Having so enjoyed the gentle and rural authenticity of the Nagaur cattle fair I was in two minds about the Jaisalmer Desert Festival geared as it is to pageantry, entertainment and tourists. It was all these things and I loved it!
It began with a procession celebrating desert life. We gathered and jostled for the best view with the other goggle-eyed tourists at the base of the Fort. Coach loads of Japanese with floppy hats and cameras with trunk like zooms, a few Americans with caps and white ankle socks, affluent retirees with their driver/guides, fresh faced youngsters on gap years and many Indian tourists coming in from the big cities for a bit of desert fun.
The procession was led from the Fort by a caravan of splendidly decorated camels, their proud riders dressed in spotless white cotton and rich saffron turbans. All of them sporting bushy, sometimes twirled moustaches, which seem to be a pre-requisite for these swarthy desert men. There were the hijras (transvestites), preening, pouting and posing for the cameras. A troupe of men in red and yellow skirts, wielding sticks and performing dances not dissimilar to the Morris dancing I’d witnessed at British fetes and fairs. And rows of beautiful girls. Enigmatic kohled eyes stand out from their smooth, young skin, framed by dark hair and the bright fabric of their saree scarves. They are bedecked with sparkling jewellery and hold shining water pots with garlands of coconuts, flowers and leaves which are balanced with confidence and poise as they parade through the streets.
I stand and gaze at this rich and intriguing mix allowing it all to move and flow around me. As the light catches different angles and formations, shapes and colours melding and changing, I am reminded of the kaleidoscope I had as a child. I am as transfixed now as I was then with the magic and mystery and wonder.
We follow the procession to the show ground and are entertained with traditional dances, competitions such as Mr Desert and Miss Moomal – essentially a desert beauty pageant – turban tying for both Indians and game foreigners and of course the judging for the best, the longest, the most well tended moustache. The stage is a good 150 feet from where we are sitting in the midday sun and as such we get a distant view of the winners and runners up. It doesn’t really matter. It’s entertaining enough just absorbing it all and talking to the children who come to giggle and practice their English.
The following morning we wake to another unusually cold and foggy day. Unperturbed we layer up and join a steam of people making their way to the stadium. We find a spot on the ground beneath the boundary fence. We are pleased with this space. It is much closer to the action than where we were the day before. It has been designated for foreign tourists so we begin with enough space and politeness. However, the police lose their battle to keep Indian spectators out and soon we are stepped upon, bumped and squeezed by eager families and teenage boys and after three hours of crowds, hard ground and the cold we are not so comfortable!
However, the discomfort is worth it. We see camel races, women competing with heavy clay pots of water balanced on their heads, and a tug of war; Indians against foreigners – the foreigners won! Young soldiers beautifully turned out in royal blue uniforms display discipline and teamwork in a synchronised rifle drill. Polo played from camels was a highlight! There appeared to be no rules, just barge on in and whack the ball as hard as you can. It’s difficult to be precise atop a large camel and the ball was more often than not kicked forward from the tangle of camel feet rather from its meeting with the mallet! As fun as all this was the highlight for me was the camel tattoo. Imagine a mounted military tattoo that you might see in the UK and then replace the agile horses with the loping gait of camels, the neat and tidy show ground with a dusty expanse of sandy desert, the rousing classical music with the chatter and shouts of young Indian children and the subdued colours of uniforms and equine decoration with the rich orange turbans of the riders and red and yellow pom-poms and bells on the camels and you may have some idea of the spectacle we witnessed! Utterly bonkers, utterly Indian and utterly impressive. Camels are not known for their finesse but this was a slick and elegant performance and a joy to watch!
In the evenings we were offered a programme of music and dance. Skilled musicians on tablas, their hands and fingers a blur of movement as they tapped out complex rhythms, Indian flutes and harmonium adding haunting melodies. It wasn’t all to my liking; some of the singing is too harsh and piercing for my ears and much of the dancing seemed uncoordinated, almost as though they were still rehearsing. Many of these dances and songs were telling folk stories of their history and gods and without subtitles or explanation this was lost on us. But, none of this matters when you can extend your view and witness the tightly packed crowd enthralled and amused and all against the atmospheric backdrop of a burnt orange sun setting behind the sand dunes.