My tryst with Jaisalmer starts with Dr Chandar Prakash Vyas in his tiny little lassi shop located in the fort. The day is overcast with dark monsoon clouds and I am very thirsty. A couple of foreign travellers from the UK are seated on small stools, while a trio from Hyderabad is huddled in the corner. A couple of rugs are sprawled around and I sit on one of them, my back cushioned against the wall. A huge kitschy picture of Shiva in Kailash adorns the walls behind me and a television blares in the front, showcasing Antony Bourdain from an episode of No Reservations, entering this shop. Everybody is asked to pay attention to the episode as Babu or Chandar uses it as a way to introduce himself.
He is neither a practitioner of medicine nor does he hold a doctorate in any discipline. Yet, he is an authority on bhang and he is fondly referred to as Dr Bhaang. His lassi shop was the official bhang shop in Jaisalmer until a year ago as his competitor, he claims, has got the tag now by paying a little more to the officials. “I will get the board back,“ says Dr Bhaang adding that he is the third generation in his family who has held the “official rights” for three decades.
The menu is out. A variety of “thandai” and “lassi” is available in different flavours. And I am asked if I want it mild or strong or a “baby” mix. Bhang is prepared from the leaves of the female cannabis plant and in his “clinic” -- as the “doctor” calls it – you can get it as a cookie or a chocolate as well. I opt for a mild mix in a glass of buttermilk. “You will feel great when you travel, like a smooth camel ride,“ he says, staring right into my eyes, adding he has had just eight drinks so far. The foreigners are intrigued and he tells them stories of Shiva and the merits of bhang. Another group of foreigners enters and Dr Bhaang gets all busy showcasing the video again. As I leave comes the parting shot, “Look for the official board on my shop next time you are here.“
I am not high on bhang, but the riot of colours around Jaisalmer fort hits me. Narrow cul de sacs open into shops selling embroidered bedsheets. A bright purple fabric meets my gaze announcing, “No need for Viagra. This is Magic Bed sheet.” A swish of a ghagra, the lure of jhumkas… the shops around the fort lure me. Havelis have become hotels as ornate jharokas with pink satin curtains greet you while palaces have turned into museums reeking with the smell of bats. The golden walls are filled with colourful puppets and a mosaic of pretty beads and trinkets.
And then I meet guide Raju, who thinks he shares a kinship with Guide Raju of R K Narayan’s book, a character etched by Dev Anand in the film. He tells me that this 12th century fort was built by the Bhati Rajput king Rao Jaiswal on Trikuta Hill. Jaiswal shifted the capital here from Ludurva. A scene of many battles, the fort with four gateways has 99 bastions, all basking in a golden glare from the yellow sandstone, giving it the name, Golden Fort or Sonar Kila. But it is not its history or its magnificence that catches my attention. It is a living fort breathing with life and is home to about 4,000 people who have been living here for decades.
Raju takes me to the Dussehra Chowk, where a montage of palaces and shops converges as autodrivers and bikes jostle for space. Here, Raju points to a door which has red imprints of palms that tragically remind you of the system of Sati, when widows immolated themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. Another doorway leads to the museum where I spend some time, listening to stories of battles lost and won. I follow Raju into another small lane, where a flight of stairs takes us into a local’s house which is now a eatery. From the jharoka, I can get beautiful views of the Jain temples – seven of which were built inside the fort. I quickly enter a couple of them before they shut to see sculptures of Jain Tirthankaras carved inside.
Monsoon clouds gather again as Raju hurries us to another lane. We climb up the steps of another mansion that has been converted into a homestay. From the terrace, the entire town of Jaisalmer spreads out in front of us, wrapped in a golden haze. In another corner, the majestic bastions of the fort look upon us but breathing life into them is the chaos that surrounds them. If you ask me it is that chaos, the very symbol of life, that gives the Jaisalmer Fort a golden edge over other citadels in Rajasthan.