Northern Exposure

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 May, 2011, 12:00am


WE SIT under open skies, wrapped in the traditional wool stoles of the region and watch the sun set, a fiery orb against the washed-out landscape. Iridescent purple sunbirds and green bee eaters make their last few flurries among the wild cotton and thorn bushes before finding a protected spot.

The log fire dug into the sand blazes to our left, and behind us a musician with a tanned, lined face, curling grey moustache and red turban plays the algoza - a double flute made of bamboo. The scent of turmeric, cumin and coriander seeds waft from the tented kitchen, evoking thoughts of the feast to come. If it weren't for the gin and tonics resting on the elegant wrought-iron and wood camp table, and the waiter, dressed in traditional tunic and pointy embroidered shoes but addressing us in impeccable English, we could be centuries-ago royal inhabitants of the Thar Desert instead of world-weary, 21st century visitors craving the luxuries of solitude and space.

Serenity and space is something India's northwestern state of Rajasthan has in spades - if you know where to look. It also has the bustling, often dirty markets, busy roads, and hot and flustered tourists harassed by trinket-sellers for which India is more commonly known. While Jaipur is the most visited city in Rajasthan, and the lake city of Udaipur probably its most picturesque, going one step further into the wide open vistas of the Thar Desert, which stretches from western Rajasthan into Pakistan, is worth the extra miles.

Jodhpur, known as the Blue City because of the many buildings painted with indigo, and Jaisalmer, sometimes called the Golden City for the amber glow of the sandstone city walls, are two desert gems. Both have imposing forts towering above the buildings below that lend a dramatic personality to the town. While Jaisalmer's sturdy citadel is one of few forts around the world still inhabited, Jodhpur's Mehrangarh Fort stands out for being one of the most impressive in all Rajasthan and the finest existing Hindu fort in India.

Rudyard Kipling called Mehrangarh Fort 'the work of giants', and it is immense: standing 100 feet on a perpendicular cliff, 400 feet above the skyline of Jodhpur, it manages to look invincible and hauntingly delicate at the same time.

Foundations of the fort were laid in 1459 by Rao Jodha, the fifteenth Rathore ruler. The Rathore are a Rajput clan, Rajputs being a dominant Hindu military caste that enjoy a reputation as formidable soldiers. Jodha moved the capital from Mandore, where the fort was already over 1000 years old and was no longer considered safe.

The site Jodha chose was not entirely auspicious, however, as a hermit living in a cave on the hill cursed the king for disturbing his solitary world with a wish for the citadel to forever suffer a scarcity of water - for Marwars (desert dwellers), a cruel curse indeed. Jodha appeased the gods by building a house for the hermit in his new city and a temple close to the hermit's original cave. More than 500 years later, fresh flowers are placed every morning in the temple to placate the holy man.

Mehranghar Fort also has more violent legends, including that Jodha buried a man alive in the foundations of the fort to ensure it was propitious. In return, the man was promised that his family would forever be looked after by the Rathores, an oath still upheld by the present Maharaja, Gaj Singh II. Many more ghosts of Machiavellian intrigue, patricide and mistress-murder stalk the corridors of this living museum, which has expanded and taken on new styles with each new reign. The citadel is now much bigger than the original structure, with enormous gates commemorating major battles, lavish new rooms, and the main entrance all being later additions over the centuries.

While Mehranghar Fort is the primary attraction of Jodhpur, the city is also famed for its market located next to the clock tower, which marks the centre of the old quarter with its maze of narrow streets. The market offers unbelievable bargains for those who enjoy haggling - everything from handcrafted camelskin slippers, to fine silverwork, beautiful fabrics, and spices.

The drive from Jodhpur is about five hours on a good road, but split the journey by stopping for a traditional Rajasthani lunch at the dignified 14th-century Fort Pokaran, 'the place of five mirages'.

Your vehicle will then come in handy for seeing the sights of Jaisalmer which are spread over a wide distance. The ethereal Lodurva Jain temple, for example, at 16km from the city, is a quiet and soulful spot to visit, and there are impressive havelis on the outskirts of the city. Mool Sagar village, about 8km from Jaisalmer, gives a good idea of how local village life has proceeded unchanged over the centuries.

Jaisalmer is famous for its camel treks through the scrub to the various bands of sand dunes, and travel agents and hotels can arrange anything from a two-hour sunset camel safari with cocktails to many-day trips for the adventurous not averse to riding and sleeping a little rough. While most camps are basic, luxury tented camps do exist and offer an unforgettable and aristocratic experience.

There are plenty of stunning sights within Jaisalmer's fort, including ancient Jain temples and the delightful Raj Mahal royal palace, while a walk along the thick outer walls offer splendid views of the arid landscape stretching far into the distance.

Whether it is hunting for bargains in an ancient bazaar, learning the history of the Maharajas from a fort museum, or enjoying a traditional thali - a hand-beaten silver platter with small bowls of creamy curry, rice, vegetables and pickles - under the stars, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer offer a rich feast for the senses. Then head back to your palace hotel or tented camp to unwind and taste the luxuries of royal life - a sure way to bring out the desert king or queen in you.