The drizzle has stopped. The wind picks up, and the sand joyously soars on it, gliding a few inches above the quavering surface of the dune. In a few dusty but dramatic moments the dune changes colour. The darkish brown wetness gave way to the lighter glow of the dry silica. But the skies are getting blacker and it starts to rain again; so much rain in the desert feels weird. The camels and their patrons have disappeared along with the sun, leaving us to gape at the desolate world stretching to the horizon and beyond. It’s wet and chilly in the Great Indian Desert!
And then we notice the barrenness come to life. A part of the desert moves, and then another. There are two of them or may be a herd. They are chinkara, light chestnut-coloured antelopes more or less the colour of their surroundings. A while later, a rustle behind makes us turn back, just in time to catch a fleeing apparition with a white-tipped bushy tail, a distinctive feature of the desert fox of which we had learned just the previous day. We’re thrilled to be using the knowledge today! Sand dunes We are in the sand dunes close to Khuri village. Contrary to the perception of a desert as an endless expanse of sand dunes, only 20 per cent of the world’s deserts are dunes, and of the desert area around Jaisalmer (designated the Desert National Park) only about 10 per cent is dunes.
The best places to see these are Sam and Khuri, both about 40 km from Jaisalmer. It is the famous Sam sand dunes that top the tourist itineraries, but we’ve been there, done that, met the camel called Hrithik Roshan and noted how close the dunes are to the main road (though that has its own romance; it’s the road going to the Pakistan border and in saner times would have led to Sindh).This time, we’ve opted for the dunes near Khuri. The journey to Khuri has been through black, rocky, and thorny terrain. The road, very well maintained since this is a close-to-border military area, goes on straight through the landscape, tearing through the heart of the horizon, with an awe-inspiring flat emptiness on both sides. There is an occasional small village, sometimes a camel.
Finally, the taxi crosses Khuri village and stops in front of a mass of hillocks of clean, dry sand, stretching wide on both sides. Above them the sky lowers dark and brooding and beautiful. We know that pure dunes are not like those infinite stretches we’ve seen in films, yet these seem like we can nurture that illusion. As we walk to them in a trance, the dunes settle into a picturesque painting with contoured shadows of ripples and undulating crests. Brown melts into bronze and segues into dark gold. It is easy to see why sand dunes are some of the most incredibly beautiful, thrilling, eerie, treacherous or just plain inhospitable places on earth. And it is easy to see why people flock to gaze at them, and walk on them and get their picturepostcard photographs clicked with camels in the foreground and sunset in the background, as they are all around us.
The sun makes a hesitant attempt at a sunset, but this year, like much of Rajasthan, it too is in the grip of unexpected clouds. Even the sand moving with the breeze seems to have a riverine quality in its fluent flow. We walk on, unaccustomed legs struggling to cross just one more dune, get just a little further from the other tourists, reach just a little further to see what lies beyond this dune. Unexpectedly, at some point we reach the edge of the dunes. And, yet again, hold our breath. A galaxy of sand spreads out vast and uncompromising till the end of the earth. It stretches far as our eyes can see, ending in a large soft sphere, telling us that the planet is round. It is only interrogated by occasional thorny bushes or shrubs. The sky darkens some more and presents a little dance drama of lightning.
We turn back, and can see only dunes; all tourists, camels and hawkers have vanished from sight. But a boy is trudging up from this end, emerging from a sandy nowhere. What’s there, we ask, vaguely gesturing to “out there” (the need to cross more horizons, to see what lies beyond, has us in its grip). “Pakistan,” he says, and walks on. That is when the wind starts picking up beyond just a musical tempo and the skies break. It’s out of this world. After half an hour, even in our enchantment — chinkara, desert fox and all — we can’t help the shivery knowledge that there is absolutely no human being in sight, that it has become fairly dark, and that we feel pretty much marooned in a sea of sand. Reluctantly we walk back, crossing dunes, and those 10 mins of walk wrap the shawl of windy darkness even tighter around us. At least in our minds, this has become an adventure.
Then, we hear faint sounds of a car horn, growing louder and more insistent, as we get near. Emerging from the first row of dunes we see our taxi,navigating the sandy edge of the dunes with its headlights on, the worried driver persistently blaring to aurally show us the way. There’s not another soul in sight. It has been such a fantastic mix of dunes, rain, wildlife and magic that we don’t even notice that the promised romantic ‘sunset on the dunes’ experience never really took off. Desert National Park Khuri lies just at the edge of Jaisalmer’s Desert National Park, which is why we have been able to spot the chinkaras there. The park area of 3,162 sq km was declared a sanctuary in 1980 to preserve a fascinating and fragile habitat. The desert is one of craggy rocks and compact salt lake bottoms, dunes and inter-dunal areas. Visiting here is an education in life: how any ecosystem, never mind how monotonous to the untrained eye, can nurture such detail, such diverse, unexpectedly colourful, beautiful beings.
People have told us that the best way to see wildlife, specially the rare Great Indian Bustard (GIB), is to go to Sudashri, about 50 km from Jaisalmer. Sudashri is a 2,000-acre area enclosed with barbed wire and, at first sight, looks an unlikely place to travel miles to for a wildlife experience — a couple of guards, patches of the clumpy sewan grass, a few shrubs and an occasional tree, mainly acacia. Plus the six camels who are wandering around, grazing busily. We are offered a choice between walking and riding a camel cart to traverse the 4-kmlong trail. We choose the unknown entity — the camel cart — and immediately the process of assembling it begins. One of the wandering camels, Babloo, is fetched, the cart (a wooden plank on two wheels) is hitched to it and a mattress placed on it as a favour to our city bums. We are to be accompanied by Uma Ram, our guide, who seems more excited than us about the prospect of spotting the GIB (locally called Godaavan), more aware of the privilege it is to see the bird that’s been declared near extinction.Soon we find comfort on the cart and slowly we become aware of our surroundings. That twig is, in fact, a Pallid Harrier; there is a robin on that shrub; the flock above is of sand grouse. There are a couple of chinkara behind that clump of bushes.
Often we stop and the binoculars are passed around. The desert is teeming with life. We realise that the sparseness of the vegetation, in fact, provides an excellent wildlife viewing opportunity. There is far less occasion for the animals to disappear than there would be in a heavily wooded jungle. The possibilities to observe animals and birds are better, sometimes even when they have taken shelter. And then we see our first GIB. There are two of them, tall birds, greyish in appearance, walking away from us, slowly and elegantly. Females, we are informed. And another one, female again. Occasionally, they pick something from the ground, maybe a berry or an insect and steadily keep moving away from us. Soon Uma Ram has spotted another bustard, this time a male (it’s taller), and what fortune, it’s not one but two… three… and a fourth too. One of the big birds is fearless and stands its ground giving us the opportunity to take a good look, while the rest start walking away. We are transfixed, but are suddenly alerted by action in a nearby bush.
A small and hairy creature darts away from us — a desert fox. Soon we are dividing our time between the stately bustard and the restless chinkara, occasionally getting a furtive fox. There are also the tawny eagle and the Eurasian owl, the common buzzard and the red-backed shrike. Seeing three or four bustards is usual, seven or eight in a visit is very good. But we are moving much beyond this. Uma Ram is avidly counting, by the thirteenth spotting he is excited beyond words, while still more are crossing our path. By the time the sun has risen enough to be uncomfortably hot and we end our excursion, Uma Ram has counted 21, we have seen 17 or 18 of them.
This is a record of sorts. Nobody at Sudashri remembers anybody seeing so many GIBs on a single day.The first glimpse of the golden Jaisalmer Fort, occupying pride of place in the monochromatic landscape, is bewitching. It looks toy-like, a fragile castle built on a miniature hill, but has the rare distinction of 850 years of uninterrupted vitality. Turbaned faces carry thick moustaches, long skirts catch the sun in their mirror work and painted houses promise a view of an enchanted world. Cobbled passages wind through massive, intricately positioned gates. The narrow lanes are busy with touristy shops, restaurants, temples and houses. Enlivening them are children returning from school, women cleaning, and milkmen with metal pots on their motorcycles.
You can walk up to the ramparts and absorb the stunning views of the town outside the fort and the rocky landscape beyond. The music of the Manganiyar singers and Ravanhatta players in the fort is a haunting experience. Rawal Jaisal, the Bhatti Rajput ruler who gave his name to the town, is said to have constructed the fort in 1156. Later rulers added to the edifice, which faced attacks by armies from Delhi and Jodhpur. The palace of the former rulers is a seven-storeyed structure and towers above the Dussehra Chowk, the central square. This former royal residence is now being restored. The palace buildings are connected by low and narrow passages, a protective measure against invaders used in most palaces of Rajasthan. Its main building dates from the 19th century and boasts of beautifully carved stone. The most spectacular views are from the roof, which is the highest point in the vicinity.
The wealthy merchants of Jaisalmer chose to be remembered by posterity by commissioning some of the most ornate residences human beings ever built. These havelis (outside the fort) were built in the 18th and 19th centuries when trade was most lucrative, before the rise of sea trade and the Bombay harbour made land routes redundant. They speak of the trains of camels that trekked across deserts to reach Sindh, Afghanistan or West Asia, carrying cloth, silver and expensive goods. The havelis are made of golden Jaisalmer stone and are adorned with jaalis, carved balconies and elaborate façades. Patwon-ki-Haveli is the biggest and has the most intricate work. It’s a set of five houses, built by five Jain brothers in the first half of the 19th century. Salim Singh ki Haveli and Nathmal ki Haveli are other examples of this style. Just outside the town is the elegant Gadisar Tank, at one time the source of water supply to Jaisalmer. It was built in the 14th century by Rawal Gadsi Singh to collect precious rainwater. There are many pavilions and shrines on the banks, and it’s a popular picnic spot.
By Amit Mahajan and Juhi Saklani
Amit Mahajan has earned money as an engineer, reflexologist, travel writer, translator and has done a few other odd jobs.
Unlike the villian in the Harry Potter series, who divided his soul into several pieces to avoid mortality, Juhi Saklani is multiplying hers by travelling, under the guise of being a travel writer.