"Yeh yahi banti hain" was my question to the owner of a small shop keeper in Pushkar while buying juttis for myself . "Barmer se aati hain, Pakistan boder ke paas se" prompt came the reply from him. "Kafi duur hoga yahan se?" asked I, "haan yahi koi teen soh kilometer". This was the first time I ever heard the name of Barmer. But what stuck to me about this whole conversation were two words "Pakistan" and "Border". For some reason, the border of Pakistan has held more meaning to me than any other, so when I got the opportunity to visit Barmer, I headed straight to the Internet to book my train tickets to travel 839 km west.
It was nine in the morning when we got off at the Jodhpur railway station, ready to travel another 4 hour by road to Barmer. After the initial negotiation on the money front, we managed to get a car. Jamal along with his brother Hasan were going to be our companions for the next 4 hours. Both could not have been more confused with our decision to ditch Jodhpur and instead head to a place which according to them had nothing. Jamal even tried to convince us by saying " ji aap wahan karenge kya tourist log toh Jodhpur ya Jaisalmer hi jate hain, wahan par toh sirf tel milta hain aur kuch nahi hain". Of course after realizing that nothing that would say would change our mind, they changed the topic and stopped at a small village called Gava, which sold the most delicious pakoras one, could ever have "discovery wale bhi aaye the yahan" said Jamal proudly. Well, twelve hours of journey had made our stomachs curl in so we didn't mind the stoppage at all. The pakoras were delicious but a bit too spicy for me. So after digging into some hot pakoras and what could only be called the most sweetened tea, we headed to our destination.
We were in the heart of Thar, the desert that I had only read about in my geography books back in school. A place that has the harshest living conditions possible, a place that boasts of being Asia's 3rd largest desert. The drive to Barmer showcased the dry ruggedness of the Thar. The sun was shining bright giving us the warmth, but we could not escape the chilly winds which, let me admit was a fault of mine coz I simply did not want to pull up the window. The excitement was growing, I was finally here.
They say that culture within India, differs every 50 kms, well whoever said that must have traveled a lot. I had started seeing the changes myself. The shirts and trousers worn back in Jodhpur were now taken over by white dhotis and and kurtas and of course the turbans. Both the brothers had sort of become our guides as well, stopping us at almost every place which they thought had a bit of an importance. They even gave us a little jungle safari tour as well, while we were simply discussing the famous Chinkara case of Jodhpur, Jamal had very quietly spotted one. It was indeed a beautiful animal, but somehow did not arouse the curiosity in me which a camel would have. I mean, I know it sounds a bit lame but, I really haven't seen a camel in the desert. Three hours later and after discussing politics, the Chinkaras, the swine flu, we were finally at Barmer.
Gorging on Food
By the time we cleaned up, my stomach was reminding me of its needs quite loudly by now. So we hired a cab and begged him to take us to eat something first. I could not really recognise half the things on the menu, so to be on the safe side I ordered the special Marwari Thali which included Kair, Sangri, Gatta Curry and Bajra ki roti. Now the most interesting fact about these vegetables is that no one in the entire Rajasthan cultivates them. These are known for their antioxidant qualities (since there are no fertilisers used in their production). Sangri kadi with boiled rice was most definitely the winner for me throughout my journey in Barmer. You see, Barmer has not yet been touched by the tourism bug and hence the menus have not been altered to suit the tongues from around the world, hence one can still enjoy authentic Rajathani food, like I did.
Art and Culture Galore
Five kilometers from main city Barmer, is the Mahabar desert, home to the annual Thar festival that takes place in the month of March. There is even an open auditorium that has been built where the artists present their talent. Artists from around Barmer are specially invited here for the three days festival to exhibit the rich culture of Thar. It would probably be the most colourful event, one can imagine with men and women in their traditional attire, parading their talent, Camels ready to take you on a long journey on the glistening sand and the air filled with the music coming from the Muslim Dholis.
My thoughts were broken by the curious eyes staring at me with the naughtiest smiles. You see our drive had created quite the stir amongst the school children who had just ended their day. Bang opposite the desert is the Mahabar village, which has some of the most talented artisans ever. Barmer is actually the house of all art that Rajasthan is so proud to present to the world. "Ji sare Rajasthan mein saman yahin Barmer se hi ban kar jata hain ya Barmer ki hi log bahar bas gaye hain par sab kuch yahin banta hain" came the response of Das Singh, a local of this village who for some reason wanted to introduce us to his small village, and which frankly I was glad for. So with Das Singh on my right and a group of kids I entered the village only to be greeted with more curious but ever so welcoming faces.
Dhaniya (mud huts) as they are called are the homes of these villagers. Each Dhani looks the same from outside but each decorated by different paintings on the wall. You could walk into these mud walls and see the simplicity of their lives. This village like many others in Barmer district mostly has artisans living here. I saw women sitting in the open spaces of their homes and designing pottery items, some simply sitting and helping their husbands and some jus getting around the house work done. I walked into the house of Ahmad Khan a 25 year-old-man who was working with all his brothers' n the courtyard of his house making one of the most beautiful wooden table tops that I could ever see. Ahmad told me that his father is a kumhar (potter). But he wanted to do something different hence at the age of 15 he learnt the art of Nakashi (wood carving) and since then has been in this business. "hum toh sirf nakashi karte hain, yeah yahan se Jaipur ya Delhi jayega taiyar hone ke bad" Ahmad answered as I asked him if this is his family work?
Day two took me to about four kilometers away from the main city of Barmer to a small restaurant called the Goodhall (Gudhal in barmer) where we were greeted by Mr. Purushottam Khatri. Born and brought up in Barmer Mr. Khatri has aspirations to do something for this small town since the town has been way too kind to him. For the next couple of hours Mr. Khatri was my encyclopedia on Barmer. Right next to the Goodhall is the Vijay Lakshmi Handicrafts emporium again owned by him. If anyone ever wants to see the art and craft of Barmer under one roof, this is the place to be. Carpets, bags, the famous Ajrak print bed sheets to furniture everything is displayed under-one-roof. Behind the big emporium are Mr. Khatris treasures, his in-house artists. Every thing that is sold in the emporium is all made on the workshops behind it, where the local artists have been employed to do all the work.
Scaling the Dunes
After a nice long tour of the Goodhall, we were on our way to a small town called "Sasiyon ka tilla" and "Khet Singhji ki Piyao". Both known for their sand dunes which run for miles together and Mr. Khatri was very keen to reveal some of the best kept secrets of Barmer. Unlike Jailsalmar which is known for its sand dunes in Sam and Khuri, one does not need to travel too far