Jaisalmer was an important node in the overland silk route and well-connected to the world at the time of Marco Polo. Built from the local yellow sandstone that turns to tawny gold in the evening sunlight, its fortress dominates the landscape, rising with crenellated walls several hundred feet above the surrounding plain. From the 12th century, it was a flourishing trade post for nearly 700 years. Camel trains brought Damascene swords, Afghani carpets from Herat, Persian wines from Shiraz, and “green-eyed Circassian beauties headed for the harems of Hindustan.” The last denominated may be a catch-all term for women from the trans-Caucasus region of Eurasia. The most famous Circassian of all is probably Roxolana who, as Hurrem Sultan, rose from slave to concubine to favourite wife of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) and ultimately, one of the most powerful figures in his court. Roxolana was actually of Ukrainian or Ruthenian descent, but the wife she ousted from Suleiman’s favour, the beautiful Gulbehar, was undoubtedly Circassian. Contrary to legend, Marco Polo did not visit Jaisalmer. Perhaps he should have. Today, as it did then, Jaisalmer gleams like a golden mirage at the edge of the Thar desert. Approaching the city from the north-east, from the direction of Bikaner, there is endless sunlight and more golden sand. Passing Pokran, the site of India’s first nuclear test in 1974, there is an array of hope for the future, rows of photovoltaic cells that are part of a 40 MW plant set up in 2012 to provide power to Rajasthan state. NOTE: Click on images below for larger view.
There is something easy-going about the pace of life in the city, unusual in that it is the first inhabited monument in the world to have been declared a World Heritage site in 2013. Around 450 families reside in the fort complex and some of their homes have been converted into hotels, which puts additional strain on the centuries old infrastructure that was designed for a royal household and a few hundred retainers. After a walk around the city lasting several hours, we were totally captivated by the relaxed atmosphere in the city and found a possible explanation when our guide offered us a choice of masala chai or a glass of milk or tea laced with bhang. When asked if it was legal, he turned and pointed to a sign down the street. The offer was tempting, but deterred by the 40-degree heat, I regretfully declined.
Bhang has been used since Vedic times in India and both Hindu sadhus and Muslim Sufis use it to heighten their spiritual ecstasy. Bhang is most commonly made by grinding cannabis leaves and adding a mixture of milk, ghee and spices. Sometimes ground almonds and sugar are added to the milk and this drink is called “thandai.”