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  • Aug 1, 2014
  • Updated: 5:20am

Detours: Jaisalmer, India

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am

A sudden hush comes over the large crowd gathered in the dusty arena in the centre of Jaisalmer, as a roll of drums signals the beginning of the Camel Tattoo, a highlight of the annual Desert Festival, held in northeast India each February.

With the setting sun turning the festival's backdrop, the ancient Jaisalmer fort, a rich honey hue, bandsmen on brightly caparisoned camels parade before the crowd, taking position to one side.

A loud cheer greets the 24 members of the Border Security Force as they enter the arena, the hooves of the camels kicking up dust. The troupe carries out intricate manoeuvres to the sound of music, performing tricks on the backs of their camels. It's an amazing display, similar to the Edinburgh Tattoo but with humps.

Jaisalmer, host to this colourful festival of turban-tying and camel-bartering, is the westernmost city in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The city is dominated by the magnificent fort, parts of which are crumbling due to poor drainage. Visitors might see camels pulling huge grindstones around trenches, mixing up mortar for repairs. The fort is one of the largest of its kind in the world and has been an icon in India's Thar Desert since its construction in 1156.

Below the fort, the markets are in full swing. Fruit and vegetable stalls compete with tiny shops selling spices, materials and arts and crafts. It's a chance to swap gossip, trade supplies, arrange marriages and sell young camels, the best of which are brought up by the army.

Camels are everywhere in Jaisalmer as transport, livestock and beasts of burden, and they plod along at a measured pace with their heads up, noses pointing to the sky.

A camel safari is a must for any visitor to the Desert Festival, and at the villages of Sam and Khuri outside the city, visitors can take safaris of two and three days, or a late afternoon jaunt over the sand dunes to see the setting sun.

During the festival, which is as much a celebration of the region's culture as it is an annual bazaar for the desert tribes who live off their camel herds, visitors enjoy a kaleidoscope of colours. These include rangoli, a traditional decorative art found on buildings or pavements, using coloured 'paints', including ground sandstone and soapstone - think ancient celebratory graffiti. Colourful patterns drawn by giggling schoolgirls are great fodder for enthusiastic photographers.

Colour is a central theme of the Desert Festival, especially in traditional dress. Many men still wear turbans and the colour and shape can indicate the status of the wearer; the women wear intricately decorated saris, even while working, adding a splash of colour to the otherwise dusty hues of the desert.

But tonight, in the floodlights of the fort, everyone is dressed in their best, with plenty of gold on women's wrists and men boasting bushy moustaches, as the camel corps finishes its display and the festivities of this truly unique event light up the darkness of the desert for another year.

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