Regal Rajasthan Travelogue (Part III): Jaisalmer

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Hey guys 😀 Hope you loved reading my previous post “Regal Rajasthan Travelogue (Part II) : Jodhpur😀

Today, I’m going to take you to the ancient desert city of Jaisalmer and through the Thar Desert right up to the India-Pakistan Border 😀

Talking about Thar Desert, sit back and first watch this short video of mine 😀

For those of you who are my first-time visitors, I visited the colourful western Indian state of Rajasthan in November and December of 2015. My trip started in Jaipur, from where I went to Jodhpur in the Marwar region; then to the desert city of Jaisalmer, taking in the beauty of Thar – the Great Indian Desert, travelling right up to the border with Pakistan; before going down south to Udaipur in the Mewar region; and back to Jaipur.

Do read my previous posts on Jaipur and Jodhpur, and this earlier post of mine to know about the ancient heritage of Jaisalmer: Regal Rajasthan:  Jaisalmer Fort

Happy reading 😀

 

 

Thursday, 26 November 2015

 

The five-hour journey from Jodhpur to ‘the golden city’ Jaisalmer was quite enjoyable. After 100 KM, at around 8:30 AM, near Dehra Fort, I realized why Rajasthan is synonymous with peacocks.  There were peacocks flying around everywhere in the picturesque countryside just like crows and pigeons in my home city of Mumbai. I must have seen at least 30-40 of them along the Jodhpur – Jaisalmer highway.

Around 9:30 AM, the bus stopped at a village called Dechu, and at 10:20 AM, it made a breakfast halt at Pokhran, some two hours from Jaisalmer. A small desert town, Pokhran is well known as the test site for India’s first underground nuclear weapon detonation in 1974.

12 kilometres from Pokhran, Ramdevra Temple marks the eternal resting place of a 15th century saint Baba Ramdev, revered by the people of Rajasthan. He is worshipped as an incarnation of Lord Krishna by Hindus, while Muslims venerate him as Ramshah Pir. The temple hosts an annual Ramdevra Fair between August and September.

The desert landscape was captivating right up to Jaisalmer. As I neared the desert city, the countryside became flat and arid. Located alongside the highway was the Jaisalmer War Museum built by the Indian Army.

It was approaching noon, so there were hardly any locals or vehicles on the road. The bus entered a small bus stand, and my heart sank. I had expected a bigger city. I didn’t know whether the hotel I had chosen for stay was centrally located. Having read some positive online reviews of heritage hotels inside the 850-year-old Jaisalmer Fort (one of the rare living forts in the world), I had kept the fort as another option.

As soon as I got down from the bus, I was surrounded by a crowd of hotel touts. As they tried to gather my attention, a calm and polite guy told them to move away, while offering to show me a nice place to stay. I don’t know why I trusted him, but I did. He placed my bag in the trunk of a white Innova and handed me a Lonely Planet guide lying on the dashboard of the SUV. He flipped a few pages and pointed to the hotel that he was going to show me. The one that I had earlier decided upon was near Vyas Chhatri, an old Brahmin cemetery, away from the city centre. I was looking for a centrally-located hotel for my one-night stay in Jaisalmer, as I had planned to leave for Udaipur the next evening.

Hotel Roop Mahal was a nice place, and the room shown to me was equally nice. A bit of discount, and I got it for 1250 rupees including tax. And they also provided travel services. The terrace restaurant offered a good view of the fort.

Jaisalmer Fort…

 

Built in 1156 by the Bhatti Rajput ruler, Rawal Jaisal, the fortress had been the scene of many battles. It has remained inhabited till today and houses about a quarter of the city population. Perched on a hillock, the sprawling fortress dominates the city landscape.

It took some time in finalizing my two-day sightseeing programme. For the first day, it was Bada Bagh (7 KM), Jain temples of Ludarwa (13 KM), Kuldhara village (20 KM), Sam Sand Dunes (45 KM) for a camel ride to watch the desert sunset and back to hotel. The second day, it was Tanot Mata Temple (122 KM) and Longewala (124 KM), where the Indian Army heroically repulsed a strong, armoured attack by the Pakistani Army during the India-Pakistan War of 1971. I had my heart set on going to the India-Pakistan border close to the two places. I had read about a few guys getting spot permission from BSF Commanding Officer at Tanot Camp, and at Ramgarh. So I asked for permission details, if it could be done at Jaisalmer, to avoid last minute disappointment at the two places like many interested tourists. The tour cost quoted to me was 5800 rupees, including the camel ride. Being peak season, I was probably charged 1000 rupees more than the normal cost. Tourist taxis usually charged 2000 rupees for the return trip to Tanot, and for Sam Sand Dunes, some 1200 rupees. But I was also going to Bada Bagh, Kuldhara, Ludarwa, and Longewala, and most probably the border, which was 15 KM from Tanot Temple. Tanot to Longewala was 40 KM. Whatever, I was tired and didn’t want to waste time looking for a better rate somewhere else. So I told them to book my seat on the next evening’s bus to Udaipur too. It was around 12:45 PM. I set the sightseeing tour for 2:00 PM. But I was a little more tired than I realized and rested till 2:30 PM.

Half an hour later, I was at the first stop – Bada Bagh, a series of royal cenotaphs or chhatris of deceased rulers of Jaisalmer located seven kilometres north of the city centre, on Ramgarh Road.

The cenotaphs were of different sizes and carved of sandstone. They were for rulers, queens, princes and other royal family members of the Bhatti Rajput clan. The oldest among them belonged to the 16h century and the newest cenotaph was from the time of Indian Independence. The latter was left incomplete as the deceased ruler’s son died within a year of his accession to the throne which was considered a bad omen by the family. From then on the practice of building a valedictory memorial to the ruling clan was discontinued.

The site was located on a hill, in the middle of a wide, deserted land with three 16th century structures nearby – Jaitsar – a water tank, Jait Bandh – a huge dam, and a garden. Its environs were dotted with windmills, making it a picturesque place to enjoy sunsets…

Watch my videos: Bada Bagh – I and Bada Bagh – II 

Ludarwa (or Lodurwa), 13 KM north-west of Jaisalmer, was the ancient capital of the Bhatti Rajput rulers before Jaisalmer was founded. However, it is more famous for the exquisitely-carved Jain temples. The place is of great religious significance to the Jain community.

The temples were rebuilt in the late 1970s and extensive restoration work was carried out in early 2000s to bring them back to their former glory.

A large group of international visitors, mostly French, had turned up at the temple complex while I was there.

Wondrous beauty coupled with peaceful surroundings made this temple complex an amazing place to visit.

If you have been through my post Regal Rajasthan: Jaisalmer Fort , you might have read that once upon a time, Jaisalmer was a busy stopover on the ancient trading route that connected the East to the West. Colourful camel caravans laden with spices, silk, tapestries, precious stones, jewellery, etc. would travel across the vast expanse of the Thar Desert. Wealthy merchants would risk their lives and fortunes on surviving the desert. Facing the perils of  treacherous terrains and the danger of being robbed on the way, they required resting places which provided food and water, while promising safety and security. Jaisalmer made its fortune on this trade passage. The Bhatti Rajputs (who were known to be excellent horse riders and marksmen), not only built numerous guest houses and water reservoirs, but also presented stamped passports to merchants. In exchange for taxes, they offered them protection against theft.

Centuries later, the desert still retains some of the relics left behind by merchants, warriors, farmers and musicians. Joshida Talao one of the oldest surviving oasis in the Thar, is also the largest and oldest functional reservoir around Jaisalmer. Mundhari village is known for its spring wells that have the purest water in Jaisalmer.

Khaba Fort, believed to be 700 years old, overlooks one of the 85 abandoned settlements where the prosperous Paliwal Brahmin community once thrived. Khaba village has ancient memorial and burial grounds for travellers from the Far East and even Egypt who died while on the road. There are tombstones with styles of headgear and dress that point to Phoenician origins of travellers on the Silk Route.

The remnants of abandoned villages, fortresses and havelis can be found on a 50-km trail across the settlements of Khaba, Kuldhara, Kanoi and Lakhmana in and around Jaisalmer. Due to the dearth of any written history, there are plenty of legends about the mysterious mass exodus of the Paliwals from their villages. This happened one night, almost three centuries ago. They abandoned their homes, leaving behind everything but a few valuables.

After Ludarwa, I visited Kuldhara – one of the abandoned Paliwal villages, 20 KM west of Jaisalmer…

An old ghost town, supposedly jinxed, the village remains uninhabited to this day, in the same state that the villagers had left it, three centuries ago. The myths, spooky stories of ghosts and paranormal activity in Kuldhara attract people from all over the world.

For centuries, the sudden disappearance of 5000 villagers in the course of a single night has remained a mystery. No one saw them leave, no one knows where all of them went. The popular story goes like this…

A debauched Diwan (Prime Minister of the kingdom) called Salim Singh, who was known for his sinister practice of collecting the tax, set his eyes on the daughter of the Paliwal chief. As Salim Singh threatened the village with dire consequences, the community members decided that they would rather abandon their settlements than let one more girl pay the price for their inability to stop the diwan. Nobody knows where they went, after leaving their homes in the middle of the night. They just vanished leaving the village with a curse that nobody can inhabit the villages ever. It is believed that despite the long passage of time, the village remains true to the curse as the residents of Jaisalmer tried to stay here, but could not succeed.

Some stories even say that heavy taxes were levied on Paliwal community and as a result, they had no option, but to vacate and just disappear from the reach of the ruler. However, historians believe that the settlements were abandoned as the result of a contamination or desecration of the water resources that the Paliwals held in reverence. The Paliwals were skilled herdsmen, agriculturalists, traders and farmers. They believed in working in harmony with nature.

Among other things, Kuldhara is best known for its architecture and water conservation techniques. The Paliwals built a complex system of three-tiered tanks: the first tier to store drinking water for human consumption, the second was used for bathing and utilities, and the third served as drinking water for cattle. They used various techniques to harvest water in the arid land, which have been inherited by farmers today and remain some of the cheapest and easiest techniques of desert farming till today.

Yours truly inside a house…

Watch my video: Kuldhara village

Folk musicians form a part of the desert culture, singing local ballads of love, valour and sacrifice. I was lucky to find one playing Rajasthani tunes on the algoza, a double fluted instrument…

Watch my video: Talented folk musician at Kuldhara 

Well, it was actually thanks to the driver, who requested an old musician passing by, to play a few tunes for me. It was a bit depressing when the driver talked about foreign tourists, who make audio recordings of the folk tunes and songs to make money by selling them online. Even in the peak season, the musicians make meagre earnings from their talent.

From Kuldhara, Khaba Fort is a short distance away. It’s in much better state than Kuldhara, and there’s an old temple too. I was tempted to visit the place, but it was nearing 5:00 PM and I didn’t want to get delayed for a camel ride to see the desert sunset at Sam Sand Dunes.

Sam Road is where most holiday resorts (including the magnificent Suryagarh Hotel) are located.  It’s a vast open land, offering adventure activities like paragliding…

Sam Sand Dunes are 45 KM west of Jaisalmer. It’s the most popular destination in Jaisalmer after the ‘golden fort’. The sand dunes are 3 KM long and 1 KM wide, but they are also treacherous as they are shifting and ever changing sand dunes.

In Rajasthan, the camel is a prized possession of the desert dwellers and looked after with great care. Small with slender necks, the camels of Jaisalmer are famed for their speed, sturdiness (hardness) and their ability to go hundreds of kilometres without food and water. Camel safaris give a first-hand feel of the desert life. A camelback ride in the desert is a must, otherwise a trip to Jaisalmer is incomplete. And Sam Sand Dunes is the closest place from the city where you can enjoy the sand dunes. Tourists usually visit Sam Sand Dunes in the evening, when it gets pleasant in the sand dunes and of course, to watch the sunset.

The best time to visit Jaisalmer is during the winter season which is perfect for city sightseeing as well as camping in the Thar. But even in winter, it’s very hot during the day,

A single night tourist package offers jeep safari, camel safari, dinner, cultural programme and night stay. Jeep safaris have Mahindra Thar jeeps with four passengers going for a 30-minute fun ride in the sand dunes. It’s called sand dune bashing, wherein the driver accelerates on the dunes and rides over them giving an adrenaline rush to the excited passengers, who are left holding onto their seats tightly. Camel safari is a short ride to watch the sunset. And then, there are the long duration camel safaris and jeep safaris for exploring the vast desert wilderness, while offering the joys of camping at remote locations and villages with local food and cultural entertainment.

Desert camps are popular as they take one closer to nature. Guests get to visit the nearby villages and a glimpse into their folklores. Some offer wildlife trips to the Desert National Sanctuary, one of the largest national parks in the country. The common features at all the camps is an experience of the desert sunset, a bonfire at night, an open air restaurant, and entertainment in the form of cultural programme of folk music and dance of Rajasthan. Ranging from ultra-luxurious camps to basic eco farms, there are accommodations for every kind of traveller. Because of the Rajasthani appeal and the availability of luxurious camps, camping in Jaisalmer has emerged as a booming concept. During the three-day Jaisalmer Desert Festival organized by the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation in January-February, the entire place turns into a cultural hub, showcasing Rajasthani culture with great pomp and show through openair cultural extravaganzas, puppet shows, traditional ballad singing, folk dance performances, camel races, craft bazaars, competitions and general festivities including and a light sound show which is spectacle on the sand-dunes of Sam on the day of full moon night.

I had read that Sam Sand Dunes was a small touristy place with tents and concrete structures all around. In other words, a commercialized and much hyped tourist destination, and that there were other sand dunes in the Thar worth exploring like Khuri Sand Dunes, which are less crowded and provide solitude. But Khuri was 50 KM from Jaisalmer. Besides, I was going to drive to Tanot, Longewala and hopefully, the border, all of which offered an opportunity to enjoy the vastness of the Thar.

On reaching Sam Sand Dunes, the driver arranged for my camel ride. A camel safari is the perfect way of experiencing the richness and uniqueness of the desert, and I was quite enthusiastic about it as I rode out to the sand dunes.

Watch my video: Sunset at Sam Sand Dunes –I 

I had imagined a vast expanse of undulating sand dunes, but unfortunately, it wasn’t so. The initial dunes were littered with plastic bottles, wrappers, etc.

People were walking on the sand, running on the dunes or sliding down it…

If not on camelback, they were enjoying camel cart rides…

Watch my videos:

Sunset at Sam Sand Dunes –II 

Sunset at Sam Sand Dunes –III 

Some areas were crowded, but after a kilometre or two, I was able to enjoy solitude and a feeling of being alone in the desert.

DSCN0816

Chatting with the camel owner, I told him that the camels I had seen in the Kutch region of Gujarat were tall and strong-looking, with beautiful tattoos. And I had done a bit of camel racing too. On hearing this, the camel owner tried to race the camel. But the little fellow was a bit lazy. I voiced that aloud, and the camel owner immediately jumped to his defence. No, he must be hungry. And he began relating the life history of the camel, who was ill-treated by the previous owner. He would beat him and leave him hungry. After buying “the sad and depressed bag of bones”, the camel owner took good care of him and nursed him to a good disposition. He was like “he’s just a kid now, but I intend to build up his body”. It felt as if he was talking about his child. And when he went on about his goal of feeding the camel well and building up his body, I imagined it to be like a high-protein diet and body-building routine at gym.

Yours truly on camelback…

The spectacular desert sunset…

After the enjoyable experience, I returned to my hotel at around 6:45 PM. I rested for a while, and then went to the terrace restaurant for dinner. The golden fort looked beautiful at night as well. There wasn’t much choice for dinner, so I settled for a light meal of rice and mixed vegetable dish.

I wasn’t aware of the local cuisine at that time. The city residents are traditionally vegetarian. But there are restaurants serving non-vegetarian dishes too. There’s one chicken dish in the local cuisine, and that is murgh-e-subz – boneless strips of chicken stir-fried with shredded vegetables. Local vegetarian dishes include ker sangri (desert beans and capers), which I had enjoyed in Jodhpur, vegetable kebabs, kadi pakorao – flour dumplings cooked in yogurt sauce, and bhanon aloo – potatoes stuffed with mint paste and simmered in gravy. ‘Trio’ is Jaisalmer’s top restaurant and one of the best in Rajasthan serving authentic Rajasthani cuisine.

 

 

Friday, 27 November 2015

 

As planned, I was ready at 6:30 AM for the trip to Tanot Mata Temple and Longewala. The driver had checked up for permission to visit the border, and given me a negative response. Without a contact in Border Security Force (BSF), it was difficult to get permission. But he suggested visiting the BSF HQ before starting the trip. It felt ridiculous. I mean which officer would be present at HQ at 6:40 AM? And yet, trusting my gut, I decided to pay a visit.

The hotel staff was fast asleep, and I had to wake up one of them. Since I was going to return at around 2:00 PM, I checked out of my room and handed my travel bag to him for safe-keeping. I had expected the driver to be ready with the car. But there was no sign of him. Instead a youngster, who barely looked twenty, came around. He looked as though he had just woken up from a deep sleep. The cool, fresh air was welcoming, so I told him to switch off the car AC and open the windows. Within a few minutes the SUV was at the BSF HQ. I spoke with one of the guards at the main gate, but he was unable to help as there were no officers around at that hour. Disappointed, I lingered on for a moment. And then…guess what? Walking towards the gate was my ticket to the border…a BSF personnel!

He didn’t look like an officer, but my hopes were high. When I told him that I wanted to visit the border, he immediately replied that it was not possible, as border permission has to be granted by an authorized officer only. He said getting it at Ramgarh and Tanot was also out of question. I had been to all the borders of the country, except the India-Bangladesh and India-Myanmar borders (A month later, I visited the India-Bangladesh too in Agartala, Tripura). But like the Wagah Border near Amritsar, these places didn’t require permission as any tourist could visit them. So I explained to the guy that I had the privilege of gaining the special permission of the Indian Army to visit the Siachen Base Camp and the LoC near Turtuk in Jammu & Kashmir which is mostly out of reach of civilians. And I had also got BSF permission to visit the India-Pakistan border in Kutch. I wanted to visit the border in Rajasthan while I was there, and I was not willing to accept a “No” for an answer. Like he said, it was not in his hands to grant permission. I told him that I was from Mumbai, and he immediately brightened up. He was a great fan of Bollywood superstar, Akshay Kumar who had recently visited the region on a film shooting. He quickly showed me his treasured cellphone pictures of them together.  Seizing my moment, I told him that Akshay Kumar was my favourite too… and that I had seen him a few times in Mumbai, though I was not lucky enough to click photos with him. As expected, he was very pleased with my response. But what he said next was totally unexpected. He said that he was going to take me to the border! I was like “WHAT?” For a minute I thought he was joking, but he was actually waiting for a BSF vehicle to pick him up to escort a Delhi family to the border. I just couldn’t believe my luck! I was told to follow the vehicle to Tanot, and after the temple visit, I could join the family – a couple and their two small kids – in the vehicle for the drive to the border. Two minutes later, a BSF Gypsy appeared on the road and I returned to my car. When the guy got into the jeep, I told my driver to trail it.

Tanot was 120 KM away, and Ramgarh (65 KM) was the last big town on the way. Other than the jeep ahead, the road was deserted. Twenty minutes through the beautiful drive, I saw windmills everywhere.

I climbed out of the SUV to enjoy one of the most picturesque scenes that I had seen: the rising sun ahead of me and the full moon, behind…

Watch my video: Sun, Moon and windmills in the Thar Desert

Five minutes later on the road, the jeep was out of sight. Not that it mattered, as the jeep was no match to the powerful SUV. Driving through the Thar in the early hours of the morning was truly an incredible experience. It was a vast wilderness and the only sound on the drive came from the SUV and the passing wind. Not a single human visible anywhere, nor any human habitation for miles.

The moon was a constant companion alongside my window. I was blissfully enjoying the cruise on the deserted road, when all of a sudden a pack of wild dogs appeared from nowhere, walking right into the path of the speeding SUV. Next, I heard a loud thud. With a sickening feeling, I turned around for a quick glance and saw a black dog lying on the ground, surrounded by his friends. A gut-wrenching sensation overcame me. I didn’t know what to do. Though it was far, I was sure about not having seen any blood on the road. The SUV probably hit the dog, but didn’t run over its body.

The driver said that such things happen quite often in the desert. Wild dogs ignore speeding vehicles and cross the road at their will, expecting the vehicles to stop.  Sheesh…! In Mumbai, I have seen stray dogs, whether in the company of humans or not, waiting patiently for the green signal at traffic posts. At the city’s Chattrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus I have observed the speedy ascent of a large cockroach from a man’s shoe to his thigh in a fraction of a second…and seen him jump off and escape the human stampede during rush hour. For such city creatures, the key to survival is gelling with the environment.

The driver assured me that the dog would be fine, and that he would walk away from the road. “And how would that be possible? Who will give him medical aid in the vast wilderness?” His answer immediately put an end to all my worries. “The one who helps everyone,” he said quietly, pointing to the sky. “Uparwala” (the Almighty).

From that time, I kept my eyes on the moon, repeating a silent prayer to take care of the dog. After almost half an hour or so the moon went out of sight. By then, I was already feeling better. The SUV had caught up with the jeep. Ten minutes away from Tanot, the jeep stopped as the BSF personnel wanted to show his guests the small settlement where a popular Bollywood film had been shot…

Watch my video: Road to Tanot, Thar Desert 

At around 8:45 AM, I reached the Tanot Mata Temple…

Dating back to 9th century AD, the temple is a sacred hotspot of the entire region. It is also known as ‘Temple of Miracles’ as the presiding deity, Goddess Hinglaj, helped Indian soldiers standing on the brink of annihilation gain victory and protected them from Pakistani bombs during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. The “miracle” story goes like this…

During the India-Pakistan War of 1965, Pakistani army attacked Tanot, a strategic point to move towards Jaisalmer. They fired at least 3000 Pakistani bombs, of which 450 were targeted at the temple sheltering a small contingent of Indian soldiers. None of the bombs hit them, even those that landed in its immediate vicinity didn’t explode. With the blessings of the goddess, the Indian soldiers fought against all odds and forced the enemy to flee. After the war, the temple management was given to the Border Security Force (BSF), who established a security post in the temple premises.

In the India-Pakistan War of 1971, the area was again targeted by the Pakistan Army. The four-day Battle of Longewala, which took place about 40 KM away, became one of the greatest strategic defeats of Pakistan Army. About a hundred Indian soldiers fiercely fought back a strong, armoured attack by two thousand Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani armoured vehicles got bogged in the terrain, becoming easy targets to Indian air attack. After the war, the BSF rebuilt the temple and displayed the unexploded Pakistani bombs fired at the Indian Army in a small museum inside the temple. To mark the victory of Longewala, the Indian Army built a Vijay Stambha at the temple entrance, which sees festivities every year on December 16, celebrated as Vijay Diwas (or the Victory Day of India) for the great victory over Pakistan in the 1971 War.

The presiding goddess…

Watch my video: Tanot Mata Temple, Thar Desert

Some of the unexploded Pakistani bombs displayed inside the temple…

A victory pillar, known as Tanot Vijay Stambha stands at the main entrance of the temple in memory of the martyrs of the Battle of Longwala…

Tanot is a small village with a population of about 300 people. The Tanot Mata temple has protected this border area, which is only 15 KM from the border outpost. It is a recorded fact that each and every enemy soldier who dared to attack this area was killed.

Till today the temple maintenance and administration is managed by a BSF trust. The BSF jawans (soldiers) perform all the temple rituals, including the morning and evening aartis. It is customary for the Indian Army and BSF soldiers to stop at this temple on their journeys to pay their respects to the goddess. The temple premise has become a centre of special reverence for armed forces. It also has a Peer Baba’s shrine, making it a great symbol of unity and peace. There is a dharamshala (a Hindu rest house) for visitors staying overnight. And the BSF canteen provides food and refreshments for visitors too.

I had been plenty of goats wandering around the temple, some even inside the sanctum. They were offerings to the goddess. Earlier, devotees would sacrifice goats to please the goddess. The BSF put an end to the gory practice, but allowed devotees to offer goats to the goddess which were then let off.

Tanot is the last point where an Indian citizen can go without any permit on the road to the border. Nobody can proceed beyond it without prior written permission of an authorized BSF officer. So I was very happy with my unexpected good luck. I climbed into the back seat of the Gypsy, and was soon off to the International Border Pillar No. 609, which was 15 KM from the temple. The road was smooth, except for a small stretch.

I had travelled through the desert road leading to the International Border of India and Pakistan in the Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, so the arid, scrub land wasn’t new to me. That time, I had seen some chinkaras (Indian Gazelle) and nilgais (Blue Bull or Blue Buck) among other desert wildlife, but couldn’t take photos or videos as cameras and phones had to be deposited at the BSF post. This time I could do so. And I was really thrilled to see 4-5 surprised chinkaras running around.

Watch my videos:

Chinkaras in the Thar Desert – I 

Chinkaras in the Thar Desert – II

After the 20-minute drive, I was at the watchtower of the BOP 609 at around 10:00 AM. The small cabin atop it was manned by two BSF jawans and had a mounted Light Machine Gun. The entire border has been fenced by India with floodlights placed at regular intervals. No electrification though. On the other hand, there is no fencing by Pakistan on their side, neither here nor in the Great Rann border. What’s the need? No Indian would like to live in Pakistan, whereas there are many in that country dying to live in India. Even small kids manage to trespass the border and enter Indian territory. Patrolling soldiers on camelback get to know of trespassers through footprints in the sand close to the fence. They are caught and sent back. This has happened often. Otherwise the terrain is arid and desolate, no sand dunes here.

Through my camera zoom, I could see the Pakistani check post, Bilal, a short distance away, beyond the fence and No Man’s Land. The Indian check post, Babliyanwala was opposite it. The BSF jawan thanks to whom I could get to the border called up the Indian post for a short conversation. He asked me if I wanted to talk to the guy at the other end, and I eagerly grabbed the phone receiver. A bit of small talk and the guy invited us over for tea! But my host decided to play spoilsport, and that was it.

Around 10:45 AM, I was back in my comfortable SUV, on the way to Longewala. The drive was simply amazing. A strange white cloud line in the sky kept me fascinated for some 20 minutes. (The people of this region have a name for it, which I don’t remember.)

The white cloud line…

Watch my videos:

White line in the desert sky – I 

White line in the desert sky – II 

And then, I saw a small white car stuck in the sand. I decided to play a good Samaritan in the desert. After enquiring, the driver came back to tell me that the foolish driver had tried to manoeuvre the small car in sand for some thrills. Stuck in the sand, it refused to budge. Sand dune bashing in a Maruti 800! What a stupid thing to do! The desert sun was burning hot as I stepped out of the SUV.  The small car’s passengers were two traditional married couples. The women were in ghoonghat (with head and face covered by the loose end of sari). The SUV had a thick emergency rope, so the driver decided to use it. But instead of letting the SUV into sand, I thought it better to try pushing the small car out. They had tried doing that. (I had been successful at it once before in Ladakh) So the three men and I, gave it a good push. But it was to no avail. I told the two women sitting on the ground to pitch in and they gave me an incredulous “Us?” Their men were grinning as they joined in to push the car. The car refused to budge even an inch. The driver drove the SUV into sand, and I couldn’t help thinking of the drastic consequences. What if the SUV were to get stuck too?  Even the strong rope was no match to the desert sand and came apart at the first tug. I was getting impatient. In the meantime, two car had passed by. None of them stopped to help, only to take a look. There was a small hamlet nearby and one of its inhabitants had a tractor. Help had reached, but the SUV driver was keen on seeing the small car get off the sand.

The white SUV and the tractor…

By the time the small car was back on road, nearly 25 minutes had passed since I decided to help the stranded vehicle. Longewala was just 20 minutes away.

Back on road, I saw some lovely sand dunes, not large though. But they were the only good ones along the entire road from Jaisalmer.

Watch my video: Thar Desert 

It was 11:45 AM when I reached the famous battlefield of the India-Pakistan War of 1971…Longewala (or Laungewala)

The Battle of Longewala is one of the greatest battles ever fought in the history of Independent India. An inspiring tale of courage in the face of unconquerable odds…

During the India-Pakistan War of 1971, Pakistan, on seeing the thrashing they were receiving from the Indian Army in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), decided to engage the Indian Army on two fronts. So it opened the western front in Rajasthan to launch an unexpected massive attack on Longewala, the Indian border post guarded by a company of about a hundred Indian soldiers.

On the night of December 4, a Pakistani infantry brigade supported by a regiment of T-59 tanks and a squadron of M-4 Sherman tanks attacked Longewala. It was a battle between 2000 Pakistani soldiers with 60 tanks against 120 Indian soldiers led by Major Kuldeep Singh Chandpuri, who was left with the choice of either holding on to the post until reinforcements arrived, or withdrawing. He chose the former and defended the post with the support of Indian Air Force fighter aircrafts until reinforcements arrived, six hours later. The battle ended the next day with the retreat of the defeated Pakistani troops, who suffered heavy casualties. The battlefield had turned into a graveyard of Pakistani tanks, military vehicles, machines and equipment, which were deserted by the Pakistani soldiers who ran for their lives as they became sitting ducks for the Indian Air Force.

In a small park on the main road roundabout, there were three small memorials built in honour of three Indian Army regiments that defended Longewala…

And just opposite it is the Laungewala Yudh Sthal (Laungewala Battleground)…

The Battle of Longewala…

The War Memorial commemorates the courage, bravery, valour and supreme sacrifice of the brave Indian soldiers, who stalled Pakistani forces from their aim of cutting deep into Indian Territory.

Watch my video: Longewala Yudh Sthal – I

At least 37 Pakistani tanks and 138 vehicles and machinery were destroyed or abandoned in the battle. A T-59 tank, stood at the same spot where it was hit by Indian firepower. And there were some other vehicles on display too.

Destroyed T-59 Pakistani tank on display…

Watch my video: Destroyed Pakistani tank on display at Longewala 

Yours truly atop the destroyed T-59 Pakistani tank…

 

 

 

Watch my video: At Longewala Yudh Sthal – II 

Bunkers…

Yours truly at a bunker…

Watch my videos: Bunker at Longewala and At Longewala Yudh Sthal – III

The hot Thar Desert is a testing ground of strength and valour. Like one of the soldiers around rightly said, “Isi zameen par bicchoo paida hote hain, isi zameen par sher paida hote hain.” Roughly translated, it means “This is the hotbed of scorpions where men become lions.” Watch him say it in this video: Soldier at Longewala 

At around 12:30 PM, I started the return journey to Jaisalmer, which was 124 KM away. I readily offered a lift to a soldier waiting for a vehicle to return to his base in Ramgarh, and then to a police cop, from Ramgarh to Jaisalmer. I waited with bated breath as the SUV neared the place where it had knocked down the dog in the morning. Without revealing much in front of the cop, the driver happily declared that the dog had escaped death. He had noted the exact place, so he was very confident that the dog was alive. My joy knew no bounds! And when he said that the dog had merely fallen unconscious after hitting his head on the side of the SUV, I was hopping mad at him. I had spent more than an hour thinking about the dying condition of the dog and the driver was now telling me that the dog had merely fallen unconscious, nothing serious. Couldn’t he have told me that before?   Whatever, I was delighted and extremely relieved that the dog had recovered and was alive.

By 2:00 PM, I was back at the hotel. I went to the terrace restaurant for lunch, which like the previous night was light: roti and mixed vegetable.

Yours truly at the terrace restaurant facing the 12th century Golden Fort…

Watch my videos:

View of Jaisalmer Fort – I  

View of Jaisalmer Fort – II

The imposing fortress was just a short walk away. When the first light of sun touches the walls of the fort, it glows in golden colour and that’s why we locals call the fort as Sonar Killa, which means ‘Golden Fort’. The setting sun adds its own magic to the fort, making it a breathtaking sight to behold.

Being a residential fort, it can be visited at any time, but the Palace Museum is open from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM during summers and 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM during winters.

For more details about the fort, read my post: Regal Rajasthan: Jaisalmer Fort

I enjoyed my visit to the fort and wished I had stayed there instead. It would have been quite an experience staying at a UNESCO World Heritage Site! There are some beautiful 12th -15h century Hindu and Jain temples in the fort. One Jain temple has a library, Gyan Bhandar, which houses some of the country’s rare manuscripts.

The city views from the fort were splendid. It made me realize why Jaisalmer is called ‘the Golden City’. All the structures in this amber-hued city are made of yellow sandstone. Within the fort, the exquisitely-carved houses date back to 12th-15th centuries too. I was able to savour a lively mix of the ancient and the present. A maze of narrow lanes filled with old houses and havelis (heritage mansions), temples, shops and eateries… and government-recognized shops selling bhang (marijuana) – laced cookies, chocolate and concoctions like bhang lassi and thandai. The thundering sound of fighter jets flying overhead reminded me of my wonderful time at the border. And I bumped into the two couples whose small car had got stuck in the sand. The four of them were all smiles as they greeted me. And I also met an Argentinian couple at the sunrise point affording great views of the city. It’s actually a fort bastion with an old cannon mounted on it. The guy had caught an allergy from camel hair on their two or three day camel safari. It was nice to chat in Spanish after a long time.

Outside the fort is the main market place, Manak Chowk, which is the centre of local activity. Most of the city population comprises of temporary residents engaged in commercial activities. Once the tourist season is over, they return to their villages.

A walk through the narrow alleys of Manak Chowk leads to Jaisalmer’s famous magnificent, yellow sandstone havelis (mansions) with ornate carvings that were mostly built by wealthy merchants in the 1800s.

 

Watch my video: Haveli in Jaisalmer 

Some of these beautiful, well-maintained havelis have many floors and countless rooms, with carved balconies, and pierced sandstone windows. The havelis were built during the flourishing period of opium trade carried on by the British East India Company from India to China. With the rise of Bombay (now Mumbai) as a commercial hub, most of the rich merchants left the city. But there are some havelis that are residences of the descendants of those who built them.

The most famous of the grand havelis is the five-storeyed Patwon ki Haveli, one of the five built in a row. And that’s where I went after visiting the fort and stopping at a few places on the way. The haveli was more like a museum and offered a beautiful glimpse into the past. It’s a definite must to visit all the havelis as each of them is different in style and effect. Unfortunately I couldn’t do so. It was nearing 4:30 PM, so I had to rush back to my hotel. The reporting time for my Udaipur bus was 5:00 PM, with departure at 5:30 PM.

The hotel staff member who had booked my ticket, drove me to the bus station. I had told him to book a front seat. He had taken 850 rupees from me. In the receipt, instead of the amount, the agent had merely written cash. So I guessed that I was charged a bit extra. Moreover, it was very disappointing that he had booked a sleeper seat, and that too an upper berth. Perhaps he must have thought that since I was travelling alone, an upper berth would be safer. But it was claustrophobic for me. The bus was full, so I couldn’t ask for another seat.  I felt miserable.  Udaipur was 545 KM from Jaisalmer. A journey of 11-12 hours. Fortunately, as time passed by, the claustrophobic feeling slowly started to fade…

 

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So guys, that was my Jaisalmer story 😀 Hope you enjoyed reading it!

I truly enjoyed Jaisalmer and regretted having planned just a one-night stay as there’s lots to see in and around the city. It would require at least four days to savour the magic of this desert region, which I would strongly recommend to anyone visiting Rajasthan.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to visit the Jaisalmer War Museum on the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer highway. It’s dedicated to all the soldiers who took part and lost their lives in the 1965 India-Pakistan war and the 1971 Longewala battle. Exhibits include war trophies, murals of soldiers who were martyred during the war, and tanks, guns, military vehicles and weapons, which were used during the same. And there’s a Hunter aircraft of the Indian Air Force, used during the Battle of Longewala. Entry to the museum is free.

Hope this following bit of information is helpful too for your next visit to the city 😀

Jaisalmer can be reached both, by rail and road. The nearest airport is in Jodhpur, 290 KM away. The state capital, Jaipur is 620 KM away. The exquisite and exclusive Palace on Wheels, one of the ten most luxurious trains of the world, makes a stop at Jaisalmer.

Some of the high-end hotels are located in the outskirts of the city, the best among them being Suryagarh, a boutique property about 12 KM away on Sam Road.

Jaisalmer is famous for Rajasthani handicrafts, embroidery and mirror work, rugs, hand-woven blankets and shawls in typical Rajasthani color and weave, antiques and old stonework, exquisitely carved wooden boxes and silver jewellery. Some of the famous shopping places include Sadar Bazaar, Pansari Bazaar, Seema Gram, Gandhi Darshan, Sonaron ka Bass, Manak Chowk, Gandhi Chowk Road, and the government-operated Khadi Gramodyog Emporium.

Tourist attractions in and around Jaisalmer include: Jaisalmer Fort – the Royal Palace, Laxminath Temple, Jain temples and Gyan Bhandar Library inside Jaisalmer Fort, Manak Chowk and the city’s famous Havelis – Patwon Ki Haveli, Nathmalji Ki Haveli, Salim Singh Ki Haveli, Gadisar Lake, Tilon Ki Pol, Badal Mahal (Mandir Palace), Tazia Tower, Desert Cultural Centre & Museum, Government Museum, Thar Heritage Museum, Bada Bagh, Vyas Chhatri, Amar Sagar, Mool Sagar, Ludarwa (or Lodurwa), Kuldhara, Khaba Fort, Akal Wood Fossil Park, Sam Sand Dunes, Khuri Sand Dunes, Desert National Park, Tanot Mata Temple and Longewala.

The fossils at the 21-hectare Akal Wood Fossil Park (15 KM) are around 180 million years old.

Rajasthan’s largest park, the Desert National Park (45 KM) is home to highly endangered Great Indian Bustard, one of the world’s heaviest flying birds. Other wildlife include chinkara , nilgai, desert fox, etc. During winter, the park is visited by an incredible variety of migratory raptors such as Himalayan and Eurasian Griffon Vultures, Eastern Imperial Eagle, and the Saker Falcon.

Besides the Gyan Bhandar Library inside Jaisalmer Fort, there are three other museums in the city. Desert Cultural Centre & Museum on Gadi Sagar Road houses local musical instruments, textiles, ancient coins, traditional jewellery of the womenfolk, hunting gear, displays of ancient rulers, artillery and armour, etc. Tourists can enjoy a live puppet show at this place. The ticket includes admission to a small museum, the Jaisalmer Folklore Museum which has an eclectic collection ranging from camel decorations and printing blocks to camel-hide opium bottles.

Thar Heritage Museum is a private museum with an intriguing collection of Jaisalmer artefacts, from turbans, musical instruments, sea-fossils and kitchen equipment to old documents of Jaisalmer State, coins, postcards, ancient manuscripts, weapons, leather containers, etc.

Government Museum offers a huge collection of marine and wood fossils. It also features some of the rarest sculptures from the ancient towns of Kiradu and Ludarwa.

 

Coming next # Regal Rajasthan Travelogue (Part – IV): Udaipur

 

 

 

 

 

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