Sunday, April 1, 2012

Jaisalmer: The Shonar Kella

Every Malayalee worth his coconut oil living in the Sixties and the Seventies of the last Century had to love three things, Communism, Satyajit Ray and beedi. If he is to be respected by his peers every Malloo boy of that period must also fall hopelessly in love at least once and more importantly write mushy love letters sprinkled with liberal helpings of Sanskrit words. Sadly, I was an exception. Though I was rather fond of Beedi and black coffee that must accompany it, Communism, Satyajit ray and love affair eluded me. But one thing of Satyajit Ray remained etched in my mind. The image of Jaisalmer and the golden fort as depicted in the Feluda series ‘Shonar Kella’. I used to dream of the romantic fort and the myriad mysteries that inhabit the narrow gullies and paras of the yellow sandstone fort built over a lofty mud hill in the middle of a desert, mush like an oasis in the Arabian Tales.

So, when I got half a chance to visit Jaisalmer accompanying a friend who was to spend a few days there on business, I jumped at it. The possibility of visiting the Desert National Park for birding and a visit to the famed sand dunes of Sam and Khuri were added attractions. Tickets were booked online on the Delhi-Jaisalmer Express, 13th Ex Delhi and 17th return. Packing the big baby, my Nikkor 500 m f/4 itself was not a challenge as the Lowepro bag designed for such mammoth lenses came very useful. But the Big Baby meant packing the Wimberley Gimbal Head and the huge Manfrotto tripod. The second body, D70 was also packed as I wanted to avoid changing lenses the least number of times in the desert.

The less said of the train journey, the better. Despite all claims by successive Rail Ministers of dubious antecedents, Delhi Jn. ( Old Delhi for the Janta) Railway Station ranks among the dirties and the most congested in the country and possibly in the whole world. The need to pass all the luggage through visibly dysfunctional screening machines lying unattended even by the untrained and disinterested security staff, put addition demands on your time and energies. With a prayer of thanks to the Almighty who keeps the Railways relatively free of terrorist incidents despite our best efforts to invite them, I boarded the train with Sanjay. We were allotted a most curious pair of berths. In most trains which do not attract many rich passengers, there is a practice of having a compartment half AC First and the other half AC 2 tire. This is called the HA Compartment just like AC 2 tire is designated A and AC 3 tire, B etc. Our berths were 19 and 20. We were soon to discover that these seats are indeed unique. While dividing the compartment into the First and second class, the sword fell in front of the 19-20 half of the cubicle that would also have had 21-22 if the bogey was not bifurcated. As a result, we had many visitors walking in, in the process of unbuttoning their trousers or preparing to spit out of the non existant door. Nice way to spend 17 hours; don’t you think so?

Whether it is the Rajasthani nature of not eating once out of home till he returns of it was the apathy of the Railway authorities, no food whatsoever is served or offered at any time during the journey. Not only that, the locations of any place where such contraband substances as meals, pakoras, tea, etc. if at all available is kept as a State secret, not to be divulged to unauthorized persons. This is part of the oath of office administered to Railway Employees in this sector.
Luckily Susan had packed Parathas and Potato subji for dinner and we thankfully partook of it and thanks her and God for such small mercies. After a high level, no-holds-barred operation, Sanjay discovered hot pakoras and spurious coconut cookie biscuits at a whole in the wall at Pokran around 10 am and despite our fears of radiation, the items were gingerly consumed.

By sheer coincidence, we were allotted the same seats on our return. The journey was similar, but in reverse order and with a difference that on conditions of anonymity a railway employee divulged the secrets of obtaining half-cooked rotis and watery dal at Jodhpur around 11:30 at night. The food was secretly consumed cautiously and gratefully.

If I say the Jaisalmer Fort impressed me, it would be a gross understatement. In any case I am a sucker for beautiful architecture. Despite the fact that I studied in Agra and used to perform the obligatory weekly visit to the Taj and in spite of the hundreds of times I have seen the Taj thereafter, even today when I approach the Taj Mahal, my lips tremble in anticipation and my hear misses a beat when I see the eternal beauty through the massive gates as I enter the Garden of Eden as the compound has been referred to in the inscriptions on the gate. While the Taj Mahal has been built to spring upon you the surprise of its sudden revelation by hiding it from view by the massive walls, Jaisalmer Fort is flaunted in all its glory atop the Trikuta hills reflecting the sun’s rays in golden splendor. You see it from any part of the city, from the desert as you approach from Barmer or from the sand dunes of Sam or Khuri, like a golden tiara adorning the holy hill reputed to have been blessed by Lord Krishna and Arjun.

The fort has just one entrance and one has to pass through four layers of gated security before one reaches the central courtyard in front of the palace. On your way up the Gopa Chowk, the Akhai, Hawa and Ganesh Gates, one already notices that parts of the ramparts at the very entrances are part shops and part private residences, mostly of the shopkeepers themselves. The mandatory German Bakery at the entrance gives you the clue that like Old Manali Village, the Fort too is a place of culinary adventure. The whole place is littered with restaurants offering Italian, French, Greek, Korean and Japanese food with price tags to match.

Unlike any other forts I have seen till date, the Jaisalmer Fort is fully inhabited. Even the Royal family lived in the Raj Mahal palace within the premises of the fort till a generation back. The fort itself is the second oldest in Rajasthan and was set up by Rao Jaisal the Bhati Rajput ruler of Tanot in 1156. The location of the fort is atop a triangular hill formation of mud known as Trikut, believed to have been the location of the divine well created by Lord Krishna for Arjun with his Sudarshan Chakra. Over the years, the fort got renovated and its security reinforced by building several layers of walls and gates. One wise strategy was to allot bhurjs or ramparts on all sides to his trusted lieutenants, who were expected to ensure the protection of the side. Different locations within the fort were allotted to people of different calling associated with the Palace and the Governance of the country. Thus we have Purohits, scholars from the Vyas Brahmin community and pujaris living in neighbouring ‘para’s while the Bhati Rajputs ensuring the security and Huzuris ( courtiers) occupying neighbouring localities. Other tradesmen like masons, stone carvers, sweepers, barbers, etc. too were allotted specific areas within the fort. Even till date the entire fort, except for the Royal Palace, every area is under occupation of the descendants of the original allottees. As families grew, some sons moved out but the ancestral homes passed on to other children who is zealously proclaim their umbilical attachment to the quila. As tourism grew, most of the households started accepting paying guests and many opened their orthodox homes to non vegetarian foreigners disregarding their prejudices. Most of the houses on the main streets have also converted their front rooms into shops selling clothes, artifacts, junk jewllery, books, camera accessories, cigarettes and importee tissue paper. This medley of shops, hotels and restaurants gives the happy foreigner a feeling of ‘authenticity’ and a taste of Indian laid back life style; Karma Cola in earthen pot if you will!

Facad of the House of the Raj Purohit; One of the few houses not yet commercialized!

The first people to get out of the strict time tables of opening and closing of the fort gates were probably the traders whose travels did not permit adherence to the schedule. Some of the havelis and larger houses outside the walled city belong to the successful traders, among whom was the Patwa family. Originally haberdashers as their name indicates, they obviously left no form of trading or profitable business untouched. They were suppliers of clothes, opium, imported provisions, cosmetic items, gun powder and every imaginable supply needed for the city life. As one can imagine, they were importers and exporters as well as money lenders. Their wealth and the spelndour of their lives can be guessed when one visits the Patwon ki Haweli , a group of five ornate and elaborate houses built by five brothers. The other two big noteworthy houses were of former Dewans or Ministers out of whom Salam Singh is worthy of mention. Salam Singh, himself the son of a Dewan and a wise and erudite one too, who was murdered as a result of palace intrigues rose to his father’s position at a young age. He was variously described as a cruel psychopath, clever administrator, intelligent diplomat and a very munificent ruler. Like Muhamad Tuglak, he too is now remembered for his cruel deeds and foolhardy decisions than for the many good thing he has done. Most notorious among his misdeeds was the persecution of the Paliwal Brahmins who were prosperous farmers and innovators.

Though there was an abundance of eateries offering world cuisine, our fear of the touristy eateries prevented us from partaking of the wares on offer. On the two occasions that we ventured to taste cups of tea in the restaurants, we found it difficult to finish the cup of brew despite the small size of the cups. Two places outside the fort are worth mentioning in this regard. The first is Chandanshree Restaurant, near Hanuman Chowk where, based on Lonely Planet review we decided to have breakfast. The Aloo Paranthas and Poorie Subzi lived up to the reputation. The service was good though a bit slow. Overall good experience. Te second place we had lunch. No travel site including Trip Advisor has reviewed this, but we found Desert Bites a delightful surprise. In fact the place was recommended by our driver when we returned from DNP late for lunch. We ordered the traditional Rajasthani Thali Veg and found it difficult to finish the portion. Apart from wheat rotis, the fare had Bajra roti, Churma, dal, three different delicious subzis, chhach or Buttermilk, Karhi, etc. each rivaling the other in taste.

The mention of Jaisalmer bring to your mind the Shonar Kella and the images of vast sand dune fields and Kalbelia dancers in Sam and Khuri. So off to Sam we went in the early morning to catch the sunrise. The 40 KM drive is boring, but on arrival, we were greeted at Sam by almost completely deserted sand dunes. There was only one other tourist, a photographer who chose to avoid us. It appears the tourists like Sam in the evenings. Come sunset and the place becomes crowded by the tourists who just sit around and enjoy the sand and sun or take a short camel ride to another dune site. Liquor pays a very important part of enhancing the enjoyment of the desert, or so it seems, judging from the number or empty bottles, covers, caps, etc left behind by revelers. In fact, the whole area is littered with the debris of merrymaking, it is disgusting. Not that Sam is a great place. Once upon a time, the place would have been a area of vast stretches of dunes, but the arrival of canals and moisture resulted in more vegetation and consequent settling of the shifting sand mounts. Sam Panchayat now takes pain to remove grass and plants from a small area around the main road and maintains a semblance of sand dune desert, what my friend calls a ‘formal desert ‘ like the Republic Day Parade display. It would have been great if the Panchayat which earns well out of taxes and parking charges spare some energy every morning to clean up the dunes after the revelers.

A greater disappoint was awaiting us at the Desert National Park. We had visited the Deputy Director of the DNP in his office the previous day and had a long dialogue with Shri. Bissa, Deputy Director of the Park, an affable and humorous guy. He had kindly issued permits and requested the honorary Wildlife Warden there for transport within the Park and for breakfast and lunch for us next day. When we arrived at Sudhasi Forest Camp in the DNP next day, we found that Shri Bissa was like Shah Alam, the weakened Mughal Emperor of whom it was said “Aj Dilli to Palam, Saltanat-e-Shah Alam. Meaning, the area of influence of “Emperor “ Shah Alam extended from Delhi to Palam, barely 10 miles!. The promised Wildlife Warden, food and guide were missing at Sudhasri camp at Desert National Park. A sleepy Chowkidar was woken up, the camels reclaimed from grazing fields and the rickety Juggernaut of a camel cart was prepared for the tour of the park. Travelling in such a cart, over unbeaten tracks, with equipment like 500 mm lens and cameras is an experience that can only be experienced, not conveyed. The cart driver cum guide had limited vocabulary which fortunately included Godawan ( Bustard) and yes sir in response to any request. Small mercies indeed! What strikes one first about the DNP is the need for a huge board at the gate that Shooting is Prohibited. In no other Sanctuaries have I encountered a board like this. It was understood and abided by. The panic reaction of Chinkaras to the camel cart and its inhabitants is a clear indication of human initiated predation inside the Park. Birds too were very scared of the camel cart. One wonders if the idea of a camel cart for safari makes sense at all.

Cinereous Vulture on perch

Distant, though clear view of the Great Indian Bustard

Despite the best efforts of the Wildlife Warden, we were lucky to have good sighting of Cenereous Vulture, Lesser Krestel, White Eyed Buzzard, Egyptian Vulture, Sand grouses, Wheatears, Chinkaras, Nilgais, Fox, not to mention the Great Indian Bustard. Outside the Park we sighted a female Pallid Harrier, several Kestrels, Common Buzzards, Egyptian Vultures and what appeared to be an Indian Spotted Eagle. By the time we were through, it was 12 noon and we had to leave in search of food.

Pallid Harrier Female

We searched Khuri and could not find any lunch and were told, as in Sam, this place too comes alive only near sunset. The story of the ‘sand dunes on ventilator ‘ holds true at Khuri too, though the extend is wider and there are a few genuine ones at some distance. There are also a few well known home stays in genuine Rajasthani desert huts as in the case of Mama’s Camp.

One pleasant surprise was the impromptu visit to the Ghost Town of Jaisalmer. Though one had heard much about Ghost Towns, especially in the Wild West of the US of A, Neem Dan, driver’s mention of a Ghost Town in Jaisalmer was a surprise. The place is en route to Sam and was originally a settlement of Paliwal Brahmins. Paliwals were wise and intelligent Brahmins who had mastered the art of water conservation, dam building and canal irrigation. They prospered as wealthy agriculturalists and traders even before Rao Jaisal established Jaisalmer Fort. The community seems to have fallen out of favour with Salam Singh, the cruel Dewan of the Rawal of Jaisalmer. The Paliwals were subjected to so much of harassment and humiliation that one fine evening in 1825 AD they vacated their 83 villages and fled the clutches of the cruel ruler. The loss of Jaisalmer appears to have been the gain of the rest of India as the Paliwals prospered as land owners and traders in many parts of northern India. Kuldhara, one of the villages abandoned by the Paliwals have been restored to some extend by the efforts of a few sensible officials. The village temple and a few houses have been restored almost completely to give an idea to the visitor how houses would have looked at the time they were abandoned. The village is well planned with wide roads, separate quarters for different castes and proper drainage system. Check dams were built at slopes to trap rain water which was used for irrigation and recharging the wells. Stepwells were sunk near these tanks so that there is perennial water supply.

The Ruins of Kuldhara

Restored Building

The design of the houses are also very traditional and convenient. The centre of all activity was the central courtyard into which opened the kitchen living room granaries and the front entrance. Places for livestock and parking of carts were also provided in houses of wealthier villages. It is a pity not much is known of this place outside Rajasthan and better restoration is called for.

We bid farewell to the Golden Desert and its mysterious golden fort and the Desert the next day. Throughout the boring, train journey with its long wait for food that disappoints as a rule, one kept thinking of the lost villages of the Paliwals, their agricultural practices, avarice of Dewans, ill maintained National heritages and Satyajit Ray