Guest Post by Pujya Priyadarshni, travel writer
How do you even attempt to write something new about Rajasthan? I myself had gone through unending travelogues about what to do in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer as I packed my bags for a long weekend getaway to the state that has emerged as India’s colorful tourist capital. But then, as the saying goes in Rajasthan ‘Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye’ (you never know what you’ll see). The next three days unfolded in a fashion similar to the brilliant tourism ad campaign of 2016 (only 2 years later for me)!
Photo credit :https://www.scoopwhoop.com/Rajasthan-tourism-ads/
As the plane descended on the Blue City (Jodhpur), though one saw very little blue, one did see the expanse of the city guarded by the mighty Mehrangarh fort and the Umaid Bhawan Palace on either side. Clearly, the land of warriors beckoned!
The grandeur of the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort and the Umaid Bhawan Palace that epitomize oriental opulence will leave you awestruck. While these two remain the main tourist attractions, there is much more to Jodhpur’s character. While on the face of it, it may pass off as a tiny sleepy town, Jodhpur is a living legacy of Marwar’s past. Hospitality, inherent in the culture of a people so used to invaders in the past and tourists in the present, is complimented by the beauty and imagination with which these invincible structures have been preserved.
Mehrangarh fort is truly what one may proudly call a fort preserved by international standards. Whether it is the audio tour, the facilities for foreign tourists or the Jodhpur Riff, the fort has been contemporized to ensure a living link between the people and what Rudyard Kipling rightly called ‘the work of giants’. The imagination of the present-day royals too is commendable; whether it is recent installation of the lift in the Mehrangarh Fort or the leasing out of the Umaid Bhawan Palace to the Taj Group. It reflects their ingenuity in giving back to the people in their own unique way. Perhaps, the USP of Jodhpur today is the juxtaposition of the past and present in an extravagant cultural mosaic that is ready to host both domestic and international travelers alike.
And when in Jodhpur, do feast on some authentic Rajasthani meals and do not miss the Bhati Chai and Mirchi Vada!
After a day at Jodhpur, we embarked on the 5-hour long journey to Jaisalmer, made comfortable by the splendid roads. The undulating landscape that changed from agricultural fields to rugged hills, ultimately yielded Jaisalmer nestled in the bosom of the Thar Desert. It is the Golden City from the word go. Entering Jaisalmer transformed our vehicle into a time capsule.
The local yellow stone as the main construction material merges effortlessly into the distinct desert geography – almost creating a mirage of an amber-colored montage. Basking in the sun’s glory, the city’s structures, old and new, have intricate Jali work and remain loyal to the vintage architectural designs. No wonder it is also called the ‘museum city’ with every structure being a piece of art. Though winter months are ideal for travel to Jaisalmer, the morning sun does get quite strong, so caps and sunglasses are highly recommended.
On reaching Jaisalmer, we headed straight for the desert safari in Sam. Flooded with domestic tourists, the road on entering the Desert National Park is dotted with colorful camels, decrepit jeeps playing loud local music and numerous camping grounds with temporary tents and a promise of the ultimate desert adventure. The jeep ride to the picture-perfect sand dunes is a rickety one, no less than a roller-coaster and complete with screaming crowds at every bump. While the flurry of tourists does not allow for any quiet, the landscape with a setting sun is a sight to behold.
The evenings in these camps is dedicated to preserving and promoting local culture. Our camp (suitable for those looking for a glamping experience) organized the cultural evening under the aegis of Queen Harish as the lead performer.
Charming drag queen, Queen Harish engaged effortlessly with what was largely a Bengali audience while showcasing the Marwari culture with pomp and show in an area where the camps are largely owned by Sindhi Muslims. In this western corner of India, Jaisalmer was a melting pot not just of the diversity of India, but also of acceptance and tolerance. Perhaps, in the desert, just a few miles away from a tense international border, the sense of unity or should I called it patriotism was palpable beyond doubt and it lent a new meaning to freedom.
The next day one headed for the Jaisalmer Fort. If on entering Jaisalmer one felt like time travel, entering the Jaisalmer Fort is like being caught in a time warp between the past and the present. While the grand Fort exudes its cultural heritage, it is inhabited by modern mortals busy selling handicrafts, food items and souvenirs on its cobbled roads and small bylanes.
However, rise above the consumerist attractions and just look up (literally) to marvel at the intricate work that is found throughout the fort city. Walking through it gives you the uncanny image of how peculiar it would be if modern residents replaced their ancestors in the historic setting.
For those wanting a peak into the old-style royal living in the more conventional way, the Patwon ki Haveli is the perfect next stop and may be followed by a visit to the Gadsisar Sagar Lake.
In the evening we again climbed into our car and headed to Kuldhara.
A relatively less visited site about 18 kms from Jaisalmer, it is infamous for its ‘ghost’ town tag and perceived paranormal activity (locals swear by it). According to folklore, it was an ancient village of Paliwal Brahmins who migrated (different stories cite different reasons) and since then it remains abandoned and uninhabited.
To the average traveler though, Kuldhara is a well preserved ancient village different from the grandeur of the forts of the Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. It is almost a leveler that reminds you of the ordinary people who too are were an inextricable part of the history that has largely glorified the rich and powerful royals. It is a perfect site to view the sunset as the last rays fall on the half-broken dwellings creating a sepia landscape all around. The frail hearted may instead leave early and catch the Jurassic Cactus Park within the same complex.
As night fell, we wrapped up our trip with the sound and light show at the Jaisalmer War Museum. In this corner of India, a trip would be incomplete without a brush with the forces. An ode to the soldier right at the entrance of the complexes encapsulates the spirit of the forces that guard our precarious borders. The museum itself is spread across a large area with manicured lawns and war spoils including Pakistani tanks and decommissioned defense platforms. The show eulogizes the brave soldiers of the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, with a special focus on the Battle of Longewala that is of local spatial relevance. The pivotal role played by the forces in the everyday lives of the people of this region is perhaps best exhibited by Queen Harish who thanked the BSF, Army and Air Force at the end of the performance, a gesture distinct from the usual vote of thanks one hears at the end of performances in the rest of India.
As one boarded the plane to head back home, one wondered whether the ‘Padharo Mhare Des’ campaign does justice to the cultural treasure chest that is Rajasthan. The answer is a resounding yes because ‘Jaane Kya Dikh Jaye’ is allows for each traveler to weave their own story based on their unique experience. For me, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer came to epitomize the living cultural heritage of Marwar that straddles the past and present together with a vision for the future. These cities extol their history, culture, cuisine and people with pride and charm giving one hope for the many other regions of India to learn and emulate!