Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Travelling the SIlk Road to Jaisalmer

Deep in the blazing heart of Western Rajasthan, the golden city of Jaisalmer rises like a fairytale from the hill.

Maharajahs and kings lived here, and in fact still do - there is one in residence next door to the haveli I'm staying in. After Independence in 1949, when all the maharajahs gave up their royal status, many of them retired to their "seats", the district capitals in which they lived, and I have it on good authority that next door's king is probably not putting up with the cold showers and death-defying powerpoints that I currently am.

Jaisalmer is like the ultimate India. It's made from yellow sandstone and it glows in the desert sun - which is burning hot today, I've got my first sunburn after only 10 minutes outdoors with short sleeves on. It was founded in the 12th century and was part of the caravanserai trade route, because it's close to Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

Rising out of the desert is a single hill, and on top of it is the Jaisalmer Fort (every city has one), and about a quarter of the people who live here today live inside it. If you can navigate the hundreds of cows who sit curled up in the street like cats, it has a spectacular view over the surrounding countryside and desert sunsets from here are apparently the stuff of legend. 

Like everything else in India though, the fort is crumbling under the sheer weight of the people it supports - there are major issues with all the water that is poured through the plumbing system every day - about 12 times the capacity the fort was built for - and we all know what happens to a sandcastle when you pour water over it. That doesn't seem to stop anyone though, and there are no visible signs of conservation.

Given that this town depends on tourism, I wonder what will happen to it in the future if the fort is a wreck? Perhaps it will have to depend on camel safaris alone for its income.

Jaisalmer is also well known for its traditional handicrafts - mirror work, weaving, fabrics and woodworks - and everywhere you go there are touts trying to sell you something. I'm pretty immune to this kind of behaviour, which I think I can credit to the super-strength inoculation I got in Egypt a few years ago ..... if you can survive the hassle in Egpyt, the Indian hassle pales in comparison. 

And if you look past the hassle, what you see are the amazing people. The Indians here are very dark-skinned, with fine features, delicate little skeletons and fragile little arms - the women look like they'd blow away in a puff of breeze.

But they wear the most incredible hardware on their bodies: silver jewellery, rows of camel bone bangles up past their elbows, heavy gold necklaces, nose piercings connected to their earrings by heavy gold chains, hair ornaments of pearls and gold, it's quite astonishing.

Wearing your wealth in the form of jewellery is a long Indian tradition, and it takes particular prominence here in the rural areas, where many people still live in mud buildings with thatched roofs - if your assets are in things other than property, they are more practical and more portable too, if you'll excuse the pun .

Plus if you wear your wealth you always have something to sell, and for women who historically weren't allowed to own anything except jewellery, that is super important. It was how they displayed their value. Double plus, gadding about town with a treasure trove hanging off your body is incredibly good for your status, too.

For most of us tourists though, gadding of any kind is well nigh impossible in this heat. I'm going to take a cue from my canine friend here and curl up for a nap until the weather cools. 

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