During the era of the great trading caravans, a side branch of the Old Silk Road led through this town. Travelling along this route, numerous camel caravans brought goods to and from India, trading with faraway China, Persia, Turkey, and Europe. As wealth accumulated in Jaisalmer, rich traders built extravagant and ornate sandstone mansions, called havelis, their walls and balconies decorated with beautiful and detailed carvings.
Wealth, however, also attracts robbers, so in order to protect his people, Roa Rawal Jaisal ordered a strong fort, Sonar Qila, to be constructed atop a 76-metre-high hill. The population was then moved inside the walls of the fort, which was fortified with 99 ramparts. Large stone balls and long stone cylinders were placed on the walls, and during sieges, Rajput soldiers would roll these balls and cylinders over the edge, causing many casualties among attackers, who attempted to scale the walls of the fort. Still today, some of these balls remain on the walls.
As the population of Jaisalmer increased, people began building houses outside the fort, so as a means of protection, the Prince ordered a 4.5-kilometre long wall to be erected around this new part of the town.
K.K., the owner of a small travel agency, brings me by car from Jaisalmer to Akal. On our way, he relates the widespread misery in Rajasthan, caused by a severe and prevailing drought. Cattle, goats and camels die from thirst. Many farmers have given up farming, instead becoming road workers, or migrating to towns to try to survive as day-labourers.
K.K. himself has had a fair share of problems. He and his brothers own a rather large piece of farmland, but his brothers neglect it, leaving it to K.K. to earn money for the entire family through his travel agency. He has paid their wedding expenses, and also contributed half a million Rupees to their farming, which, however, did not result in an increased production. K.K. is bitter, calling his brothers a bunch of good-for-nothing parasites.
The first time you mount a camel, you are in for a surprise. When the camel gets up, its legs are unfolded in several tempi. First, it rises halfway on its hindlegs, and you are thrown forward. Next, it rises on its forelegs, and you are thrown backward. Finally, it rises completely on its hind-legs, making you slide forward again. If you don’t have a firm grip on the saddle, you may easily fall off. Camels have an ambling walk, which takes time to get used to. On my first day as a camel rider, my thighs and buttocks quickly get quite sore. I regularly dismount to take pictures, often walking beside the camel for hours. “Grandfather galloping same horse!” says Dina.
We pass several villages, in which I get an impression of the harsh desert life. Almost everywhere, you notice grazing goats, sheep, camels, or cattle, trying to get their fill on the sparse vegetation. Occasionally, I also observe wild mammals, such as Gujarat gazelles (Gazella christii) and desert foxes (Vulpes vulpes ssp. pusilla), one of the latter eagerly digging in the sand for mice, or maybe beetles.
Considering the inhospitable environment, birdlife in the desert is surprisingly rich, the most common species being desert wheatear (Oenanthe deserti) and variable wheatear (O. picata). Small flocks of chestnut-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles exustus) fly over, and high above us, steppe eagles (Aquila nipalensis) and Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) are soaring. Two laggar falcons (Falco jugger) are mobbing a tawny eagle (Aquila rapax), sitting in a tree. I also notice common raven (Corvus corax), little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis), black-crowned sparrow-lark (Eremopterix nigriceps), and others.
Shortly before dusk, we make camp. The baggage is unloaded, and our blankets are rolled out in the sand. No need for tents here, as the risk of rain is next to none. However, nights in the desert are rather cold, so I have brought my sleeping bag. Jamset and Dina collect a few dead branches from nearby trees, light a fire and start preparing our evening meal. Meanwhile, I am seated, leaning against a camel’s soft body, watching the flickering fire, while the camels are chewing their cud, their neck bells tinkling softly. While cooking, my camel drivers sing sad songs about love or precious rain.
The night is wonderful. To lie snug in your sleeping bag on the soft desert sand, under a thousand twinkling stars, and maybe a falling star or a moving satellite, is indeed meditative.
We camp in the dunes outside the village, where we are soon joined by many men and children. We invite them for supper, which makes heavy inroads into our provisions. However, Jamset assures me that we have ample supplies, and besides, K.K. has given him extra money to buy more provisions. After the meal, an elderly man entertains us, singing sad songs, as usual about love and precious rain, but also a song about a brother, who was lost in war. Next, a young man performs a wild dance, with much gamboling, while a boy beats the time on a tin tray.
The following morning, I pay a visit to several houses in the village. All inhabitants are more or less blood-related, and marriages outside the village are rare. However, apart from a young man who is an albino, I see no sign of inbreeding. On the contrary, the villagers are beautiful and erect people. Presumably, the hard desert life sorts out the weak ones. Many of the men sport a full beard, looking rather like Baluchis from western Pakistan. They do not grow the enormous ’cycle-handle’ moustache, which is so popular among Hindu Rajasthanis. The women’s dress is very beautiful, the upper half a patchwork of bits of cloth, silver, and small, glittering buttons. Around their wrist – and sometimes also their neck – they wear heavy silver jewellery.
One of Jamset’s camels, its forelegs tied together, hobbles into our camp, presumably hoping to get at bit more hay. However, there is no more hay. It is meagre times, for men as well as for the camels, whose hump has been reduced to a pitiful little thing, hanging down their side. ”Camel caput” says Dina. I guess it is not quite as bad, but if rain will not soon fall, their camels may very well perish. He orders a 10-year-old boy, Ibrahim, to chase the camel back into the desert, but it assumes a threatening position, scaring the boy. The other boys laugh, pick up some branches and run towards the camel, yelling. This is too much for the camel, which immediately turns around, hobbling back into the desert. At dusk, a white-eared bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis) is calling from a dzal bush – otherwise a complete silence prevails.