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ROUNDABOUT

Hideaway village in the dunes

HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER

Thar is still mostly terra incognita, waiting to be discovered by travellers, with many a hidden treasure in its undulating dunes.

Photo: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

A fantasy come alive: The Dune village.

From the moment we alighted from the camel cart, we were washed with serenity.

Creaking camel carts and galumphing camels are the only way to get to the Dune Village. We had spent the forenoon visiting, and lunching in, the beautiful old restored Khimsar Fort. Through its imposing gate, emblazoned with the family coat of arms, we had driven past masses of cascading bougainvillea, to a parking lot backed by a garage with huge show-windows. Resting sleek and contented behind them was a row of vintage cars: gleaming and immaculate.

Most of the Princes of India knew how to live well and many were loved by their subjects. One result of that is that a large number of the scions of the former rulers have been elected as representatives of their people. Kunwar Gajendra Singh, the erstwhile Princes of Khimsar, is, today, the Minister of Energy in Rajasthan. Clearly, however, his heart is firmly embedded in his desert domain.

Still undiscovered

The Great Indian Desert, the 4,46,000 sq. km. Thar, is still, largely, terra incognita, awaiting discovery by the travellers of the world. Much of it is not barren sand but undulating land covered in thorn trees and tough scrub. Gajendra suggested that we drive through this scrubby terrain in one of his 4x4 jeeps, then experience his Dune Village. The “desert safari” was an eye-opener.

Desert rats had riddled large areas with their burrows, living off the roots and seeds of heat-resistant grass and shrubs. Their tunnel-homes must have been cool even at the height of blazing summer. Spiny-tailed lizards, reputedly mono-sexual and capable of unfertilized reproduction, left their curious herringbone tracks on the sand. Most unexpectedly, in this seemingly hostile terrain, we were able to get close shots of black-buck grazing and also of herds of the fearless nilghai: those slate-coloured ungulates that normally graze in the morning and late afternoon. And here, in the hot glare of a desert afternoon, they were out in the open chomping on their vegetarian lunch. Obviously, they felt secure and at peace with the world.

Our safari ended at a little, circular, thatched hut where the man-of-the-house was the luxuriantly bearded Sher Singh. He had all the swashbuckling, fierce, good looks of a Robin Hood dacoit. He helped us onto our camel cart and then ambled us up a sand-dune, through a short, pass-like, defile, and into the Dune Village.

It was enchanting. Circular, thatched, huts, with clay-plaster walls, some standing under shading thorn trees, were dotted around a large bowl-like area, encircled by rising dunes of golden sand. There were two large tents for dining and recreation. On one side, ringed by a thorn fence, was a sheep pen: the herd-in-residence had been taken out to graze. And in the centre of the bowl was a blue-green pond, spreading around a little island with a single tree on it. The pond, in this oasis, was dotted with quacking, honking, preening geese and ducks.

It was all quite magical, as if someone had taken a woodcut out of an old Arabian Nights fantasy, and, with a wave of a genie’s hand, made it all come alive.

We plodded across the sand, like pioneers in another world. We felt as if our pores were open, absorbing the silence thirstily.

Our tastefully rustic hut had all we could ask for… and more. Its walls were embellished with patterns made of mirror-chips: camels plodding slowly, village women carrying pots of water on their heads. Sunlight, defused through arched windows, sparkled off the mural-mosaics, subtly highlighting a different design as we moved around the room. We were delighted.

So were our fellow guests, who trickled in as the day wore on. They were from Germany. “It is so peaceful here,” said our neighbour, the silver-haired Hans. His elegant strawberry-blonde wife added, “We did not realise that, in the middle of the desert, we could find so much peace.” They had come here with their daughter-in-law, Sylvia who was a computer programmer in Hamburg. “It is so wonderful to be able to live in such, clean, wide open spaces. I must bring here my husband when he can drag himself away from his meetings..”

We didn’t ask their surnames or their addresses. Here, we treasured our anonymity and respected that of our fellow guests. In a setting such as this we wanted to cut ourselves off from the world beyond the dunes and live in the eternal present in this sequestered place.

And so we sat on Morah-chairs in the shade of a thorn tree, near the pool, and watched a kingfisher dive for his lunch, and preen after his meal. We joined our fellow-guests in the dining tent and got a new insight into the benefits of being Indian. “You still live in touch with the earth,” a professor of physics with a white beard said. “We are losing that. We need to renew ourselves by coming to places such as this. This is real…”

As the setting sun lengthened the shadows of the thorn trees and made the dunes blush with dusk, the shepherd brought home his flock of sheep and herded them into their corral ... after letting them quench their thirst in their reflections in the water. Our life-rhythms were beginning to adjust to the tempo of a rural day, slowing down, relaxing.

Magical evening

Mashaal-torches flared, throwing a glow over the protecting dunes. A silver-and-black skirted Kalbelia woman danced sinuously to the pipes and drums of her snake-charmers tribe. Soon there was only the moon swimming golden in the pond. We slept deeply, dreamlessly, while mirror-stars twinkled in our room.

Dawn came with a soft-focus film of mist. As we sipped coffee outside our hut, a flock of rock-pigeons landed at the edge of the pool and indulged themselves in a frenzy of spray-bathing. Slowly, reluctantly, our fellow travellers trooped away on galumphing camels and creaking camel carts.

And, once again, the silence of the desert settled around us, nurturing us in the serenity of the dunes …

Quick facts

Getting There: By Air and Rail to Jodhpur and then 91 km by road to Khimsar Fort. A further 7 km by jeep to the Dune Village.

Accommodation: Double – Rs.6,600; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner – Rs.1,625 per person; Safari: Rs.550.

Reservations: Tel: 011-26266650/55. E-mail: welcom@ndf.vsnl.net.in

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