The Day of Holi & The Desert Camel Trek: Jaisalmer, India (Part I)

26.9127°N 70.9126°E
26.9127°N 70.9126°E

About 30 miles east of Pakistan on the outer western edge of Rajasthan, India, lies the town of Jaisalmer. It is home to one of the largest forts made in the world, built in 1156AD, under the rule of Rajhal Jaisal. Many dwellers of the fort are the original descendants of Jaisalmer. They are housed within the earliest haveli’s, or private mansions.

Jaisalmer fort had seen many battles over the years. One in particular that took place in the 13th Century involved the women committing mass suicide, or what is called Jauhar. This was done in order to not be raped or murdered by the invading armies and to preserve their honor.

Since medieval times the fort was mostly used for trade. However, with the coming of the British rule in the early 19th Century, it’s importance declined. This was mostly due to the use of Mumbai (Bombay) as a major trade port instead.

At one point the fort had inhabited all of the people of Jaisalmer. But with the increase of the population, it’s inhabitants spread beyond it’s walls. Now a large portion of the population, as well as hotels and restaurants for tourists, surround it.

Jaisalmer Fort, shot with my Rolleiflex TLR camera.
Jaisalmer Fort, shot with my Rolleiflex TLR camera.

When the fort was originally built, it had a wonderful rainfall and wastewater drainage system. However, due to improperly skilled plumbers and engineers working on it over the years, the fort slowly was beginning to crumble from the ground up. As noted in our guidebook, Lonely Planet Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra, there are options to stay in the fort as a tourist. They stated that they were against staying there due to it’s slow demise, and provided many options to stay outside of the fort instead. We took this into consideration while looking for a hotel.

Jaisalmer fort is in fact one of the most endangered forts in India (or the world). It was added as a World Heritage site in 2013, and this has helped protect it against further destruction due to international funding. However, as the guidebook suggested, it’s best to stay outside the fort to ensure that with every flush of water doesn’t push it further to extinction.

Train ticket coming from Jaipur to Jaisalmer on the18th of March.
Train ticket coming from Jaipur to Jaisalmer on the 18th of March.

We stayed about 1/4 mile away from the fort to the south, in a small hotel with a rooftop restaurant. Seeing the fort from a distance was nice and I must note that you will find that there are many places in India that have rooftop eateries, (which makes for fantastic views while you enjoy your meal). Our hotel had everything that we needed, including a cold water shower, which I enthusiastically took advantage of. It had cross breeze windows so we could sleep somewhat comfortably at night. At least that’s what we thought.

Our view of the fort from the rooftop restaurant of our hotel.
Our view of the fort from the rooftop restaurant of our hotel.

Anyone that has traveled though India will tell you about how many homeless animals (mostly dogs) that there are. After we had checked into our hotel, we had come across a small dog that was resting in the ditch along with some of his siblings in front of the hotel. He had been injured by a rickshaw (as a man had witnessed earlier) and had a broken leg and possibly some internal injuries.

We had attempted to give him water, and some food to eat…but the little guy refused both. The pain seemed to be too much for him and he just laid in the ditch trying to stay cool. We decided that the best thing to do was to move him to a shaded side of the hotel, and check on him later.

The dog that was injured (in the center) and his two siblings.
The dog that was injured (in the center) and his two siblings. Note the creeping sun to the right that started to cook the little guy.

We had arrived in Jaisalmer one day before Holi, a Hindu ritual mostly practiced across India and Nepal. Holi involves the burning of bonfires on the eve of Holi, sometimes called little Holi. On the actual day of Holi, people throw a slew of colored powders at each other, (indiscriminately mind you) and large parties ensue. Also called the festival of color or the festival of love, Holi is very popular in India, and a lot of fun if you happen to be there when it takes place.

Holi dust for sale...
Holi dust for sale…

On this particular day of Holi, March 19th, 2011, a super moon or (perigee moon) was due to peak while we were in town. We thought it would be awesome to stay the night in the desert under the (near) full moon and looked into doing a camel safari.

We started climbing up the hill to the fort to go find a place to make reservations and managed to come across some local children and cows along the way. It was early afternoon when we reached the entrance to the fort and it was already starting to get pretty warm. We climbed the hills inside the fort, trying to reach the top sections to get a good look around the city.

The city and the fort didn’t seem to be as busy as one would think, and it also seemed to lack an influx of tourists as well. This was a shock to me, but a good shock…due to being in the busier parts of Delhi, Varanasi, Agra, and other parts of Rajasthan earlier on our trip. It was a nice break from the noise and crowds.

A girl and her pet cow...
We came across a girl and her pet cow on the way to the fort…
View from the outside of the fort.
View from the outside of the fort.
Main entrance to Jaisalmer Fort.
Main entrance to Jaisalmer Fort.
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Some of the detail within the fort…
Detail on the fort walls was incredible...
Detail on the walls of the haveli’s were incredible…

We had read that it was possible to do a one night jeep/camel trek in the Thar desert outside of Jaisalmer with a company called Ganesh Travels. We managed to find the ticket office in the fort without much trouble.

Ganesh Travels Camel Trek.
Ganesh Travels Camel Trek.

We arranged a one night stay on the day of Holi (full moon), for about 2600 Indian Rupees or US$40 total. This involved being picked up from their hotel called Hotel Ganesh, and driven by jeep to a group of camels that would be waiting for us. While in the desert, our bags were to be placed in the hotel office under lock and key. We would then be circled back the following day and returned by jeep to then stay in the hotel upon arrival.

Our ticket for the camel - jeep safari.

After we made reservations, we reached the top of the fort and got a wonderful panoramic view of the city. After spending some time on the top, we found a restaurant that faced the eastern side of Jaisalmer. I wanted to find a restaurant facing the sunset, but we decided that filling our stomachs was more of a priority.

Me at the top of the fortress...
Me at the top of the fortress.
Arianna at the top of the fort.
Arianna at the top of the fort.
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One of the cannons in place, and at one time or another could have been used once or twice.

On our way back down the hill, we came across families preparing for the oncoming Holi festival. Small groups were gathering up sticks and timber for the bonfires later in the night.

We made an effort to keep in mind where they were placed so we could come back later to witness the festivities. There has been a recent plea for people to use less harmful means to celebrate. Some had suggested using dried cow dung or other fuels, rather than wood, which requires the cutting down of local trees and adding to the deforestation in many regions. However, most people find it offensive to use anything less than wood, due to their religious standings. Burning of cow dung would be seen as a dishonor to their gods.

Families prepare for the night before Holi...some kids get a head start with the color dyes.
Families prepare for the night before Holi…some kids get a head start with the color dyes.
Another group of people preparing for the festival...note the tourist amid the chaos.
Another group of people preparing for the festival…note the tourist trying to sneak by.

After we walked back to our hotel…we read in our Lonely Planet guidebook that there was a small lake just to the north of us. I wanted to try to get some long exposure shots of the moon over the lake. Having only one more night in town, made me want to get as many images in as possible before our trek into the desert. We clambered up the hill for about a half mile and luckily not getting lost on the way, we reached the lake.

There was a rotunda that you could reach on the edge of the small lake that had a beautiful overview. Children and a few women were on the edge of the lake when we arrived and were throwing bread in the water…feeding hundreds of catfish. I was handed a loaf of stale bread and had the pleasure of feeding swarms of the catfish, before heading to the rotunda to get some images.

That's a whole bunch of catfish there folks!
That’s a whole bunch of catfish there folks!
Me setting up my Rolleiflex in the rotunda...
Me setting up my Rolleiflex in the rotunda…

After getting my fill of images, we headed back down towards our hotel for a pit stop. Upon returning, we saw that the same puppy had not moved from his spot and was whimpering in the gutter. There was also a family of dogs that had gathered around him and acted like they were trying to protect him. They seemed to know that we were no harm and wanted to help, but alas, we felt hopeless in our efforts to help the little guy. We again attempted to give him water and food, but he seemed too much in pain to consume anything. Sadly, we went back into the hotel to wash up before heading back to the fort.

Full moon above the northwest side of the fort.
Full moon above the northwest side of the fort.

We started back up the hill into the main entrance of the fort and retraced our steps from earlier in the day. We passed a few places that were set up for bonfires but many people seemed to be waiting to get any fires going. We continued our climb into the fort, and came upon a road that led to a small group of people with what seemed to be the biggest of all of the other bonfire preparations. I walked a few paces away from everyone and began to set up my tripod.

My girlfriend Arianna was approached by a group of girls who were curious to meet her, and offered both her and I some local barfi, a common locally made treat consisting of sweetened condensed milk. I decided to pass, (which was rare for me since I typically like barfi), since I was concentrating on getting my tripod set up before the bonfires were lit. Arianna accepted a few sweets and sat with the family about 25 feet away from me.

One of my favorite shots from the trip, shot with my Sputnik 3D camera...
One of my favorite shots from the trip, shot with my Sputnik 3D camera…thanks little girl for not moving!

There was a little girl in the background of one particular shot that made me keep saying to myself, ‘please don’t move, please don’t move’, because the exposure was taking over a minute to take. Luckily she didn’t move an inch and the photo came out to my liking. Not long after that, a crowd started to gather and the main bundle of sticks were soon lit. A massive bonfire ensued and everyone backed away from the intense heat. I moved back in fear of my camera (and my face) melting away…and made sure to get a good frame of the flames and the moon in the background.

The bonfire fully lit...shot with my Sputnik 3D camera.
The bonfire fully lit, with the moon in the top middle…shot with my Sputnik 3D camera.
A shot of the family that had gathered at the bonfire.
A shot of the family that had gathered at the bonfire,

After hanging around and taking some photos of the before and after of the bigger of the bonfires, we decided to head back to our hotel to get some shut eye before our day of trekking in the desert. We came across the other bonfires, and what was left of them, on the way back. The smell of burning fires filled the air everywhere we went, and at times was kind of overwhelming.

Another smaller bonfire that had already been set when we came across it.
Another smaller bonfire that had already been set when we came across it.

Upon arrival of our hotel, we once again paid a visit to the injured puppy. He had been moved across the road and placed on an old blanket someone had found for him. He was passed out when we saw him last. The dog family was still there milling about, always watching us from afar. We didn’t want to wake up the dog, so we headed up to our room to get some rest.

At around 3:00am we heard a loud yelp that jolted us awake. I looked out our window to see what was the matter, but couldn’t really see anything except the dogs running around outside. Arianna pleaded with me to go downstairs, and both of us decided to go together to get a closer look. We quietly left our hotel room, and went out to where the puppy had been laying earlier in the night.

He was not to be seen anywhere, and our instincts told us that he may have been put out of his misery. We assumed that based upon our interactions with the hotel owner earlier that day. He had said that there was nothing we could do to help save the dog, with no veterinarian hospital for miles around. We never did find out what really happened to the dog, we just know that we never saw it again while in Jaisalmer. Sadly, we went back upstairs and went to bed with heavy hearts.

*This post is a part of a series. – Click on the link to read the rest of the story. – The Day of Holi & The Desert Camel Trek: Jaisalmer, India (Part II)