Explore the magnificent Rajasthan, renowned for its gorgeous forts, havelis and the royal families of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur and also the ghost town of Kuldhara.
An enjoyable travelogue, with a touch of the supernatural, by Ridhanishaa for the LnC Special Edition of Ghost Stories by Children that came out of Ramendra Kumar’s sessions at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF) 2019.
It was 1 am and the howling winds were shifting the sands of the Thar Desert. My four companions made arrangements for our little impromptu party. We popped the cork of the champagne bottle to celebrate the end of our first day in Jaisalmer.
As the wind picked up, and then died away, in the distance, Karan Singh, the general manager of the Hotel Suryagarh said with his trademark chuckle, “You see that little mound right behind us? Legend has it that the tradition of Sati was practiced there. So that howl you hear may not be the wind, you know.” I hastily drowned my glass of bubbly to suppress the goosebumps that were popping up on my skin. But apparently, my encounter with the eerie mysteries of Rajasthan had only just begun.
Glamourous or ghostly?
But of late, parts of the state are being described by another set of adjectives – scary, haunted and spine-chilling, with the town of Bhangarh leading the way as being one of the most haunted places in India. Jaisalmer, with its golden fort and havelis, sand dunes and ghost towns, combines all these qualities and more.
We arrived in Jaisalmer early that morning after an overnight train journey from Delhi, followed by a five-hour drive from Jodhpur through one of the best highways in the country. Our stay for the duration was at the five-star Hotel Suryagarh, located 10 km away from the town centre. As our car climbed the rampart, turned a corner through the second arched gateway and stopped in front of a long queue of people waiting to welcome us, the opulence of it all took my breath away.
Unlike some of the old palaces, or havelis, in the state that have been transformed into magnificent hotels now, the story of Suryagarh is, in fact, the other way round. Suryagarh is a hotel that was built in the form of a fort a few years ago, all thanks to Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, who is a former Gladrags model. It may not have the royal lineage as the other heritage properties, but it sure is a marvellous effort by Shekhawat to promote Jaisalmer as a must-visit destination in Rajasthan. The hotel is fully functional and very soon, there will be other attractions like a lake around the periphery with boating facilities, a park and more.
The past in the present
As I stepped out from the car on to a red carpet, I was welcomed with an aarti and tilak, accompanied by the sound of folk music played by a troupe of local musicians, and ushered into the grand reception room. You can’t help but gawk at the dazzling ceiling there, one that has been conceptualised by designer Raghavendra Singh Rathore. Eclectic period teak furniture dot the room, along with old paintings from the family’s personal collection.
Suryagarh is a marriage of traditional Rajputhana architecture with modern comforts, and as you are taken on a tour of the property, the fact becomes only too apparent. Sprawling courtyards, ample terraces, endless corridors, jharokhas as windows, carved doors, treasure chests, palanquins and other antiques placed at corners, seamlessly merge with ultra-modern amenities in the rooms, gym, spa, restaurants, bar, swimming pool and more.
On-the-house cocktail dinners are arranged every evening and with such precision of details that can only be expected of a hotel of this stature. These heady affairs comprise a sumptuous feast of Rajasthani cuisine and often culminate in a drive to the desert at midnight to raise a toast to other-worldly creatures. That brings us back to the point where I bid a hasty farewell to the howling wind, or whoever it was, and jumped back into the safety of our car. Only to be driven into the ghost town of Kuldhara 10 minutes later.
Curses of Yore
According to local legends, Kuldhara in 1291 AD was a thriving village inhabited by the Paliwal Brahmins. But like all its neighbouring villages, it was routinely pounded with heavy taxes by the tyrannical local ruler, who one day, happened to chance upon the doe-eyed beauty who was the village chief’s daughter. He wanted to marry her, but caste norms of the day ruled it out. So he planned to raid the village and take her away by force. Hearing this, the entire village of Kuldhara along with 84 other villages in the area disappeared one night, leaving no trace. The Paliwals also cursed Kuldhara for good measure, saying that no one could ever inhabit the settlement. So now it lies in ruins behind a closed gate.
As one of the bravest among us stepped out, opened the gate with a resounding creak and drove us through it, we could feel the curse taking its effect on us. Narrow lanes meander between ruins of houses, temples and other buildings that once formed the dwellings of the Paliwals. The centrepiece is, however, the house of the village chief where the acclaimed beauty lived. Tales of tortured souls still lingering in the village are popular and are often narrated to tourists who visit the, now declared, heritage site during the day. But at night, all lies shrouded in a dreaded stillness and even the slightest whisper can make you jump. Kuldhara is cordoned off after sunset and only those with strong hearts should attempt venturing in there at night.
The Golden Fort
Next morning, after a hearty American breakfast, we ventured into Jaisalmer town for a tour of a couple of havelis that are now maintained by the state government as museums. Thereafter, we made our way to the imposing Golden Fort, made famous as Sonar Kella by Satyajit Ray. One of the largest forts in the world, it was built in 1156 AD by the Bhati Rajput ruler, Rao Jaisal, from whom the city draws its name. Shrewd architecture of the fort with four gateways meant that it was never compromised in war and even now, it houses some 2,000 residents, making it one of the last living forts in India.
When we made our way to the mithai shops with their temptingly displayed matkas of lassi, we discovered that they were all bhang-laced with different variants containing different concentrations of the cannabis preparation. There is even a government-registered bhang shop selling not just lassi but cookies, brownies and other delicacies. Our temptation got the better of us and we quickly gorged on a cookie each and gulped down a glass of lassi.
The last leg of our tour was scheduled to end with a camel ride to the Sam Sand Dunes – a breathtaking sea of sand hills that stretch about 30km from Jaisalmer to the horizon beyond into Pakistan. But no sooner had we climbed on to our brilliantly decorated camels, that the swaying gait of the gentle beasts together with the after-effects of the lassi of that afternoon saw us go into a state of trance. Thankfully, it was broken by the cool wind blowing across the desert and the view of a gorgeous sunset across the glittering sand dunes, which left a mirage in our hearts that, will not be forgotten soon.
(Pictures: Lipi Bhattacharya)
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