we did, they jammed together and I shot them playing their instruments. This was a captivating experience as initially we shot at Bhopa ji’s home at the artists’ colony in Jaisalmer where I met his entire family and then at the serene Gadisar lake. This was a golden opportunity presented to me and I made the most of it. Their music was beautiful and so was their soul. Just like the golden city.
The musicians at Hariram’s house and at Lake Gadisar.
I bid my dear friends farewell as the time for me to leave the city was nearing.
Jaisalmer had grown on me, from the bees’ sting on the first day to the dunes on the third and from the music to these fantastic people on the fifth. I had fallen in love with Jaisalmer and that love wouldn’t let me leave. I wanted to spend more time here but the rest of the trip was still in front of me. I had to trick myself into leaving Jaisalmer before the city woke up or else I would end up staying here another day. At first light the next morning, I kick started the motorcycle and she rumbled into her smooth beat. I said my goodbyes to the good people at the RTDC guesthouse and left. I rode across the city towards the road that leads to Jodhpur. The wind was the coldest of all the days I had been here, as if trying to freeze me within the city. I felt as if I was leaving a loved one for good. Even Jaisalmer, I think, had fallen in love with me.
Till we meet again.
Steadily, we reached the outer limit of the city. The sun had just hopped over the horizon on my right. It was only apt that I stopped here to say my final goodbyes.
That moment on, it was a dash to reach Jodhpur. A different city, it was a new place to explore. I was excited. The convoy after convoy of Army field guns on the road to Jodhpur made the ride that much more interesting. All the while I was trying to figure out what guns they were and whether I had ridden in the trucks towing them. I missed my army brat days dearly but this time I was on my own mission. Rooh – e – Rajasthan still had a long way to go before I could sit and look back.
The roads of Rajasthan were smooth as usual and the wind kept me cool as the sun climbed up on top of my head. A medium paced ride took me along the National highway 15 and NH 114 all the way to Jodhpur.
For more pictures from Jaisalmer and Sam, click here.
In this article:
Number of nights: 6 (Barmer: 1, Jaisalmer: 5)
Distance travelled: Mount Abu – Barmer = 250 kms, Barmer – Jaisalmer = 150 kms, Jaisalmer – Sam = 40. (Total = ~ 450)
Motorcycle condition: Piston slap audible, vague mushing sound from the engine.