A group of about 12 people, battered by the chilly winds, huddle close together to try and keep warm. The flames around them surreptitiously licked the outer confines of their immediate surroundings. Yet, in the icy blusters the flame represented an ally, valiantly flailing in the wind, almost trying to ward it off. ‘Bone-chilling’ was no more just an expression you had read somewhere. At that moment, all 12 pairs of eyes immediately darted to the server, resplendently dressed in black with a red turban, who was carrying a plate of sizzling boti kababs and seekh kebabs. If there was a hungry pack of wolves close by, they’d have been put to shame at how quickly the food was consumed.
The scene was at Bal Samand Lake Palace Hotel, situated in the heart of Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Like much of Rajasthan, the Bal Samand Lake Palace Hotel is built on the Rajput era architectural blueprint, complete with small foyers crowned by the characteristic cupolas. Dinner here, especially at the peak of the desert winter, is as pleasing to physical senses as it is to the gastronomic ones. The rustic charm of an idyllic Sarangi playing in the background is lost on few. Surrounded by flaming furnaces, only barely managing to keep you warm, the piping hot food is worth its weight in gold. Quite literally too, as the Bal Samand Lake Palace hotel’s entry on your travel ledger will stand out among others. This is an experience to be had, though.
As we travelled back to Jodhpur, from Jaisalmer, to catch the flight back home, a part of me wants to take home some of the sand from the night before with me. But we humbly accept the lesson that the grains of sand flowing through our hands teach us; that life is fleeting. There are more memories to be had, more adventures to be embarked upon. Somewhere, in some corner of the world there is a grain of sand with your name on it. Waiting for you to try to hold it while it teasingly slips through. And then it starts again.
My trip to Jodhpur began as almost every traveler’s Jodhpur trip does, at the majestic Mehrangarh Fort. Peeling stuccos, intricate carvings and resplendent Rajput paintings of old adorning the walls greet you as you enter. Mehrangarh (roughly translating to ‘Sun-fort’, named after the Surya Devta who was the Rathore clan’s chief deity) has one of the best museums in all of Rajasthan. Built by the Rao Jodha in 15th century, stepping inside the fort one feels the fort talking to you, reciting the history of the town itself. The view of the horizon from any one of the numerous jhaankis is speckled with hordes of blue houses, lending credence to the fact that Jodhpur is, indeed, the Blue city of India. A zipline tour of the city that starts from the fort is a must-do for all the adrenaline junkies but seeing as I sit comfortably on the opposite end of that spectrum, I chose to give that a pass. The kilkila cannons used by the occupants of the fort to defend Jodhpur against armies of Bikaner and Jaipur pompously overlook the cliff on which the fort is built. When you are tired of canvassing the huge acreage of the fort, Café Mehran offers a welcome food-and-drinks pit stop. As you sip the warm tea or the cool milkshake you can’t help but feel, looking around at the fort, you’ve just taken the first sip of the beverage that is Rajasthan’s vast history. With the trip leading you to Pokhran and Jaisalmer, it will have many a history aficionado jumping out of his shoes. Jodhpur also has some indigenous foods that, while seeming idiosyncratic to the outsider, are a very big part of the locals’ life. Garam Doodh-Jalebi is one of these foods, where milk is boiled almost to splitting point before being served. A huge tumbler of milk in your hand, you are then handed enormous Jalebis which you are then supposed to dunk into the milk and gratify your stomach with this gross excess of carbs and fat. Worth the cheat day, I believe. Another emblematic food product of this area is the 'Pyaaz ki Kachori'. Now, Kachoris are found all over India but none like the ones found here. Kachoris in India are and evening snack, a munchie to satisfy that fleeting sense of hunger. Here, they’re a full-fledged breakfast. One kachori big, and delicious, enough to satisfy a person’s morning appetite. An interesting story that I read in the local paper when I was there had these Kachoris as the titular character. A Pilot of a very famous airline flying from Mumbai to Delhi via Jodhpur, so infatuated by the Kachoris delayed the flight by more than 2 hours so that the Kachoris he wanted could be delivered to him. A warm story of love between man and food made slightly less poetic by the fact that the pilot was de-rostered later by the airline. Nevertheless, the Kachoris of Jodhpur are pretty amazing.
From Jodhpur, I travelled on to Pokhran, site of the famous nuclear bomb tests conducted in ‘98. Not much to see here except the fort, really. I wanted to see the crater that the nuclear tests left but that is very far away from the actual town and cordoned off for fear of stray radioactivity. I was fortunate enough to be travelling with a family friend who happened to somehow know the present crown prince of Pokhran through a chain of mutual friends that he tried to describe to us on multiple occasions and we nodded along, pretending to register the sequence. The most royal lunch I’ve ever been to then proceeded to commence, with the quintessential long dinner table that and the subdued manners that we knew royals across the world have but had never seen firsthand. A guided tour of the palace followed the sumptuous lunch and along with it came, for me, for the first time ever, a history lesson in the first person. “Our Great Grandfather did this, Our Grandfather did that.” and a plethora of anecdotes that had us all ears for the good part of a couple of hours. The DNA of almost all of the forts in Rajasthan is very much the same and this was no exception. Pokhran had never been a Rajput powerhouse and hadn't waged any war with any neighbouring kingdoms on its own. This docile nature is reflected in the subtle modesty and the dignified minimalism of the fort itself and in the humility of the royal family too.
Jaisalmer was the real purpose of this trip. I had always wanted to spend a night, in winter, on the sand dunes of Rajasthan, cradled in the arms of nature. Sam, on the outskirts of the town of Jaisalmer, is the place where the actual dunes are. In the few years, numerous establishments have sprung up offering exactly what I was looking for; a tent on the dune and a blanket to keep out the cold. Nothing more, nothing less. Well, they do offer a bit more. A bonfire at night, to sit around. With complete strangers. Tell stories, sing songs. Watching the sun go down between two dunes of sand might sound like a clichéd thing to do, but believe me, time tends to stand still as the sky grows blood red, seemingly angry at the Sun’s departure, and the darkness slowly envelopes the shape shifting dunes. The evening desert chill is the mutual enemy and the warm embrace of the bonfire the mutual ally. Holding your hands close to bonfire and then picking up a fistful of sand may sound like an immensely stupid and pointless thing to do but on that day it provided a solace so eloquent, you felt lost in it. A personification of the Yin and Yang. That evening was one of the truly memorable ones of my life. Any traveler to Jaisalmer must experience this for himself; you’ll carry memories of these moments for a lifetime. As nightfall descends, the cold becomes unbearable and everyone begrudgingly retreats into the tents of theirs. Stretching every sinew in the fabric of the paltry blanket provided, I try to cover every part of my body from chin to toe. As the mercury dips close to zero, I realize that trying to keep oneself warm here is, with the given apparatus, is a mere exercise in futility. Somehow I drift off and while my body is pummelled with icy bursts of desert winds, my mind is at peace. The fact that I wake up with a stiff neck takes away from the romanticism of the evening gone by but that is a small price to pay for the experience to be had.
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