After a delicious
Rajasthani meal at the Lal Bagh Palace Hotel at Bikaner, we set off
by bus for Naukh, a little village, about 13 kilometres off the main
Bikaner Jaisalmer highway. It was going to be my first visit
through the desert, and I was already beginning to have a bit of an
idea as to what I should expect in the next few days. As we drove
along the highway, the land stretched out on either side, flat, vast
and sandy. A few scrubby bushes seemed to struggle out of their
sandy homes as if for a refreshing breath of air. Thinking back,
this was probably one of the reasons why when the rest of the
princely states (together, they make up the state of Rajasthan today)
were engaged in fighting each other, the state of Bikaner never saw
much action the terrain was too forbidding to sustain an
As we moved on, to the
left, a sign board indicated the location of Gajner Sanctuary keep
an eye on the left. Our tour guide, suggested the
possibility of spotting some wildlife. Now there was a stir of
excitement in our rather heterogenous group which comprised of seven
Germans, a Welsh and two Indians besides the other two tour escorts
who came from Jaipur. Luck seemed to be on our side. The bus
stopped for us to see and photograph a herd of gazelle
only 30 metres from the road. Those of us on the other side
scrambled across, at the same time reaching out for binoculars and
cameras. The chinkara, now alert by the sound of the halting bus,
looked up in alarm, and before anybody was even able to focus his
lens, took off in a graceful sprint towards the interior. So, we
settled down to resume the journey, but it wasnt too long
before we again sighted the gazelle and the nilgai (blue bull)
on the same stretch.
Naukh was a further seven
kilometres away, the milestone informed us. The safari was to begin
from there. As we approached our destination the sun was beginning
to set. It had rained a short while ago the sky was overcast
and a cool breeze was blowing. Having disembarked, we strolled a
couple of hundred metres up and down little sand dunes towards the
camp site. The cameleers (all local people) had assembled there
awaiting us. The camel carts were parked nearby, and the camels that
were to take us on this week-long adventure sat huddled. The village
children too had gathered around us by now, their eyes full of
curiosisty. While we refreshed ourselves with a steaming cup of tea,
tents were put up for us to sleep in. The camp fire was lit. The
safari had begun.
Dinner was a four-course
meal, delicious to the very last morsel. I decided to stroll to the
kitchen in the hope of sharing Ayubs (the cook) culinary
secrets. The kitchen was a makeshift arrangement under two camel
carts placed next to each other at right angles. Not quite tired
from the long journey, I then decided to climb atop the nearest sand
dune a few metres away, and savour the smells and sounds of the
desert night rather than snuggle into my sleeping bag. The sky was
now clear and millions of stars blinked from the inky expanse above.
The temperature had dropped considerably, but it wasnt an
unpleasant kind of chill, though we were in the middle of February.
Ayub, as if reading my thoughts, made me a cup of hot coffee. I lay
back and began to picture the excitement the next few days had in
store for us.
Surprisingly, there was a
change in the weather the next morning. Sipping my morning tea, I
surveyed the dark, overcast skies. A cool and pleasant breeze was
blowing, just the kind of weather I enjoy.
There are basically two
breeds of camels in Rajasthan. The Bikaneri, and the
Jaisalmeri. As the name suggests, the former are from
Bikaner. Bigger in build, these camels are used for lugging weight,
while the latter being smaller, are more agile and so make good
riding camels, at times covering 60 kilometres per hour. For obvious
reasons, every one of us was relieved to know wed be riding the
Bikaneri camels on the safari. We walked alongside the camels for a
few hundred metres before mounting. The animals needed warming up
before taking the load of two persons on their backs.
The moment we skirted the
dune and came out onto the windward side, the breeze that once seemed
pleasant, was no longer so. It got more and more menacing. Fine
particles of sand blasted onto my face, and almost immediately we got
wiser. I wrapped a long white scarf around my head and pictured the
scenes from film Lawrence of Arabia.
But we ignored the
weather and got ready for the long ride. The camels were coaxed into
sitting on all fours. The cameleer stood on foreleg which was bent
inward so as to prevent the camel from suddenly rising. I quickly
got onto the front seat of the saddle. The cameleer scrambled on
Mounting, next to
dismounting, turned out to be the trickiest part of the entire riding
lesson as the friskier of the camels have a tendency of suddenly rise
while the rider is in the process of mounting, leaving him to fall
flat. One of the members in our group learnt this lesson the hard
way. However, the area being sandy and soft, there wasnt any
cause for worry, rather an amusing experience, at least for us
spectators. Once firmly on the saddle the camel stands on his
forelegs first and then the hind legs.
It was a grand feeling,
placed 11 feet above the ground, I surveyed the surroundings. It was
a lot like a mobile machan. The camels fell in line, moving slowly
in a rhythm. However, I was finding the ride rather rough and jerky.
Saheb, relax, let you body loose, advised Bhoom Singh,
the cameleer. My hands were clenched tightly around the pommel and I
tried to grip the camel tightly between my knees in an effort to
convince the camel that it wasnt my first ride and thus
hopefully avoid tumbling over. I wondered as to what Bhoom Singh
meant by relax. Anyway, I decided to heed Bhoom Singhs
advice. Slowly I relaxed my body, waist upwards, still gripping with
my legs just in case. Yes, he was right. The ride felt smoother and
soon I fell into the rhythm. In a few moments I let my legs loose to
and rocked along. Bhoom Singh was right, of course.
All around me, spread
miles and miles of undulating sand, dotted here and there by a
scrubby bush or tree. The wind was blowing strong as we inched our
way to Borana. It was one of the most charming sights I have come
across. The village children were just as excited I suppose. They
were expecting us, having got the news from the advance party.
Scampering here and there, they begged to be photographed. Some of
them had a request: one pen. Apparently, the last time a
foreign group passed by their village, they distributed pens to all
the kids. We now walked towards the village school building
the only concrete structure in the area to refresh ourselves.
The weather improved by
the evening, and some of us decided to stroll through this little
place. The people of Borana are a very hospitable lot. Insisting
that we be their guests, tea was brewed especially for us. The women
mostly shy and orthodox did not mind the curious glances they got.
On the contrary, they were too eager to display the intricate silver
jewellery that adorned their arms, hair, fingers and toes. Thick
bands, called haslis, fitted close round the neck and assorted
necklaces added colour to the dress. It seemed the women were just
as curious about the lives of the angrez (the foreigner). Kay
and Barbara exchanged notes as far as family and household matters
were concerned; Kay, gesticulating rapidly in an attempt to get her
point across. The men sat together, preferring to talk about more
The next morning the sun
in all its glory rose from behind the dunes. Mercifully, the wind
had died down, as if in answer to our prayers the night before.
After a quick breakfast, we moved on to Badlda. By the side of
Rajasthan Canal is Choti Chinnu, a very typical village. We were
onto the second day of the safari.
There were 14 kilometres
to go before Badla. Drowsy after the midday meal and the effect of
the hot sun, I nearly dozed off atop the camel. I was quite content.
And to think that only yesterday I didnt think the safari was
worth it at all. But soon I was alert. Amongst the few scrubs were
two dogs chasing a frightened gazelle. The chase lasted about 200
metres, when the gazelle disappeared into the thick shrubs, in a few
graceful leaps. Incidentally it is one of the best known animals of
the desert. Quiet and always alert. Feeling rather enthused, I
hoped to come across the Great Indian Bustard, a species almost on
the verge of extinction until a few years ago. But I had no luck.
Rohla, our next
destination was only a short while away. So I opted for a ride on
one of the camel carats. Shaping a mattress into a deck chair,
stripping down to my shorts, I soaked in the warmth of the winter sun
as I sipped from a can of beer. Lulled by the slow rocking motion of
the cart as it ambled along, I slipped into a pleasant reverie. My
attention was drawn towards the shrill voices of a group of women,
trooping together, the brass pots filled with water delicately
balanced on their heads and glinting in the sunlight.
Women, in colourful
clothes with cows, camels and members of our group converged at a
place near a tree in what seemed to be the village square. A camel
tugged at a rope, coaxed by a handsome villager wearing a red turban
and broke free from the gathering. I realized that the centre of the
activity was the village well. Rohla seemed to be a p5rosperous
village. It boasted of four concrete houses and was spread over
nearly 200 square metres.
The next morning, we were
up early and reached Baru having stopped by at Hamire Ki Dhani for a
quick lunch. Dhani looked more like a farm house. Baru
was indeed fascinating. To approach the village we had to traverse
big and sand dunes for abut a kilometre. That was what one always
imagined the real desert to be like. We set up camp far from the
village amidst the dunes and to complete the desert romance had a
camp fire with the village bard singing traditional folk songs
accompanied by the typical desert instruments like the khartal,
dhol and pipni.
The folk music of
Rajasthan is very diverse. Usually the entire lifestyle of the
villagers is extolled in the theme. They may be songs of separation
or songs of union, some are addressed to the crow and camel, while
others talk to neem and tulsi trees. Many are
devotional inviting the gods to a ceremony that is to take place, and
others extol the triumph and virtues of heroic warriors of the past
and it is particularly in these desert areas of Rajasthan that the
Folk tradition is so rich, and often one finds entire communities of
professional singers. The music being very catchy, some of us also
joined in much to the amusement of the villagers.
The safari was nearing
its end. From Tota now to Askandra. The 15 kilometres to Askandra
proved to be eventful we spotted two herds of gazelle and the
imperial sandgrouse. But is till hoped to meet the Indian bustard.
At Askandra, the village
pradhan welcomed us in the traditional way offering us
garlands of marigolds, and the red mark of tilak on our forehead
which symbolized friendship and hospitality. The beat of the drums
lent a festive air as we were led to his home where the women had
prepared a simple yet delicious meal. Taking part in the traditional
opium-drinking ceremony, we left, not forgetting to pose for
photographs with our kind hosts.
As I climbed onto the
waiting bus, I though to myself, give me the camel, any day.