Rajasthan roadtrip: Bikaner to Jaisalmer

9 May

A continued beige landscape

The journey from Bikaner to the city of Jaisalmer was six hours travel further into the Thar desert and seemingly further and further back in time.

This last leg of our journey in the direction of Pakistan offered a similar colourless landscape as our two previous days in Rajasthan, though with considerably more sand and a brand new road. As the kilometres passed by, the trees also lost their leaves and eventually became a scare sight. The ones that were left appeared clouded in talcum next to thorn bushes. The only colours were the saris, which we could now spot from a few hundred metres away. Trucks had by now taken over the road and only occasionally would we pass through a village.

While people were now few and far between, the many goat herds and cows strolling down the middle of the road nevertheless kept us entertained. “Cows, you see”, Balu explained, “Do not go back. Never”. Indian cows walking will fearlessly continue in the same direction no matter how many trucks and cars you hurl at it. Faced with an oncoming cow, Balu would wave his hand to the cow in the direction it should be moving for him to pass effortlessly. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't and he would have to break (something which no Indian driver likes to do). (And to answer your question, yes, we were fairly bored).

Half-way, Balu suggested a de-tour. “I show you here the Jain temple!”

Jain temple

And with that, Balu took a left turn at a few brick houses and all of a sudden there were people in the desert. Narrow streets made way to even narrower streets, until only one car could pass through the labyrinthine that appeared. “It feels like he´s unlocking a secret village”, I whispered to my boyfriend. Because as clichéd as that might sound in retrospect, Balu trailed his way through streets lined with garbage and crumbling grey brick buildings to a maze of carved window frames, balconies and havelis.

Stepping out of the car, as by Balu magic, a tour guide appeared. “This city is 600 years old”, he told us before he had even said his name. “The temple is 200 years old, I´ll take you there”, he added, smiling brightly. We stepped around a cow and followed Kushal Gurvdev past his father´s balcony overlooking the car park (which explained his sudden appearance) and to one of the city´s 15 Jain temples.

“I am one of now only 300 Jains in the city, of a total 70,000”, Kushal smiled, beckoning us to follow him up the temple stairs. He seemed to be aware that I knew very little about Jainism, and offered me a crash course as I passed two marble elephants guarding the entrance: “Different from Hindu. They believe in all gods. We only one have 24 prophets”.

In front of us and facing a sculpture of Parasvnata, the main god of the temple, a woman was drawing swastikas with rice. The only item rooting us in modernity was a round clock from 2007 hanging next to one of the exits. The half an hour spent with Kushal was also a quick visit to the city´s historic part of the silk route. He smiled and pointed at coloured glass, marble tiles and gold paintings that reflected the light from the many mirrors on the pillars : “Glass from Belgium, marble from Italy. We export opium”.

When I asked how many followers Jainism now has, Kushal replied very few. Unlike Hinduism and Buddhism, Janism never spread beyond India and only 4 million believers remain. One reason may be their strict rules of marriage, though Kushal made it clear that he had not had any issues finding a wife among the 300 Jains in town. It is a demanding faith, and the ascetic lifestyle it requires to gain final liberation may be the more important reason. The sacrifice of one´s one body is the most important aspect.

“We don´t kill the animals. We even look when we walk so we don´t step on any ants. We don´t eat anything that has grown in the ground either, potatoes, carrots”.

“So what do you eat?”, I blurted out, somewhat perplexed.

“They belive that once you take something up from the ground, you kill the plant”, my boyfriend whispered.

“Upside ground, eat all things. Inside ground, nothing”, Kushal replied.

Both answers left me wondering what the Jains eat.

Leaving the temple, my boyfriend could not hold it in any longer. With a wide grin, he asked if I had looked at my scarf yet. Upon entering the temple, Kushal´s father had given me a white scarf to cover my shoulders. I hadn´t noticed the blue letters going across. Checking my reflection in a mirror, I got a glimpse of what was so funny: “Mamma Mia, le film”.

Before we left this small village, Kushal invited us to his home. On our way back to the car park, he told us that one car with tourists come to this town every ten days. In May, we were the first visitors.

Beckoning us to walk inside, his father insisted that the first floor was not what it appeared: “This is my home. It is not a tourist place. You can buy everything you see. We take mastercard”. Within a few steps we had entered an antique collector´s nirvana. In the ceiling hung glass Christmas decorations from Belgium, the walls were lined from floor to roof with old keys, another wall was entirely devoted to buttons, and shelf upon shelf offered old cups to the tourist passing by.

“People emigrated from this city when the silk route vanished. Many houses were left empty, and my father went around collecting things. Come look at this”,the father said and pointed to a smaller room across a table filled with vases, bowls and cutlery. Mildly surreal, but in that room, was, “the only nut-cracker collection in India. All made of iron”. And there they were. One thousand nut crackers on the wall in the home of three generations of Jains in the desert. There was a nice irony, I thought, about the Jain focus on rigorous self-denial and the collection in this house.

Arriving in Jaisalmer – “the golden city”

Jaisalmer is the last Indian city before the border with Pakistan, 100 kilometres away. The strong military presence was evident already the half an hour before we reached the city. In addition to white-clad men with red and white-chequered turbans on mopeds, Balu was now overtaking ten-folds of slow-moving, green military trucks. Passing a compound with two tanks outside, Balu told us “army”, somewhat unnecessary.

Jaisalmer itself, however, gave us the most breath-taking first impression of any city we have ever seen. Because there, perched on a hillside above hundreds of houses built of sandstone rose a medieval fort. One that could be taken out of any fairytale or enlarged from any children´s sand pit.

We had reached the most remote, western corner of Rajasthan.


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