It’s a long sunny drive to Jaisalmer. ANURAG MALLICK test-drives a brand new Toyota Innova to bring back tales from the desert
When it comes to Rajasthan, Jaipur has always been like foreplay, that preliminary bit of fooling around until you get down to business—Rajasthan itself. With a road trip to Jaisalmer staring back at me from the odometer, it was my fastest ride to Jaipur ever. Besides, it was late at night, the four-lane highway was excellent and I had the unfair advantage of a brand new Toyota Innova I was asked to test drive. The mid-point Behror and Kotputli whizzed past and we wheeled into Jaipur at the break of dawn. The doodh mandi was stirring to life. Elephants were being readied for their daily ritual of 15-minute rides to the top of Amer fort.
After zipping along the near empty streets of Jaipur, we finally drove into Raj Palace, our first halt. Built in 1727 and owned by the royal family of Chomu, it is believed to be the oldest mansion in Jaipur, even older than the city palace. It is a local joke that every visitor gets lost in the maze of corridors at least once. Thankfully we had stopped by only for a wash and breakfast; our tight schedule didn’t even allow us to explore the twin holy cities of Ajmer and Pushkar. Besides there’s a belief about Ajmer that ‘Ajmer-e-sharif wahi jatey hain, jinhe khud khwaja bulatey hain’. It’s a divine calling and perhaps no one had heard it as loud and clear as Salim Shah.
He was our first major road discovery. On a highway with whizzing traffic here was a man for whom the world moved at 10 km/hr. For over three decades, since the age of eight, Salim had been running his own messenger service. Every year he cycled to holy Muslim shrines preaching the word of Allah, from Rajasthan to Assam and Gulbarga to Kashmir. He slept, ate, prayed and lived his life in his green contraption. As we talked over some good dhaba tea, a thousand questions erupted in my head. Why? How? What next? And almost every query was disarmingly countered with a simple shrug of the shoulders and a motion towards the heavens above. I left my Sufi Forrest Gump with his rag tag band of followers and moved ahead.
We crossed Bhim by nightfall and soon took a 20km diversion from the main highway to Udaipur towards our halt for the night, Deogarh, the citadel of the gods. Bhajans from the nearby temples—Jain mandir, Sri Ram mandir, and the Karni Mata mandir—intermingled clamorously. We stayed at Deogarh Palace, built in 1617 when the Maharaja of Udaipur appointed Sanghaji as the jagirdar of 260 villages. Over the years, the cannon store has given way to a swimming pool and the horse stable to a string of shops. The rest of the town though remains pretty much the same—narrow galis, shops jostling with each other and the great spill of humanity.
From Gomti we turned right towards Charbhuja, and the terrain slowly mutated from flat shrub land to hilly tree-lined roads as we made our way towards Kumbalgarh. Before long we were alongside the second longest wall in the world, after the Great Wall of China. Kumbalgarh is also a wildlife sanctuary and a longer stay would have probably rewarded us with a leopard sighting. However, content with a visit to its magnificent fort we headed for Jodhpur with a brief stopover at the richly carved Jain temple of Ranakpur.
Having crossed Pali, Rohit and Loni we entered Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second largest city. Winding past the first city gate and the clock tower, we stumbled upon the Pal Haveli—our halt for the night. The inclined driveway and the gate looked almost perpendicular to each other and it was the toughest access to any hotel I have ever known. Once inside, we could barely hear the chugging engine of the city.
The better part of the next morning was spent joining dots on the map of Rajasthan. This part of the state was once an important link in the Silk Route, and legend has it that local kings used to loot caravan parties carrying gold and other riches. From Lodarwa, Amar Sagar, Osian, Chautan, Tannoth, Kishangarh to Ranjitpura (the middle of the desert and hence a den for opium smugglers), this was one desert highway I didn’t want to venture on, at least not in a car. An armoured tank might have been better.
I got a lesson in history the next morning, as the car wound its way up a hillock. In the 15th century, Rao Jodha was on the lookout for a secure bastion. He came to this hillock and found a holy seer meditating. The king’s men had just about evicted Mehran Baba when the constructed walls collapsed. Mehran Baba refused to stay anymore, but blessed their project and asked that his dhuni (place of penance) be left undisturbed. While leaving he also told the king’s men that the place was cursed and that any structure built there would remain incomplete, unless a human sacrifice was offered. Rajiya Bhambi, a skinner by caste, offered his life and was bricked alive into the fort walls to guard over it as a spirit. There’s a small memorial slab at Rao Jodha’s Phalsa, which marks the exact place. Every year on May 12, the founding day of Jodhpur, the Maharaja worships the humble skinner’s tools and felicitates the kin of Rajiya Bhambi.
After a brief visit to Jaswant Thada and Ajit Bhavan we were off to the Bishnoi villages of Kejarli and Guda Bishnoiya. We stopped at Jodha Ram’s house, and while his son took out the paraphernalia for the opium ceremony, Jodha Ram elaborated on the Bishnoi cult. It was founded in the late 15th century by Guru Jambhoji, who laid down 29 (Bish-noi) conservation principles. According to local folklore, in 1730, a Bishnoi woman named Amrita Devi courted death by clinging to a tree being cut to provide fuel for the cement lime kilns to build the Maharaja’s palace. Following her example, her two daughters, husband and 363 people in total clung to the trees and gave up their lives. This sacrifice was commemorated at Khejarli village, where there is a grove of khejri.
The opium was good. In fact the drug is so potent and caustic in its pure form that it has to be stored in lumps of milk and sugar. “When two warring parties consume opium together, it means they’ve made peace with each other,” Jodha Ram elaborated. “And it is very good for a cough.” That was my cue to cough ostentatiously till some more was hastily procured and packed for the rest of the journey.
The drive from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer was a four-hour daze. I wanted to see the nuclear test site of Pokhran but was told that visiting the actual site involved a 20km detour. I thought I was hallucinating but there were actually milestones with place names like Baap, Chacha and Lathi. I was still laughing as we reached Jaisalmer. It was late evening, so we decided to stop overnight at the Himmatgarh Fort, and visit the sand dunes of Sam early next morning. Sunsets on the dunes are supposed to be spectacular, and I was hoping sunrise would be the same. It was.
Even before the car could come to a stop, camel riders came rushing towards us. After a couple of teas and a lot of persuasion we were ready for a camel ride across the dunes. “Michael. Michael!” a man shouted and shortly Bablu, Raja Hindustani and Michael Jackson trooped in. The oont-wala laughed when we quizzed him on the names, saying that the names were pretty much left to the imagination of whoever bought the camel. We were informed that only male camels are used for rides, since even as sedate an animal as the camel can find the presence of a female distracting. Keeping a camel is no easy task either.
What it saves on water, it makes up with everything else. It needs a diet of jowar ki phali, ghee and gur, involving an expense of about Rs 200-250 every morning and evening. Since we had a little time we decided to explore a section of the Desert National Park and managed to see some chinkaras. To add to the adventure the oont-walas made the camels gallop at breakneck speed. Half an hour of riding and we were ready to get back to the car.
It was going to be a long 1,000km ride back to Delhi but oddly, I wasn’t perturbed. The Innova was proving to be the perfect ship of the desert—smooth in handling, excellent road grip and roomy interiors. As we approached Bikaner, I could see nothing but a bewildering succession of Ramdevs—Ramdev dhaba, Ramdev ji Bhojnalaya, Hotel Ramdev—lining the highway. It was a truck driver who enlightened me about the Ramdev cult. The Tomar king Biram Dev, he told us, had given up hope of producing an heir to the throne, and had decided to kill himself at Dwarka. As he was drowning, Lord Krishna appeared before the king. Not only did he save the king, but also promised Bikram Dev that he (Lord Krishna) would take birth as his son.
Ramdev grew up to be a man of great spiritual powers. He produced bowls for five Muslim fakirs from Mecca out of thin air, and with his lance he created a well in the middle of the desert, which still supplies water from Ramdevra to Pokhran. Till some years back, I was told, people used to jump into the well to heal themselves and an iron grille had to be installed to prevent accidents. Thousands still apparently flock to Ramdevra during the annual mela in August.
We stopped for tea and some Bikaneri bhujiya in Bikaner. By now four days of crazy driving were catching up with us, and as the car rolled down the highway, the surrounding countryside passed in a blur of hazy images. We were soon knocking on the doors of Delhi—the colours of the city coming as a shock after the austere browns of the desert—and shaking the dust from our clothes.
Delhi – Jaipur (258km) – Deogarh (240km) – Kumbalgarh (200km) – Jodhpur (90km) – Pokhran (180km) – Jaisalmer (120km) -Sam (45km) – Jaisalmer (45km) – Bikaner (350km) – Jaipur (350km) – Kotputli (118km) – Delhi (140km).
Delhi-Jaipur-Deogarh: The four-lane NH-8 to Jaipur is probably the best highway in the country. If you are averse to dhabas, Behror is a good midway stop with restaurant facilities. Thirty kilometres from Jaipur on the route to Ajmer is Mahela, a traditional village known for its blue pottery artisans. Take the Ajmer/Pushkar bypass and continue via Bhim onwards to Deogarh. The roads are excellent but off the main highway, many stretches are single-lane, which can increase driving time considerably.
Deogarh-Kumbalgarh-Jodhpur: From Deogarh, drive 35km to Gomti chauraha, turn right towards Daisuri (20km) and Sadadi, from where it’s a 15-minute drive to Kumbalgarh. To get to Jodhpur you can either return to Sadadi and head via Sayra and Ranakpur or you can backtrack the way you came via Kelwada, Charbhuja, Desuri, Narlai. Both routes will take you via Pali, from where Jodhpur is a little over an hour’s ride.
Jodhpur-Jaisalmer: The road from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer is a ramrod-straight road via Agolai, Baleshwar, Dechu, Pokhran, Lathi, Chaandan and Hayat Hamira. Despite the distance of 300km, the road is perfect and the journey takes just about four hours. Manwar Resort & Camp is a good midway stop. To visit the sand dunes from Jaisalmer, you need to drive 45km to Sam. There’s another set of dunes at Khuri, 45km in the opposite direction from Jaisalmer town crossing.
Jaisalmer-Bikaner-Delhi: You will need to backtrack to Pokhran and then take the left towards Bikaner. Though on the same route Ramdevra, Khichan and Deshnok are all diversions from the highway. On your way back you needn’t go to Jaipur city. Thirty-three kilometres before Jaipur, you turn left from Chomu towards Samode and join the Delhi-Jaipur highway near Chandwaji. It saves you about 70km. Just ask for the Chomu-Chandwaji bypass.
WHERE TO STAY
Jaipur: The Raj Palace (Rs 2,999-10,000; 0141-2634078, www.rajpalace.com) is a good heritage hotel located on the Ajmer road. Some of the cheaper and convenient options in Jaipur are the Alsisar Haveli (Rs 1,850-2,650; 2364685, www.alsisarhotels.com) and Jaipur Inn (Rs 500-700; 2201121).
Deogarh: Deogarh Mahal (Rs 4,200-11,750; 02904-252777, 253333, www.deogarhmahal.com) is an imposing 17th- century palace that offers beautiful views of the surrounding Aravalli ranges.
Kumbalgarh: The Kumbalgarh Fort Hotel (Rs 1,695-5,000; 02954-242057, firstname.lastname@example.org) can also organise visits to the Kumbalgarh Sanctuary.
Jodhpur: Pal Haveli (Rs 1,300-1,800; 0291-2638344, www.palhaveli.com) is a beautiful haveli, which is still occupied by the family of Thakur Bhawani Singh.
Jaisalmer: The Himmatgarh Fort (Rs 2,900-3,500; 02992-252002) is located just outside the Jaisalmer fort.
WHAT ELSE TO SEE & DO
Kumbalgarh Sanctuary safari: Apart from lingering to explore the magnificent fort, you can stay longer for a visit to the wildlife sanctuary for leopards and sloth bear sightings.
Bishnoi village safari: Kejarli, Guda Bishnoiya, Rohet, Loni are all bastions of the Bishnoi tribe though Kejarli is the closest to Jodhpur. A good person to contact is Jodha Ram Ji Budhiya (0291-2838666) of Guda Bishnoiya village.
Camel safari in Sam: The oont-walas usually quote a low rate of Rs 30-50 up till Sunset Point. However, a more extensive tour of the dunes can take up to an hour and set you back by Rs 300. On busy evenings you may end up paying a lot more.
If you’d rather have some of these activities organized for you in advance contact Exclusive India (9314620141, 0294-2529015). They organize everything from camel safaris to trips to Bishnoi villages.
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the January 2006 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.