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From The Sands Of Time...

Friday, March 15, 2013

Rajasthan’s Golden City of Jaisalmer is at its dazzling best during the three day long Desert Festival that Raul Dias was recently privy to

Camels aren’t a particularly attractive species. But that sun-kissed morning in the glistening sand dunes of Sam, a small village of Jaisalmer, the one that I was staring at looked good enough to win a beauty pageant for camels… if there was such a thing! Turns out that there most certainly is! And I was also to learn that the annual Jaisalmer Desert Festival hosts many such weird and wonderful contests during its riotous three days.

I happened to find myself in Jaisalmer on the last day of the festival, that as per tradition always ends its run on a full moon night. The festival itself is a shock of colour, with mustachioed men sporting psychedelically-hued turbans and graceful women dazzling the eager shutterbugs with their intricate jewellery and white lac bangles. It is also the time when both beast and man vie for the title (separately, of course!) of the fastest runner, with races taking place all day long.

And like the camel beauty pageant, there is also one for men, I kid you not. The winner of the title of Mr. Desert 2013, Vijay Ballani — an imposing gentleman dressed in an all-white angarkha and dhoti, replete with his winning sash proudly displayed and his traditional ceremonial ornaments of the tawatia and sanganar — was clearly the man of the moment as he preened and posed with the élan of a pro. Clearly, he knew the importance of his title and it showed.

As I walked around the Shaheed Poonam Singh Stadium in the heart of the city later that afternoon, I took in the stalls that sold everything from garden ornaments made from the soft, golden-hued (hence the city’s sobriquet) local sandstone to traditional puppets. But, the one stall that truly caught my attention was the one selling all sorts of lotions and potions, soaps and cosmetics made from camel’s milk. It was also then that another unique contest was about to unfurl. This time round, the ladies could have a go at the pot-carrying competition where varied sizes of pots were stacked onto the contestants’ heads, who were expected to run (not walk, mind you!) to the finish line without breaking a single pot.

Famished and almost baked alive by the harsh, unyielding rays of the desert sun, I made my way back for a spot of lunch at my hotel, the majestic Suryagarh. One look at this property and you’d think that it was the home of some erstwhile maharaja. But surprisingly, this hotel was only built in 2010. However, the methods and materials employed in its construction hark back to the days of yore, when exquisite craftsmanship was the rule and not merely the exception. After a leisurely garden lunch of Rajasthani yumminess consisting of goodies such as gatte ki sabzi, laal maas, ker sangri (a kind of sautéed cactus vegetable) and missi roti finished off with the ghee-drenched ghevar and badam doodh, I needed to follow it up with a dose of tranquility. And what better place than the Gadi Sagar Tank to indulge myself.

As the city’s personal cooling down spot, the scrupulously clean tank is surrounded by shady trees and sandstone pavilions, with quaint temples and little shrines dotting its banks. Home to shoals of whiskered catfish and its winter guest, the waterfowl, the Gadi Sagar Tank is the ultimate ‘chill zone’ in Jaisalmer, where doing nothing is your best option. And I did just that.

Rejuvenated and refreshed, I then made my way towards fulfilling a lifelong wish. The romance of the dunes, for me, has always come alive at night and a bright full-moon lit sky in the desert seemed bang on. Arranged by Suryagarh just for my group of friends and me, a night of song, dance and barbeque on the sands was my ultimate sybaritic fantasy come alive. As we drove into the setting sun, with its rays changing from ochre to salmon pink and finally giving way to the night’s inky blue, we gasped at the sight of the moon in its latest avatar. “This must be heaven,” was the common refrain that evening.

The lilting voices of the Manganiyar singers belting out songs about love and longing. The mesmerising sight of the bejeweled Kalbelia dancers whirling like glittering dervishes. The aroma of grilled rabbit and partridge wafting through the still air. And the brilliance of Mr Moon doing his number on the shimmering silica. All montages from a magical night melding together to form a dream rising out of the sands of time… literally!

Getting there
You can reach Jaisalmer from Jodhpur (four hours by road). Jodhpur is connected to Mumbai by air, road and rail.

When to visit
The best time to visit is between November and April. The three-day Jaisalmer Desert Festival, that takes place either at the end of February or at the beginning of March every year, is a great time to be here.

You are never too far from good accommodation in Jaisalmer. But, for a truly royal experience, Suryagarh stands out. This luxury boutique hotel, located on the outskirts of Jaisalmer at Kahala Phata along the Sam Road, is a calming oasis with palatial rooms, a tranquil spa called Rait and scrumptious Rajasthani food on offer. The hotel also organises a host of activities such as archery, camel riding on the dunes and even a spooky chudail (witch) trail!

www.suryagarh.com or call on +02992-269269/ 70

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