Next came my favorite place (though after visiting each city, I had a “new” favorite!), Jaisalmer. We went to a Jain cobra temple built 1200 years ago, complete with a live cobra, on the way to this city. The temple was stunning and made out of one (huge) piece of stone with ornate carvings. We were the only visitors, so other than the snapping of our digital cameras, the only audible sound was tinkling of bells in the wind. These bells are at the apex of each temple roof and are used to wake up the gods, letting them know people are praying.
Next in Jaisalmer we went to Bada Bagh Cenotaphs (cenotaphs=memorials of royal family). These cenotaphs are on a hill over looking the Bagh (garden), an oasis in the middle of the desert. Many Indians come here to bless their new marriages. There is both Moghul and Hindu architecture–the Moghul has not fared as well as the Hindu structures. We met locals here and as is the case in every city, they really wanted a photo with us. “Madam, one photo.”
The second day in Jaisalmer we toured the actual city, the “Golden City.” We saw the Tilo Ki Pol (the gateway to Gadhisar Lake). The lake was used for the city’s drinking water, but pollution eventually made it unusable. Here Allison and Pam (my two travel buddies) fed catfish breadcrumbs for good luck and heard the story of how the gate was built 200 years ago by a former prostitute of the maharaja. He didn’t like it, but she put a statue of Krishna inside and Krishna protected her and the building from destruction.
The Jaisalmer Fort is the oldest living fort in India, from the 12th century. 4 gates successively up a circular road lead to the entrance, which would prevent elephant-led attacks from opposing rulers. There is a “veg” and “non-veg” side (vegetarian and meat-consuming) to the fort and the fort is referred to as “uppertown”. We viewed 2 beautiful Jain temples on the “veg” side and one Hindu temple. We then crossed to the “veg” side to take tea at a rooftop restaurant with a beautiful view.
We visited 3 famous Havelis in the downtown section of Jaisalmer. These havelis are known for their ornate sandstone carving which appears like lace. Most of the exquisite work is on the exterior–a “keeping up with the Jones” mentality, Indian style. My favorite part of the carving is that the technical skill still exists today and is employed throughout the city’s new buildings.
We meandered through the market and a bus stop in order to get a better local flavor. Merchants sold fruit and vegetables from carts. Tailors and book sells, shopkeepers, etc. manned their one-room stores. We even saw blacksmiths working iron over open flames. We bought bracelets traditionally used to celebrate August 2nd’s brother-sister holiday. (Kevin, David, take note-this means brothers give there sisters gifts and money, especially if they live far away). The colors, noise, commotion, sights, sounds, and textures are indescribable. I can only relate my impressions as awe-inspired, somewhat stressful, exciting, so much to take in, so many layers, constant motion, beauty, and dirty. I have never seen such beauty and such uncleanliness juxtaposed in this way. Beautiful buildings, sarees, faces, etc. alongside dirt, trash, pollution, and stifling hazy heat. It’s incredible and wonderful–but exhausting to the eyes.
And then, my weakness. I am not a big shopper really. I like beautiful things, but I don’t buy much or often. Well, I have met my match. We went to a textile shop. I love fabric, texture, color, aesthetics. What’s more, all of the textiles were created by women cooperatives. I spent my research project working for an NGO which initiated women’s cooperatives. What is that? These are impoverished women which organize their technical skills and form a business–using profits to support their families and mobilize funding for loans to help fellow villagers earn a livelihood by starting a business or learn farming. That’s a double-whammy for me. Fabric and helping impoverished women with self-initiative.
The next shop we went to was a bit of a curiosity shop. The owner who decided to collect Indian heritage, as many villagers began trading pieces of history and culture for modern amenities (of which I cannot blame them, a/c in 118 degrees F is worth the investment!). There were coins from the British East India Company, beautiful trunks, statues, and more. I found old beautiful drawer pulls (brightly colored glass knobs) for a dresser I plan on making (not building, more like refurbishing).
Then we drove out to the desert for the desert camp. The camel ride was one of my top life experiences so far. As I trotted my camel, Callia, up and down sand dunes, we watched the sun set into the haze. They are actually dumodals–with only one hump. We had a delicious dinner and live dance/music performance in the courtyard of the camp. I got up and danced and tried my hand at several instruments. Our driver promised (and delivered on his promise!) to make me “Indian-spicy” mutton. No one believes us that we like it “Indian Spicy” and not “Tourist Spicy”. If it doesn’t make my eyes water, it isn’t spicy enough! If I don’t need to eat gram-flour chaapati with it (my gluten-free bread, sort of like naan), it’s not spicy enough!
Jaisalmer is 34 km from Pakistan–as close as I ever plan to get. Most Indians are not crazy about Pakistan, but in Jaisalmer they joke that the Pakistani army is actually their friend. When it was occupied, the army needed electricity and roads to operate, providing the city infrastructure much earlier than they otherwise would have had it! These advances opened the door for the tourism industry and tourism accounts for almost 3/4 of the local economy today.