Fortress Of Gold In The Abode Of Death

by Susan Storm, Jan 2, 2003 | Destinations: India / Rajasthan

I scrutinised my travelling companion. His coat was moth-eaten and dusty, his teeth looked like stained piano keys, his legs were scarred, he had knobbly hairy knees and flat feet, and to crown it all, he wore a nose ring. My heart sank. Abdul and I were due to spend a week together in this desert place, known as the Abode of Death, and I didn't like what I saw.

No sooner had we been introduced than he urinated against my bedroll. He belched, and curling his long skinny lips in a sort of sneer, spat a stream of green foam at my feet. As if all that wasn't enough to make me want to hot foot it back to the city, he dribbled, had terrible halitosis, and quite obviously a terminal case of flatulence.

This was going to be some journey.

It was time to saddle up, but Abdul had other ideas. He sat in the sparse shade with his legs crossed, chewing. To encourage him, I pulled his ear gently. I whispered about the wonderful places we were going to see, the gorgeous females he'd encounter along the way. He spat, and turned away, and stared off across the vast arena of stones.

That made me really angry. I tugged the hair on his chin: he lunged toward me with yellow teeth bared and I just managed to escape a bite that would have been as vicious as a wolf's. Not only did he smell like an Indian market in the monsoon, he had a filthy temperament to match.

Then he reared up on his long, double-jointed back legs, and, as I was still attached to his rein, I flew through the air in slow motion, watching bushes and horizons turn on their axes. I landed flat on my back in the sand, to the thigh-slapping laughter of Abdul's boss, Matar. He knew what I had just learned. Abdul was no ordinary camel.

We were just outside the gold-walled, medieval Indian village of Jaisalmer, which rises like a golden hallucination from the desert. To the village folk, there is no sight funnier than sunburned tourists returning from their safaris, limping and infinitely wiser in the ways of a camel. It seemed I was going to be no exception.

Groups of traders from Kabul and Araby used to pass along this ancient spice route with their colourfully decorated caravans laden with silver, ivory, dried fruit and other treasures, heading towards the Indian hinterland.

Jaisalmer is the most magical of the desert cities of Rajasthan. Built out of the local yellow sandstone, as a fortification against marauders in the 12th century, the walled city is quietly domestic, but it has a flamboyant history that lies under every yellow stone.

It's origin can be traced back to when Rawal Jaisal, a Rajput chieftain, laid the foundations of the fort in this strategic but formidable part of the desert, a transit point for the caravans from central Asia crossing the Old Silk Route. Jaisal was attracted by the site's large oasis and the natural defence provided by Trikuta (three peak) hill.

His decision to settle here was also a tryst with destiny, for centuries previously Lord Krishna predicted that a distant descendent of his Lunar clan would one day rule from the area. Jaisalmer's ruling family, who claimed both Lord Krishna and the moon as ancestors, kept only silver furniture in their palace quarters. They believed the moon-like colour would give them talismanic strength to withstand centuries of siege, pillaging, treachery and misfortune.

The city prospered initially, protected against shifting sands and feudal marauders by a steep ring of giant stone ramparts. It became a coveted stronghold on the great Spice Route from Persia and Afghanistan: a city of caravanserais - buildings surrounding a central courtyard in which the merchants took shelter. All dwellings, from the largest palace to the smallest shop, were carved and burnished from the local golden-yellow sandstone. Houses are still built in the medieval manner to merge with the old.

Jaisalmer is known for its embroidery and mirrorwork, silver jewellery, dhurrie rugs and antique silk. And since tourism discovered the ancient city, for its camel safaris into the desert - under far different circumstances from the safaris of old.

When a particularly well laden caravan of an early Muslim king was pillaged by the Jaisalmer ruler at the end of the 13th century, the city was besieged for eight years. In a strange twist of fate, the young Jaisalmer prince, Rattan Singh, befriended the enemy general, Nawab Mahboob Khan, and they became inseparable. They'd meet to play chess until the war horn sounded them to battle on opposite sides.

Finally, in 1295, the Rajput clan knew that defeat was fast approaching. After Rattan Singh's sons were secretly delivered into the safe care of Nawab, Jaisalmer's entire community of men, women and children, committed johar (mass suicide) as the men, clad in ceremonial saffron and delirious with opium, fought to a bloody end.

Vendettas against neighbouring tribes continued amidst tales of intrigue and treachery. The city settled down during the 17th century, and prospered as a trading post for silks, spices, indigo and opium. The Hindu and Jain merchants, bankers and artisans created the exquisitely carved and ornamented havelis (mansions) which are today the town's architectural treasures.

The city's fortunes dwindled with the opening of the port of Bombay in the 18th century, and again after Partition, when the time honoured routes to Pakistan were considered illegal. It's only since the late sixties that Jaisalmer emerged from its medieval seclusion to be connected by road and rail to the rest of Rajasthan.

An airstrip is a recent addition to the Jewel in the Thar desert as most of the revenue is derived from tourists and the military - cheroot smoking uniformed men who linger in the bazaars on leave from border patrol duty. There is a growing trade of black market goods, smuggled by the camel drivers across the dunes that separate India and Pakistan.

But the thrills of camel riding are not restricted to the smugglers and warriors. The rest of the world has discovered this magical city, and tourism has blossomed. It is a double edged sword, for after eight centuries of withstanding the most offensive onslaught, Jaisalmer is finally sliding into decay. A few decades ago, Jaisalmer's inhabitants collected their water by hand from the wells, and the open drains coped with the water and waste. When piped water was installed, the drainage system could not cope with the demands of the new restaurants, hotels, shops and tour agencies, and the rock on which Jaisalmer was built began to soften.

When heavy monsoon rains compounded the problem several years ago, a fifth of the city's ancient buildings collapsed. Others had to be demolished and the new repair work doesn't complement the magnificent original constructions. Walls are crumbling and signs proclaim "dangerous - keep away". There is hope, though. Conservationists and authorities are beginning tentative and sensitive restoration. The World Monuments Fund has placed Jaisalmer on its list of the 100 most endangered sites and have given significant sums of money for its survival.

I was fortunate enough to visit Jaisalmer when it was still a sunburned city in the desert, populated by restauranteurs who prepared "Kentucky Fried Children" and "Spearing Rules", by tailors who sewed seven metre skirts in less than an hour, by shopkeepers eager to lead me up dark and winding steps to show me their family's treasures. And most seductive of all, by the cameleers, smoking their hash pipes in cool corners, who offered trips into the desert to sleep under a canopy of glittering stars.

Which is why I was lying spread-eagled under the hairy nostrils of Abdul, with yellow sand up my nose and in my hair. As Abdul spat at me again, I contemplated where camels went to in their next lives.

I pocketed my dusty pride and remounted. We left the stone walls of Jaisalmer, where women in bright pink veils were bent over their jobs of breaking rocks with picks, and children balanced large clay pots of water on their heads.

In the distance wild camels and their young, and chikara antelope broke the monotony of the stony yellow landscape. Sometimes nomadic tribes dressed like theatrical troubadours cantered past. Young girls dressed in black and red flashed teeth and silver anklets, and the copper pots on their heads glowed in the orange sun under clear skies.

Occasionally there would be an ochre and white mud hut from whose cool dark interior I could buy a Coke, or a temple carved from local sandstone, or some frost-bitten thorn bushes.

Matar supervised the cooking under a canopy of shimmering stars. He threw a hand-woven rug on the soft sand and served bean curry and pakhoras on china plates. Hot Indian tea took my mind off the bruising caused by a saddle that could never be padded high enough, and that became progressively worse as the days ached by.

I had dreams of being abducted by Matar, to live a life of nomadic splendour under his brooding gaze. My red and white tent was embroidered with mirrored stars; I slept on a thick mattress with a hand-stitched white quilt. Each night I found a cake of soap and a roll of toilet paper on my cotton pillowslip. Once I found a rare cactus flower as I turned back the quilt - but Matar maintained innocence.

Life could have been an arid paradise, but I had Abdul to contend with and still smarted from our ignominious introduction. At night he was hobbled to a thorn tree to prevent him galloping into the dunes in search of that female I told him about. But his pagan love song to her kept me awake most of the night.

It began in his flat feet and gathered resonance in his cavernous stomach, echoing and burbling like that drain again, and finished with his tongue, enormously inflated, hanging out of his mouth. The sound he made was a rondel, an endless refrain, a mournful lament, accompanied by a dog howling to the moon and the lullabies of the cameleers to their charges.

We camped in the ruins of an ancient village one night when a full yellow moon rose and floodlit my tent. The camels were silhouetted and the cameleers sat around their dying campfire singing and smoking hookah pipes. A visiting troubadour played haunting desert melodies on his reed flutes.

Soon it was time to return to the city that rises from the tundra and shale of the desert. Matar leaped to the ground. He somersaulted and cartwheeled. He landed headfirst down a sandy slope, his descent accompanied by laughing cameleers.

Perched on the padded saddle with the silver decorations, I padded Abdul, known as "He Of The Silver Nose Peg". Suddenly, he sniffed home, and broke into a wild gallop. Matar ran alongside like the wind, his lilac ghagra whipping like a spinnaker behind him, his bare feet kicking up little dust explosions.

Then Jaisalmer appeared, shimmering above the desert surface in the dusty distance - a golden mirage, where reality seems a fantasy.

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Fact File

Jaisalmer can be reached on the "Pink City Express" train from Delhi, via Jodphur and Jaipur, two equally interesting and exotic desert towns, or by plane from Jaipur. If you're taking the train - much more fun than the plane - take plenty of food and water for the arduous desert journey. Reserve tickets, and arrive early to ensure a seat. Jaisalmer has recently opened an airport.

The best time to visit Jaisalmer is from November to February, when the days are warm and the skies clear. Avoid the summer months when the air is as hot as a furnace. There are a few comfortably romantic, simple hotels that can be checked over and then booked, or more up market accommodation can be booked through your travel agent. Camel tours are run by various companies - check with your travel agent. For a few dollars a day a guide will show you all the interesting spots. Food is inexpensive, and of great variety. Street entertainment is free. Haggle for everything you want to buy - its part of the Indian way of commerce. Expect to pay only a third of the initial asking price.

Innoculation requirements vary - see your doctor several weeks before leaving.

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