Friday, September 19, 2014

The Desert Remembers

It is a warm and humid night, but I feel a chill up my spine. I am on the famous chudail trail eagerly looking either side to spot these ghosts. My guide tells me not to pick any jewel or money from the cemetery that I am walking through, else the chudail might come to haunt me irrespective of my location. He also tells me stories of how people have either disappeared or lost their mind while walking through this very trail. With senses heightened, all of us in our group stick close to each other as we walk through the various cenotaphs and sati sites in the abandoned village of Kuldhara. We didn’t spot any ghosts, but found our way into the deep-rooted history of the mighty Thar desert.

Jaisalmer fort as seen from the top of Patwon ki Haveli

This chudail trail is just one of the many off beat trails you can explore in the desert of Rajasthan. I was privileged to explore many of these off beat trails as I traversed a part of the ‘The Desert Remembers’ route that has been mapped by Suryagarh, a luxury palace hotel located just outside of Jaisalmer and in the Thar desert.

Sonal Qila and Jaisalmer city

I stayed 3 days with Suryagarh and during these  three days, I got to see a side of the desert that I never knew existed. This desert that I explored is home to abandoned villages, cenotaphs and cemeteries, sati sites, intelligent irrigation systems, the famous silk route, lots of trading history, many oasis and forts and very intricate jain temples. It is a great sense of excitement as you explore this part of the desert in the lost sands of time. And while you are at it, you can explore the popular attractions of Jaisalmer and enjoy the plush Rajasthani hospitality and their delicious food.

Elderly Rajasthani Gentleman and the Jaisalmer view

Below should give you a good idea of this ancient route in the desert that I traversed. 

Paliwal Community – Intelligent Desert People

Folk Songs at Suryagarh

Everything in this part of the desert owes its roots to the intelligent Paliwal community. Hence, most of ‘The Desert Remembers’ route pays homage to these people by passing through their villages, their irrigation systems, their temples, their cenotpahs and the likes. Personally, as I understood more of the Paliwals, who were once very successful traders and built prosperous settlements in the desert, I got to understand the desert history better.

Village temple in the middle of the Thar desert

Originally from Pali, these part merchants and part cultivators moved into the deserts off Jaisalmer in the 12th century. They were great traders and established themselves as an important cog on the famous silk route. Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, they traded with Kabul, Arabia and even China.

Wild camels roam near a village in the Thar desert

They were also so intelligent that they devised the Aagor, Khadeen and Dhora irrigation technique that still exists in the desert. This irrigation technique helps replenish the water table with whatever little rains the desert gets and makes way for lush agriculture. Even to date, farmers make use of these agriculture zones to grow chana, bajra and some vegetables. I got to see this live and to say the least I was stunned. Drinking water, sustained agriculture and greenery is all possible due to this archaic and yet intelligent system.

Desert landscape in the monsoons

They were the masters of the desert and built themselves a secure and prosperous life for over 6 centuries till one day, when they abandoned all their 82 villages and moved on to other places. Today, the villages are in ruins, but its temples, irrigation methods and stories give you a sense of the skill of these Paliwal people. And there are lots of stories (folklore, love, hatred) that you can hear. I can tell them here, but you would connect better when you are there in these Paliwal villages.

Breakfast with the Peacocks at Khaba Fort
Sunrise breakfast at Khaba Fort in the Thar desert

While we stay with the Paliwals and the silk route, we move to Khaba Fort, an important connecting point between Sindh and Jaisalmer for the traders on the Silk Route. This fort, overlooks the stranded Paliwal villages and makes for a stunning sight during the early morning hours as the entire ruins come to view with the shining sun. It is also here that a local boy comes to feed bajra seeds to peacocks every morning.

Deserted Paliwal village as seen from Khaba fort

This is part of an ancient family tradition and makes for a lovely sight as the call of the peacock booms through the ruins. And, this was also the place where I enjoyed my breakfast with these peacocks and the ruins. To be honest, this was the first time I experienced having breakfast with at least 50 peacocks and I have to say that it was quite a surreal experience for me.

Paliwal Cemetries and Cenotaphs

A Rawan Hatha Street Musician from Jaisalmer

The eerie chudail trail finds its home in these Paliwal cemeteries where different cenotaphs of travellers and Paliwals can be found. The Kuldhara village is famous for these cenotaphs and also for the sati sites where the wives of these men burnt themselves. As you move through these cemeteries you can see pillars with carvings of the man and his wife and sometimes even the travelers. These sati stories are an integral part of the desert lore.

Dinner by an Oasis

Sunset over an oasis in the Thar Desert

The desert is wide and vast with very minimal life, but in small pockets, they are lush green, offer food for the animals, are a source of precious drinking water and act as perfect cultivating grounds. This is because of the famous irrigation system devised by the Paliwals. You can understand the irrigation systems by day, watch the sunset over an oasis by the evening and enjoy dinner under the star lit sky. The icing on the cake is communal style eating, live Rajasthani folk music, more stories and a star studded sky.

Ludrava – The Erstwhile Desert Capital

Intricate work on the entrance gate to the Jain temple in Ludrava

The next stop in the desert is the erstwhile power seat of the Bhatti dynasty, Ludrava where the kingdom used to exist till it got moved to Jaisalmer for lack of security measures (Ludrava is very close to the Pakistan border and thus offered easy access to the Muslim warriors). It is here that you can see the extremely intricate and beautiful Jain temple that is dedicated to the 23rd Tirthankara. The carvings, jhorakas, statues and its torana is quite a sight.

Beautiful Jharokas on the walls of Ludrava Jain Temple, near Jaisalmer

A slow exploration of this village also reveals many architectural ruins and other temples amidst the surrounding sand dunes and takes you into a world that reminds of the city’s former glory.

Sam and Khuri Dunes

Desert Safari

The desert of Rajasthan is famous for its rolling sand dunes that are the most eye catching during sunset when the sand takes on the golden hues of the sun. This is the iconic part of the desert and is famous for its camel safari, visit to remote villages, staying in desert tents, eating ker-Sangri under the desert sky, talking to nomads, dune surfing and much more.

Desert National Park

Local musician playing his music inside Jaisalmer Fort

Right in between Sam and Khuri lie the quiet desert national park that is home to endangered species of animals like the Great Indian Bustard, Houbara Bustard, Vultures, desert fox and many more. This national park is a great way to explore the desert wildlife and is perfect for birdwatchers looking for a relaxed birding experience. A lot of ancient fossils have also been found in and near this desert national park.

Delicious Marwari Food

Delicious Marwari Thali at Suryagarh

A Rajasthani desert experience is not complete without tasting their traditional Halwayi Breakfast and the uber delicious Marwari Thali. All Rajasthan Tour Packages should definitely include this experience. The Halwayi breakfast is a very famous desert culture where people have mirchi vada, samosa and kachori with their ladoos, jalebi, rasmalai and other sweets in the morning. And the Marwari Thali comes with Bajra and Missi Rotis with Gatta Masala, Kher Sangri (a desert specialty made from a desert bush stem and its berries), Kadi, Daal and veggies. For more delicious local food, there is daal baati choorma. And then there is the thick lassi or chaach to help you smack your lips in pure joy. And there is no better to enjoy this than at Suryagarh who have the best Halwayi in this part of the world and some of the best traditional chefs. I would just return to them to indulge in their rich culinary experience once again. And just so you know, they specialize in continental and international cuisine too.

Jaisalmer Fort and the Havelis

The city view that the queen used to see from the palace in Jaisalmer Fort

Locally known as the Sonar Qila, the Golden Fort of Jaisalmer towers over the city of Jaisalmer. The only living fort in this part of the world, it is a constant bustle of activity with locals and tourists alike. It’s rich history, its beautiful interiors and the Jain temples in its fold all offer a great ride into the glorious past. The aerial view of the desert city, the Pakistan border and the wide desert from its tower area is the highlight of this fort.

Intricate work inside the Jain temple of Jaisalmer

As you step outside the fort and into the narrow lanes running parallel to the market, you will notice the famous Havelis of Jaisalmer. These havelis were built by rich Jain merchants and many of them still retain most of their erstwhile glamour and opulence. The paintings, the rich interiors, the immaculate glass work, the jhorakas and the view points will make you think about their rich life hundreds of years ago.

Jain priest at Jaisalmer's Jain Temple

Some of these Havelis are museums and run by the government, while the others are still owned by the family. All of them offer a unique experience. The Patwon ki Haveli and Nathmal ji ki Haveli are the two most impressive ones.

Silver, Gold and Handicrafts

Shopping at Jaisalmer

The silversmiths and goldsmiths of this part of the desert are known to make the best ornaments. Some families have been known to create the smallest and the most intricate designs. If you are into jewelry, these items will make for great souvenirs.

Local handicrafts on sale outside Patwon ki Haveli, Jaisalmer

Like with the food, the colourful markets of Jaisalmer are iconic and are known for its handicrafts and embroidery work. Wall hangings, bed sheets, cushion covers and many others make for great souvenirs to take back home. The famous Marwari sweets are also great to take for your family and friends.

Luxurious Suryagarh Experience

Beautiful courtyard of Suryagarh, Jaisalmer

The last, but not the least is the super rich and luxurious experience of staying at Suryagarh.  Well, it is quite something to stay in a luxury palace (which is sensational in its own right), but where Suryagarh connected most with me was its rich folk connection, lip smacking food (I can’t help it, I am a foodie) and their intent to ensure that I had a good time. Here are some examples to help you understand my train of thought better. According to me all were surreal experiences as it is rare to find them elsewhere.

1) Enjoying my Halwayi breakfast in the open courtyard and under the morning sun while listening to the soothing flute music played by a local Rajasthani gentleman. I sometimes wish all my breakfasts were like that.

2) Having my evening tea while listening to a local Rajasthani woman sing her folk songs. This woman had such a booming voice that sometimes I felt like I had transponded to a different world.

3) Luxury seeking, adventurers, vegetarians, night people, Spa lovers, Workout enthusiasts, etc. My group had all kinds of people and all of us had a bang-up time. The people at Suryagarh want their guests to have a rare and yet surreal luxurious experience and to make this happen, they don’t leave any stone unturned.

Thank you Suryagarh for taking me on this amazing journey. I will always cherish it and hopefully, will return soon.

A street hawker selling peacock feathers at Jaisalmer

Travel Tips for the desert

1) Carry a good pair of walking shoes as you might have to walk into different desert trails.
2) Stay hydrated
3) Wear sunscreen, a hat and a pair of sunglasses to protect you from the desert sun
4) Carry a torch or a headlamp while exploring the Chudail trail in the night

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