Notwithstanding the subtle mantle of high-hovering clouds webbing the east, it was a brilliant morning. A soft quietude and a caressing breeze were prevailing in the air. A fat gray ox with erected horns was walking idly the sandy street down the rooftop I was drinking my coffee at. A slender woman covered by a filmy, pink scarf was hanging the laundry on a stretched cord some few rooftops ahead. All the stone houses around that bulky rock and the massive fortress atop it were really shining like gold in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan’s golden city. A cluster of eucalypti was shading a group of house yards somewhere there, by the verge of the town. And out there, was lying sand, sand, and rock. Out there was extending the vast land occupied by Thar, the Great Indian Desert.
It was about 8.30 am when all was ready to venture out for the desert. We had all our supplies loaded in the car and, me, a French guy and our eagle-faced local driver, we were leaving the westernmost town of Rajasthan behind, aiming further west.
The town, very small as it is, soon gave out, and there was naught but hot desolateness for the most part. It was about 10 km after the town when we made our first stop. That was a small village, named something like Mulchager – if I got the spelling of the driver well. It was a tiny, rectangular, walled village, no more than 200 m2, amidst sand and parched shrub. Some 10-12 scattered clay huts were constituting the housing of its dwellers. A few scarf-covered women were scurrying up and down the village performing various works. A few children were following us with their palms open, uttering “rupee rupee” between intervals of quiet staring. A bunch of men was sitting complacently round a table in the middle of the village yard drinking chai, smoking beedies and curiously examining us strolling around their village.
Our next stop was only a couple of kilometers after. A gypsy settlement, where tents and sketchy stone shacks were loosely agglomerated within a large, open area. I found the people there much more amiable. A man was squatting on an unshaded spot, toilsomely cutting some big pieces of rock. He greeted gently. Another man, further away, invited me for a cup of chai in his small yard. His English was surprisingly good. So we got to have a very interesting conversation about their nomadic lifestyles, while his eight children were aggregated around us smiling shyly.
We continued further. The sun, by then, had risen a good deal in the dim, blue sky. The heat would be inexorably violent, if it wasn’t for that relieving breeze blowing above the derelict land, forcing the sand granules to roam through the air, and putting in rhythmic motion an array of wind generators atop those rocky hills we were driving by.
We drove some 5 km west, some 5 more on a dirt road leading south thereafter, and we arrived at the ruins of an abandoned village, named by our driver as the ghost village. He narrated a story of a gorgeously beautiful daughter of that village’s chief who lived there some 800 years ago. A grand, opulent Maharaja was dazzled by the young girl’s charms, so he demanded her being sent to his harem. The father refused to be rived from his beloved daughter. So, to avoid the consequences, they, together with the entire population, deserted the village overnight, setting off to wander in the world – Maybe, who knows, after generations, ending up in Europe, thus having begotten a portion of the modern day European Gypsies.
The village was left to decay ever since. Rough desert shrubs have occupied the interiors of the roof-bereft walls of the aforetime houses. Only a temple and a couple of other important buildings, much higher than everything else, have remained intact to remind that people had once thrived there. Only lizards and jackdaws are now inhabiting that place in a constant basis, some cows and cadger-gypsies occasionally passing by. Like that father-and-daughter gypsy duet we found squatting in a shady, narrow lane. The old man ready to play virtuous tunes in the flute and the girl cradle her body erotically, upon the receiving of some copper.
Further south, we encountered an oasis. That little lake, no more than 30 meters from side to side, is the only water source within a 30 – at least – km radius around it. Some kind of religious building was standing by its shore. Probably to grace whatever sort of divine power responsible for that most valuable gift. A team of some 30-40 women was carrying sand and stones up a slope, on large trays balanced upon their heads, apparently working on some water-saving project, while a few men were superintending the works, sitting and smoking phlegmatically under the wide foliage of an acacia.
Nearby, we also visited an abandoned stronghold amidst yet another deserted village, known as Khaba fortress. The quietude was profound. I saw nothing moving, let aside a small squirrel carrying a twig in his mouth, who vanished in an instance, climbing up a wall as soon as he took notice of me, and a noble peacock, who appeared all of a sudden in front of me, walking clumsily yet illustriously, and slowly, so as to show himself off.
There was our last stop. We then drove straight for some 30-40 km till we reached the outskirts of Khuri village. That was as far as the road could get us. From there on we’d have to continue by other means.
Maharaj, or Anil – as his real name is – is a man of 29 years of age from Khuri village. He has been working as a desert guide since the age of 13, having led multitudes of people through the Thar desert. His English is very decent (in fact much better than of the most of the agency spokesmen you find in Jaisalmer). He bears quite a volume of knowledge concerning the desert, its peoples, and its ecosystem. He is a genuinely honest and kind man – something very rare, I found, with people working with tourists in this country. He is the father of three school-aged children, whom he supports by the means of two cows and two goats he maintains at his village and his guiding job. He mainly works for one company, being paid scantily in proportion to what those people usually make out of tourists – which, I witnessed, might be outrageous. He may well help anybody in arranging a more independent desert tour with fewer costs – excluding the useless intermediary agencies. I would like herewith to recommend him unreservedly to anybody who may be contemplating a tour in the Thar Desert. +91 (0)9929720636 is his private telephone number.