Just on daybreak, we were awakened by the sound of barking dogs. After an early breakfast Mr Ram took us for a short tour around the outskirts of Jaisalmer.
We drove out to a man-made lake that had once been a reservoir. Elaborately carved pavilions had been built on tiny islands in the lake. As we approached, hundreds of birds flew away across the water. Our driver told us that the women of the town used to dress in their finest saris and adorn themselves with their best jewellery before taking their big brass pots down to the lake to fill. He said that it was a most beautiful sight. We visited a tiny museum which was no more than a dusty collection of many objects, displayed on sagging shelves in a dimly lit room.
Back in town we drove as far as the gateway to the fort then climbed the hill on foot. To the right of the entrance there is a tall round tower. In the old days the bodies of traitors were thrown into this tower, which was aptly named – Traitors’ Tower and Tower of Bones. We strolled through narrow streets and alleyways and visited a small Jain temple where we offered pujas to the gods and had red powder pressed on to our foreheads. From the fort we walked along dusty streets to the area of town where the businessmen used to live.
Their homes or havellis were built of yellow sandstone. Carvings and screens were so finely worked it was difficult to believe that all had been carved by hand. The floors and walls are covered with beautiful woven rugs. The havellis were built close together with inner courtyards open to the sky. Walking along the street between the houses was rather like walking through a long cool tunnel with the sunlight glaring hot at either end.
We climbed up to the roof of one of the buildings and looked across to the fort where it squatted on the hilltop like a child’s giant sand sculpture. The houses in the town below, resembled a collection of dusty boxes crammed together under the protective shadow of the fort. The young man with us, answered our questions and told us about the customs and practises involved with marriage in India. He felt that an arranged marriage was best, because both people had to work to make the marriage successful. Men are usually in their late twenties or early thirties when they marry and women, quite a lot younger. He added that not many young people had relationships prior to marriage.
We ate beautiful stuffed naan bread for lunch before climbing into a jeep with the name Desert Storm emblazoned across the bonnet. Just outside Jaisalmer at Bada Bagh, there is an oasis, and sitting on a hill overlooking this area of wheat fields and trees, a group of chatris or cenotaphs. Elegant pillars and canopies mark the cremation sites of former rulers. Wives and concubines had to commit suttee or ritual suicide and there were headstones for them as well. “Only ashes are buried here,” we were told. The handprints of the wives were pressed into their husband’s headstones with those of the concubines lower down at the base of each monument. A young boy climbed up to us from the bottom of the hill and swapped some rupees for shells that he’d found when digging in the fields below. Seashells, and we were hundreds of miles from the sea. Further out across the desert we visited three small villages and were shown into the homes of two families. We watched a man weaving shawls in the front room of his tiny home. He sat in a pit in the floor working his loom which filled most of the space.
Further on still, we met a woman milking a cow outside the walls of her house. Her shawl and dress were a gorgeous shade of red and her little daughter was dressed in brilliant yellow. Their house was made of sandstone, cemented over with a layer of paste made of dung and mud. The roof was very thick, with several layers of earth and thatch to keep it cool. A mud wall six feet high and at least a foot thick surrounded the whole house and tiny yard. Separate areas were set aside for the huge grain pot, animals and implements. The living quarters and kitchen, with a small open fireplace, were used at night as the sleeping area. Shelves and ledges were cut into the outer wall. Chocolate bar wrappers and empty sugar papers decorated the family shrine. It was so compact with not a thing out of place. The woman was proud of her home and I told her how impressed I was. I felt privileged to have been able to visit. Our third stop was at a temple where a nine-foot long cobra was reported to have made its home. At the edge of a Rajput village, we stopped halfway between the houses and the waterhole. Two small boys appeared. Encouraged by the gift of some chewing gum, they told us about their school. They accompanied us to the edge of the waterhole and told us that there had been no rain since last season. The remaining water hardly covered the bottom of the hole.
These desert villages are no more than a cluster of houses built around a central well or near a waterhole. Some have electricity while others rely on kerosene, oil, gas, cow dung pats and scraps of wood for lighting and cooking. There are no roads but the sand is crisscrossed with tracks and pathways that meander through the wilderness.
We drove further into the desert towards the National Park at Sam. Orange sand dunes rolled away into the golden haze of late afternoon. We rode camels out towards the setting sun until there was only sand as far as we could see. Barely a sound disturbed the serenity of the place. Later we climbed to the top of a silken sand hill and sat near a family who amused themselves with songs and a dance. A number of soldiers joined us. They laughed and joked as they took each other’s photos, then one after the other raced to the bottom of the dune, shouting laughter in dusty leaps and bounds. We sat just below the peak of the hill. The air was soft, all sound muted. A line of camels, silhouetted against the lowering sun, swayed along one behind the other, from further out in the desert. As they approached we could hear the bells on their harness and the creaking of wooden saddles. By now the sun was almost gone. It slid quickly into the desert and the air began to cool quite quickly. We remounted our camels and rode unassisted, back to the car park. The drive back to Jaisalmer in the dark was not as harrowing as we had expected, even without the use of headlights most of the way. We managed to shower and change in between power cuts before crossing the palace yard to the Trio Restaurant for tea, being mindful of the elephant still browsing quietly on a bundle of hay.
© Kate Frost