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Not just desert


SAND & SPLENDOUR: The festival attracts many foreign tourists. (Right) Souvenir stands inside Jaisalmer Fort, India's oldest 'living fort'

During its annual desert festival, Jaisalmer entertains travellers with its treasure trove of forts and fossils, haunted havelis and chudail safaris.

On the last day of Jaisalmer's annual desert festival, the intensely monochrome - burnished yellow - landscape of the Thar came alive with colour and clamour. The Sam dunes near the city hosted a camel race in which more than 50 of these even-toed ungulates participated. There were a number of foreign tourists, mostly dreadlocked and colourfully attired backpackers, all craning their necks to get a better view of the 'field', created by fencing off a portion of the desert. The local attendees were mostly from the city or from neighbouring Barmer and Jodhpur, with a generous sprinkling of faujis. A dust cloud that suddenly appeared from one end of the field signalled the start of the 100-metre dash. However, the six footers took their time. Many spectators started fiddling with their cellphones or taking drinks breaks waiting for the animals to cross the main seating area. Camels can apparently reach speeds of up to 65 kmph. But in Jaisalmer they were in no hurry to cross the finish line.

Camels and dunes are the chief attractions of this festival. It was initiated in 1979 by the state government to promote tourism in the area and is held from February 23 to 25 each year. Events like camel polo, camel dressing, a turban tying competition, and 'Mr Desert' and 'Mr Moustache' contests are prime attractions. The line-up hasn't changed much over the years because the local administration, complain tour operators and hotel owners, is not proactive. Unlike the Pushkar fair, another Rajasthan festival with camels as the main attraction, the Jaisalmer festival is low on glamour. While Pushkar's Mela attracts about 5 lakh tourists every year, just about 50, 000 people attended the three-day-long desert extravaganza in Jaisalmer, which is also the largest district in Rajasthan.

The highlight, without doubt, was the camel polo match on Day Two between the BSF and the Camel Polo Association of India, which was won by the latter. Camel decoration competitions, organised later in the day, were a riot of colours as camel owners did up their beloved beasts of burden in traditional finery like mori, gorband, kantmal and poonch bandhani.

The city, however, has much more to offer. Twenty-minute camel rides at Sam desert and safaris deep into the Thar are an obvious favourite with visitors. For Rs 1, 000-1, 500 you can spend a night in the desert, under the starlit sky, with makeshift bedding and basic cooking paraphernalia. Some local hotels, like Suryagarh, take their guests out for dinner on the dunes. With bonfires blazing, the guests are entertained by Manganyaar singers and Kalbelia dancers even as the hotel staff feeds them the choicest grilled Rajasthani foods.

If you get bored with the desert you could head to Jaisalmer fort. The striking 856-year-old structure, perched atop a sandy hillock that overlooks the golden city, is India's oldest living fort. Made with yellow sandstone that blazes with blinding brilliance in the hot sun - thus earning it the nickname 'Sonar Kila' (' Golden Fort' in Bengali) - it houses close to 3, 500 people, 25 guest houses, shops, temples and a couple of wells. Inside, the fort is divided into Brahmin and Rajput areas. Due to scarcity of water no cement or mortar was used in its construction. The individual stones that make up the grand monument are interlocked. The walls of cubbyhole houses are painted a bright blue, green and even pink, and the narrow cobbled lanes are refreshingly cool, windy and winding. They are crammed with souvenir shops, cows, bikes and bicycles. If you want to buy something pick up a 'dahi' bowl made from 'fossil stone'. You can apparently curdle milk in it without adding curds.

You get to hear more such tales if you head to the grandiose Patwa havelis, located outside the fort. After a 15-minute walk through more winding, but this time dirtier lanes, you reach your destination - a cluster of five havelis, five storeys high. Built between 1800 and 1860, these havelis are an indulgence in yellow sandstone. There's not a patch which is not intricately carved. Inside, there's a courtyard in the middle surrounded by rooms. Miniature paintings, mirrorwork, gold-plated ceilings, lattice jharokhas, silver beds, ivory chess boards, walnut wood chests and fine curtains and upholstery tell a tale of opulence of the Patwas who belonged to the Bafna-Jain clan and traded in silver and gold brocades, opium, and were also money-lenders.

It is not very well-known but Jaisalmer used to be a bustling trade hub on the Silk Route. Cloth, opium, threads and spices were traded from this city which, it is claimed, is as old as Rome. According to Dr Deepak Acharya, the city's public relations officer, the Archaeological Survey of India has unearthed fossils of huge tree trunks - and even sea shells - dating back to '18, 000 crore years'. These are housed at a fossil park at Akal, a village near the city.

At Suryagarh, a new luxury boutique hotel just outside the city, some of the fossils are displayed in the lobby. Manvendra Singh, the property's managing director, says that as a kid he chanced upon many such fossilised remains while playing outdoors. "I have one that looks like a boxing glove, an ancient root and piece of a tree trunk... this area if explored on a bicycle can throw up many surprises. " He often takes his guests on a midnight 'chudail (witch) safari' to the nearby ruins of Kuldhara. This used to be home to Paliwal Brahmins, but in 1825, after a threat from their Rajput king, they abandoned the village overnight and fled. Now, the ruins are said to be haunted.

Many more stories of bravado, honour, prosperity and ancient glory are to be found in sunny Jaisalmer. And the best place to mull these tales is atop a dune, a glass of wine in hand, under the setting sun.

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