Something new, something old: Jaisalmer revisited

The vista is quite dramatic.

The ochre yellow of the desert stretches out in all directions for as far my eye can see, dotted here and there with green vegetation. At first glance, the green appears random, but then one can trace lines and curves and clusters of green, marking places where there must be water channels and water bodies which fill up when it rains.

The fast-moving clouds in the sky cast large, moving and constantly shifting shadows on the desert floor and leave me mesmerised. I am torn between watching the shadow play on the ground and the hide-and-seek game that the clouds and blue sky are up to.

In the distance are some windmills and further still, some 70 odd kilometres away, lies the border with Pakistan. I know it’s silly, but I stand on tip toes almost expecting to see the border. A harsh caw breaks into my thoughts and I turn around to see a large raven regarding me with, what I think, is a mocking look at my action.

Jaisalmer, Nabh DungarJaisalmer, Nabh Dungar TempleI am at Nabh Dungar, the second highest point in Jaisalmer (after Trikuta Hill on which the Jaisalmer Fort is built) with a temple the only sign of human habitation around.

The main “idol” is rather interesting and nothing like what I have seen before: it is a large stone slab with images of various gods carved on it. When I ask the priest about it, he shrugs and says that he knows nothing about it, apart from the fact that it is very old !

Jaisalmer, Thar Desert, Nabh DungarJaisalmer, Thar DesertAs I look around me, I can’t help thinking how different my second trip to Jaisalmer is turning out to be. Just 5 months back, I had done the traditional sights that any self-respecting tourist to Jaisalmer does: the Fort and museum, the havelis, etc.

This time it is different. For one, I (and 8 other travel bloggers) am in Jaisalmer at the invitation of Hotel Suryagarh to experience local culture and tradition during the magic of monsoons. As I have mentioned in a previous post, monsoons are not something that one would associate with a desert, but as the trip unfolded my perception changed.

Jaisalmer, Thar Desert, RoadAnd second, Suryagarh’s dedicated staff promised to show us a side of Jaisalmer that many tourists were not aware of or cared to visit. Nabh Dungar was our first stop on a trail that took me through places I was visiting for the first time, and also some places I had visited on my previous trip. Indeed, the trail was a mix of something new, something old; something known, something unknown…

Jaisalmer, Old crematorioum, Sati siteAn old, abandoned crematorium, also a sati site, is our next stop. The entire site is in ruins: broken or crooked markers and memorials litter the site. There is not even a single memorial that is intact or standing straight. The site has a desolate air about it and I feel like a trespasser. The fact that this used to be a site where sati used to take place makes me all the more uneasy. I am very glad when we return to our vehicles and leave.

Jaisalmer, Old Crematorium, Sati siteThe first sight of Khaba Fort, our next destination, has all of us pulling out our cameras and begging the driver to stop the vehicle to take a few pictures and then some more.

Jaisalmer, Khaba FortForts are always built at strategic locations and from where I am, I cannot comprehend the reason for choosing this particular location for a Fort. It is only when I enter the Fort and climb up to the top and see this spread out below me that I understand.

Jaisalmer, Khaba Fort, Khaba VillageJaisalmer, Khaba Fort, Khaba VillageJaisalmer was on an ancient trade route till a century or so ago and Khaba was the first point of entry for traders to the region. Khaba Fort was built as a security outpost.

Spread out below the Fort are the ruins of Khaba village, one of the 84 villages abandoned in Jaisalmer almost overnight about 200 years ago. (Read more about why the village was abandoned here.) The entire village was not abandoned — only the Paliwal Brahmins abandoned the village and it is that section of the village which is in ruins; the Rajput section of the village is intact as it is still inhabited today.

As at look at the ruins of Khaba village from a vantage point at the Fort, I am struck by what a misnomer the term “village” is. Khaba appears to have been a well-planned town/city and its size and layout clearly attests to that. I am also beginning to realise that Jaisalmer must have been a well-populated and prosperous kingdom. For the first time, I begin to wonder what happened to all the people here, and also if this is how ancient civilisations died out.

Jaisalmer Khaba Fort

I would have liked to spend more time at Khaba Fort, but we have other places to visit. The Lodhrava Jain Temple is up next, a temple I had visited in February and one I am very happy to be visiting again.

Jaisalmer, Lodhrava Temple

The ancient capital of the Bhatti Rajputs, the rulers of Jaisalmer, Lodhrava was repeatedly attacked and sacked by invaders like Mahmud of Ghazni (in 1025 CE) and Muhammad Ghori (in 1152 CE). this led to the Bhattis shifting their capital to present-day Jaisalmer.

Lodhrava would have remained forgotten if not for its Jain temple with an unusual, one-of-a-kind, architectural design. At the very first glimpse of the temple spire, Anuradha (one of my fellow travel bloggers) exclaimed, “This is a tantric temple.” At my questioning look, she pointed at the pyramidal spires and said that they were indicative of tantric pujas being conducted in the temple. But tantric puja and Jainism? To which she elaborated that Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all had tantric elements. Later on the temple priest confirmed this observation.

Jaisalmer, Lodhrava TempleThe Lodhrava Temple’s architectural design has been inspired by the Chinese pagoda style, though the motifs are almost entirely Indian with the exception of some Chinese design elements like the dragon (shown on the left).

Lodurva Jain Temple, Parsvanath , Rajasthan, Travel

Jaisalmer, LodhravaJaisalmer Revisited 22I spend a wonderful time at the Lodhrava temple happy to see that things are still maintained well, and delighted that an audio guide has been introduced for visitors keen on knowing more about the temple. Though I would have liked to try out the audio guide, we do not have that much time.

Next place on the trail is Bada Bagh, where Jaisalmer kings have been cremated over the centuries. Each ruler (and the wives who committed sati) have cenotaphs erected for them. I had not enjoyed my previous visit (which you can read here) to the Bada Bagh as I had found it to be downright creepy. So while the rest of my group went in, I stayed by the car and clicked some pictures of the clouds and the landscape around the cenotaphs.

Jaisalmer, Bada Bagh, Royal CenotaphsJaisalmer, Bada Bagh, Royal Cenotaphs

Jaisalmer, Bada Bagh, Royal CenotaphsOur final halt is the golden fort of Jaisalmer, or the Sonar Killa, and I can’t wait to see it again. The, “I Love Jaisalmer” campaign spearheaded by the MD of Suryagarh, Manvendra Singh, is supposed to have cleaned up the city. For those who have read my posts about my Jaisalmer visit in February will remember that I had dubbed it the dirtiest Indian city I had been to — even dirtier than Varanasi !

I am absolutely delighted to say that the city and the Fort are quite different from what I saw in and remember from February. Gone are the rubble heaps outside and around the Fort; gone are the rubbish piles on the slopes of Trikuta Hill on which the Fort is built; gone are the various odours ranging from decaying garbage to urine to what not; gone are overflowing drainage channels and sewers… There is such a marked improvement that I just gaze around in wonder and forget to take any photographs whatsoever. Sorry, dear reader, this is one time that you are not going to see before and after pictures.

Jaisalmer

“Would you like to go back to a place you have visited, Sudha?” asked Firuza, a member of my tour group. We were having dinner that February evening in Jaisalmer.

“All the time,” I grinned.

“Not me,” said Arnavaz, another tour group member, with her characteristic firmness. “There is so much to see and only one lifetime. Why would I want to go back to the same place? Never.”

“You have a point there, Arnavaz. But still…” I say. The discussion moves on to other things.

When I posted the link to my Suryagarh experience on my Facebook page last week, this is what Arnavaz had to comment:

What an experience ! I refuse to travel second time to places. But in this case its a treat and I will. 🙂

I’m glad that I took up Suryagarh’s offer to experience the magic of monsoons at Jaisalmer. The re-visit was a dream, a magical trip in a very different way. The magic was not just about the rains (which I almost always missed) or the luxury (which got a little overwhelming after a while). It was about seeing new places, and re-connecting with old places; it was experiencing a place during off-season and minus the usual tourist hordes; it was meeting and interacting with fellow travellers; it was listening, and I mean really listening, to local folk music; it was about relaxing and making new memories…

After all, that is also what travel is about, isn’t it? 🙂

♦   ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦

Read my other posts from the Suryagarh series:

23 thoughts on “Something new, something old: Jaisalmer revisited

  1. lovely post, Sudha! that temple sounds so interesting. about re-visiting places, I must say, I sometimes have wished i hadnt returned to a place i have good memories of…. so much has changed and usually not in a good way…. but there have been other places which have made me open my eyes, made me aware of an entirely new facet… that i wish i could go back again and again. varanasi is one place whcih, the first time i went into the city, felt so horrible, that i didnt want to go again. but by the time i left, there was this unfathomable urge to come back someday. have been there a second time, completely enjoyed the visit from a completely different angle, and thought i would have had enough, but i still want to go there again…. and i dont really know what is it that beckons!!!! so i guess in the end its simply about travelling.. going anywhere…. whether to discover, or to re-discover!

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    1. Thank you, Anu. That is the thing with travel – it is never enough. And the dilemma of a revisit will always be there. I have been to Kerala thrice and each time I have came away with more bad memories than good memories. It is not a place that I want to go back to in a hurry. On the other hand, I have wanted to go back to so many places that I have been to. Jaisalmer is the first place that I have re-visited and to be honest it was not on my list of places to go back to again.

      I have come to realise that ultimately it is all about travelling. And one just has to keep and open mind about everything, and like you said discover or re-discover. 🙂

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  2. Intresting I am glad it has cleaned up I was honestly put off with its
    dirt if only India could keep such places neat & safe it would be truly
    Incredible India

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    1. Jaisalmer has cleaned up so much that you will not recognise it, Arnavaz. The Jaisalmer we saw in February and the Jaisalmer I saw in August could well have been two different cities. Of course, August was the off-season. It remains to be seen how the I Love Jaisalmer campaign deals with cleanliness during season. Still, it is a commendable effort and one I wish other cities too would adopt.

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  3. Hai sudha.. Lodharva Jain temple is really fantastic.. In the state of Andhra pradesh one distric which is known as Nalgonda is there, in that region Kolanpaka is very famous for Jain Temple.. it is an awesome temple.. I think u have to visit that.. Your through many people can get interesting information about Kolanpaka Jain mandir. Thank u..

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    1. Thanks for the giving the information on the Kolanpaka Jain Temple in Nalgonda of which I was not aware. I checked on the net for information and found that the temple is indeed a beautiful one and a must visit. I must try to plan a visit to your part of the country soon. 🙂

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  4. I had read the post the day it was posted but couldn’t comment immediately. First of all, I have to say that the pics have a feel of paintings about them (are you sure, they are not? 😛 ) Sights and sounds off the beaten track are what make a place interesting, and in our limited travelling expeditions, this is what we try to do. As for going back to a place again, I am an optimist and hope to discover better and newer places even if I am put off the first time because it is impossible to see or experience a place completely in one go or in a limited time.

    The temple architecture and details are stunning. No wonder you were happy to revisit it. BTW, I would have done the same as you when near the border too 😀

    Waiting for more on Jaisalmer and its charms.

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    1. Neither paintings nor photographs can do real justice to nature, Alarmelvalli. My photographs are a pale comparison to the real beauty of the Jaisalmer Desert. After this visit to Jaisalmer, I realised how important it is to revisit places. This time around I saw a side of Jaisalmer I wasn’t even aware of. While I understand no one can see any place fully, it is always nice to go back to places, especially if you have liked it.

      There is just one more post coming up in a day or two on the music of Jaisalmer, a post that is very close to my heart and one that I hope I will do justice to.

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