In a small town near Mumbai named as Vangani, lives nearly 350 families with minimum one blind relative. A place where open doors are the norm and neighbours regularly check in on each other. Each blind person carries an identification card with their personal details and the village council’s phone number in case of an emergency. Each and every blind person tries to earn their living through different means, some work as a worker in BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation), many of them work as hawkers and travel from one station to another to sell goods like plastic accessories and wallets. At Vangani station, without a pedestrian footbridge, it’s difficult to cross the platform, many blind people have lost their limbs in such accidents. According to locals, Central Railways agreed to build a footbridge in March 2013 after a blind individual gathered over 6,000 signatures. So far, a contractor has come to dig holes, but the construction workers haven’t shown up yet, Vangani residents say. They are all dependent on sound, smell and touch for their safety as well as a living. But still, they find ways to be happy and share a positive vibe with the people around.
One of the lesser known places of dwelling lie within the pipeline, that runs from the southern part of the city, passing through Mahim Creek, enters Bandra and the subsequent suburbs that lay northwards. Near Bandra Reclamation, the pipelines have been covered and sheltered to support the flyovers that rise above the pipeline. It is within these dark tunnels that an entire society flourishes. People can often be seen appearing from within the pipes for their daily ablutions in the Mahim creek, only to disappear again within the dark spaces between the two enormous pipelines that ensure water supply to most parts of the city. Hidden away from most of the city, this place is usually teeming with people abusing drugs and other illegal activities.
Jaisalmer is known as the ‘Golden City’ not just because it is covered in yellow sandstone that is still used for construction in the city, or for the yellow sand of Thar Desert, but because of the people who are living there and welcoming tourists with a golden heart.
While it’s wonderful to travel new places, one also needs to research in-depth before visiting that place. It not only helps to understand more about the city or state or even a country but also makes it easy to cover all the important places in a limited span of time. I decided to cover Jaisalmer this month because of the Desert Festival which took place from 20th to 22nd of February, and as expected, the place was overflowing with tourists. This popular tourist destination is filled with a number of artistic places, monuments, palaces and antique markets. The competition for business is continued throughout the day, as tourism being the major industry in the Golden City. As soon as I decided to cover the city, I knew that I will be getting something mesmerising out of this short trip.
Moving forward we started to look for tickets, as the trains were not available, I decided to board a bus from Mumbai to Jodhpur and then from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. So, starting with a little bit of research and ending on a mind and heart motivated to photograph and write about the place. I reached Jaisalmer at two in the morning witnessing a stormy weather and drizzling all over. It was quite easy to get a rickshaw and reach the hotel which was located at a place called Kalakar Colony based in the heart of the city. Starting next morning around 6 AM, hoping for a sunrise, I was disappointed with a cloudy weather. So, I decided to walk in the narrow lanes of the city and asking people the directions for the famous locations such as Jaisalmer Fort, Patwon Ki Haveli and Gadsisar Lake. One can also use a GPS for the same, but it’s interesting to begin a conversation with people in the city by asking about the direction and then trying to know more about them and the city. This city treated me in an exceptional way, from auto-rickshaw drivers to street vendors.
Through the lanes, I reached the most significant structure of Jaisalmer, the Jaisalmer Fort. Jaisalmer’s unique fort is a living urban centre. Around 3000 people reside within its walls. It has a honeycombed structure with narrow, winding lanes, lined with houses and temples, along with a large number of craft shops, guesthouses and restaurants. You enter the fort from the east, near Gopa Chowk, and pass through four massive gates on the zigzag route to the upper part. The final gate opens up to the square that forms the fort’s centre, Dashera Chowk. Founded in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisal and reinforced by subsequent rulers, Jaisalmer Fort was the centre of a number of battles between the Bhatis, the Mughals of Delhi and the Rathores of Jodhpur. Jaisalmer Fort is now a world heritage site.
One of the best things about travelling is meeting new people. As a traveller one has a lot of stories to share or talk about, and I don’t think you will ever get bored or feel lonely. Jaisalmer being one of the most visited tourist destination in Rajasthan, I came across people from Israel, Brazil and Spain who were as free as a bird. Listening to their thoughts and understanding about India made the conversation more amusing. While walking around the city I came across a colossal structure made from yellow sandstone, known as Patwon Ji Ki Haveli, which is the largest haveli in Jaisalmer, constructed in the year 1805 by Guman Chand Patwa, a rich trader of jewellery of his time. This cluster of five havelis is an interesting piece of architecture. Head of the family Ghuman Chand Patwa decided to gift each of his sons a separate mansion and, therefore, were completed in the span of 50 years. Patwon Ji Ki Haveli is renowned for its ornate wall paintings, intricate yellow sandstone carved jharokhas (balconies), gateways and archways.
To comprehend more about the city and culture it carries, one should walk a few kilometres. As you walk towards the outskirts, you will find yourself next to a serene surrounding leaving behind the infuriating crowd and also near the major tourist attraction, Gadsisar Lake which was once the only source of water in Jaisalmer and was constructed by the first ruler of Jaisalmer, Maharwal Gadsi Singh. Surrounded by temples and ghats, one can reach Gadsisar Lake by taking an auto rickshaw or by just walking for 5-10 minutes from the centre of the city. Watching the calm water or boating can turn out to be a mesmerising experience. Having a conversation with the people who are born and brought up in Jaisalmer will help you get used to the surrounding and will build confidence to cover the rest of the city with a free mind. Best time to visit the lake is during dawn and dusk. As the festival was all set to begin on the next day with an opening ceremony, followed by a rally through the streets of the Golden City, I had to prioritise between what to cover first. As I did not want to miss out on anything important. I did a research about the key places earlier and it helped me plan effortlessly.
While chatting with the people based in the city, I got to know about the desert safari held at the Sam sand dunes being one of the most important things to experience as you visit the city. Located 40-45 km away from the city and has a nice sealed non-bumpy road which is maintained by Indian Arm forces. Sam Sand Dunes is a must visit in the state of Rajasthan in the environs of the city of Jaisalmer. It is likely that you are going for a desert safari when planning to visit the Thar Desert or else, the point of going there is of no use. Best time of the day to go there is before sun sets at around 4-6 PM or in the wee hours of the morning at 4-6 AM, before the sun rises. I booked a cab which took approx. forty minutes to reach the dunes from the city. The experience was gripping, starting from a camel ride and then followed by a cultural performance and Rajasthani dinner.
Being in Jaisalmer for three nights and three days was truly an enthralling experience. Best time to understand the Rajasthani culture in the city is during the yearly organized Desert Festival where one gets to witness a variety of cultural performances, competitions, camel races, camel decoration and puppet shows.