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.
I 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 !
As 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.
And 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…
An 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.
The 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.
Forts 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 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.
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.
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.
The 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).
I 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.
Our 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.
“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: