Jaisalmer, Sam and Barmer Sat 28 November – Tues 8 December 2009
We arrived in Jaisalmer at about 6pm. It really is a desert city - a huge fort like a child's sandcastle set above glowing yellow sandstone buildings - the golden city. We went first to the market at Ghandi Chowk (every town has a street or market named after the great man!) where we got the picture we'd bought as a wedding present framed and Andrew got a much needed haircut! We took a quick stroll through the town centre where there was a huge party with lights and music going on in a hotel in the central square and lots of bustle. We decided to leave ringing Kush again until the next morning and headed out to find a camp spot.
First stop was the very grand Jawahar Niwas Palace. This looked way too good for the likes of us - a former palace set in landscaped grounds - but we were trying it due to a tip off. We have a sheet entitled "Nessie's Adventures" obviously complied by an overlander which was passed on to us by another overlander which gives details of camping spots they used in India. We're not sure if Nessie is the name of a person or their vehicle but we've got some good camping spots from them and it's been a great find. They said that this hotel was great and that they got to camp here. We tried and failed! Well …we could have camped here - for the price of 1,000 rupees a night - about $25 Aus -more than most hotels. Nessie et al - either really lucked out or there's been a change of manager as we were told "sorry we'd like to help but this hotel is owned by the King and it's against policy." Quite.
Anyway we lowered our expectations and went across the road to our old favourite - the RTDC government hotel - who said we could camp for the more modest fee of 150 rupees. We were in the lengthy process of checking in - as a foreign visitor in hotels in India you have to full out very lengthy forms as you check into hotels and whilst as campers sometimes we slip through the system here we didn't!! - when the phone rang and it was Kush who insisted that we come at once and stay at the accommodation he'd organized for us and attend a party that evening.
This threw us into a panic but we dutifully turned around and drove into town to find Mandir Palace where we were staying and Hotel Nachana Haveli where the wedding was taking place. When we got there we were in shock - the wedding was the big party in the square which we had seen earlier and the Mandir Palace where we were shown to our room was amazing.
About this time we realized that this wedding was a bit different from what we'd been expecting. Divya the lovely bride is in fact a Princess of the local royal family. Mandir Palace is one of the family palaces -as was the one we'd been turned away from earlier that afternoon!! It has been in the family 2 centuries and part of it has recently been converted into a luxury hotel which is where we were staying! The family still live in private apartments in another part of the palace.
We felt a bit over overawed as we dragged our hap hazard assortment of luggage out of the car - and the car in turn looked a bit overawed to be parked in such opulent surroundings!
The 2 days which followed were unreal. Kush and Divya had actually married 2 days previously in a small ceremony with just close friends and family and we were lucky enough to be invited to the final days celebration. There were around 300 people at the wedding which by Indian standards (particularly at this level of society) was tiny. This was at the insistence of Kush and Divya who both wanted a smaller wedding.
Unusually for India theirs was a love marriage not an arranged one and they had met whilst overseas. They were clearly very much in love which -more than the amazing surroundings -made the whole thing very special.
The amazing surroundings were very nice too though!!!! There was music and dancing all night from the royal family's personal performers. The main singer has apparently always performed for the family and he had an incredible voice singing Rajasthan ballads - of valour and heroic exploits - whilst his band played local instruments. The Maharaja (Divyas's father) "blessed" arriving (male) guests by waving a 500 rupee note over their heads and placing it under their glass whilst they drank. These notes were then thrown on the floor for the entertainers to pick up. They had a bulging bag full of 500 rupee (approx $12 Aus) notes by the end. A good gig these royal weddings!!
We had already learnt that in much of Rajasthan the custom of purdah - by which ladies are not seen by men outside their family - prevails. Whilst more a Muslim custom this practice was taken up by the Hindu Maharajahs. Obviously it's not as strictly adhered to now but the 2 sexes didn't intermingle as in the west - the ladies were in a separate area - where they ate & drank and took turns to dance whilst the children ran around whilst the men sat elsewhere with the musicians. There were a few westerners present - quite a few Parisians as the Princess lived there for 2 years - and the ladies amongst us wandered between the 2 groups which no one seemed to mind. The colour was beautiful with the ladies' lovely saris and the men's traditional turbans. On the final evening the men all wore traditional Jodhpur trousers which great. The Rajputs (the Rajasthan caste to which the family belong) are a very handsome race!
The food and drink flowed for the entire time we were there - this was the first time in India we'd enjoyed the luxury of a champagne hangover! What impressed us was how humble and charming everyone we met was - the Princesses' 2 brothers - one the future Maharaja - looked after us all replenishing drinks and food and really made us feel welcome. Having a gorgeous room was quite nice for 2 days too! Whilst no doubt it's pricey (we never asked how much!) it'd be an amazing place to stay - have a look at their site http://mandirpalacehotel.com Definitely highly recommended!!
The next door hotel - Hotel Nachana Haveli where the wedding was - had many interesting artifacts on display including some great old photos we liked the one of the "camel ambulance" which didn't look very comfortable!!! We had a quick look at the Maharaja's horses too - really beautiful animals. We were shown around the stables on day 1 but forgot our camera - when we tried to go back later on (after we'd moved out of the palace) we were told visitors weren't allowed so we couldn't go near them to take a close up picture. No longer on the A list!!!
On the final day before driving off the couple cut their cake which Kush was then fed by his new mother and father in law. They now move to Kush's native Calcutta to start their new life together. We were so grateful to them for inviting us - what an experience. Thanks guys we really hope you enjoy a long and wonderful life together!
UPDATE FEBRUARY 2011: We've just heard from Kush that he and Divya have just launched a new exclusive travel company dealing predominantly with the central district of Madhya Pradesh region. They provide tailor made tours specifically designed to focus on your interests, have a look at their incredible website if you're interested in exploring this fascinating region. http://www.heartofindia.co.in
Before leaving we had a quick look around the museum housed in another part of the palace a display which included India's first air conditioner. This was no doubt a boon in the heat of summer but it looked more like a camera!
Finally after 2 days of this the time came to leave and we returned to the RTDC - where they were digging up the drains so we had to park in a tight corner trying to avoid open drainage and wandering cows - how are the mighty fallen!!
So - once we'd finished hob nobbing with royalty we were ready to have a look around Jaisalmer. As regular readers may have gathered I love India. Someone recently asked were there really no negatives which made me worry my narratives are too "Pollyanna ish" and never mention the downside. So …..like Jaipur before it Jaisalmer did have some hygiene issues - there were quite a few open drains and not enough public loos and it was consequently a bit whiffy in parts. All that is true and it's also true that tourism has arrived with a thump and you get invited into shops every 2 minutes - but all that withstanding I loved Jaisalmer. The tout hassle stuff is nowhere near as bad as say Indonesia and ok it's smelly and there are manky rubbish eating cows everywhere - but I still found the city magical - so there!
We took a wonder up to the old living fort. We'd never seen a living fort before and it blew us away - perched over the city like a huge sandcastle it is home to over 3,000 local people. Thus in the narrow lanes shrewn with tourist stalls and (of course) cows are temples and houses where people live as they have lived since the fort was built in 1156.
Sadly the fort is in peril as the amount of water pumped through the fort's plumbing system is so much greater than originally envisaged. Thus the foundations are being destroyed and the environmentalists are urging people to stop staying in the fort - where the cheapest (some 40 rupees a night for a tiny single room!) and most romantic accommodation is. We loved just wandering around and taking in the amazing views from the ramparts down over the city. We stopped to look at some miniature paintings which were somewhat similar to that of Raju Swami we looked at in Bikaner where we bought Kush and Divya's present. This was unsurprising as the artist Kamal Swami was a pupil of his! We loved his work have a look at his site on www.maasakamal.com to see some examples.
The fort has a number of very impressive Jain temples - 7 interconnecting ones built of the beautiful yellow sandstone which comes from this area. Dating from the 12th to 16th centuries the carving of marble and sandstone was exquisite.
We were hassled a bit by "priests" demanding donations which was a shame - but it was still definitely worth a look. Andrew was interested that no mortar was used in the building - the blocks are held together by iron staples.
There were many carvings of Hindu deities alongside the Jain gods. The successive rulers in these times seemed to swop between Jainism and Hinduism so the different carvings co-exist in these temples. The temple was very busy when we visited and several ceremonies seemed to be going on - pre-weddings maybe? It's definitely the season! In all Jain temples the priests cover their mouths so that they don't inadvertently swallow an insect and leather shoes and belts have to be left outside.
Within the fort was the Rajmahal - another Maharaja's 7 storey palace. We were a bit muddled as to where these royals fitted with our wedding ones - we need a family tree!- but we saw several pictures of Divya's family that we'd seen before -including one of the former Maharaja and his brother and cousins when as little boys they were all dressed up to meet the Duke of Wellington when he was the English representative in India.
Much of the palace was being renovated but it had some very impressive areas- including some 15th century sculptures and a gorgeous mirror painted gallery and the stunning views from the roof top, where the saffron and red Jaisalmer flag flew.
The toy horse was used by the young royals to get a feel for horsemanship - a very important skill here - as soon as possible. Within the palace was a separate ladies' area where purdah was maintained - the ladies could see out but no one could see in - and there were handprints showing evidence that sati was practiced here - ladies chose to join their husbands slain in battle by jumping on a funeral pyre and burning alive rather than being taken as prisoner. These heroic deeds are much recorded in the Rajasthan music we've been listening to.
The palace had a number of interesting architectural features - i.e.) the entrance gates were on a sharp curve so elephants or any army couldn't get up the momentum or speed necessary to batter against them, and the passage ways were narrow so you had to stoop and thus if you unexpectedly came upon the Maharaja you were suitably humble in posture! Similarly the steps were uneven - steep then shallow to stop any enemies rushing the doors. It was an interesting building.
We left the palace and found a roof top and a cold beer and sat to enjoy the sunset. It was a great view down over the city and we saw many kids flying homemade kites. When we waved they put on a show for us weaving them around our heads which was great. Walking down from the fort back to town we once more heard music and singing which meant another wedding was in progress - we've seen 100s of such processions now - with the band the dancing and the groom on a white horse but this was the first we'd seen with decorated white camels. Very auspicious apparently!
The next day we took in the lake Gadi Sagar, though there's not much water here at present. Built in the 14th century this was once the major source of very precious water and to reflect its importance there are various beautiful sandstone carved temples around and in it.
It was very scenic and you could climb up and see a great view back over the city but again some of the atmosphere was lacking with the water! You can take a boat out but presently I think we'd get bogged!!
We later took in 3 very renowned Havelis. These gorgeously carved homes of wealthy 18th and 19th century merchants and politicians are in great condition. Nathmal-ki-Haveli was once a prime minister's home and his descendants still live here. The interior paintings and carvings were incredible. Built by 2 architect brothers the left and right sides are similar but have different carvings and designs.
Salim Singh-ki-Haveli a 300 year old private haveli has an amazing top heavy structure. This was once the home of a former prime minister who was renowned for his harshness and made many enemies until he was eventually murdered. The imposing man who showed us around was his descendant - 9th generation.
Again the carving and artwork was amazing and there was a great view back to the fort. The construction of these Havelis was fascinating. They were like giant lego sets with sort of pegs with hooks -like a light bulb - that fitted bits together. If necessary the whole building could be dismantled and set up elsewhere.
The buildings had various interesting designs - the wall cupboards are in fact safes with secret little holes where valuables were hidden and (like at the fort palace mentioned above) the steps are intermittently steep and then shallow so that an approaching enemy couldn't get up enough momentum to charge the doors.
Finally we saw part of the Patwa- ki-Haveli - built in the early 19th century by 5 rich Jain brothers this again showed much elaborate sandstone carving. We didn't see in the main renovated part as it was a bit more pricey and we were running out of time - and getting a bit Haveli weary! The thing is like the forts/palaces here they are all so amazing you become blasé! As well as these main ones there were a great many Havelis still being lived in and just wandering the streets was an experience.
The Bhang shop (government approved) was also interesting. Bhang is a marihuana derived product and they sold drinks and cookies made with it. It is illegal so we were a bit confused as to how or why it was government approved!! Opium was traditionally much used here -and apparently still is - though we saw none of the signs of addiction which you can see in SE Asia.
The Rajasthan people are lovely to look at. With their vibrant colours and proud features they are a very handsome race of desert people and it's amazing just to walk around people watching.
We promised to mention Joshi of the German bakery here. Located just down from the fort this shop is a place of much merriment, cheaper internet than most and very very good apple crumble - we spent a few happy hours there - thanks Joshi!
Also deserving of a special mention is a very impressive museum we saw here - the Desert Culture Centre and Museum. The work of one man -a Mr. N K Sharma- there was a wealth of information to be found here regarding Rajasthan history and culture - from folding portable temples to clothes. The musical section was very good - with instruments on display alongside DVDs showing playing. It had really been a life's work for Mr. Sharma - the music section alone must have taken hours - and we'd urge you to visit as he gets little support and it'd be a shame if all this died out. We also went to one of the nightly puppet shows he organizes which was great.
Traditionally puppeteers and performers from this area have been the poorest travelling sections of the community and a lot of the art is dying out. The show - puppets alongside singers and musicians to accompany the stories- was wonderful. As I said it'd be a real shame if these arts were allowed to disappear so it was nice to see the young children learning them. I loved the camel puppet!
For our last night in Jaisalmer we had camping neighbours at the RTDC when we were joined by Thomas and Christine who have driven from Germany and are 7 months into their own trip. It's always great to meet other overlanders and swop stories though from what they told us it does sound like Pakistan is currently a bit dicey to get through. We really want to cross that way so fingers crossed it's going through a quiet period when we get to that stage! Christine and Thomas are roughly following the same route around Rajasthan as us so no doubt we'll see them again- we hope so!
So the next afternoon we set off towards the Sam sand dunes -just 42 km out of town. These are the nearest sand dunes to town and we'd been told a bit of a tourist fest - with hundreds of camel drivers chasing tourists around trying to sell their wares and offer camel rides. We got going in time to witness all this but it all went wrong when we suddenly realized we were running on fumes and urgently needed diesel - all the excitement of the last few days had totally put this mundane task from our minds! By the time we'd turned around filled up and got going again the sun was well and truly down so we'd missed the show for that night. So - we decided to stay the next day and try again! We camped at the RTDC - of course! - a great location right on the edge of the dunes. The assistant manager seemed thrilled to have us and insisted we were family and didn't have to pay! The next morning he'd spoken to head office and decided that (whilst we were still like his family!) we did have to pay the usual 150 rupees!! Never mind.
We got up at sunrise which was pretty chilly and were soon found by the local camel drivers. Actually we had been cornered the night before and had promised Mr. Ali we'd go with him. The young man next morning said "no no Mr. Ali is not coming today" … as if he'd know!! Anyway we negotiated a ride over the dunes for a couple of hours. We were to go to the "real "sand dunes at the Thar desert - which apparently cost more than a normal camel safari!!! We had to bargain hard.
So - another first for the trip - we got to ride camels. I really like camels but often suspect the feeling isn't mutual. This was certainly the case here - my camel had been on his way to breakfast when he got diverted to take me on a sand dune ramble - and he was not happy!!! Thus when I got on - which was pretty scary anyway - he made it very scary by spinning around and trying to make a dash for home - nearly dislodging me in the process. He also kept up a real guttural bellow to show his anger at the whole thing.
I have to say I enjoyed the whole experience but found camel riding a bit scary - well not going along just getting up and down - maybe as my camel always attempted to bolt at this time - after a horse it feels weird not to have a wider neck up front…and it felt a loooooong way down!
Anyway off we trotted like Lawrence of Arabia. After a short while we were totally alone and we saw deer lots of birds and goats and sheep. The landscape was very arid and my young co-driver (steering from behind) told me they hadn't had a drop of rain there for more than 3 years!!!
It was great fun - though I walked funnily for the next few days! We wondered how many people get caught up in the whole thing and book a 10 day safari -only to regret it 2 days in! We had planned to do a few days trip but reluctantly had decided against it on purely financial grounds - as after all we camp under the stars every night anyway - but on the whole we were quite relieved. Must be getting old!!!!
We spent the rest of the day holed up in the RTDC sorting out our pictures for the web - we have to incorporate a day or so a week for this or we get really behind- and that night we were at a party. On this occasion though we weren't VIP guests!!
We had heard of the Palace on Wheels before - a sort of Indian Orient Express this train is modeled on ones previously owned by Maharajas. The idea is you do a train trip around Rajasthan whilst staying in luxury on this very high end train. I did look at going once -ages ago - but was put off as 1) you had to go on an organized tour and couldn't just get on and off as you chose and 2) it was REALLY expensive.
Anyway the train was arriving that night and the RTDC was hosting an evening of music and dance and a meal. At a fraction of the cost - we were invited to join them, Actually the first manager invited us and I'm not sure the real manager (who arrived the next day) was keen but he was stuck with us! As sunset came we went up onto the roof top and watched the carnival below - it was frenetic camel drivers chasing tourists around people selling goods and drinks - we definitely felt we'd picked the right time for our camel ride in the solitude of the morning!
Anyway - much like when we arrived at the wedding - the music started up as the Palace of Wheelers (POW's!!) arrived and they were piped in and had rose petals thrown on them. It was a weird situation for us - we were invited but we weren't sure what to do - did we just merge in or keep separate?? The manager soon set us straight - we were below stairs guests - he set us 2 chairs on the opposite side of the courtyard and we were told firmly we could go down to the RTDC bar but were NOT to have any free drinks set out for the POW's - though we could pay for them - nor were we to move to their area !!! That told us!
The cultural show - dancing and music - was good though we have to say the royal musicians were better (we resisted the temptation to mention this!!) We were quickly very cold -we were a long way from the heaters- and in the end thought to hell with it and ordered 2 vodka and orange from the esteemed POW bar. To our horror (we hadn't checked) these cost 1200 rupees!!! This is usually more than a day's budget!
When they all went up to eat we again were a bit unsure what to do. We asked and were told we got our chance to eat in an hour or so after the POWs had left!!! The POWs did seem nice, and were a mixture of ages and nationalities. The old lady in our picture (Hilda from Scotland) was actually celebrating her 97th birthday…good on her!!!! We have to say though -whilst it was very well done - it put us off going on one of these tours. We've been really spoilt re: independent travel- we go when we want to, stop when we want to etc .. the whole tour thing just doesn't appeal - no matter how luxurious it is. Maybe when/if we get to Hilda's age!!
Eventually the POWs left and we hit the buffet!!! We invited the staff to eat with us but they served us until we had eaten and only then did they dig in as we left. Very status conscious is India!! Seriously it was really kind to be included and a fun night. Unlike the wedding we awoke clear headed too - who can afford a hangover at those prices!!!
Next morning we hit the road again and set off through the desert. We drove through many small desert settlements past wonderfully turbaned men and lots of camels. It's not all romantic though, rural Rajasthan has very high incidences of child marriages child labour and illiteracy and the status of some of the poorest people (particularly women) is petty dire. We noticed the ladies we passed were apt to hide away and cover their faces - in rural areas apparently a diluted version of purdah exists to this day.
We spent the night at Barmer - a bustling city which isn't terribly exciting other than as a centre for handicrafts. We struggled a bit finding a parking spot - we even tried the police who were no help whatsoever - until eventually we found a new hotel Jai Ma Santoshi Palace - who let us sleep in their garage!!
It was actually pretty comfortable and the hotel guys insisted on getting us a take away meal which was served to us in the drivers' quarters in the garage with due ceremony! Thanks guys you saved us! We went up on the roof the next morning and had a good look at the view - Barmer spread before us - not the most lovely town but a beehive of morning activity with bullock carts galore!
We also did some handicraft shopping. The night before we wandered around the market - the huge vat in our picture contains the local specialty of sweet saffron milk - and Andrew bought some Rajasthan shoes with curled up toes. A bargain - where else can you buy handmade shoes for 300 rupees ( around $7 Aus!) and saw various craftsmen at work from cobblers to scissor makers to tailors all hard at it. It was a great atmosphere.
The next day we went to a wholesale handicraft market - Vijay Laxmi Handicrafts -where we were keen to see the handicrafts being assembled. The ladies (that purdah thing again) don't leave the villages but complete the hand embroidery in patches, at which stage they arrive here at the workshop where the men sew them together to make bed spreads and other handicrafts. The men live at the work shop - there is a small quarters - and make carpets, and carry out block printing and carving as well as sewing. There is a lot of concern about child labour in this poor state - particularly in carpet weaving which needs small nimble fingers - so hopefully if the work is moved to central workshops this abuse can be limited. We hope so.
A lot of the handicrafts were very beautiful - we brought a few bits and pieces - our new home in the UK promises to be very eclectic décor -wise!
Finally on Tuesday 8 December we arrived at our next destination the busy metropolis of Jodhpur - where we planned to spend the next few days - though as ever our plans were to change.