Unheard of rain fall levels are greening the Great Thar Desert in Rajasthan where all was previously sand. The great fort of Jaisalmer rises today not from dunes but from a rough sea of hardy shrubbery. The sun nevertheless fights back with undying force; if it fails to dehydrate the land so dramatically as in the past it will certainly succeed in dehydrating you and visitors to the remarkable oasis that is The Serai, Jaisalmer tented camp are strongly advised to drink plenty of water, wear hats and layer on the sun cream. The temptation though is to drink more of the delicious range of cocktails on offer and, if the sun gets too much, to retire to a beautifully appointed tent or to the hedonistic luxury of the Spa for a massage with wondrous smelling natural oils. I may have been camping recently on a desert island with no visible amenities or even fresh water and thought it good entertainment but I could get a serious taste for really high class hotels and no cockroaches.
The 21 beautiful tents of The Serai, Jaisalmer are laid out round a desert garden where the sounds of water, from a reversed step-well – you go up the steps to the water instead of down – blend with early morning birdsong. Little else breaks what seems an almost other worldly level of peace, especially for those flying in from the traffic mayhem of one of the great Indian cities, aside from an occasional chorus of twilight barking from the local farm dogs. Young staff in white uniforms, small, bright coloured turbans known as poths on their heads, silently lay white cushions on the sandstone seats at the entrance to tents in the early morning and dry steps after a gigantic thunderstorm during the night – the sun in any case is rising and will finish the cleaning up job, thirstily sucking up the last drops of water.
All here is based on sand and white – other colours: the olives and emeralds of a desert garden; touches of blue; cushions in the tent’s entrance sitting area, a woven rug in the bathroom: serve to accentuate the calm elegance of the overriding scheme that extends even to natural coloured warm shawls to hold off the always unexpected cold of a desert evening. Natural coloured leather covers a campaign style chest holding the mini bar, there is even a leather pouch for the rechargeable torches that are barely needed to walk garden paths at night that are otherwise lit gently to detract less from the vast arc of starry sky. Hurricane lamps hang here and there from trees and pick out the design of water courts and steps. The desk in the outer lobby of each tent is well supplied with a selection of the same antique leather bound books that make up the library contained in a huge circular bookcase in the bar where leather armchairs invite the idle or folding campaign chairs can be moved nearer to tables for a game of chess or an attempt at more focused and less soporific reading. There is writing paper too, sharpened pencils for the important travel journal ready in stone jars and always a bowl of saffron marigolds, potted sunshine.
Blessed warmth for those non-Indians who do not embrace any form of cold as a delightful novelty is provided in winter by healthy numbers of efficient radiators in bedrooms and bathrooms – thank god for not having to share with a husband who always turns everything off. Hot water bottles of course appear miraculously in turned down evening beds besides the excitement of purple tissue wrapped surprise presents left on pillows by all year Father Christmases. There are a/c units against summer heat and the swimming pool, bright blue and icy cold in winter but welcome in summer in addition to the outdoor Jacuzzis in some of the tents.
Everything works, from electric plugs to the most flattering mirrors ever – how clever to make everyone look tall, thin and glamorous and how fitting in this most glamorously low key place that runs like the best country house or the greatest of old-fashioned Italian hotels where service was what counted. Of course, at The Serai, Jaisalmer, perfect service, invisible until needed when staff, seemingly with skills of bilocation miraculously appear, is the icing on the cake of wonderful design, management and the extraordinary engineering that has somehow floated, or so it appears, a dream hotel on 100 acres of sand. The sand has borne further fruit in an organic vegetable garden growing rocket, herbs, cabbages, carrots, and shortly oranges and artichokes besides a field of wheat and other ingredients to be translated in the kitchen into homemade herbed breads and almost anything you could want to eat from this continent to Europe and SE Asia. It all starts with eggs benedict for breakfast and, for those minded to diet, temptations go from bad to worse, although it would be quite easy to live here on the freshest and most delicious salads straight from the garden.
Tents are astonishingly private, spread well apart round the garden, only their roofs showing from the central path and little indication, except an occasional dining room, bar or evening camp fire encounter, of any other guests staying at all. There is space to breathe and more and expeditions to be made for those inclined. Tea and a sundowner on the dunes means a drive, racing chinkara gazellles skittering away in the distance or nilgai, blue bulls, nervily standing to watch the jeeps approaching. After that a camel or camel cart ride to a virgin sand dune that looks as if it has been raked, the perfect markings the product of wind and sun not man. It has to be said that for the novice or the unwary a camel ride can be unexpectedly bumpy – T E Lawrence didn’t ride across Arabia without any practice. Once safely relieved of camel responsibility one is revived by sandwiches, cakes and biscuits, all home made of course and more importantly even than tea, pink champagne to match the glowing evening sky before a return in the final minutes of twilight to a welcoming bar, bath and dinner.
Visits to Jaisalmer city are also suggested entertainments and give a taste not only of the glories of the Rajasthan past but also the massive development of the past few years that will continue speeding the desert into the future. Where once the city was inside the walls, now it spreads across the desert plains where windmills and pylons march across the land and every village is punctuated by mobile telephone towers all too closely clustered by the newly built stone houses of inhabitants who have not yet realised the perils of too close an association with the machinery of this brilliant means of communication. Neither have the downsides of ever useful plastic bags yet fully been realised in India in spite of efforts in some districts – the rubbish is appalling and indestructible – the digestive systems of goats and camels may thrive on thorn bushes and god knows what natural rubbish but not on plastic and nobody including any government service finds its removal to be their responsibility.
The intricacies of the stone carving of the great havelis and Jain temples, the massive walls of the fort still make Jaisalmer worth seeing but this is a town now with other aspirations and ambitions that look to the future more than the past. Nowhere and nowhere better perhaps have those aspirations come to fruition than in the story of Lakshmi, the uneducated vegetable seller who threatened a filmmaker with a mouli when he tried to photograph her 40 plus years ago. That young woman is now a great grandmother, her son the Sarpanch, head of a village panchayat council and a man of stature and dignity whose children are university students or graduates in professions including medicine and dentistry. Lakshmi herself is a strong woman not above threatening importunate photographers with a mouli still but these days not in earnest as she produces a feast of local food for friends, including that documentary maker of years before, that rivals the food in The Serai, Jaisalmer. O dear, the badri and ghee, the mirchi and the beans, desert fruit, the roti – I can taste it still…
Development inevitably means losses that balance the gains, young people aspire to changing lifestyles. Village life revolves less round the cycle of seasons and agriculture leavened in the past only with home grown entertainments and more on the availability of communications, transport, education possibilities and daily involvement with wider contemporary issues, local and national. Old skills are no longer so valued and long held traditions here will become part of history, preserved only as distant folk memories and in museum cases. In the case of the ancient music of the Rajasthan desert, the hereditary skills passed down through the Manganiyar or Langha communities, the Muslim musicians of the desert, may disappear in the rush to other entertainment and occupation and perhaps live on at best as taught skills for theatre performance. Even the Whirling Dervishes of Egypt perform their rites more often these days as staged entertainment than as true religious ceremony. For now, as some of the great Manganiyar performers, like Sakar Khan, the honoured and revered Koraicha player, slip into old age, the music hangs on. A firelit performance by a group of musicians at The Serai, Jaisalmer is an unforgettable and highly emotional experience that inexplicably affects the deepest corners of the mind and spirit and which one can hardly bear to end.
Written by Anabel Loyd
Photography by Hajra Ahmad