India – Rajasthan – DesertBack to Story

An ancient way of life in the desert

The desert in Rajasthan and its cities is a chance to experience a colourful and historic part of India. Take the time to drive or take a train and you will be rewarded with very friendly and hospitable people. The woman are the most amazing as even those of modest means wear beautiful sari’s with a pride and elegance. As often the case it is meeting the locals that make a travel experience.

Jaisalmer

This city is also known as the Golden City because of its magnificent yellow toned sandstone fort.  Jaisalmer Fort dates back to 1156 and houses the Raj Mahal (the Royal Palace and Jain temples). The fort is a maze of small streets and contains plenty of shops trying to attract the tourist dollar.  There is plenty to see and do here but you won’t be on your own so brace yourself for some crowds. A trip into the surrounding desert is well worth the effort. If you’re lucky enough to see some of the villages you may catch a group of women bringing water back from the wells on their heads or the men bringing their camels back from the tourist rides. Life is simple but it seems the tourist dollar is keeping many of these communities alive.  A typical excursion will find you riding a camel out to see the sunset across the dunes.

We did this as a group, although I confess to being very pleased to climb off at the end.  As we returned back to our trusty mode of transport (the bus) the horizon was packed with tourists trying to capture the sunse. All were clumped together as if in fear of being engulfed by the desert. Definitely go but try not to fall into the trap of being stuck with the hordes. One morning we gathered at dawn to head to a nearby reservoir.  Our leaders, Karl and DV, had previously seen some early morning prayers and festival being performed at the same time of the year by the women to break a fast following Diwali.  Well that is the closest explanation I could find. We were fortunate enough to enjoy a quintessential Indian experience.

Families were all gathered on the banks of the town’s major reservoir so that the women could pray and give thanks.  In a very similar ritual to those I had seen in Varanasi the women took their shoes off and stood in the water releasing candles, burning incense and turning circles.  The men and young girls watched from the banks and passed the required accessories as way of support.  I was lucky enough to be quickly welcomed and soon joined some of the families barefoot to share in the moment. Food was an important part of the morning and everyone had bought along a feast. I was soon munching on a hard biscuit shared by one of the families. It was a real cultural treat and priceless travel experience. As far as hotels go in this small town, our group stayed at The Gateway Rawal Kot, which has a mix of rooms and tented accommodation. The rooms were fairly standard but the dining was pleasantly located around the pool.

Manvar Desert Camp

Our journey then took us deeper into the desert life to a Manvar Desert Camp. The euphoric buzz of the recent celebrations slowed to the rhythms of the desert. We took jeeps with our gear through the dunes to our tented resort spectacularly located in the expansive sand dunes with tents arranged in a semi circle.  This is hardly your standard camping experience as the tents have solid floors and a plumbed bathroom. It has been unseasonably wet so it’s damp but not soggy. Evenings consisted of sitting under the stars by the light of the campfire while enjoying some live music and dancing.  The camel cart was wheeled in equipped with a fully stocked bar and some of us stay and enjoy the moment before dragging ourselves up to the large tent for dinner.  At the end of the evening the camel cart is hooked up and the camel comes around to remove the temporary cushions we had all been lounging on. The real magic (hard to believe that is not the highlight) comes from visiting the local villages.

The caste system is alive and well in India despite being outlawed in the Indian Constitution 1950.  We visited two different castes in our time in the desert. One was a group of The Harijans, or otherwise known as untouchables.  Karl Grobl has described this touching experience in his blog. I will add that it was yet another example of the amazing generosity of spirit that we found in many of the people of India.  Their amazing grace to share their daily life and open their hearts to strangers who must look awfully strange. Another more wealthy group of families were visited in another nearby village. You could see from the health of the people, their homes and their clothes that life was less of a struggle. Running water came from a tap for example and not the nearby well.  Some children led me around their village to meet their mother who after a few gestures allowed me to photograph her. After sharing the results she became increasingly open and before long all the ladies in the village and most of the children had gathered to be part of the experience. Our guide, DV, eventually found me surrounded by women and children as I showed them their images on the back of my digital camera. Not surprisingly I believe it was during these moments I captured some of my best images of the trip and the whole experience captured my heart. It was just as well we had the camel cart to call on a drink on our return to camp. Experiences like that need a little reflection and time to process.

Images of the desert people and their saris and turbans. Jaisalmer, Luni, Manvar.

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