“The desert invokes images of a vast expanse, a timeless space of beauty, wonder and longing. Come to the desert to commune with a higher power or the forces of nature.”
The word desert invokes images of endless sandy scenery, wavy dunes, sand all squishy underfoot – or blowing up into your face by the wind; in fact, sand: EVERYWHERE!
I have always loved the desert. The feeling I get when I sit on a sand dune is one of nothingness - seeing nothing, hearing nothing. Yet through the silence, something throbs, and gleams continuously.
The desert wears a veil of mystery. Motionless and silent, it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed, yet forever waiting.
What is life after all? It seems like a desert of continuously shifting sand dunes: unpredictable and erratic. Harmony changes into dissonance and the immediate outlives the profound. I have visited the Thar Desert several times, exploring its beauty but every time it looks different.
One such desert that is close to my heart is Jaisalmer. The city is undoubtedly an exotic desert city. But Desert national park nearby, which is a geological wonder intrigues me more with a history of millions of years preceding it.
I and my wife visited Jaisalmer about twenty five years ago. We were staying at a guest house, where another young couple was also staying. They got friendly with us. They said, we are hiring a jeep for sightseeing. Why do not you and aunty join us?
That way, we will share the cost and trip would be economical for both of us. That is how we visited the Desert National Park.
The Desert National Park in Rajasthan is one of the largest national parks, covering an area of 3162 kms, of which 1900 sq. Kilometres is in Jaisalmer district and the remaining 1262 kilo-meters in Barmer district.
Millions of years ago, dinosaurs roamed here in the wilderness. Yes, fossils of dinosaurs, about sixty million years old, have been found in this desert. The park also boasts of collection of fossils of animals and plants which are 180 million years old.
In the park, when I picked up pieces of wood, which had turned into stone, I was wonderstruck and surprised. These wood pieces, now fossils, had retained their original shape! Nature can surprise you in amazing ways.
Despite a fragile ecosystem, there is an abundance of birdlife here. The region is a haven for migratory birds as well as resident birds of the desert. Many varieties of eagles, harriers, falcons, buzzards, kestrel and vultures are spotted here.
The Chinkara or Indian Gazelle is a common antelope of this region. The national park's other notable inhabitants are the desert fox, wolf and desert cat. Birdlife in this sandy habitat is vivid and spectacular. Birds such as sandgrouse, partridges, bee-eaters, larks, and shrikes are commonly seen.
Perhaps the greatest attraction of the park is a bird called the great Indian bustard, critically endangered species found only in India. The Desert National Park is one of the last sites in which this species can be found in good numbers. As such, the species draws in thousands of birdwatchers from all over the world.
In addition to the great Indian bustard, the park supports a variety of other birds of interest to birdwatchers and conservationist’s alike. Nature always intrigues me. Desert is a place where hardly any vegetation grows but look at the mystery of nature. Some of the most beautiful flowers grow in this desert.
The Thar Desert, often called an 'ocean of sand', covers a large area of western Rajasthan. The fragile ecosystem of the Thar supports unique and varied wildlIife.
The vegetation is sparse, and patches of Sewan grass and aak shrub can be seen. The landscape includes craggy rocks and compact salt lake bottom as well as intermediate areas and both fixed and shifting dunes. Around 20 percent of the vast expanse is covered with sand dunes.
Me and my wife visited Jaisalmer the second time when our son, Ankur and daughter in law Yogita visited us about five years ago in late December with our grandsons Rishabh (5 years) and Rohan (6 months). The plan was to celebrate the New Year’s Eve at Sam’s Sand Dunes with camel rides, folk dances and a grand dinner.
It was during this visit that I learnt that the Golden City of Jaisalmer is located close to the Pakistan border and was a Medieval Trading Centre. The Jaisalmer fort was built by King Jaisal Rawal in 1156.
The beautiful fort of Jaisalmer rises from the desert itself and seems to become one with golden hues of the sand. The setting sun adds its own magic and shrouds the fort in a mystique charm. It is one of very few living forts in the world as nearly one fourth of the old city's population still resides within the fort.
For most part of its history, Jaisalmer fort itself was known as Jaisalmer. The first settlements outside the fort walls, to accommodate the growing population of Jaisalmer, started coming up in the 17th century.
The fort's massive yellow sandstone walls are a tawny lion colour during the day, fading to honey-gold as the sun sets, thereby camouflaging the fort in the yellow desert. For this reason it is also known as the Sonar Quila or Golden Fort.
I would like to narrate one incident here relating to my grandson Rishab, who was just five years old. As we entered the fort, we found a small girl child walking on a rope tied between two poles, about fifteen feet above ground level. Her mother was playing dholak and both mother and father were singing Rajasthani folk songs. Rishabh is a very compassionate child.
He asked me in all innocence, Grandpa, why such a small child is performing such a dangerous act. I said Rishabh, they are poor with little money. They have to earn their livelihood every day for survival.
Grandpa, could we give them some money, asked Rishabh. Sure son, was my reply. I gave him a ten rupee note. Rishabh walked all the way where they were performing and gave money to the mother. They blessed him with folded hands. After a few minutes he again asked me, grandpa, is this money enough for a meal. No beta, was my honest reply. Hope others watching the show chip in with some more money.
Could I give them some more money please grandpa, said Rishabh. I smiled and handed him another ten rupee note. He again walked up to them and gave money to the little girl. We watched them performing for some more time. My grandson was getting restless again. I was sitting on a chair. He came to me, hugged me and gave me a kiss. Grandpa, said Rishabh, for the last time, please give me one more ten rupee note for the poor, please. I was happy. Despite being born and brought up in America, child was full of kindness and compassion. I have never been able to forget this incident.
Jaisalmer is also famous for its havelis built by noblemen and traders of the city. Havelis are known for sandstone architecture and carvings. Famous havelis include Patwon ki Haveli, Nathulal ki Haveli and Salim Singh ki Haveli.
In Jaisalmer, we stayed at a traditional Haveli built in the same pattern of Grand Old Havelis. In the morning, as we came down the stairs, we were greeted by a German lady in perfect English. During our conversation, she told us that she came to Jaisalmer about thirty years ago and fell in love with owner of the Haveli, a Rajput as well as with Jaisalmer and Rajasthani culture. They got married and now this is her home.
On 31st December, we all went to enjoy charm and warmth of Sam’s Sand Dunes, a part of Desert National Park. We took a camel ride and settled on the sand dunes to enjoy the spectacular sunset. As we watched, the Sun slowly turned in to a spectacular red ball of fire with horizon becoming reddish in colour.
All of a sudden, darkness approached as if someone had switched off the lights. There was stillness all around and I felt as if I was nearer to God. Slowly, moon and bright stars appeared in the sky.
It was now time to move to the open air restaurant. Bonfires had been lit, chairs arranged to sit and enjoy Rajasthani folk dances and folk songs before we said goodbye to this beautiful city full of mystique and charm.