I was very young when I first saw the movie Lamhe where the sultry dessert beauty Sri Devi captures the heart of a very young Anil Kapoor. The movie created an aura of royalty around Jaisalmer. A feeling of timelessness that stretches across the vast expanse of its desserts, of untold tales and haunting melodies. This fascination stayed with me through the years and in 2015 when I got a chance to visit this fanciful land, I jumped at the opportunity.
It was February when I landed in Jodhpur and set off for a long drive through rural Rajasthan to the city of Jaisalmer. The fact that there is no airport in the city made it all seem very Armour of Goddish to me. Like we were on some mission to unravel stories buried underneath the dunes of these desserts. But none of these could have prepared me for the experiences of walking through a ghost town and playing hide and seek among the pillars of the royal cenotaphs. I must confess that I had very little idea about what to expect from these places when they were suggested by our tour guide. I always was somewhat lazy in doing my homework.
We started our first day in Jaisalmer by visiting the Bara Bagh, which literally means ‘Big Garden’. But this was no ordinary garden as we could not find any flowers or trees there. Instead what greeted us was a cluster of many beautifully carved cenotaphs. Cenotaphs, as I learnt later, are memorials built over a site of cremation. These were built in memory of Maharaja Jaisingh II by his son Lunkarna. Jaisingh wanted to build a dam and a lake in this dessert region. However, before the work on these could be complete he passed away. After him, many following rulers from the Bhatti family built cenotaphs here as well.
Each has an idol of the king and many others surrounding it representing his queens. The setting of these carved dome like structures set against the barren land made for an idyllic landscape for photography. Standing inside these dome structure, one can almost catch whispers of old tales carried by the dessert wind rushing amidst the pillars.
Leaving the Royal Cenotaphs behind we made our way towards another interesting spot, almost 18 kms outside the Jaisalmer city. As our driver slowed to a stop, we stepped out of our car curiously looking around at what looked like a set of randomly broken mud walls. As we stepped inside the ruins we were informed that this was no ordinary place, but the haunted abandoned village of Kuldhara.
The thrill of stepping into a ghost village seized us as we walked on and saw small neatly laid out mud houses, broken and yet preserved by nature over centuries.
We explored the ruined village at our own pace. It was a very well planned village with neat rows of houses, water storage area, a lone temple and even some artefacts and bullock-carts preserved by the archaeological department.
Legend has it that this was once a prosperous village, a part of 50 villages in the kingdom of Maharaja Jai Singh, but was abandoned due to extreme and harsh tax demands and atrocities by his minster Salim Singh. Some even say that the neighbouring villages were destroyed by frequent earthquakes.
But the most interesting story was told by our photographer. Apparently, the village head man had a beautiful daughter who had caught the fancy of the minister Salim Singh. Known for his cruel taxation, Salim Singh demanded to be wedded to the girl or the village would face severe taxes. He gave the headman five days to think about it. Troubled by his evil intentions, the village headman consulted the heads of neighbouring villages and decided to abandon the village. As the fourth day drew to a close, all the residents of the village and its neighbouring 50 settlements, packed their belongings and disappeared under the cover of a moonless night, never to be found again. The village has been vacant ever since, closely guarding the secret of this mass disappearance. As we left the Kuldhara village, we were all quiet, lost in our thoughts, wondering about times gone by and lives that were so different from ours.
My desert exploration continued over the next 2 days that I spent there. Follow my blog to read about my adventures in the city of havelis and the mystic dancers of the desert.