Jaisalmer==Desert Fortress

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I had been dreaming of visiting Jaisalmer ever since I was a kid. I made plans and plans and plans but something always prevented it. I did not want to go by train or bus or any other transport. My religion always was to go by my own vehicle. I would have preferred to go by bike but I could not get a bike in Jaipur from where I was to start (I live in Pune). My NRI sister had just bought (and fully paid for) a car for her mother (=my mother) and it was available in Jaipur for a week exclusively for me. So I decided to fulfil a childhood dream. I took off for Jaisalmer in a brand new Maruti LX. The trip was fully paid by my NRI sister==no sponsor==nothing paid for by anybody, only paid by my NRI sister. 

To me, writing a travel piece EVEN IN AN AUTO MAGAZINE is much more than BHP / RPM / KPH / TORQUE / KMPL. Why I go there is as important as how I get there. And Jaisalmer is our last frontier. Those who have seen “SARFARSOH” by Amir Khan, would know and understand how important Jaisalmer is for the security of this nation and our way of life. However I could not go direct from Jaipur. I had to see Ravi Bhatnagar, an old friend and colleague Prof. At BITS Pilani, where I too was professor for ten years (1987-96) till I got sacked in 1996 for being AWOL, for not being at the beck and call of the then Director of BITS. But that’s another story. 

I took off from Jaipur @ 13:20 PM for Pilani, via Jhunjhunu. Getting out of Jaipur was painful, as it would be getting out of or into any town. I had to ask directions a few times. However, once you are out of town, the road is excellent. With me was a student of mine, Sanjay Sharma, doing MBA at IIMM in Pune where I teach. The car had a music system, but basically being a bike man, “cassette-player-music-on-the-move” is unknown to me, so I had no bloody tapes. The radio wasn’t catching much sense. So conversation it was, with Sanjay Sharma who is a “susheel-balak” who does not smoke or drink (I do both like chimney and fish) and has no known vices. Poor fellow, stuck with a debauch like me. 

Halfway we stopped at a Dhaba for tea @ 5.pm. Got talking with the owner and another half-a-dozen hangers-on. Chowdhary types. The clash of civilizations had begun in Iraq. Talk of that war led to talk of our own war in Kashmir. Everyone agreed why things were the way they were. Everyone agreed that there was a solution to the current impasse. Everyone even agreed as to what exactly the solution is. However it is not prudent to mention it here. It will manifest itself when the time comes. 

We drove on. The ALTO was performing beautifully (I think). See, I am a bike man and I dunno much about car comparisons. If it kaputs, I can fix it and get it to the next destination. But which car is good and which car is bad, I dunno. Bikes, I kno, cars I dunno. Actually I was dreaming about riding the Hyosung Aquila (Kinetic) to Jaisalmer, but somebody had stolen my test Aquila bike (which has now been found and restored to the owner) and I had to fall to the low level of four- wheeler. 

We reached Pilani just before dark and I espied Ravi Bhatnagar where he said he would be. After pleasantries, he fitted us in to the XLNT (excellent) CEERI Guestappo house. Dinner was at a dhaba @ 5 km from CEERI. OK food. Fair price. Own booze allowed. The owner was a Mr.J.Bond, and the waiter serving us was a Mr. D. Duck (Names changed upon request). Returned from dhaba and slept. In Sarkari CEERI guest house, Air-Cond was ACTUALLY WORKING!! 

Morning awakening was sudden with LOUD kaain-kaain sound. Very loud but very pleasant, even though it broke my slumber. I went out into the first-floor balcony to check, since the sound had come from outside, and I espied four-MORE (more==peacock) sitting on a branch and doing kaain-kaain. Some clock manufacturer should have “peacock-wake-up-calls” for morning alarm instead of tring-tring or beep-beep. Imagine being woken up by peacock Kaain-kaain. What luxury! 

Next day (Sunday 23 March 2003) was the world cup cricket final, and a lot of BITS students, both male and female, were drifting around BITS campus with Indian flag painted across their noses. Big screen view of match was available on the big screen in the BITS auditorium. We took a round of the BITS science museum. It is worth a visit. There is also an art gallery. However it was “closed”. When we enquired with the security, they simply said, “saheb, aaj band hai”. Just like that. And we are supposed to take it. You’re charging eight bucks for entry, Mr.Director of BITS, its not free. Whaddyu mean by asking your servants to say,”aaj band hai”?? Sarkari sickness. Sarkari cancer. Exists everywhere. Even BITS is falling to pieces, like everything else. 

Morning Monday 24th March 2003, saw us driving to from Pilani to Bikaner via Chirawa, Buggar, Jhunjhunu, Mandawa and Fatehpur. None of these towns has a bye-pass, making it mandatory to drive thru them. Very painful. Much traffic jams in Fatehpur. It was a pain going thru this town. Some Anglo-Saxons (goras) were taking pix of carved walls. 95 km out of Pilani, after crossing Fatehpur, brought us to NH-11. On NH 11, driving is a pleasure. We had left Pilani by 10 am, so we had ample time. Lunch on the way was at an XLNT dhaba named Riddhi-Siddhi at a place called Biramsar, tehsil Ratangadh, District Churu. It had its own water source. At each eating stop, we were invariably asked our jaat. Sanjay would tell his, but I would only say that I did not follow any foreign religion. Which means I could be Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Tribal, animist, adivasi, all of which==Hindu. Anything that grew out of this land seemed to be acceptable. Food was generally between very good and excellent. I eat only dal-roti. Cheapest and best. Onions (unlimited) are free. 

At Bikaner I stayed at Shivam hotel. Col. Bhati (and his son mainly) who own and run this place, were hospitality personified. Good clean room. Reasonably priced. Water flowing. Good plumbing. We sat on the terrace under the stars, Col. Bhati and me. Much talk about this and that, Iraq included. Sanjay Sharma (Bikaner is his home town) went to spend the night with his family and was not with us. 

Next day (Monday 25th March 2003) first thing Sanjay managed to borrow a bike. It was a beat up, worn out old Caliber. Excellent. Even a punctured LUNA is preferable to a brand new four-wheeler. Caliber was an out-and-out bonus. We rode to Deshnoke (32 km) to seek blessings at the Karni Mata Temple. I suspect Karni Mata is an avatar of Parvati, Mother of Ganeshji. We all know Ganeshji rides a chooha (=rat) and the Karni Mata mandir is full of rats. Thousands of them. They walk over your feet as you walk around the temple. They gave me the creeps, but that’s what we’d come for. We also spent an hour in the adjoining hall (entry Rs.5/-) seeing the paintings showing events in the life of Karni Mata and reading the captions written below them. Very enlightening. Returned to Bikaner on Caliber and went to see Junagadh fort and museum. You cannot go inside Junagadh fort unless you hire (and pay for) a guide, in addition to paying entry charges, camera charges etc. etc. This (guide hiring) is apparently compulsory. The guide (sarkari??) takes his own time to make an appearance. Meanwhile you cool your heels, drift around, smoke, whatever. This is “sarkari” tourism, remember? The guide parrots out whatever has been tape-recorded into him. Apart from the name of Rao Bika, the founder of Bikaner, nothing else connects. After all, I am no Ph.D. in history of Rajasthan. We toured various chambers and were told which king did what, where, why, how, and to whom. How many wives each had, and which wife’s offspring finally became the ruler, how and why. Very interesting. I wish we had such candid guides who would tell us the history and ancestry of the erstwhile occupants of 10 Janpath in Delhi and their ancestors at Anand Bhavan in Allahabad. 

We left Shivam Hotel Bikaner at 14:15 pm. On the road to Jaisalmer, 14.5 km from Shivam Hotel, Bikaner, we stopped at a BP petrol pump and topped up the fuel tank. Petrol was Rs.35.72 per litre. Cheaper than Pune. Left this petrol pump at 14:45 pm. Odo reads 555 km. The drive from Bikaner to Jaisalmer is outta this world. XLNT road. Almost billiards table quality surface. Zero traffic. One could really open throttle. Even fly. I wish I had the Garware HYOSUNG bike. What fun it would be. But here I am stuck with a brand new Alto. It was performing beautifully, but cars are not my cuppa tea. Whattodo? No choice. 

We crossed the railway line many times. The vegetation started thinning out. Yet there were thorny bushes. Along the road as well as all over, right up to the horizon. Some greenery as far as the eye could see. Sparse they were, but fairly generously spread out. “Keekad” I believe they are called. This was in striking contrast to the Sahara Desert (which I crossed on a Kinetic Honda in 1992). In the Sahara, you cannot see even a single blade of grass for a thousand miles in any direction. Thus, compared to the Sahara, our THAR desert is almost a garden. There was wildlife too, mostly a lot birds. Many camels, sheep and goats grazing. And PEACOCKS. A dozen at a time. Never seen so many peacocks at a time in my life. Great sight. “Look Sanjay”, I said, “More and More” (=many peacocks). Sanjay made a pistol out of two fingers, pointed them at this herd of peacocks and did dhich-kyaon, dhich-kyaon sound with his mouth and said, “No more”. That’s the latest ‘Ajit’ joke for you. (Remember the late actor Ajit, of Mona and Raabert fame?). 

At a wayside settlement I saw a sign saying, “Sharaab ke daam may bhaari chhoot”. I stopped. Went into the shop. The guy was selling McDowell Celebration Rum at Rs.80/- a bottle. (It costs Rs200/- in Pune). The guy was clearing stocks, since 31st March 2003 (eight years ago) was less than a week away. Good enuff, but what if it is not genuine? I bought one, opened and tasted. It was genuine. He had only four bottles. I bought all four. Saved Rs.480/-. Not bad. In fact Compared to today 15 June 2011==more than eight years later the price in Pune is now 400/- per full bottle. 

We hit Jaisalmer at 19:05 pm. Odo reads 870. That’s 315 km in 4 hours & 20 minutes (=260 minutes), giving us an average speed of almost 73 km per hour. XLNT. Jaisalmer is outta this world, figuratively as well as literally. 

Figuratively, as in every building in this town is of a colour, which does not exist anywhere else in the world. Every building is made of the typical, exclusive, yellow Jaisalmer stone which is not available anywhere else in the world. The colour really hits you between the eyes. By contrast, Jaipur (pink) and Jodhour (blue) are hackneyed. Jaisalmer is el-primo. Literally, because in days gone by (when camel was the only transport), it was almost impossible to reach Jaisalmer unless you know the water sources on the way. Thus, when Mohd. Ghazni attacked Somnath, all the sacred Hindu+Jain texts that could be saved from his pillage, were brought from Gujrat to Jaisalmer and are still today stored here in underground vaults of the Parshvnath Mandir in Jaisalmer fort. 

After a short recce, we checked into the Fifu Guest House @ Rs.300/- per double room in March 2003, more than eight years ago. Clean room. Airy. Water on tap and good plumbing. Fifu guest house is not inside the fort, but about a km away from it, out on the plains. 

It has a rooftop restaurant which gave a good view of the surroundings. As late in the season as this (25th March 2003) the guest house was full. We were the only Indians staying in it. All others were Anglo-Saxon. 

We walked around town much after dark. Walking was a pleasure, since motorized traffic was sparse. I believe Jaisalmer has the lowest road accident rate in the whole country. By 21:00 pm the whole town was asleep. Next morning we walked up to the fort and did the mandatory tourism = two main temples and two main havelis. We also walked around all parts of the fort, which actually is the main residential area. There is a cannon atop one of the havelis. Both the temples are embellished with thousands of carvings. Human as well as animal figurines. Single, double as well as multi. However, I found only ONE carving which was sexually explicit. If you go there, you will have to make a great effort to locate it. 

There is a museum as well, which tells us that Jaisalmer was founded by Maharao Jaisal in AD 1167, that is 844 years ago. This makes Jaisalmer the oldest and most ancient Kingdom of erstwhile Rajputana. In comparison, Jodhpur was founded by Rao Jodha, in AD 1459 (almost 300 years after Jaisalmer) while other kingdoms like Jaipur, Alwar, Udaipur etc. are even more recent. Also, due to its inaccessibility, Jaisalmer was almost never part of the internecine warfare that continuously went on between the Rajput kingdoms, nor against slamix over the last thousand years or so. Even the Mughals were never able to reach Jaisalmer. Nobody could reach Jaisalmar unless he knew the water sources on the way. And NOBODY knew, except the CHOSEN FEW who will MARCH IN SUCCESSiON ! 

After exploring the fort and some of the town, we left Jaisalmer @ 15:20 pm on Wednesday 26th March 2003, and drove full speed towards Jodhpur. Our route would be the same as the Bikaner-jaisalmer route up to Pokaran, around where we tested our second atom bomb in 1998. The first one was tested at the same place by Indira Gandhi in 1974. Pokaran has a very well maintained fort, which is visible from the highway. On the other side of the highway are some cenotaphs, not too far from the road. But I could not take very good pix, since I did not have a zoom lens. What struck me was that the most impressive building on the Pokaran main street is an Islamic Madarassa. In fact, within a one km length of this main road, I counted at least four madarassas. 

From Pokaran, our route changed, and the road quality, though very good, was not as good as the Bikaner-Jaisalmer road. Traffic was also about ten times heavier. We saw two herds of deer grazing very close to the highway. Peacocks were galore. While on the Bikaner-Jaisalmer road we had passed two villages named Bap and Chacha respectively, on the way back (to Jodhpur) we passed only Chacha, @ 18 km before Pokaran. While Bap is in Jodhpur district, Chacha is in Jaisalmer district. 

At @ 19:00 (7.pm) on 26th March 2003, we stopped at Zora Ram’s dhaba at Tolesar, 24 miles (40 km) before Jodhpur. Shri Zora Ram was kind enuff to provide us water, glasses and a secluded corner to sit shielded from prying eyes, since I was going to do “Ram-naam-japna”, i.e., drink my daily quota of Rum. Sanjay Sharma of course is not yet a Rum-ka-bhakt, though I am sure in the days to come he too will become a Rum-ka-bhakt. We had dinner consisting of one thick Bajra roti, dal and sabzi. Food was excellent. Raw Onions were as usual, fokut. We slept the night at the dhaba. Bedding costed us Rs.10/- apiece. Cheap and good. 

Sleeping at the dhaba was a wise decision. It woke us at fist light. Tea was as hot as I wanted (=no time wasted) and completing the morning “job” under a bush was a pleasure. We hit Jodhpur fairly early and headed straight to Mehrangarh fort. It took us more than two hours to do a quick tour of the fort. After which we also took in Jaswant Thada, the cremation place of Jodhpur rulers having a collection of cenotaphs depicting various rulers of Jodhpur over the centuries. From there we went to Umed Bhawan Palace, most of which is now a five star hotel, some of it a museum and some of it the residence of H.H.Gaj Singh, the current Maharajah. After this, we stopped at the Taj Hotel, where we met Shipra Bhandari, my ex-student of IIMM, who works there. 

Tourism was over. We left the Taj Jodhpur at 14:15 pm and made a bee-line for Jaipur, 330 km away. We had to go via Ajmer. The Ajmer-Jaipur road was an absolute pain. The road quality was very bad, even though they collect a toll of Rs.30/- per car. It seems in Rajasthan they collect toll BEFORE building the road. I am happy to live in Maharashtra. At least in Maharashtra, they collect toll AFTER building the road. Traffic sense on the Ajmer-jaipur road is non-existent, so is the divider (non-existent). To make matters worse, it had become dark almost as soon as we left Ajmer. Gawd! I hope, wish and pray that I never have to drive on the Ajmer-Jaipur road again. At night toh sawaal hi nahi uthta. 

H0WEVER N0W IN 2011 THE ROAD HAS BEEN RESURFACED AND IS EXCELLENT and is quite enjoyable to drive on it.


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