Prowling Leopards, Living Forts, Pristine Dunes & Rajasthan’s uncanny ability to Surprise still!

Sunday, October 07, 2018


Kumbhalgarh Fort at dusk

I’m sitting inside my room situated over the fort rampart and I can see a live cannon to the right from my window. Below the fort, I see a patchwork of sandstone slabs and mud-roofed houses spread in front of me, beyond which an endless expanse of a flat, parched land specked with nominal green shrubbery extends till the eye can see. From my bathroom window, I’ve got a surprising view. The windows opens to the view of curved bulges of the fort on my left, the ochre houses that coalesce into the barren desert earth on the right, a road that snakes between these two and a gorgeous, red ball of fire rising in the centre. I had a front row seat to the sunrise from my loo! There’s a sort of winter haze I can see in the distance, a small glimpse of the season that’s few weeks away. The night however, is balmy with a tinge of that winter chill. The lights of the town below are faint and not blinding. I can see few stars shining in the sky, while the fort walls glow in a golden hue. I’m now sitting on the stone block that supports the cannon, pouring my heart out to a friend over phone late into the night while the world’s largest living fort sleeps after a day of frenzied activity.

Jaisalmer Fort at Sunrise
Jaisalmer Fort at Sunsise, as seen from MudMirror Guesthouse

I am in Jaisalmer, in a rather touristy part of the town, and I’m struck by how much I’m charmed by this setting. Apparently, even the most touristy parts of Rajasthan still retain the ability to surprise you. Even after several visits, several thousands of articles and promotions seen in the media, and several decades of being the cynosure of travellers from around the world, that Rajasthan can still manage to draw me in is a testament to how endowed the state is when it comes to offering something new to the traveller every single time.

On the very same trip, I find myself in a deserted strip of pristine, untrampled dunes near the outer fringes of Desert National Park. The narrow band of endless curves and pointed sand peaks spread undisturbed in between two parallel running wire fences evokes a strong sense of deja vu. I finish my shoot and ask the guide the name of the place. The word he says next confirms my hunch. I had been here before. Eight years ago in fact. I had first stumbled upon these sand dunes on a unique weeklong hike with YHAI across the Thar Desert in 2010.


Pristine, untrampled sand dunes at a little-known location in Jaisalmer

Read: A gorgeous, offbeat Trek through the Thar Desert [NatGeo Traveller India]

After crossing the monstrosity that is Sam sand dunes, I was delighted to have arrived at this place where desert magic was alive and unmarred by unchecked commercialisation. Apart from my friend and me, there was no one else on the dunes. We walked carefully, anxious that we’d disturb those untouched patterns on the sand. But we eventually killed our hesitation and trampled on those untouched dunes with much glee, adding human footprints to the already existing collection of deer, birds, insects and other inhabitants of the desert. Two days ago, exactly eight years since my first rendezvous with these gorgeous dunes, I was back in the same place. And in those eight years, only a handful of tourists have made their way to this secret corner, which holds a special place in my heart. Frankly, I had locked this place up in my mind and never divulged it out on the interwebs for the fear that my excitement to share it with others would possibly ruin it for good. So I jealously guarded the secret till date. But Rajasthan surprises me once again by managing to keep our secret safe for so long, despite being overrun by mass commercialisation, mindless tourists and overenthusiastic tour operators.

Fresco on the roof in a Chattri in Shekhawati
Churu Shekhawati Haveli Blue Door Churu Shekhawati Haveli Green Door
Gorgeous frescoes and opulent doors of Shekhawati region

In fact, my first trip to Rajasthan eight years ago had been quite a revelation. The only reason I even considered travelling in touristy Rajasthan was because when I signed up for the YHAI desert trek, I knew I had to spend few extra days there to explore some more. But I avoided the itinerary followed by typical Rajasthan Holiday Packages, as I held no fascination in exploring the usual Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaipur and Jaisalmer circuit. I have a certain disdain for ostentatious displays of wealth and feudal power, so I rarely find glorious palaces and royal residences of much interest. But I do love finding stories of common people and their lives. By spending days on the unusual trek and some more days in the fascinating Shekhawati region, I found a side of Rajasthan that I hadn’t considered before - one that was hidden, engaging and novel.

Even in Shekhawati, already made popular by some guidebook as the world’s largest open air fresco gallery, I skipped the famous towns of Nawalgarh and Mandawa and spent days wandering through obscure villages with gigantic, broken, crumbling, abandoned and colorful mansions. I couldn’t believe it that in Rajasthan, a state overrun by tourists, I didn’t encounter any during my wanderings in remote Shekhawati.

Read: The abandoned mansions of Billionaires [BBC Travel]

Before arriving up north for the trek and to see the havelis, I had quite an interesting encounter in the southern part of Rajasthan, where I had spent my days wandering around the countryside, basing us in Udaipur. One evening while returning from Kumbhalgarh Fort, I saw a leopard cross our path in the night near a village where men were casually walking on the road ahead of us. Two things surprised me about that encounter. One, that southern Rajasthan was forested and big predators such as leopards lived here. Two, that leopards live and move so closely among humans. Over the next few years I learnt much more on how leopards have always lived in the fringes of our communities and contrary to what I had imagined, they wouldn’t attack humans until cornered. But that stray incident in Rajasthan was the catalyst to reading up more and recognizing the misunderstood animal’s plight across the country. I truly didn’t expect Rajasthan of all places to teach me a lesson on wildlife.

Leopard sighting in southern Rajasthan
Leopard sighting in southern Rajasthan

Read: When a Leopard crossed our path in Kumbhalgarh

Few years later I found myself gaping in awe at a narrow band of dark condensation in the cloudy sky, it was raining in the desert! On that trip, I also made my way to an oasis nearby where the greenery and a rippling water body felt so uncharacteristic that it would’ve been easier to believe it was a made up movie set than a real life scene. I spent two monsoons in Rajasthan since and I must say seeing it rain in the desert is right up there in the list of my most cherished monsoon chases across the country. Who would’ve thought monsoons actually make their presence felt in the Thar Desert of all places!

An oasis in in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
An oasis in the desert!

Read: Monsoons of Rajasthan - Photos of Desert in the Rains!

On that very same trip, I also was privy to a rare sighting of an endangered species that almost became the national bird of our country but lost that coveted title out to peacock due to semantics. Story goes that Great Indian Bustard, an impressive and one of the heaviest flying birds on our planet, found only in Indian subcontinent was also in the running for the title of India’s national bird but was rejected on grounds that its name could easily be bastardised to Great Indian “Bastard” whether in jest or all seriousness. However, that loss became the last nail in the coffin for the already declining Bustard population in India. Once spread all over India abundantly, by 1970s only 1300 remained due to extensive habitat loss and hunting, which further plummeted to a devastating 150-odd extant population from where there is little hope of species propagation. Desert National Park in the outskirts of Jaisalmer is the last remaining primary habitat for breeding of Bustards. There, I stumbled upon a majestic Great Indian Bustard flying in the distance, by pure happenstance. Once again, I was left to pick up my jaw from the ground in Rajasthan.

Read: The Great Indian Bustard’s last sigh [Livemint]

Finally, after all these incidents, I was sure Rajasthan couldn’t surprise me anymore. Then Rajasthan Tourism released a campaign that featured a stunning Chambal river with a horseshoe bend, bound by a forested cliff full of waterfalls and my jaw drops to the floor once again.



Turns out in Rajasthan, it’s always true that Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye!

(Translation: You never know what you’ll see in Rajasthan)

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2 comments

  1. Wow...after a long long time am stepping in to your travelogue.. superb neelima.. crystal clear picture, perfect narration..flawless information..super..

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  2. It is very nice place for traveling and thank you so much share with us

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