If you would like to see a local fair in an Indian town, transformed into a global phenomenon that has been widely publicised, I would strongly suggest that you book your seats for next year’s Desert Festival in Jaisalmer. Being in Rajasthan, I didn’t want to miss the famed Desert Fest. Held annually in Jaisalmer, this fest is known for a strong local flavour, rejoicing in an explosion of colour and candour.
The annual Desert Festival in Jaisalmer is an endeavour of the Rajasthan Tourism Department. It attracts large number of participants and revellers from various parts of Rajasthan including Bikaner, Jaipur, Jodhpur and even beyond; along with foreign travellers who plan their trip to coincide with this great event. To begin with, this fair, or mela, started out as a typical fair in most parts of the country, held every year where traders and buyers converge so that people may stock up on goodies. In Jaisalmer, this humble town fair has transformed into a colourful festival that is conducted on a huge scale.
This year, the festival in Jaisalmer began on 23rd February and ended on the 25th. The venues were changed on all the three days. On the first two days, the two stadiums within the town of Jaisalmer were utilized, with Ferris wheels and local competitions organized amidst ribbon cutting ceremonies and the welcoming of dignitaries.
The best part about the festival was the competitions held on the first two days. The handouts specially mentioned that these competitions were meant for foreigners to participate. Much furore and laughter ensued during competitions like turban tying. The turbans were all over the place and the tying party were in splits as the foreigners tried to balance them on their heads. The Rajasthani turbans, one must remember, are known for the intricacy of layers and knots, some of them weighing a few kilos. So it is no wonder that the foreigners were a little more than just overwhelmed.
Other competitions included camel racing, dune bashing, tattoo drawing (another one of my favourites), and many more. Local delicacies rubbed shoulders with now “glocal” Indian fare, without which any event is incomplete: chats, paani puris and more.
On the third and final day of the festival, camel rides and Rajasthani folk music concert were organised on the sand dunes of the Sam (pronounced as some). The dunes were dotted as we arrived and within no time at all, the sun set in one quick dip even before people could finish clicking those precious few moments. Slated to carry on until midnight to celebrate the beautiful full moon, this one was a spectacle indeed. ‘Mr Moustache’ and ‘Mr Desert’, newly crowned as well the recent winners, jostled for crowd support as camels sat next to jeeps and jongas.
We went on a camel ride covering five dunes in all but not before some serious haggling to reduce the price to Rs.200. The camel owner painted us a beautiful picture with words before he stated the figure of Rs.1000 for the ride! After being assured that we were mere domestic tourists, and not NRIs, he decided to succumb and agreed on the paltry sum that we reluctantly offered him. My husband laughingly told that a litre of petrol would have come cheaper!
After the sun had set, we settled down to watch the proceedings on stage. The wonderful folk songs and coy dance movements were well appreciated and the audience gentle clapped as the cold breeze got stronger and stronger. Thankfully, we had bundled ourselves with warm clothes. The songs covered themes such as the 13 household chores that women lovingly perform, all depicted through a dance that the ladies performed as they sat – a wonderful departure from modern day gyrations in the name of item songs, along with folk tales on how lovers would exchange white hankies with a mirror and sugar, to show their love in the days of yore.
As I watched these events, I realised the sheer evolution in the Indian cultural landscape. Local spectators sat comfortably on the dunes along with foreign tourists to watch the show. These festivals have become the cultural melting pots of sorts even as the theme of Rajasthani culture is kept alive. While it is all quintessentially Rajasthan, there is also a strong focus on India. For the unassuming foreigner travelling in India, this festival may seem like everything that India is all about. For these people, it is very difficult to comprehend that so many cultures can so happily change style, pace and even colour, to dramatic proportions, just across a few hundred kilometres.
The festival itself is a major highlight of many tour itineraries. The train journey from New Delhi to Jaisalmer felt surreal for me; jam packed with travellers from America, Europe, Japan, and other countries, the train felt like it was moving against time. All these travellers could talk about was the impending festival even as they used their iPads and phones in the almost Victorian looking quarters of our humble Indian Railways!