The morning sun was peeping through the curtains of the double decker sleeper bus. The boys and their mother were then asleep. In fact, the super smooth Jaipur-Jaisalmer highway made us surrender to the goddess of sleep as soon as the bus left the bustling Pink City.
I silently removed the curtains. The lone standing thorny trees on the reddish sandy soil were welcoming us into the Thar desert. Also known as the Great Indian Desert, the Thar is the world's 20th-largest desert, which covers an area of 205,000 km² in India and Pakistan.
We booked a two-day tour package from Kasam Desert Safari and Camp while we were in Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan. We got off the bus at around 8am at the Airforce Circle in Jaisalmer City. Kabul was ready with his Toyota Etios at the bus stop.
The young driver dressed in Afghan style pyjama-punjabi justified his name. He took us to the nearby Gazi Hotel Jaisalmer for a short rest.
Jaisalmer, founded by Rajput Rawal Jaisal in 1156 AD, means the 'Hill Fort of Jaisal'. It is also known as the 'Golden City of India' due to the yellow sandstone used throughout the architecture of both the fort and the township below.
Our first destination was Jaisalmer Fort, one of the very few 'living forts' (meaning not abandoned or converted into a hotel) in the world. About 25% of the old city's population still resides within the fort.
The first settlements outside the fort complex, to accommodate Jaisalmer's growing population, are said to have taken place in the 17th century. It took us less than 10 minutes to reach the parking area below the Suraj Pole, one of the four entrances to the fort. We hired an English speaking guide for both the Fort and the nearby Patwon Ki Haveli.
The fort's enormous sandstone walls are a pale yellow colour during the day, turning to a darker gold as the sun sets. The name Shonar Kella was popularised by tourists after Satyajit Ray shot his famous film of the same name in this fort.
The fort is also known as Trikutgarh as it stands amidst the sandy stretch of the Thar Desert on the Trikuta Hill. Its dominant hilltop location makes the fort visible from many miles around. In 2013, Jaisalmer Fort was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Our guide informed us that the fort had witnessed many battles. The main attractions inside the fort are the Raj Mahal (Royal palace), Jain temples and the Laxminath temple.
The fort houses seven Jain temples in total, built during the 12th and 15th centuries. The temples have intricate engravings on them. While walking through the lanes of the fort, the scenes and characters from the movie Shonar Kella were appearing vividly in our mind.
Having spent one hour or so in the fort, we had delicious chola bhatura and roshogollah at a restaurant in the parking area. Through a narrow road we walked to the city's popular establishment, Patwon Ki Haveli, also known as the Mansion of Brocade Merchants.
A cluster of five large havelis in Jaisalmer, Patwon Ki Haveli was built in 1805 by Guman Chand Patwa, a well-known trader of his time. The affluent father first built a luxurious palace and then ordered the construction of separate buildings – one for each of his five sons.
The entire family was involved with the business of gold and silver threads that were used in embroidering clothes. Once the residence of the Patwa family, it is now occupied by the Rajasthan government's art and craft department.
We were overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture, mirror works, exquisite carvings and paintings present in the gateways, arches, jharokhas (windows with lattice), and halls of the havelis.
It was an amazing experience to view the entire courtyard of the haveli complex from some of its numerous balconies. There is also a museum that depicts the lifestyle of the residents and artworks of the past.
Then our driver took us to Gadisar Lake, one of the prettiest lakes in Rajasthan. Originally built by Raja Rawal Jaisal ages ago, to meet the water requirements of his kingdom, the lake is situated in the outskirts of Jaisalmer.
The massive water body offers a spectacular view of the Jaisalmer Fort. We saw many tourists enjoying paddle boat rides through the calm and quiet atmosphere of the lake.
At around 2pm, we started off towards the Sam Sand Dunes, our desert safari site, which is about 42 km away from Gadisar Lake. Stretching across the Thar desert, Sam Sand Dunes is a popular tourist attraction of Jaisalmer.
We marvelled at the beauty of Thar under the golden rays of the sun. We also came across numerous wind turbines owned by the Jaisalmer Wind Park, India's second largest and the world's fourth-largest operational onshore wind electricity producing farm.
It took less than one hour to reach Sunrise Desert Resort where our tour operator Kasam warmly welcomed us. We checked into our cottage tent which had all the modern facilities for a comfortable stay.
Our jeep safari started at around 4:45pm. We also had a camel ride amidst the sea of sand. As soon as the sun set, we felt a sudden change in temperature. After experiencing blazing heat all day, the evening's cold breeze re-energised us.
The circular open stage in the middle of our resort complex was ready to entertain its guests with cultural programmes. Soon after we had taken our seats, the resort authority served chola, vegetable pakora and milk tea. Leaning over the side pillows, we enjoyed Rajasthani music, folk dance and fire spinning for more than two hours.
I woke up early the next morning. While others slept, I went on a walk outside and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise amidst the vast stretches of the desert.
After breakfast, our driver Kabul had already arrived to take us to Kuldhara village and finally drop us at the bus stop for our Jodhpur trip.
Sixty kilometres away from our resort, Kuldhara village attracts tourists with ruins of castles, deserted alleys, sinister houses and abandoned spirits. The 13th century establishment was once a thriving hamlet inhabited by Paliwal Brahmins.
However, by the early 19th century, it was abandoned for unknown reasons. According to a popular myth, the lustful minister of Jaisalmer, Salim Singh, was attracted to a beautiful girl from Kuldhara. He sent his sentries to the villagers to hand over the girl to them. The villagers asked the sentries to return the next morning, and left the place overnight.
Other reasons include diminishing water supply, an earthquake, excessive levies demanded by Jaisalmer rulers etc. In any case, over time, Kuldhara acquired a reputation as a haunted place.
As we entered the premises of this ancient village, we could feel as if time had been suspended for hundreds of years.
Sporadic rows of mud houses, dead-end lanes, ruins of sandstone walls and a temple once visited by the Paliwals stood as a living testimony of some sad past. To the east of the village lay the gasping river bed of Kakni, reminding one of the impossibility of sustenance of life in this place.
Having spent half an hour or so, we resumed our journey towards Jaisalmer town. It was already 12pm when we reached the private bus stand adjacent to Gurudwara Sadh Sangat Jaisalmer, a centre for learning and practising Sikhism.
We quickly purchased our tickets from the counter of Chouhan Tour and Travel, a reputed private bus company. The wheels of the AC bus started to roll on time.
We were looking at Jaisalmer through the windows for the last time. The tour of the golden city across the massive Thar desert will certainly remain as a golden memory in our life.