Jaisalmer’s sands have witnessed hundreds of caravans of traders and travellers over the course of centuries. This has lent the desert destination a unique diversity of flavour. On a trip to this ancient Silk Route junction, the writer unravels the many secrets of Thar. By Ananya Bahl
The setting is too good to be true. I’ve just alighted from my trusty camel to see vibrant swaying cloth break the stark monotony of the desert. After a ceremonial welcome in royal fashion, I settle down to enjoy the mesmerising view. My fellow travellers and I are seated on majlis-style cushions shaded by canopies, gin-and-tonic in hand, and are being served generously by a team led by Nakul Hada, general manager, Suryagarh Jaisalmer. In front of us, Mehboob Khan and his troupe croon ballads against the backdrop of the setting sun. They belong to the Manganiyar community who used to sing for royal families on important occasions like festivals, childbirth, death, and even the onset of war. They narrated tales about families, and in return, received positions in royal courts and land as patronage.
It is August, the perfect season to experience their monsoon singing tradition. Mehboob Khan traces his ancestral roots to Sindh (once a part of United India, now in Pakistan) but he was born in a village in Rajasthan called Phalodi, located between Bikaner and Jaisalmer. This oral tradition is handed down generations, and most of his troupe, the women included, are from Khan’s extended family. Hada tells me about Jaisalmer’s reputation as the ‘land of gypsies’ and how some of the most primitive musical instruments are still widely played here. These include the algooza (double flute) and khartal (wooden castanets). The evening’s final act is performed by a musician who adeptly extracts folk and popular tunes from the morchang (Jew’s harp). So, this is how the Silk Route travellers romanced a starry night during those long, hard months of travel!
People from Mongolia, China, and the Far East journeyed for months through these lands. Evidence of its status as a renowned stop on the Silk Route can be seen today in the 1,100-year-old Jaisalmer Fort, ancient havelis, and architecture pre-dating the Mughal period. Even the populace is varied: Muslim communities, the singing Manganiyars and Langas, the Bhati Rajputs, and the Bhils (nomadic settlers) call this region home. Suryagarh Jaisalmer is located about 20 kilometres from the city, and as Hada and I drive past the dunes, a mise en scène reminiscent of this glorious past unfolds at a leisurely and indulgent pace. The most striking evidence is in the locals’ attire. The Hindu Rajput women are veiled and appear in bright yellows and pinks, wearing both gold and silver jewellery, while the men wear white kurtas and dhotis along with brightly coloured turbans. Muslim women wear bottle-green, black, and grey robes along with a round, bulky nose pin; the men are dressed in long kurtas and a wrap-around called a tehmat, along with a white safa.
We stop at the Khaba outpost of Jaisalmer’s royal family, which served as the first resting station for travellers on the Silk Route. The royals would take a fee or surcharge from these travellers, give them provisions along with security so that they were rejuvenated to resume their trading journey into Central India. This was mostly done through a barter system that resulted in the introduction of goods and artefacts from Central Asia. It was some time during this juncture in antiquity when the Paliwal Brahmins of the region rose in prominence. They were expert craftsmen, farmers, and opium traders who left Pali and settled in Jaisalmer. The thriving business between this community and the Silk Route travellers led to high taxes being paid by both parties to the Jaisalmer royal family. Paliwal Brahmins also identified the water reservoirs and crafted a proper system for use. There is no canal system of irrigation on these lands even today. The farmers engage in monsoon cultivation when these watering holes brim with rainwater. From the Khaba Fort, I get a bird’s-eye view of the ruins of the Paliwal village, their pasture lands, and reservoirs. Further into the hinterland are the cemeteries of the community—as per tradition, they were always situated about three to five kilometres away from the residential settlements. Even in death, there is a mark of trade, evidenced in the cenotaphs adorned with Egyptian and Phoenician symbols. These were traders from foreign lands who died during their travels and were buried alongside the Paliwal Brahmins. The Kuldhara ruins were also a part of the Paliwal community’s settlements. According to a legend, the community packed its bags and fled the place one night, leaving behind the ghost town that we see today. The story goes: around 400 years ago, a local minister in the region, Salim Singh, set his sights on one of the girls in the Paliwal community. When he expressed his desire to marry her, the community chiefs protested. But with little recourse, they resorted to their last option—escape. Today, the ruins are rumoured to be haunted, and during eerie night drives through the area, guides tell tales of scorned spirits and chudails who inhabit the place. During the day, it looks like a regular collection of broken structures and a temple. Sceptics, however, say that the place was abandoned because of decreasing water supply and a possible earthquake.
About 15 kilometres away from Suryagarh Jaisalmer is the quiet hamlet of Mundhari. The residents are mostly nomadic farmers and goat herders who are blissfully cut off from the rest of the world. What makes the area special is the presence of unique sweet-water wells. No one knows how these wells came to exist, but the resource does make the community completely self-sustained—which adds to their elusiveness. Their physical features resemble those of the indigenous people in the Hindukush and surrounding regions. The presence of beris (percolation wells that store rainwater) throughout the region stands testament to the fact that travellers from all over would stop along this route to feed their livestock. A lovely chhatri attached to the berisensured travellers could rest. The structures look like they sprung up out of nowhere, but the forefathers thoughtfully placed them at strategic locations. Our drive ends at a stunning vantage point from where we can see the Jaisalmer Fort twinkling under the night sky. I can only imagine the relief the Silk Route sojourners would’ve felt seeing the glimmering citadel and hearing the cacophony of civilisation after endless months of isolation en route.
Hada decides to reward my enthusiastic explorations with a Thar-style dinner. We sit under canopies, and Mehboob Khan and his troupe join us as we dig into specialities inspired by the region. The standouts for me are the bolito khargosh (hare meat cooked on wood fire), sangri salad (a creamy slaw made with indigenous desert bean), fennel-flavoured khamiri roti, and a delectable samosa stuffed with mawa. After a regal meal, I lie on the shifting sands of time, my thoughts flitting back to those who arrived here after much harder journeys. A shooting star streaks across the night sky, and instantly, I feel like my spirit has connected with that of a weary traveller from aeons ago.
By road, one can reach Jaisalmer via national highways from Jodhpur (282 km), Bikaner (331 km), and Jaipur (555 km). Currently, TruJet (trujet.com) operates direct flights to Jaisalmer from Ahmedabad. The luxe Palace on Wheels train stops at Jaisalmer as well.
Blending the region’s traditional ethos with luxurious modern delights, Suryagarh Jaisalmer strives to showcase a side to Rajasthan that is off the tourist radar, and it does so with panache. Consider booking through its current Shelter at Suryagarh programme, which starts at INR 10,000, plus taxes, per night and includes ceremonial dinners, daily live music, cocktails, and high-speed WiFi to enable guests to work remotely. Charter flights are available on request. Haveli Residences from INR 19,000 plus taxes per night, Pavilion Rooms from INR 10,000 plus taxes per night; suryagarh.com
Don’t miss the Breakfast with Peacocks at Khaba Fort. Indulge in a Halwai-style menu as hundreds of peacocks flock here at dawn to feed. Try the sand treatments at Rait—The Spa, which offers services inspired by the Silk Route, using indigenous frangipani and oils. Intrepid explorers can embark on Suryagarh Jaisalmer’s midnight Chudail Trail, which navigates the ghost town of Kuldhara, dark lakes brimming with spirits, ancient burial grounds, abandoned ruins, and other surreal spots in the desert.