JAISALMAR AND THE THAR DESERT

JAISALMAR

Jaisalmar (300 kilometers from Jodhpur, near the Pakistani border) is fortified medieval town established in the 12th century. It is known for its women, who cover their arms with bangles and wear bright red and orange fabrics, and extraordinary honey-colored sandstone palaces, forts, temples, and other royal residences, many of which look like something straight out “Arabian Nights.”

Until fairly recently Jaisalmar was only accessible by camel. It was once a major Kyber Pass caravan stop and a proud Thar Desert city ruled by the Bhatti Rajputs. But after it was bypassed by the railroad many of its residents left, which is not such a bad thing from a tourists point because many of the old buildings that would have been knocked to make way for new structures remain intact.

The narrow streets are filled with turbaned men, camels, cows and dogs. Havelis — the stone-carved houses of rich caravan merchants — feature stunning facades with sculptural filigree, screen windows and delicate pavilions. The beautiful stone latticework of the balconies allows both privacy and breezes. Outside a Jain temple with bug-eyed statues are rows of men with typewriters that write letters and do other tasks for the illiterate. The town can be very dusty.

Surrounded by rolling hills, sand dunes and vast barren expanses, of contrasting colors, Jaisalmer contains the still-inhabited Jaisalmer Fort , encircled by 99 bastions and intricately carved temples and is known for its wood carvings, local artistry and rich cultural heritage and performing arts. Jaisalmer has a history dating back to the prehistoric period, which is preserved in the Akal Wood Fossil Park. Tanot Mata Temple, which lies close to the India-Pakistan border, became famous during the 1965 war, when the bombs that fell near it did not explode. It was also been featured in the movie “Border”.

As for the city’s founding, According to legend Rawal Jaisal, the eldest heir of the Rawal of Deoraj, was passed over the throne of Lodurva and his younger half-brother was crowned king. In a quest to redeem himself, he went looking for a new capital when he came across a sage who told him an ancient prophecy. This led to Rawal Jaisal constructing a mud fort in the area in 1156 and naming it Jaisalmer after himself. Jaisalmer literally translates to hill fort of Jaisal.

Getting There: By Air: Jaisalmer Airport is located 17 kilometers from the city center and is connected to other cities. By Road: Jaisalmer is connected by reasonably good roads with all major cities in India. By Train: Jaisalmer is connected by rail with Jodhpur and Delhi which, in turn, are connected to major cities and towns in India.

Tours and Hotels in Jaisalmer

Jonathan D. Rockoff wrote in the Baltimore Sun: “A tour around Jaisalmer's hilltop fortress is worth it. During a half-day walking tour of Jaisalmer's massive hilltop fortress, we saw cows lounging on the twisting cobblestone streets, lazily flapping their tails in the heat. Our guide bought us ladoo -- sugary balls of flour, ghee and cardamom -- that melted in our dry mouths.” [Source: Jonathan D. Rockoff, Baltimore Sun, December 25, 2005]

“The city's airport, however, has been closed to civilians, so travelers must take either a train, bus or car. With the help of a travel agent, we booked a car and driver for our nine-day tour through Rajasthan. The car and driver cost about $30 a day. To get to Jaisalmer, we drove about five hours from the Rajasthani city of Jodhpur. We stayed two nights in Jaisalmer, then our driver took us to the tent camp in the desert. The camps arrange transportation for travelers without a car...Hotels in Jaisalmer can book the safaris. Our travel agent booked us at Rajasthan Desert Safari Camp.

“Jaisalmer offers a range of hotels, from backpacker havens to five-star resorts. Hotel Killa Bhawan is one of the nicest places inside the hilltop fortress in Jaisalmer. The hotel offers a rooftop view of the fort's massive ramparts, and it has comfortable rooms that employ traditional Rajasthani furniture in an elegant way. Its rooms range from $50 to $65 (91-2992-251204; killabhawan.com). We stayed at Fort Rajwada, a five-star hotel with an impressive marble-and-sandstone lobby. The air-conditioned rooms are well-appointed, with satellite televisions and marble floors and bathrooms. The hotel has a pool and two restaurants. Rooms for two people range from $100 to $250 (91-2992-253233; fortrajwada.com).

Jaisalmer Food And Cuisine

Aloo Baingan is an amazing combination of eggplant and potatoes that make a delicious and flavorful side dish when cooked together with onion, tomatoes and spices. It is best served with hot rotis or Indian flatbread. Dal Baati Churma is made of dal (lentils), baati (wheat bread balls) and churma (sweet powdered cereal), which are served with red chilli along with spicy garlic chutney and dry fruits like cashew, pistachio, almonds and raisins. The wheat bread ball is dipped in pure ghee (clarified butter) and served hot in an earthen pot with a small vessel of dal, red chilli and spicy garlic chutney. It is the signature dish of Rajasthan.

Murgh-e-subz is made by cooking boneless strips of chicken with vegetables and local spices. Kadhi is a traditional dish of Jaisalmer that consists of a thick gravy of chickpea flour, and contains vegetable fritters called pakoras, to which sour yoghurt is added to give it a little sour taste. It is often eaten with boiled rice or roti (Indian flatbread).

Ker Sangri originated from the arid land of Rajasthan. Ker, a shrub berry and sangri, a bean of a flowering tree called Khejari, come together to make this easy-to-prepare dish. This vegetarian delicacy can be best enjoyed with bajara roti. Ker Sangri can be prepared in various ways with every variation making this dish even more delicious. The use of whole, dried red chillies is known to enhance the taste of this dish, which is slightly sour, presumably from the raw mango powder. It has an earthy, deeply natural flavor. The stringy beans are cooked in yoghurt with cashews and raisins.

Shopping in Jaisalmer

The look and feel of shopping in Jaisalmer can be best experienced at Sadar Bazaar. Although the market is famous for its leather goods, one can literally get their hands on anything from paintings, carpets, and handicrafts to jewelry, shoes, and saris. From the most antique souvenirs to the best of silk fabrics, Bhatia Bazaar is a great spot for sari shopping.

Literally translating into an abode of lapidaries, the market of Sonaron-ka-baas is the ultimate place to engage in some jewelry shopping in Jaisalmer. Whether you want to buy gold, silver, or jewelry studded with precious stones, this market is the one stop you absolutely need to visit.

Pansaari Bazaar is considered to be one of the oldest street markets in the city, it is also referred to as the Villager’s market, which is famous for selling items that are ethnic to the core. Though the shops at Manas Chowk may be small in size, there is no dearth of shapes, colors, and variety of souvenirs that you can buy here. Be it traditional clothes, colorful handicrafts, attractive bags, or locally-made leather items, you will be spoilt for choice in this brimming market.

Havelis of Jaisalmer

Havelis are stone mansions made with elaborately-carved facades. Located in the narrow lanes of the main city of Jaisalmer, they are particularly famous for their beautiful architecture. Patwon Ki Haveli, the most elaborate and magnificent of these houses, features incredibly detailed lattice work. The 300-year-old Salim Singh Ki Haveli has a beautifully arched roof with superbly carved brackets in the shape of peacocks. Many of these old houses are still occupied, which helps give the entire city a medieval feel.

Patwon-Ki-Haveli is known for its pretty paintings, intricate carvings and a grandiose style of architecture. The entire complex is not a single haveli but a cluster of five smaller beautiful havelis. The first among these havelis was commissioned and constructed in 1805 by Guman Chand Patwa. There are a few paintings and mirror artwork that adorns the inside walls of this grand mansion. To cater to the visitors interested in the rich cultural history of the area, one of the sections has been converted into a museum that houses several artefacts from the early 19th century. The hardwork and aesthetic skills of the local Rajasthani craftsmen can be seen in every corner of this haveli in the individual depictions and theme on each and every arch. Although the whole building is made in yellow sandstone, the main gateway of the Patwon-ki-haveli is in brown color.

Nathmal-Ki-Haveli is a fine example of the fusion of Islamic and Rajputana styles of architecture. Built by two architect brothers in the 19th century, who started the construction from opposite ends, this palace has similar but non-identical left and right facades. This choreographed asymmetry adds to the architectural beauty of the haveli. Miniature style paintings and mighty tuskers carved out of yellow sandstone were used for decorating the inner chambers of the mansion. The life-size elements are now situated at the entrance and appear to be the guardians of this historic monument. It is easy to see that in Jaisalmer, the haveli was the center of all regional activity as it is now camouflaged amongst various modern houses and narrow lanes, all of which lead to the haveli. Although the haveli is partly-inhabited, you might get a chance to visit the first floor which has paintings beautifully decorated using gold leaf. The Nathmal-ki-haveli was commissioned to serve as the residence of Diwan Mohata Nathmal, the then Prime Minister of Jaisalmer. Maharawal Beri Sal commissioned the construction of this haveli.

Jaisalmar Fort

Jaisalmar Fort is a massive structure with 99 towers and four massive gateways situated around its circumference. Located on top of a 76-meter (250-foot) -high hill in the Thar Desert, this magnificent e fort was set up to provide sanctuary for caravans crossing the Thar Desert. Today the fort contains 5,000 people, about a forth of the old city's population. Among the labyrinth of narrow, dusty streets are temples, mansion and palaces. There is a group of five Jain temples inside the fort that were built between the 11th and 15th century.

Jaisalmar Fort Is part of the Rajasthan Hill Forts UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO: “Jaisalmer is an example a hill fort in desert terrain. The extensive township contained within it from the outset, still inhabited today, and the group of Jain temples, make it an important (and in some respects even unique) example of a sacred and secular (urban) fort.” The original fort was built in 1156 by Rajput ruler, Jaisal, and was reinforced by subsequent rulers of Jaisalmer. The fort was the focus of a number of battles between the Bhatis, the Mughals of Delhi and the Rathores of Jodhpur.

Built from yellow sandstone and perched atop the Trikuta Hill (triple peaked hill), this imposing fort seems to rise straight from the desert and its gleaming stone fade gives the impression of it being an extension of the magnificent Thar. The magic of this architectural marvel is best witnessed at sunset when the whole fort seems ablaze as it reflects the light from the setting sun. The fort is known for its elaborately carved structure called Raj Mahal, the residence of the Jaisalmar royal family and the beautiful Jain and Laxminath temples inside. The fort also caught the interest of Oscar winning Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who featured it in one of his films “Sonar Quila” (“The Golden Fortress”).

Tourism at Jaisalmer Fort

Anika Gupta wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Jaisalmer Fort maintains a silent vigil in the far northwestern corner of Rajasthan, India's desert state. Although the local airport is closed to commercial traffic, nearly half a million visitors somehow make their way to the fortress each year, even though it sits uncomfortably close to a contested border with India's longtime adversary Pakistan. The pilgrims follow a 400-mile-long road from Jaipur. They drive through fierce desert winds that blow all the way to Delhi. In summer, they endure 105-degree heat. They come to an area where, for the past 2,000 years, water has been in short supply. They come because there is no other place on earth like Jaisalmer. [Source: Anika Gupta, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2009]

“Built in 1156 by the Indian King Rawal Jaisal, the fort is on a site that legend says he chose on the advice of a wise local hermit. In the Indian epic poem the Mahabharata, the mystic tells Jaisal that the Hindu deity Lord Krishna had praised the spot — and therefore, a fort built there would be almost invisible to the king's enemies. Indeed, from 30 miles away, visitors see only a sheer golden cliff, rising nearly 25 stories from the desert floor. The walls, of rich yellow sandstone unique to Rajasthan's quarries, shimmer like a mirage.

“The fort's main gate, 60 feet tall and carved from Indian rosewood, has a crack that, according to legend, appeared when a Hindu saint crossed the threshold. Three concentric rings of sandstone walls open onto homes, stables and palaces that once housed Rajput kings. In contrast to the plain walls, these bear elaborate designs. Carvings of chariot wheels, fruit and flowers emerge from soft marble. Scalloped archways guard the walkways between buildings. Ornamented screens shade royal apartments.

“"Rajput forts were not easy to build," says Vikramaditya Prakash, an architecture professor at the University of Washington. "The palaces and temples are filigreed in unbelievable detail." Although it has been generations since any Rajput kings ruled here, Jaisalmer Fort still houses some 2,000 residents, which makes it India's last "living fort." (India's other famous forts are abandoned, except for tourist guides.) This, too, draws visitors to Jaisalmer.”

Jaisalmar Fort Conservation

Jaisalmer Fort fort has withstood earthquakes and sandstorms for almost millenia, but is now decaying from the strains of urban life and tourism. Anika Gupta wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “During the past 20 years, the sandstone blocks of Jaisalmer Fort, immune to the elements for nearly a millennia, have begun to shift and crumble. And no one can agree why it's happening or who is to blame. "The basic problem is the sewage system in the fort," says Luca Borella, who moved to Jaisalmer from France in 1994 and now owns a nine-room heritage hotel here. "The government built it quickly and without study." Borella says the sewage system leaks water directly into the fort's foundations. He and other residents have called upon the Indian government to repair it. [Source: Anika Gupta, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2009]

“Jaisalmer's tourist boom has only made matters worse. According to local government estimates, the hotels, restaurants and shops that dot the historic ridges import nearly 50,000 gallons of water daily. This water then flows into the sewage system's already-overstressed open drains. Some international heritage foundations, such as the World Monuments Fund, are urging both tourists and residents to scale back their water use — especially public taps that dispense running water — if they want the fort to survive the next 1,000 years.

“Asheesh Srivastava, a conservation architect with the Lucknow, India-based firm ANB Consultants, has surveyed Jaisalmer and agrees the sewage system needs to be redesigned. But he argues that global climate change is the primary culprit. "In an arid region that was not designed to face rainfall, we are now facing rainfall," says Srivastava. When Jaisalmer was built, the Thar Desert received six to nine inches of rain per year. In the summer of 2007, 22 inches of rain fell in just three days. Although some would consider increased rainfall a blessing for such an arid region, it can be a headache for preservationists. When Raja Jaisal's workers built Jaisalmer in the 12th century, they topped many of the buildings with three feet of mud as insulation to keep interiors cool. Now the rains turn the roofs to sludge, which causes buildings to collapse.

“Jaisalmer's slow decline became a matter of urgency on January 26, 2001, when a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck near Jamnagar, a town in the coastal state of Gujarat, about 200 miles away. The tremors shook the foundations of the fort. "The buildings transfer load vertically," says Srivastava. "Every lateral movement damages the fortress." After the quake, Srivastava and a team of engineers and surveyors from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage went to the fort to assess the damage. The engineers rebuilt damaged outer walls with golden sandstone dug from nearby quarries and even employed the services of a camel to grind lime plaster with its hooves, according to the traditional method. To guard against damage from future tremors, they shored up weakened roof beams and inserted copper pins in the walls to protect against lateral thrust.

“Srivastava and his group kept residents apprised of the restoration work through town meetings, but many Jaisalmer inhabitants remain dubious. Some fear the Indian National Trust will be satisfied only once all commercial activity at the fort has ceased. Others worry that the government might force them to relocate.

“At the moment, Srivastava is working with another team to renovate the fort's largest structure, the granary. Built from four different types of stone, it once held enough grain to feed the fort's residents for 12 years. Once renovations are complete, local authorities hope to turn the granary into a spice museum where visitors can see samples of the pungent fenugreek, cumin and asafetida — still common in Indian cooking — that Rajputs added to food to preserve it. Other cultural projects, such as an amphitheater to showcase Rajput music, are also under consideration. These initiatives will take time, but time is something this fort understands. For generations, it provided Rajput kings with a haven from their enemies and the harsh desert climate. Now it is up to residents, architects and heritage groups to protect it.”

Near Jaisalmer

Sights around Jaisalmar include Gharisar, which once supplied water to the city. The temples and archways around it were built by a courtesan. Amar Sagar has the ruins of a once-beautiful garden located on the banks of a lake which is usually dry in the summer months. Sam (50 kilometers away), the home of Desert National Park, is know for the Sam Sand Dunes and desert festival, and Lodurva (16 kilometers away) contains the ruins of an old capital and several Jain temples. Most people who make it to the Thar Desert take an evening's camel ride into the desert and watch the sunset, then return to their hotels in Jaisalmer.

Gadsisar Lake (just outside the Jaisalmar city walls of Jaisalamr) is a lake that is often small and largely dry. It is a popular picnic spot anyway, owing to its view of Jaisalmer Fort from, especially when it turns in golden hues at sunrise. The lake was once the sole reservoir that controlled the entire supply of water to the arid city of Jasialmer! Located in the southern part of the city, the entrance to the lake is marked by beautifully carved yellow stone archway known as Tilon-ki-Pol. Contrary to the popular belief, it is not an oasis but a water conservation tank made around 1400 by the then maharaja of Jaisalmer, Maharwal Gadsi Singh. At present Gadisar Lake gets water from Indira Gandhi Canal so it never dries.

Lodhruva (five kilometers northwest of ) is a deserted set of ruins famous for a Jain temple and a wishing tree called Kalp Vriksh. The temple is dedicated to the 23rd tirthankar (saint), Parshwanath. The architectural beauty of the temple can be seen on each finely carved stone that was used to construct it. The intricate stone carvings and large, spacious interiors make for a pleasant and relaxing time at the complex, which has been reinstated to it's pristine condition after extensive repairs and restorative work carried out over the years. Lodhruva is said to be the setting of the doomed-love story of Princess Mumal and Mahendra, the prince of Aamarkot, recounted in local folklore and songs across the region. Ludruva is known as the ancient capital of Jaisalmer.

Kuldhara (10 kilometers southwest of Jaisalmer) is a ruined, abandoned village. In the 1800s, the village used to be a prosperous town but, it said that after some unfathomable tragedy, the town was abandoned overnight. Legend says that no one saw the inhabitants leave the village and no one knows the reason for the mass exodus. Since then, no one has been able to settle here. The many stories of how a region of almost a thousand residents simply vanished, makes it a top priority for history buffs and thrill-seekers alike. A walk through this desolate, abandoned village in the desert with its houses, roads and a temple is an experience that takes you back in time. Some interesting water conservation techniques have been unearthed amongst the 200-year-old ruins, a remarkable feat in such a water-scarce desert terrain. The abandoned houses of the village are often used as film sets. Tourists can explore the village on camel rides that are easily available throughout the tourist season.

Desert National Park

Desert National Park (west of Jaisalmer, between the districts of Jaisalmer and Barmer) is great place to observe Thar desert ecosystems and wildlife. Embracing rolling sand dunes, jagged rocks and dense salt lakes, it is amongst the largest protected area sin India, covering a total area of 3,162 square kilometers (1221 square miles). The park provides a haven for thriving populations of black bucks, chinkaras, desert foxes and the endangered great Indian bustard. During winter, migratory raptors such as Himalayan and Eurasian Griffon vultures, eastern imperial eagle and the saker falcon fly here.

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p>Desert National Park (DNP) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009.According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Thar Desert in northwestern India is a unique and the only habitat of its type in the Indian subcontinent. The Aravalli hills mark the eastern-most boundary limit of the Thar desert while the western limit is defined by the fertile plains of the Indus. The Great Rann of Kutch forms a sharp boundary in the south while its northern limits are formed by the riparian sub-Himalayan plains. The Desert National Park (DNP) covers an area of 3162 square kilometers of which 1900 square kilometers is in Jaisalmer district and remaining 1262 square kilometers is in Barmer district of Rajasthan State. The area falls in the extreme hot and arid region of very low rainfall zone (<100mm) of the country. DNP was gazetted in the year 1980. [Source: Rajasthan Forest Department]

“Across the landscape of Jaisalmer, altitudes are low, ranging from 210-300m (320m) above mean sea level (Govt. of India, 1994). Kar (1989) classified the landforms in Jaisalmer into eleven terrain categories; the predominant forms being sand dunes (44.8 percent of the area), and flat buried pediments/pavements/structural plains (28.4 percent). More ecologically relevant is the classification of natural desert habitats into sandy, gravelly, and rocky (Prakash 1962).

“DNP is spectacular representative of the desert ecosystem with exceptional beauty with endless expanse of sand, sand dunes, broken rock formations and an interesting array of unique flora and fauna. The Wood Fossil Park at Akal has significant fossil evidences dating back to the Jurassic period. Sandy areas dominate the western parts of Jaisalmer district, while gravelly and rocky areas are scattered throughout central, southern and eastern areas. The DNP is barren with several sand dunes and a few hills in the northwestern region. The Park forms a vast sandy and undulating terrain. From Khuri to Sam, the topography is gravel, rocky with a few isolated ridges (Kalra et al. 2006). Interdune (caused by wind) and sandy plains are other topographic features (Kalra et al. 2006).”

“The Thar desert is the most thickly populated desert in the world with an average density of 83 persons/ square kilometers (compared to 7 square kilometers of other deserts) (Baqri and Kankane 2001). However, the human population within the DNP is low (4-5 persons per square kilometers). There are 73 villages and also settlements or Dhanis existing within the Park. These communities have inhabited this area for hundreds of years and with their rich culture and tradition they are an integral part of this ecosystem.”

Plants, Animals and Birds in Desert National Park

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The DNP is the most important site for the long-term survival of the Globally Threatened Great Indian Bustard and other endemic fauna and flora. Other birds of significance include the endangered Oriental White-backed vulture Gyps bengalensis and Long-billed Gyps indicus, Stoliczka's Bushchat Saxicola macrorhyncha, Green Munia Amandava formosa MacQueen's or Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis maqueeni. Eleven bird species representative of Biome-13 have been identified by BirdLife International. The Thar desert is rich in herpetofauna, being the home of 11 percent of the 456 reptile species found in India. The prominent among them are Toad-headed Agama, Sindh Awl-headed Snake, Indian Spiny-tailed Lizard, Dwarf Gecko, Persian Gecko, Desert Monitor and Saw-scaled Viper. [Source: Rajasthan Forest Department]

“The vegetation of major part of the arid region of the Thar falls under thorn forest type (Champion and Seth 1968). Khejri Prosopis cineraria is commonly found, which is revered and protected by the local communities specially the 'Bishnois'. The vegetation of DNP is quite sparse with open grassland, throny bushes, plantation and dunes as the broad habitat types. One-sixty eight plant species belonging to 48 families have been reported from this area (Pandey et al. 1985). Tree species viz. Commiphora wightii,, Ammannie desertorum, Acacia spp., Dipcadi erythraem, Enneatogon, Ephedra foliata, Glossonema varians, Helitropium rariflorum, Limeum indicum, Tecomella undulata brachystachyus Moringa concanensis, Rhynchosia schimpari, Seddera latifolia, Sesuvium sesuvioides, Tephrosia falciformis, Tribulus rajasthanensis and Ziziphus truncate provide sustenance to the desert fauna.

“The biota of Thar has both mesic and desert elements owing to location of the Thar in the Saharo-Tharian Basin. 69 percent of herpetofauna and 54 percent of mammalian fauna represent the Sahraian affiliation. Sixty species of mammals, 8 species of amphibians, 51 species of reptile are known from the Thar (Baqri and Kankane 2001). The endemic reptile species of the Thar Desert are Laungwala Toad-headed Agama Bufoniceps laungwalansis , Sindh Awl-headed Snake Lytorhynchus paradoxus are also found in DNP. Many more endemic and endangered mammal, bird and reptile species are found in DNP. Fourteen species of lizards and 7 species of snakes have been recorded from this area (Agarwal 2007). Records of important reptile species such as Indian Spiny-tailed Lizard Uromastyx hardwickii Dwarf Gecko Tropiocolotes persicus euphorbiacola, Persian Gecko Hemidactylus persicus, Desert Monitor Varanus griseus and Saw-scaled Viper Echis carinatus sochureki have been established based on recent studies. More than 100 bird species have been listed from DNP including a good population of the Great Indian Bustard (locally called Godawan) (Kalra et al. 2006) and is a home for migrant Houbara Bustard. The important mammal species of the area includes Chinkara Gazella bennetti, Desert Fox Vulpes vulpes, Indian Fox Vulpes bengalensis, Desert Cat Felis silvestris, Hairy-footed Gerbil Gerbillus gleadowi, Desert hare Lepus nigrricollis dayanus and Long-eared hedgehog Hemeichinus auritus.”

Sam Sand Dunes, Khuri and Desert Safaris

The pristine, breathtaking, expanse of the unbroken sand dunes of Sam makes it a great desert safari spot. One can enjoy desert safari by either riding a camel or by hiring a jeep. While camping in the desert, surrounded by the golden sands of the Thar desert, visitors can get an immersive insight into life in the desert. There is a lot to learn while travelling through the remote areas of Jaisalmer and absorbing the rich culture of the region with its folk dance performances, puppet shows and other open-air cultural extravaganzas. Most people who make it to the Thar Desert take an evening's camel ride into the desert and watch the sunset, then return to their hotels in Jaisalmer.

Khuri (40 kilometers southwest of Jaisalmer) is a quaint village surrounded by sand dunes. A camel ride in Khuri will take you across undulating sand dunes at a leisurely pace that will let you experience the bare yet beautiful landscape of the Thar desert. The relatively unexplored sand dunes hold a great appeal for tourists who are looking for an escape from the bustling tourist circuit. As the golden rays of the sun and the unique wind patterns dance in unison at sunset and sunrise to create a light and shadow play of epic proportions, one feels the pull of the simple and uncomplicated life of the region.

The nearby village has a smattering of mud huts and a local bazaar where visitors can absorb the traditional Rajasthani way of life. The many resort operators offer a night's stay in beautifully prepared luxury-tents, complete with breathtaking performances by local artists. Due to its distant location, Khuri enjoys seclusion and makes the best use of the undisturbed environs with the occasional campfire night, that allows guests to unwind with home-cooked meals that are traditionally prepared for a complete desert experience. A stone's throw away lie the sand dunes of Sam, which have been widely accepted as one of the most popular excursions from the city. The place acquires something of a carnival atmosphere from late afternoon until the next morning, making it somewhere to avoid if you re after a solitary desert experience.

Camel Treks in the Thar Deser

Camel trekking is a popular activity, especially in Jaisalmar area. A typical trip is the dunes outside the city last for three days and two nights. Trekkers spend six or seven hours a day on camel back and visit isolated villages and see herds of wild gazelles and shepherds with goats. Meals are eaten around a campfire and sleeping is under the stars. Camel treks are also organized out of Jodhpur and Bikaner. For those so inclining, there is a multi-day trip that combines Shekhawati, Pushkar and Bikaner. Treks are also available in Gujarat. Camel trekking is tougher on the body than elephant trekking and takes some preparation before a long journey.

Jonathan D. Rockoff wrote in the Baltimore Sun: “The camel dropped to its knees, then fell to its haunches before I clambered off its back to await darkness' arrival over the desert. It was evening on the dunes, but the sun still burned brightly. My throat turned dry, my lips chapped. For relief, I collapsed onto the shady side of a dune, only to heat my hands and feet in the soft sand particles cascading around them. In the end, the only escape was to climb back on the camel and gallop over the dunes and through the superheated dryness. As the driver clucked to direct the mount, the smell of dung filled my nostrils, and my back ached from the bumpy ride. [Source: Jonathan D. Rockoff, Baltimore Sun, December 25, 2005]

“Maybe the trip wasn't always pleasant, but it was some solitude -- not luxury -- that brought my wife, Sumathi, and me to India's Thar Desert. Our desert safari was a welcome break during a hectic nine-day journey through Rajasthan, one of India's most popular tourist destinations. For two days, we rode a camel, watched the sun and viewed the stars from the sandy flatness. We stayed in one of 20 desert tent camps not far from the Pakistan border. The camp was so remote, in fact, that scores of miles before arriving we passed the site where India tested nuclear weapons in 1998....To get to the Thar desert, we traveled to the sandswept city of Jaisalmer, worth a stop in itself. An hour's drive from Jaisalmer that afternoon was our Thar retreat, the Rajasthan Desert Safari Camp.

“We were urged to get malaria shots but didn't and were fine. We liberally used insect repellent, the strong kind that you can buy in a camping store. We also heavily used suntan lotion and wore hats and sunglasses. What's more, we made sure to bring several bottles of water. Just to be safe, we bought the more expensive brands, which cost only 25 cents. It was fine wearing sandals, although we also brought hiking boots. In India, wearing pants is recommended. We camped in the desert in late October and needed sweaters in the early morning. Temperatures can fall below freezing at night during November, December and January.”

Thar Desert Tourist Camp

Jonathan D. Rockoff wrote in the Baltimore Sun: “The drive there was a spectacle in itself. Camels shared the road with military caravans heading to border outposts. We passed fields of barley and mustard and herds of sheep and goats. Soon, we left the asphalt road to climb a bumpy, twisting, sandy path. [Source: Jonathan D. Rockoff, Baltimore Sun, December 25, 2005]

“The camp was a modest place, with about 35 canvas tents, a sandy courtyard, stucco office and patio, where spicy buffets were served and musical revues performed for guests reclining on pillows. Rathore Dez, manager of the camp, said it will have 108 tents and a rock garden when completed. The tents were classified deluxe or standard depending on whether they had a dirt floor. The queen-size bed in our deluxe tent rested on a jute rug. There was a tiled bathroom in back, nightstands and a few chairs. Mosquito netting covered the window flaps.

“Air conditioning was not necessary because the temperature dipped at night. The shower consisted of a pail and bucket, as do most showers in India. An orderly fetched hot water from the office. But not everything was spare. Before dinner most nights in the desert, we feasted on boiled peanuts and crispy onion pekoras. At dinner, we had our choice of rich mutton curry, garlicky yellow lentils called dal, and other Indian and Rajasthani specialties. We washed it all down with Kingfisher, a golden Indian lager.

“A troupe of musicians and dancers provided the nightly entertainment, including such tricks as standing on a bed of nails. A young musician led two children from the audience to the dance floor, and the kids hopped around grinning. Bengali Indians requested old standards, which the singers crooned.”

“As we walked back to our tent, little points of starlight punctured the night sky. Soon, dozens upon dozens of stars glistened. I had never seen so many. Some seemed wrapped in gauze. They were so bright, so close. Every few minutes, a shooting star rocketed across. So distant were we from any ground light that even the single lantern illuminating the camp seemed to obscure my view.

“After a break for dinner and the evening's entertainment, I parked a chair on the sandy courtyard and gazed upward. It was chilly now, enough for goosebumps to come. My neck cramped from the looking. Another shooting star. The constellations. A planet, perhaps. I watched until the chatter of guests had stopped, and the lantern was snuffed.

“The next morning, we awoke before 6 o'clock in hopes of catching the sunrise over the dunes. We rustled our driver, Roop Singh, out of his cot, and he drove us 20 minutes farther into the desert, to the edge of a different set of dunes. When our car reached the edge of the dunes, it was cool, in the mid 50s. We walked for a half-hour into the desert, looking for the highest view of the horizon. Eventually, we sat on top of an especially tall dune. And we waited.

“A crescent moon grinned in the darkness overhead. Along the horizon, there were faint streaks of pinks and blues. Few people were around. But before the sun could rise, a thin figure approached, interrupting the stillness as he walked hurriedly over the sand. The figure had a blanket draped over his head, covering his face. "Camel tout," I muttered to Sumathi, derisively. "Nahi hai," Sumathi shouted at the figure, trying to ward him off by saying "no." Despite her protests, the figure kept approaching. He walked closer and closer. We looked away, pretending to ignore him. Finally, he stood beside us. "Camel! Camel!" he shouted. "Nahi hai! Nahi hai!" Sumathi snapped. Then the figure removed the blanket from his head. It was Roop, our driver, playing a practical joke. Laughing, we all watched the sunrise together until Sumathi and I took off for other dunes. We searched for the best view. The cool sand trickled through our sandals and toes. Pink rays streaking across the brightening sky turned yellow and then orange.

Thar Desert Camel Trek

Jonathan D. Rockoff wrote in the Baltimore Sun: “Shortly after our arrival, we began our camel ride. Peacock, our camel, was sitting on all fours just outside the camp when he greeted us with a snort. Peacock had a brightly colored saddle common to the region, where women, children and camels wear fabrics of brilliant yellows, oranges, reds, blues and purples, sometimes shimmering with dozens of mirror fragments. Because Sumathi had never ridden a camel before, Akim Kahn, our guide, escorted Peacock slowly for the two-mile journey. [Source: Jonathan D. Rockoff, Baltimore Sun, December 25, 2005]

“First we ambled through a sandy field dotted with bleached brush. Then we headed across a remote part of the dunes, ascending to the sunny peaks, then passing through shaded valleys. Up and down we went. Akim asked if one dune was OK, but we wanted to go farther. The temperature was around 90 degrees and dry. Finally, we stopped. Peacock napped after letting us off, until Akim roused him for the gallop.

“Although there were other tourists in the distance, we had rows of dunes to ourselves -- and the little black beetles that scurried toward us, undeterred by my efforts to throw them too far away to return. They kept coming, leaving tiny, faint footprints. The sun turned orange as it neared the horizon. The effect was intensified by all of the sand in the air, which bathed the rippled dunes in a warm glow. All was quiet. It was as if my senses focused on the view alone. By the time the tangerine sky had turned black, we were back on Peacock and loping back to camp. We had been away a few hours.

“One of the visit's only negatives came at the end of the camel ride. Akim, the guide, asked for a bigger tip. We doubled the tip, to 100 rupees. That was not even $3. Some American women travelers later told us that our original tip would have sufficed.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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