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Around Hotel Suryagarh Jaisalmer – Romancing Rajasthan
UrbanEye.in was at Suryagarh Jaisalmer recently. Our first post on the interiors of the hotel and its majestic suites may be found here
Sitting in the Thar desert, under the stars, the haunting tunes of the Manganiyar folk songs made me feel like time and space were infinite. I closed my eyes to everything around me and let the melodies stir up visions of a time long ago – of caravans and merchants and jewels and royalty.
It was our first evening at Hotel Suryagarh Jaisalmer, located a few kilometres away from Jaisalmer city (and I was happy, especially after seeing the cramped living conditions of the ‘Hill Fort of Jaisal’). We reached the hotel at sundown and saw the Thar gleaming in the last of the sunlight as far as the eye could see. So it was a treat to be taken into the Thar after dark, having to rely on our local guide and our senses to make our way to a spot on the top of a dune carefully chosen for us by the Suryagarh staff. Out came the wine and cheese and other delightful entrées, and, as if it had been commanded especially for us, a spectacularly orchestrated display of lightning covering a large patch of sky! We (bloggers and travellers) ooh-ed and aah-ed our way through the electric storm, feeling insignificant in the midst of nature’s bounteous desert and never-ending sky.
After dinner, we were taken on a “Haunted Trail” through nearby villages of the Jaisalmer district. These excursions are specialities of Hotel Suryagarh Jaisalmer who have arranged a number of theme-based trips for guests at the hotel. The Haunted Trail took us through a few of the 84 abandoned villages and towns, including two of the biggest towns – Kuldhara and Khaba . Inhabited by the prosperous Paliwal Brahmin community, legend has it that they abandoned their villages and towns overnight. There are several tales of this abandonment: one has it that the prime minister of the Jaisalmer royals wanted to marry a beautiful daughter of one of the Paliwal Brahmins, who refused to allow it as the man was lower in the caste hierarchy. He therefore gave the Kuldhara people a choice: marriage or death, but instead, they chose to disappear overnight. The rest of the 83 towns and villages apparently followed suit. Another myth is that this affluent community became the target of Mughal invasions, and during one such raid, all of the wells belonging to this community were poisoned with animal carcasses, so the inhabitants were forced to leave the area. The story closest to the truth is less fairytale-like. The Paliwals matched the Jaisalmeri royalty in terms of wealth, but as the trade routes began to close and the Kak river started drying out, the Jaisalmer administration imposed heavy taxes on them, while dacoits started looting them and kidnapping the Paliwal women for ransom. The community was forced to flee overnight lest they were tracked down. We were fascinated by this folklore as told to us by our driver, Himmat Singh, a local and, Paul, our guide. However, there were parts of the “Chudail trail” that Himmat Singh would not let us get out at for fear of us disturbing the spirits of those who had passed away. We did have a chance to enter some of the temples and see, rather, feel our way through a few abandoned houses. We spent time on the terrace of one such residence, absorbing the peace and quiet of the desert while mulling over the stories of violence and bloodshed we had just heard.
The following morning, we were personally escorted by the MD and owner of Hotel Suryagarh Jaisalmer, Mr. Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, on a “Temple Trail” of the surrounding region. Our first stop was the Nabdung Mata temple set atop the highest hill in the region – the Nabdungar- and dedicated to Goddess Durga. Navratri is an important festival that is celebrated here where goats (“balli”) are offered in sacrifice.
We drove further to the burial grounds of the Paliwal Brahmin community. The ashes of the community’s members were buried and a memorial was built above the spot which had an image of the person carved on the stone along with information on their birthday and date of their passing. Assati was practiced by the community at the time, there are many gravestones which mark this now outlawed tradition.
A short distance away was the Khaba fort which overlooked the Khaba village, one of the 84 abandoned villages and towns. In the 1980s, an earthquake destroyed most of the ruins, but Khaba was not affected, making it one of the most authentic villages that still stands (as others, including Kuldhara, have been restored since).
The Lodhurva temple is the oldest Jain temple and the biggest pilgrimage site in Jaisalmer. It is located in the former capital city of Jaisalmer – Lodhurva. As it was located in the plains, the city was not secure and was frequently attacked by foreign invaders including Muhamad of Gazni. The capital was finally shifted to Trikuta Hill and people moved into the new, secure fort on the hill.
As we drove through the Thar, we were amazed to see that most of the trees looked like they had been evenly manicured. We asked Mr. Shekhawat how that came about and he had an interesting response. It turns out that the camels and the goats eat the leaves at the bottom of the trees making it look like someone had carefully shaped them.
We reached the base of the Barabagh – the Royal Cenotaphs or “chhatris” of the Maharajas of Jaisalmer state – an imposing collection of monuments on a hill. It was built by the son of Jai Singh II in his father’s memory and all the Maharahas thereafter were honoured with a cenotaph each, erected at the same site. I was unable to see all the chhatris but it was easy to see that each one had a beauty and majesty of their own.
It was after this stop that our little group split up, with one group that went off-roading into the Thar and were fortunate enough to see the Great Indian Bustard, while the rest of us decided to do the more touristy thing and visit the Golden City. To be honest, I was rather disappointed at the state of disrepair that the fort had fallen into. The beauty of the yellow sandstone was lost to the smell of sewage and the congestion on the inside of the fort. The fort’s majesty is lost to the hundreds of wires criss-crossing through it and the makeshift stalls lining the sides of the streets. All that notwithstanding, we were tickled to see so many Government-licensed “bhang shops” within the city walls. We were shown one that Anthony Bourdain himself had stopped at and tried stuff from.
We were awed to learn that the fort housed seven Jain temples which were commissioned by the Maharaja. There are 6666 statues across the seven temples, and (a little anecdote I was told) if you add up the digits of the number of statues, it gives you 24 which was the total number of the Jain Tirthankaras. For me another delight came in the form of wedding invitations that I saw painted on the walls of houses not just in the fort but in the little villages we passed on our way that. It is a local tradition to paint the wedding invite on the walls of the brides’ and grooms’ houses so that everyone in the village and those from the surrounding ones as well who pass by the houses can view the details of the impending nuptials. Suffice to say that Jaisalmeri hospitality is open and welcoming.
After a full day immersed in the richness of Jaisalmeri culture and history, we made our way back to the hotel for another kind of royal treatment: an evening at the spa ‘Rait’. As we bid farewell to the golden-hued landscapes of the Thar, what stayed with us was not only the expanse of the desert, but also of the hearts of those we met in Jaisalmer, namely Hotel Suryagarh’s wonderful staff.
Experienced and blogged on the invitation of Suryagarh Jaisalmer by: Preethi Pinto (@preethimpinto) –