Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Touring Jaisalmer Without a Leg to Stand On

Jaisalmer is a city that seems to lie on the edge of magic, a place where any minute you might slip from reality and into a fairy tale. D, Katie, and I are at an elevated plateau overlooking the city center. Before us stretch miles of amber-hued buildings all built from the same golden sandstone. Though the windows, balconies, and doorways all boast unique detailing, the city still has an undeniable uniformity to it. All the buildings have the appearance of belonging together, with homes and shops that continue to be built in much the same way as they have been built for the past several hundred years. It is impossible for me to discern the difference between those structures that are several centuries old and those constructed only a decade past.

As we get in the car, I ask about the intricately detailed tapestries and bedspread in the hotel. Does D happen to know where we can buy anything like that? I have already fallen madly in love with the bedspread in our room.

As a matter of fact, D knows where we can buy items exactly like that. Well, almost exactly – every piece is unique but made by the same people. D drives us to a shop near the center of town. The shop owner smiles at us. He helps me settle on a bench and offers us a tray with three little cups of chai on it.

"Where are you from?" he asks.

"We're American," I say, "but we live in Korea."

"Ah, is that North Korea or South Korea?" he asks.

The shop keeper then opens up a photo album of the women who fashion and sew his textiles. He points out that the women pictured, some of them bending over long pieces of fabric with a needle, others touching their loom as though they were about to play music on it, belong to a cooperative comprised of Indian and Pakistani women who live in poor villages in the nearby desert. Now that’s he’s gained our interest – point to him for gaining my empathy before the bargaining even begins – he starts to bring out the goods.

Shopping in a traditional Indian store is probably the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like royalty. The sides of the store are stacked from floor to ceiling with neatly folded textiles, which the owner and his son bring out and unfurl before us with a certain regal flourish. What interests me? They are willing to lay their entire store before me. It is a surprisingly effective selling technique. I ask about bedspreads, so the owner pulls out a pile.

The owner takes out one beautiful quilt after another, but I softly refuse the items presented to me. They are all lovely, but none of them are necessary.

"Wait," Katie says, as a coverlet sewn of dreamy blue and green patches is laid upon the floor. "Put that one in a pile for me."

"Would you like to see tablecloths?" the shopkeeper asks.

"No, thanks. We don't own tables," I reply. "Do you have a pink quilt?"

He lays an orange quilt before me, and then a yellow one. I shake my head. Then he pulls out a red quilt. It sparkles from every angle. This is the lure the catches me.

"I want to see more like that!" I exclaim.

"Oh this? The silk patches have been cut from antique wedding saris. It’s a quilt for newlyweds."

{my wedding quilt}

"I could get married," I defensively mumble under my breath. The shop owner brings out a heap of wedding quilts and unfurls them before me.

Glittering things are very much necessary, I decide, but financial restraint prompts me to settle on just one. The owner spreads out a hand-sewn quilt consisting of pink, red, and teal patches. It has sparkly golden elephants, birds outlined in glittering sequins, and delicately-beaded lotus flowers embroidered on it.

Details on my quilt:

It is now the shiniest thing I own. And I own a lot of shiny things.

"May I show you some table cloths?" the shop owner asks Katie.

"No, we don't have tables," Katie responds. "We live in very small apartments, just one room."

Katie buries herself in a stack of decorative patchwork tapestries. I ask to see pashminas.

"Here, let me show you some table cloths," the shopkeeper tells me, pulling down a small pile of them.

"No," I say. "We still haven't got tables since the last time you asked."

With great reluctance, the shopkeeper puts back the table cloths and brings out a pile of soft pashminas, hand-woven and with tasseled ends, for my perusal. I choose one that's a rich royal blue and embroidered with hundreds of starry gold flowers and vines. The shop owner tells me that a woman spent over a month weaving and embroidering it.

Temptations of the shop are many. By the time we leave, Katie and I have amassed far more than we meant to buy but still not as much as we'd like to buy.

"Where next?" D asks. "It will be sunset in less than an hour."

Katie and I both shrug. Our research on Jaisalmer was minimal and what's more, we're not sure which places, exactly, I can physically manage on one leg and a walker.

We get into the car and D drives us to the outside of a famous mansion. Peering through the entrance, it seems long and labyrinthine. Not ideal for my current state. We keep driving.

{Patwa Ki Haveli Mansion}

We turn down one road and up another, just beyond the city proper, and park outside a lake. Gadi Sagar was built in 1367 to act as the main water supply for the entire city. It is surrounded on all sides by cenotaphs and shrines, domes and ghats, all fashioned from the achingly beautiful gold sandstone.

{Gadi Sagar}

We see about a dozen boats on Gadi Sagar, most of them floating empty along the edge of the lake.

"Let's rent a paddle boat," I quip.

"Alright, come on, then," says D.

D and Katie lead the way onto the floating, shifting docks and I hobble-hop behind them. We climb into a three-seater paddle boat that bobbles in the water each time one of us enters it. It is bright green and made of plastic. It reminds me of an oversized bathtub toy.

When the sun sinks into the horizon, the entire area lights up gold, "[nature's] hardest hue to hold."

Not bad for my first day of bed rest. Not bad at all.


  1. Wow that quilt is gorgeous! Way too pretty to use, that's for sure. I loved your response about still not having tables from the last time he asked you. Too funny!

  2. Hi Melanie! Fantastic blog. I love the writing and the photography (which is actually not something I'd say for a lot of travel blogs). How long are you in India for?

  3. That quilt had me at the gold elephants. Now I want one!

  4. Great find, that quit is gorgeous. Some days I enjoyed the "sip chai while I find you what you want" sales approach, other days it drove my inner control freak mad. This was mostly because when I saw something I liked and asked them to bring something similar, they'd always bring out something that was nothing like it and it went downhill from there.

    I also had my own paddle boating experience during the "relaxation" day of the four day wedding I went to in Kolkata. It was in a murky man made pond and I had quite a bit of laughs.

    Jaisalmer looks like a place I should've gone to!

  5. I so miss Jaisalmer! Probably because I spent more time than in the other cities, it's my favorite place in the Rajasthan.

  6. I hope you didn't miss the peacocks there. How come I am not seeing any peacock pictures? You missed a great deal if you didn't see them in Rajasthan!