Jaisalmer – The Fort City

Continued from A Day in the Desert

Even as we were leaving for our desert camp, we had glimpsed enticing sights of the golden Jaisalmer Fort located prominently atop a hilltop in the centre of the town. The Fort or the Sonar Quila (made of yellow sandstone) was of strategic importance, giving relief and respite to many a weary travellers. It’s courageous Bhati rulers,offered security to the passing caravans loaded with rich silks and precious jewels and the fort served as a crucial link connecting the east and the west,enabling trade and commerce to flourish. Given Jaisalmer’s strategic importance in the 2000-year old silk route, its no wonder that Jaisalmer is still a rich potpourri of an interesting intermingling of cultures and traditions.

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As with previous fort we had encountered, this one too had witnessed bloody sieges, massacres and the almost inevitable Jauhars. Despite the similarities, every fort feels different.Whereas the Ranthambore Fort smelt of mystery and secrecy, the Jaisalmer Fort was alive with vibrancy, not surprisingly because its one of the largest “living” forts.

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View from the fort
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View of the choc-a-bloc shops lining the bylanes of the fort

As we made our way to the fort, through the narrow and winding bylanes of Jaisalmer overlooked by buildings some reminiscent of an older era adorned by rich carvings and some cloaked by modernity, we suddenly joined the massive rush of humanity entering the fort walls.The fort houses various structures like a magnificent Jain temple, a Royal Palace and various other beautiful architectures along with a plethora of curio shops, shops selling beautiful Rajasthani works of art and eateries.

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A vendor in the fort

Since Jains constituted some of the very rich merchants passing through Jaisalmer, many of them soon settled there and the presence of Jain temples inside the fort built by the Bhati kings, is an indication of the importance they were accorded. Apart from the magnificent forts and the palaces it housed, Jaisalmer town also boasted of magnificent Havelis. One of the most striking ones was the Patwon-ki-Haweli which was constructed in 1805 by Patwa Guman Chand for his five sons. The architectural carvings on its “Jharokhas” was breathtaking and also of interest were the interesting array of household items from the past era, that was on display.

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Jain temple inside the fort
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Patwon ki Haveli
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View from Patwon ki Haveli
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The intricate carvings on the Jharokhas in Patwon ki Haveli

On the night before we were to leave, we witnessed a puppet show in a theater run entirely due to the efforts of one man, Mr. N.K. Sharma, a retired teacher.Unassuming in demeanor and impressive in what he has managed to accomplish, Mr Sharma donated his entire retirement money for the cause of keeping traditional art forms alive and to provide a decent platform for thousands of unacknowledged but extremely talented folk artists.
As the night ended to the dancing of the colorful puppets jiggling to the tunes of melodiously sung Rumi hymns, we looked forward to our next stop at Jodhpur..

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Tourist Tips:

  • If you were to visit Jaisalmer, do keep aside at least 3-4 days as there several offbeat places to see near about Jaisalmer, where you can visit old ghost towns and abandoned villages and experience the relics of the magnificent silk route.
  • We stayed at the Mystic Jaisalmer, a nice non-pricey hotel right in the center of the city. They were even considerate enough to give us free packaged breakfast for the train as we had kids with us.
  • Most of the items in the fort were supposed to 70% costlier than what you could get outside the fort, and almost all were cheaper at Jodhpur/Jaipur.

 

 

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A day in the Thar

Continued from the Ranthambore trip..

From Ranthambore, we took a train to Jaipur and another overnight one to Jaisalmer. As we neared Jaisalmer, the trees vanished and the landscape changed dramatically.We saw more and more army uniforms as we passed the station of Pokhran, given that Jaisalmer is just around 340 kms from the Indo Pak border.The heat was scorching in Jaisalmer.We were to travel another 40 kms to reach our desert camp situated on the edge of the Thar.As we left the Jaisalmer town behind, a vast panorama of open land stretched out on both sides of the road.It was as if we were travelling to the land of nowhere.

img_20161101_141338421As we drove towards the Rajputana desert camp (the one we had booked), we passed several others on the way, an oasis of white roofed tents with some jeeps and camels around. On reaching the camp,a row of small white,tent style cottages greeted us. The cottages were built with concrete walls and a canvas material used for the roofs. Considering the room rentals,I was initially taken aback by the almost spartan facilities, but then on second thoughts, it appeared reasonable when I considered that it’s probably much harder to get even basic facilities in a desert camp situated miles away from anywhere.

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The first thing on the agenda was a jeep safari into the desert and I visualized a leisurely drive up and down the sand dunes awaiting us. The open jeeps promptly arrived and off we went.Soon the driver veered off the road and we were bouncing over a rough shrub strewn track.We reached the “Sam” sand dunes and the driver accelerated wildly. We just managed to hang on to the vehicle by entwining our hands into jeep’s metal side bars.We went uphill on each sand dune on full throttle and hung precariously on the top before descending steeply.The wild life safari in Ranthambore seemed tame in comparison to this. As always, while hanging on for dear life, cameras are far from the mind, except for those poor individuals who seem so bent on perfecting their right “selfie” that they give up their lives for it. Having no such noble intentions myself, I am forced to use a YouTube video to show you the thrills of the Jaisalmer Jeep safaris.

We were finally dropped in the desert and we were relieved to see that all our limbs were intact and functioning.There were some people taking camels to travel deeper into the desert while many others lounged around doing photo shoots. A camel safari agent dogged our heels stating that he would show us the place where the shooting of Kareena Kapoor’s Refuge film happened.There were a group of gypsy women who were dancing and demanding money. Soon, the gypsies and the camel safari agents got tired of us and left us alone.

As I experienced the desert in it’s vastness,it reminded me of the sea and this poem I read on the walls of a hotel in Jaisalmer.

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The nights in the camps are a big attraction.People gather under the open sky and a group of rural folk artists sing and dance.Finger-foods are continuously served as you soak in the ambiance. The folk musicians used a very interesting set of musical instruments.One was called a Kartal, which is just two blocks of wood.Despite its simplicity, it produces a very interesting percussion sound.

 

The dancers performed the “Ghoomar” dance and the “Kalbelia” dance where the dancer bends her torso backwards and lifts a note using her mouth from the floor. Traditionally, the dance is performed by the Kalbelia community whose occupation consisted of catching snakes for their venom.So the Kalbelia dancers wear black and the sinuous movements resemble that of the serpents. Their performances also include dancing while balancing on top of plates and glasses, on knives and on glass shards.

Amidst the dancing and singing, night descended on the desert and it started getting chilly. There was a traditional Rajasthani dinner buffet consisting of various delicacies including Gatte ki Sabzi.

Early in the morning was our camel ride to see the sunrise. The ride was novel and we soon learnt that the trick was to keep your body loose and adjust to the camel’s rhythm of movement.

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What we didn’t bargain for however,was that we would be riding a celebrity. Our camel’s name was Michael Jackson! So, MJ apparently ate 20 kgs of Bajra and Jaggery ! Looking at him peacefully chewing his cud from the previous night, he was probably happier than his namesake.

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As the sun rose high over the desert, we headed back to Jaisalmer town where a magnificent “kila” and the “havelis” awaited us..

Footloose in the hinterlands of Goa

Goa.

The sun, sands and the sea? Nah. Not by a long shot.

Those were the images on our mind as well till we glimpsed a different Goa. A rustic and virgin Goa. A Goa that promised to be more alluring than its famous alter-ego. We booked our vacation through India Untravelled and got a chance to stay at one of the most amazing locations ever.

Our homestay “Cancio’s House” was located deep in the hinterlands of North Goa – in the tiny village of Aldona located on the banks of the Mapusa river. “Cancio’s House” also known locally as the Amaral’s house is a 500+ year old Goan-Portugese property owned by the beautiful family of Roberto Amaral, his graceful mom Maria, his wife Raquel, their three lovely kids – Harrison, Antonio and Rafael, their two beautiful dogs – Donut and Jess and the cat which has adopted them – Floss Boy.

Cancio's House, Aldona
Cancio’s House, Aldona

The Amarals
The Amarals

The house, which is believed to have been built in the pre-Portugese period, has undergone several restorations over generations but still retains its old world charm with lovely rooms overlooking a central courtyard. We listened avidly as Roberto recounted his rich family history in the charming dining room where black and white photos of his ancestors line the walls, lace curtains adorn the windows and the lilting strains of music floats in the background.The house is surrounded by dense foliage consisting of native trees, shrubs and creepers inhabited by a plethora of creatures.

Malabar Pied Hornbill
Malabar Pied Hornbill
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Roberto and Raquel welcome their guests warmly not only into their homes but also their hearts. I was overwhelmed by their amazing hospitality in spite of them being in the midst of a personal tragedy. My 9 year old was elated to have found such endearing friends and dogs to play with and had to be literally dragged out for any outings! As Roberto regaled us with his inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, Raquel served us wholesome home cooked meals. Her home-made chocolate brownies and jams are something to die for. We tasted several locally made breads like the Katro (Butterfly bread), Poi (Wheat flour based bread) and even had the good fortune to taste the Bol (A traditional goan bread made for distribution during marriages). Roberto took us to visit a local bakery where we had the opportunity to see the breads being freshly made. Piping hot Pois’ straight from the wood fired earthen oven tasted heavenly!

Raquel's delicious spread
Raquel’s delicious spread

Bread straight from the oven !
Bread straight from the oven !
The Traditional Bol
The Traditional Bol

Aldona is a biker’s delight as the narrow but incredibly well maintained roads crisscross the entire village. We rode past lush fields, small water bodies, local churches, old Portugese styled homes and through some interesting stretches that led nowhere. It’s a place where one can keep driving forever. We did stop at times to listen to the call of the Red Wattled Lapwing or to gaze at the beauty which a serendipitous turn on the road would reveal. We stopped by an old stone bridge with wooden sluice gates (Teen Mansher) to see an angler gathering his spoils for the day. Around 4 Km from Aldona are the ruins of the old Corjuem Fort built around 1705.A military fortress used for the defense of Portugese India, the ramparts of the fort were an excellent place to watch the sun set over Aldona.

Aldona
Aldona

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A serendipitous turn
A serendipitous turn

Teen Mansher
Teen Mansher

Corjuem Fort
Corjuem Fort

Amidst the small hamlet, the white washed walls of St.Thomas Church rises imposingly. A 400-year old church, its ornately decorated biblical murals were captivating as I attended the mass with Roberto and Raquel on All Soul’s Day.

St. Thomas Church
St. Thomas Church

'Aiz-Maka-Falea-Tuka' - Today Me Tomorrow You : Inscription on the cemetry
‘Aiz-Maka-Falea-Tuka’ – Today Me Tomorrow You : Inscription on the cemetry

The adjoining villages of Aldona boast of some breathtaking lakes and waterfalls. Mayem lake, around 10 kms from Aldona and located among sleepy villages, is a sparkling and serene water body enveloped by lush vegetation. As our boat glided in the crystal clear waters, we seemed suspended in a tranquil space as the greens above merged with their shimmering green reflections.
The Arvalem Waterfalls around 20 kms from Aldona, is located near the village of Sanquelim. Located in a small cove nestled amidst dense vegetation, the waterfall is pristine as the white foam cascades down the sheer rock cliff.
Adjacent to the waterfall, the monolithic structure of the ancient rock cut cave of Arvalem, which dates back to the 5th-6th century, stands striking with its laterite stones. As one absorbs the stillness of the chambers inside, one can almost travel back in time.

Mayem Lake
Mayem Lake

Arvalem Waterfalls
Arvalem Waterfalls

Arvalem Caves
Arvalem Caves

One cool morning before sun rise, we set off for Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. As we floated in the estuarine mangrove habitat located along the Mandovi river, we spotted several types of Kingfishers, Egrets, Redshanks, Cormorants, Brahmini Kites, Sandpipers and the more rarely seen Lesser Adjutant Storks.

Birding along the mangroves of the Mandovi
Birding along the mangroves of the Mandovi

And at long last, we did go to a beach ! Morjim beach – one of the lesser known and hence, lesser populated beaches in Goa, it also serves as the nesting site for the Olive ridley sea turtles.

Morjim Beach
Morjim Beach

My post cannot be deemed complete if I were to omit mentioning one of the most endearing aspects of staying in Aldona. And that is the people of Aldona. Extremely amiable and helpful, simple and unassuming, they unreservedly share their laughter and tears. Our cab driver, Deepak, a happy-go-lucky man was an archetypical Goan as he chattered loquaciously and prevailed on us to have home-cooked snacks with his family. Happy and contented with all that life had to offer and his uncomplicated way of looking at life, he could have given a run to many of the so-called-successful but stressed out folks. Maya Angelou’s words came back to me – “We need much less than we think we need.”

Deepak
Deepak

Au Revoir Aldona ! We leave a part of us with you and take breathtakingly beautiful memories back home.

The Salubrious Sojourns

My visit to Denmark was finally materializing and I was browsing the flight options on Yatra. Vacation planning is now at one’s fingertips – from the comfort of the home, one can plan the minutest detail – be it national or international travel, stay, food or daily itinerary.For a compulsive planner like me, I heaved a sigh of relief as I could now pose as many irrational questions and what-if scenarios to plan a vacation, without a travel agent threatening to sue me for causing a nervous breakdown.

Our last trip to Gethia near Nainital had entirely been planned remotely, as have been so many other vacations in the past.It was such a complete contrast to the vacations that I recollected with my parents when I was a kid. Vacation planning was an exceedingly hectic activity back then – dollops of advice from friends and relatives on where to go and stay, peppered with numerous calls , running around reservation counters and the action finally building up to the long awaited day of travel.But it was awesome fun all the same and as kids, it was the event of the year.

Of my trip to Agra back in 86′, besides the Taj, I remember the smell of red chillies because we stayed at a Mirchi Wali Gali(Street of chillies) and surprisingly enough,memories of us walking in the hot sun and eating fresh Kakadi (cucumber) with a dash of salt and red chilli powder.It had been a moment of camaraderie and laughter.

Funny, the things that stay with us.

Agra

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As we were chatting over tea, a close friend posed a hypothetical question. If I could take my family and friends to any place on the planet, where would that be and how would I make the trip the happiest one ever.

There were lot of things to ponder on that one.To my mind, there is a difference between traveling and a vacation. Traveling is more about the journey than the destination whereas vacation is more centered around the destination. Since this question was centering around the destination, I figured this was more of a vacation question.

To respond to that, I had to first examine what constituted a memorable vacation. Each vacation that we have had was precious to me, in its own unique way. Would I swap one for the other? Maybe not.

We loved road travel whenever possible as it offered complete freedom to do as we chose.
I still fondly remember an awesome 7-day road trip across the Nilgiris – through the picturesque ranges and coffee plantations, discovering hidden brooks and the most amazing getaways.Amidst the cacophony of the frenzied lives we used to lead, a 7-day vacation had been an absolute manna from heaven.

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So number one on my list was freedom – to choose where to go, what to do or to just sit staring at a spider weaving its web if that’s what I wanted to do. No frantic checklist activity, this. Not surprisingly, we hated packed vacations.

Short weekend vacations in the lap of nature were more frequent and each one had been memorable.Nature is probably the common trait in all the unforgettable vacations we had. Give us the smell of the earth, a walk in the woods, the chirping of the birds, the whispering of the trees or the gurgling of a stream any day.

So the next on my list is nature.

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The importance of a comfortable stay cannot be refuted.In this regard, we had developed a fondness for home-stays. A comfortable, cozy, homelike atmosphere along with delicious home cooked food were what home-stays promised.The best ones are those which have developed the fine art of giving the guests ample space and freedom to be themselves, and yet, accord a personalized home experience.

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So with that I could count out the ingredients of a great vacation for my family & friends – Freedom, Nature, comfortable stay and food.

If I could take my friends and family anywhere on the planet, then my top pick would be South Island,New Zealand. One of the most dramatic and breathtaking sights New Zealand has to offer, the majestic Fjords featured in the Lord Of the Rings, JRR Tolkein’s movie. It offers some of the purest natural landscapes one can ever experience – braided rivers, snow-topped peaks, turquoise-blue lakes, sun-drenched beaches and the magnificent Fjords.

Pic Curtsey: Forbes
Pic Curtsey: Forbes

 
 
Now for the happiness bit.Could I guarantee happiness by putting all these ingredients together ?

I remembered a short vacation to Jungle resorts where we had heard a neighboring room couple’s incessant arguing punctuated by intermediate sobbing. They cut short their vacation and left shortly after that. There was nature, good food and everything else the place had to offer, and yet, it wasn’t enough.

Last year, on a week long trip to Kerala, we had stayed at different locations. Each of the places were heavenly and we envied the owners who could stay there.
As we got talking, the owner in one place gave a glimpse into her life – life was hard with her husband being away at work in nearby metro for a substantial part of the year while she had to manage the home-stay and take care of her daughter on her own.The beauty around her became an afterthought.The lady who owned a dream place right by a beach, told us about how she felt tied down due to continued tourist traffic and how she had no time for anything else in life. The owner of yet another place, was an old man who was in charge one of the most scenic backwater resorts I have ever seen.But his forehead was creased with worry for his son who was struggling for an IT job.

It sure was an eye-opener. We had implicitly assumed that people living in places like these were blessed.We can travel all we want and stay at the best hotels and still not be happy if we are not happy from within.And we can be living in our own homes and still be having a vacation !

So if the vacation has to be the happiest trip, I would rely on each one of us to look inwards and find the happiness, to enjoy the wonder that is around us.If we have the ability to see and find joy in the small things – a beautiful butterfly, the breeze chasing the wisps of cloud in a blue sky, the call of a cuckoo, a meandering brook, I am sure each vacation would be nothing less than the ‘happiest’.

Pic Curtsey : Google
Pic Curtsey : Google

Olá Portugal !

Continued from the Denmark trip ——->

Destination : Faro, Portugal

As we waited at Billund airport in Denmark to take a flight to Faro in Portugal, I was surprised to see passengers queuing up much in advance of the flight announcement,till I came to know that you get a seat on a first-Come-first-Served basis ! Looking at the crowd, I was relieved that we had reserved seats for which one had to pay a premium.

Our flight was delayed on account of inclement weather so passengers were permitted to head to the cafeteria. We decided to grab a quick bite as well and while we were at it, were alarmed to know that our flight was scheduled to depart! A couple of hectic minutes later which involved a frantic sprint back to the gate,panic at the realization that the aero-bridge was closed and so was the one-way door through which we had entered leaving us with a brief door-banging spree, a comic relief on spotting the unobtrusive door which led to the aircraft steps, a mad dash which was abruptly halted by suspicious security staff, we were safely in our reserved seats.

Whew ! For a minute there, Portugal had seemed far away.The flight itself was a tiny affair and I was a bit nonplussed to hear passengers clapping as the plane landed.Never thought it was so close !

Our stay was arranged at a rented apartment and Maria, our landlady, had stayed up way past midnight to welcome us. Maria was a bright cheery middle aged lady and ‘colorful’ was what came to mind as I took in her bright green top with multicolored leggings, a bright pink lipstick and an electric blue nail paint.She chattered away in her broken English which in the blink of an eye used to dissolve into Portuguese. She brightened up considerably when she realized my friend spoke fluent Portuguese.Maria is typical of the average Portuguese, who are extremely friendly and go to great lengths to help. There were people who actually walked a couple of meters with us to help us locate our bus-stop !

With a population just over half a lakh, Faro is a small city situated on the southern most part of Portugal.I always believe that small cities are perhaps the best way to experience a place in its unadulterated form, uncluttered by hordes of tourists and other distractions. The city had a laid-back atmosphere and a small town feel about it attributable to its small side streets and lots of intersections. Most of the smaller streets and pavements are cobbled and when the small city bus went careening down, I had a sense of déjà vu as I remembered a very similar ride through the narrow lanes of Goa.

Streets Of Faro

We visited the Igreja da Carmo, a Baroque church situated near the city center.The surprisingly bland white washed facade of the twin towered church doesn’t prepare one for the rich ornate carvings inside. The altar and most of the carvings are gold plated and are of breathtaking beauty.

Ingreja da Carmo

Inside Ingreja

But it is the more macabre attraction behind the church which pulls visitors.This is the Capela da Ossos meaning ‘The chapel of bones’. The chapel is made from the bones and skulls of over 1200 carmelite monks and is supposed to serve as a reminder of earthly impermanence.
Capela de ossos
Capela de ossos 2

Destination : Lagos, Portugal

Our next destination was Lagos (Pronounced Laagosh), a two-hour journey by train from Faro. The sun,sand and sea is what comes to mind when I reminisce about my trip to Lagos but what will remain etched in my mind forever are the Grottos. A small maritime town boasting of 2000 years of history, Lagos’s economy is closely linked to the sea and its scenic coastline provides ample opportunities. The numerous boat companies offer various rides but the Grotto tour is a ‘must-see’. Made of limestone, Grottos are impressive rock formations carved by the sea and the wind.A motor boat takes tourists till the grotto from where a smaller boat takes people inside the different formations. As each structure is unique, every formation has been given a name by the locals.

Grotto 1

Grotto 2

Grotto 3

————————————-My experiences in Lisbon, to be continued ——————>>