In February 2009 we travelled to India and saw so much that the account for this holiday is split into several parts.
This is the third part devoted to Jaisalmer, our favourite city of the trip, and Rohet where our visits to villages were a wonderful highlight.
Leaving Bikaner early for the five hour drive to Jaisalmer, we got lost in the back streets of the city. The locals were very helpful in getting us back on our way. It was no fault of the driver - suddenly the road disappeared into roadworks with no signs whatsoever to help anyone on their way.
The landscape very soon became rubbly desert with low trees and scrub, and then a sandy desert with very low vegetation which sometimes became quite green again and in at least one spot crops were growing near modern-style windmills.
Goods transport is predominantly by camel cart, at least for relatively small loads.
Scenes on the road: half a dozen peacocks in a low tree, children playing on a dirt heap, one young girl pretending to play a broken stringed instrument, big smiles, thatched cottages near Jaisalmer.
We stopped for a quick lunch of chicken naan and beer at Pokaram and arrived in Jaisalmer around 2pm. Outside the city there are even more wind farms and we learned later from our guide that they have been here for about four and a half years. The city uses only 20% of the generated power and exports the rest.
I can do no better than the Lonely Planet description of the city: "Jaisalmer is a breathtaking sight. A magical, multi-turreted sand castle on the 80m-high Trikuta (Three-Peaked) Hill rises mirage-like from the horizontal desert plain. ... No place better evokes ancient desert splendour and exotic trade routes".
Our TransIndus rep was there to meet us just outside the city wall as no cars are allowed inside, and took us by tuk-tuk to our hotel. It was a short, very exhilarating ride through the narrow streets.
We were a bit apprehensive as we stopped at the entrance to our small hotel, the Killa Bhawan, but we were made to feel very welcome by the owner who showed us through the wonderful labyrinth of rooms and stairs to our room.
The hotel is built within the ramparts of the fort and we had the best room in the hotel with the best view in the city! It was a really wonderful room, with beautiful statues in niches and a little balcony with a fantastic view. The large four poster bed faced the balcony, and the bathroom had everything you could want.
The owner had bought the first part of his hotel many years ago and gradually expanded, renovating more and more and extending around the wall. He said he had promised himself at the start he would one day incorporate the room in which we were staying and his dream had come true. We loved it.
The hotel has numerous terraces, the roof top terrace where breakfast and dinner can be served, though you could eat on any of the terraces if you wished, plus lots of other small terraces with comfortable cushioned seating, tables and chairs.
Tea is on permanent offer and everyone was so helpful, it was a wonderful place to stay.
We learned after we booked the hotel that there is an issue of draining water wearing away the foundations of the fort so tourists are asked to use water sparingly.
The drainage system of the fort is actually undergoing renovation so perhaps this won't be a problem in future.
Said to be the oldest continually occupied fort in the world, today a quarter of the population of Jaisalmer still live inside the fort. Originally everyone lived inside, protected by the massive stone walls, but in more peaceful times, as the population expanded, so they moved outside the walls.
The fort is actually a defensive town, built within walls studded with 99 bastions. The entrance through Surya Pol (Sun Gate) is protected by three concentric walls, from the innermost of which the defenders of the town would throw boiling oil and massive rounded boulders onto invaders. The Golden City is made from glowing sandstone and is a beautiful place of havelis, temples and a palace.
Founded in 1156 by Rawal Jaisal of the Bhattis, as a better defensive site than his original city of Loduvra, all of the inhabitants would have worked in one capacity or another for the Maharaja. The following centuries were a time of constant warfare. One Muslim blockade of the city lasted many years and when defeat was imminent the women of the city committed ritual mass suicide and their menfolk rode out to certain death.
Relations with the Mughals were not always poor and were often improved by strategic marriages.
Jaisalmer became prosperous in the seventeenth century due to its location on the caravan trade routes between India and Asia. The rich merchants built themselves beautiful havelis - the most exquisite in Rajasthan according to the Lonely Planet Guide. The decline in wealth was heralded by the opening up of sea trade routes and partition cut the major land routes, fatally damaging Jaisalmer's traditional source of enrichment. Today, however, Jaisalmer is of strategic importance, lying close to the Pakistan border.
Within the Fort is a warren of streets. Through the main gates the road zig-zags as a defensive measure, and leads to a large courtyard, dominated by a tall palace. This sixteenth century palace was once the home of a succession of Maharajas but now houses a museum.
It is quite small compared to other palaces we have seen, and without the ornate interiors, but the pierced sandstone work of the balconies is beautiful - as delicate as lace.
To the left of the palace is a flight of steps leading to a platform with a dazzling white marble throne (now protected by an iron cage). This was where the Maharajah (also called Maharawal) would make important public announcements or view entertainment.
On the wall by the entrance to the palace are a number of red handmarks which commemorate the ritual suicide or sati of women of the fort.
A small Jain Temple had a beautiful line of musicians carved along the roof.
In the early evening of the day we arrived our guide took us for a long walk around the city. He knew it intimately, living there himself with his family. One aspect which didn't bother him at all, but at some points almost made me ill, was the smell. The streets are almost all flanked by open sewers (in some of which hogs were rooting around) and it is sometimes overpowering. Thereafter, whenever we were walking the streets, I took a scarf with me to block out as much of the smell as I could. The city is in the process of improving the sewers so hopefully this will not be a problem in future. They are also burying the cables which at the moment disfigure the streets.
Everywhere we went we saw magnificent carved sandstone buildings - the carving here is immensely delicate and ornate, the best we have seen so far, I think.
Just outside the gate to the fort, below our balcony, we had watched men stretching out long pieces of colourful cloth and folding them neatly. They were still there when we walked out and our guide told us that these were materials for turbans that the men had starched and left to dry in the sun.
In Jaisalmer where a wedding was taking place a colourful image of Ganesha with relevant names and dates was painted on the outside wall of the home. This remains in place until the next event so there are lots to see, most faded in the sun but some very fresh as this is the wedding season.
The streets are busy. The main mode of goods transport is the camel cart, but motorbikes are favoured for personal use as well as the ubiquitous tuk-tuk and bicycle.
Like everywhere else in India, young boys played cricket in the streets, only here there was even less space than elsewhere. There seemed no possibility for the batsman to do anything other than to belt the ball straight back at the bowler!
At the end of our walk we made our way outside the city and climbed a hill to the south to watch the sunset - here too, on the waste ground, cricket was being played. It was cool on the hill and, though low cloud on the horizon meant it was not the best sunset, the view was still tremendous.
That evening we had an excellent meal on the rooftop terrace of the Trio restaurant with a fine view of the illuminated fort. Two excellent curries and different varieties of naan bread washed down with beer followed by an exhilarating tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel. Tea on the terrace before bed.
On another day while we were looking around the city our guide took us to his cousin's shop. This is a hazard with guides but I was looking for some things and our guide was not pushy and it was actually a very enjoyable experience.
They offered us masala chai which we love and then showed me various garments. After I had bought some things I came to pay and they said that it was traditional to add 11Rp to the bill for Ganesh. A statue of Ganesh sits in a niche in the corner of the shop and this is the temple area. I asked if I could place the money on the shrine and this was fine but I had to observe the rituals. I removed my shoes and then washed my hands - I had to go outside for this where the cousin poured water from a pot over my hands. Then I had to go to the temple area with a clear heart, hands together as for prayer and put the 11Rp beside the statue.
The Jain temple complex south west of the palace is famed for its intricate carving. They were built between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries in the lovely local golden sandstone.
We visited two of the temples, Chandraprabhu and Rikhabdev. Chandraprabhu is a massive, heavy-looking building with an amazing interior dome carved with male and female figures and the elephant god Ganesh. Next door is Rikhabdev, with beautifully detailed carvings of men and women.
It was vey difficult to get a decent photograph inside Chandraprabhu so these really don't do it justice!
This was the residence of a Prime Minister and is still a private home. There is a little pressure to buy things here.
It is quite a large building, created by two architect brothers in the nineteenth century. The stunningly carved exterior is almost, but not quite, identical on the left and right of the entrance - the differences reflect the styles of the two brothers.
Inside for a small fee you can be shown upstairs to a room decorated with beautiful paintings.
Another nineteenth century haveli, this is the most celebrated in Jaisalmer, built by a merchant family trading in brocade and jewellery.
Inside the balconied rooms can be seen to have beautiful ceilings.
This reservoir once served the needs of the whole city. It was built in 1367 by Maharaja Gadi SIngh. It is edged with sandstone temples and reached through an impressive gateway said to have been built by a prostitute. The Maharaja was intent on destroying the gateway under pressure from the Brahmins. She hastily incorporated a Temple overnight by adding a statue of Krishna thus ensuring that it could not be torn down. The Maharaja never used this gate to visit the lake, which today is looking very low in water, the result of several poor monsoons. It is now fed by the Indira Ghandi canal which also brings catfish! On the edge of the reservoir is a caravanserai for camel drivers on the trade route as they were not allowed inside the city.
Sound romantic? Well, it was good fun but if you're looking for the peace of the desert it's not to be found here!
We had two very sedate camels for the half hour ride to the dunes. They were 9 and 11 years old, they generally live to about 25. This is just their evening job - they do other stuff during the day.
The sounds of what seemed to be a party could be heard as we moved along and this wasn't surprising as when we arrived there must have been a couple of hundred locals, mostly families, having picnics and playing, waiting for the sunset. It was a bit overcast so there was not going to be a great sunset and we didn't linger.
The most interesting thing I saw was a very industrious dung beetle but no chance of a photograph as I was on the camel at the time.
This is about as far as you can go towards Pakistan - only 75km from the border - before being stopped by the military.
On returning we ate at the Italian restaurant just below our balcony. It has a fine rooftop eating area with great views of the fort.
The landscape between Jaisalmer and Rohet is very arid and turning south we began to see huge sand dunes, though there is always some vegetation around.
In Rohet we stayed at Rohet Garh, a heritage hotel which is also still the home of the family descended from the first owner, Thakur Dalpat Singh I, in 1622. The owner is very friendly and the hotel has a reputation for making their guests feel like friends of the family.
The family who own the hotel are passionate about horses and breed the Marwari - the famous horses of Rajasthan with very distinctive ears. One afternoon we were shown around the stables and paddocks where the prized horses are kept, including a magnificent stallion.
Rohet Garh sits beside a lake which attracts a wide variety of birds and itself is frequented by numerous peacocks, wild in Rajasthan. We spent some time one morning watching peacocks display. There are also lots of what we would call chipmunks but what our guides insist are squirrels.
It is a peaceful place, perfect for relaxation, especially in late afternoon when tea and madeira cake were served on the lawn. It has a colonnaded swimming pool and lots of shade. The tented dining room on the first floor, overlooking the pool, is a lovely place to eat, though there is only buffet food to choose from, chicken was freshly barbecued each evening by the pool.
Our room was superb: large and beautifully furnished in Rajasthani style with bright cushions and covers. It overlooked the lake and had a large stone-built seating area outside - also provided with many cushions. It was a place I could have spent many hours, watching people busy along the lakeside or visiting the little temple on the opposite shore, looking for the exotic birds which flew into the trees or down to the lake edge, or simply relaxing with a good book - bliss.
One late afternoon we went on a jeep safari with a very knowledgeable history professor as a guide.
The main aim was to visit two villages but first we were taken out into the flat, parched countryside to see if we could spot any Blue bulls - the largest asiatic antelope. The landscape is extremely dry and scrubby and very bumpy to drive on.
We were lucky to see several Blue bulls, and to get quite close to them, though I think they were all females so didn't see the very dark grey-blue colouring of the male.
We also saw many beautiful Blackbuck, an endangered species of antelope which has the most beautiful antlers. The Blue bull didn't seem to mind us so much, just ambling away and keeping their distance. The Blackbuck were much more nervous.
The houses are painted the typical blue of Brahmins. As we entered the village we could see some kind of celebration going on and our guide told us that it was for a village wedding. The celebrations can go on for days, depending on the wealth of the families. This was an enchanting experience. With a simple drum and tambourine accompaniment the village women and girls took turns to dance in the street. Although we had seen much more elaborate dancing elsewhere, this appealed to me much more.
One young girl in gorgeous blue dress followed us around, she was very sweet. All of the women's clothes were truly beautiful. As well as looking good they looked cool and comfortable.
When we returned home we printed off a selection of photographs from the two villages we had visited and sent them to Rohet Garh where the manager had promised to get them to the villagers.
All the houses looked freshly painted and everyone was dressed in their finery. We didn't want to intrude or take photographs if they didn't want us to but they were very welcoming and friendly. The children, as usual, were keen to have their photographs taken and to see the results. We also took some video and showed it to them - to great round-eyed astonishment!
Though this village looked quite orimitive to our western eyes, we saw evdience of an electricity supply in the lighting and motorised vehivle.
We were welcomed to the village by the village elders performing an opium ceremony. The (2%) opium solution was prepared in a little model temple to the goddess Shiva - in deference to our sensitive stomachs bottled water was used! Then the opium solution was served in the palm of the hand. You flick a little of the solution from one finger for the goddess then slurp noisily three times. It was a sort of smoky taste and we suffered no ill effects.
In contrast to the Brahmin village, which was supplied with electricity and running water, the Bishnoi village has no such amenities. The Bishnoi are a religious group of people who live by the 29 principles of their prophet, Lord Jhambheshwar. Bishnoi means "29". They believe in equality and have a reverence for nature, never cutting living trees, for instance. All the men dress in white as a symbol of simplicity and the women in red. There is no caste system in their society. They grow millet in the monsoon season and this is ground into flour for chapattis. Their lives are more dependent than most on a good monsoon.
We visited a homestead which had an animal enclosure outside a fenced area for the home of the family: rectangular and circular buildings, mostly with open sides. Furniture and tools were quite basic, string beds, ubiquitous in India, are used both night and day. The children were very sweet, eager to investigate our cameras.
It was extremely peaceful here as we sat on a string bed in a Bishnoi home while our guide told us about their simple lives. It was quite surreal in this quiet place to think of the contrast with our own complex lives.