What happens when 50 strangers from various cities gather to travel to a place unexplored? Fun, discovery and friendship build along with stories to be shared for years. A random tag on Facebook made me register for an online contest; always skeptical about winning these contests, I wrote the answers and within 10 days, I received an email after which I was packing my bags for a three day trip to Barmer in Rajasthan.
La Vida Travel Café based in Ahmedabad is an organization that is building travel community worldwide where one can travel the world free of cost thus, creating the concept of socially responsible tourism. The community building mind started an online contest and after scrutinizing the best travelers from across the cities, a group of 50+ strangers hopped on to the bus from Ahmedabad to Barmer starting at 6 AM.
Amid early morning yawns and an empty stomach, I exchanged glances, a quick hello, and introduction. After a halt at a Dhaba for tea/coffee and poha, I was en route to Barmer. Amid 7 hours of getting to know each other, antakshari, dumb charades and short naps later I reached the destination: Sanchal Fort, a luxury hotel located on the sand dunes of Magabar. The resort welcomed all of the travelers to an atmosphere of rich Rajasthani culture and a pleasant lunch that filled our empty stomachs and lifted up our spirit.
Barmer was founded by Bahada Rao or Bar Rao Parmar in 1552 AD although for a short while it was named as Mallani after Rawal Mallinath, the son of Salkha and Rawal Mallinath who was a cultural, philanthropical and religious icon in Barmer and was worshiped as Gods by the local people. Barmer, which is situated on the western side of Rajasthan, is known for folk music and dance made famous by the communities such as Bhopas (priest singers), Muslim Dholis (drummers), Langas and Manganiars.
The first evening was spent at the dunes, overlooking the sun meeting the horizon and the sounds of folk music by Manganiars. The musical note was extended at the fort where I met the performers. The story that goes behind this camaraderie is that the folk musicians (Manganiars of Barmer) for the past three generations have been performing for the owners and their forefathers of Sanchal Fort and this has become a regular routine.
While some took a dip in the pool, I took a long shower and dressed up for a musical night. Famished, I ate a sumptuous, hot meal served in the restaurant decorated with vintage chandeliers and colorful Rajasthani art adorning the high ceilings and pillars. The bar room adjoining the restaurant was set for performance and amidst the travelers, I heard a young musician and singer ASK who strummed a guitar and sang romantic Bollywood songs including his original composition which truly made my first day at the secluded fort blissful.
On the second day of the staycation, I took a long spa to relax my aching muscles and joined others for the pool party followed by lunch. In the afternoon, the group headed to explore the carved wooden furniture and hand block printing industry for which the district is famous for across the country. The specialized block printing called ‘Ajrakh’ literally means ‘keeping it for today.’ This type of printing ages back to the time of Mohen-Jo-Daro where an excavated statue was found covered with a cloth material with the design uncannily similar to Ajrakh. According to the existing documents, the Ajrakh printers came to India from a place called Sukkur in present day Sindh, Pakistan; the families of which settled in south west Barmer while some moved to Kutch.
Alongside, Barmer boasts of the carved wood furniture art which was made famous during the Indo-Pak wars after Barmer was developed as a major military base. [Fun Fact: Uttarlai is India’s first underground airbase which is found in Barmer district.] The intricately detailed furniture is made using walnut, sessamum, teak and babool wood as an alternative for Roida, an insignificant local tree which was extensively used before environmental consciousness barged in and the industry looked out for alternatives.
After buying souvenirs, I headed to Keradu where the remnants of 5 Shaiva-Vaishnav temples of Maru-Gurjar style are in existence previously destroyed by Mohammad Ghori in 1140 AD. The temples have a stark resemblance to Khajuraho Temples situated in MP and are today, according to the locals, infamous for being haunted. After an hour long session of photography and hearing mythical, haunting stories of the temples, I traveled to the most beautiful and an explored place in Barmer: the salt lake.
Around 20 Km away in a village called Pachpadra in Barmer district is the Pachpadra Lake which is known for the salt collection around it and has its sodium chloride level marked at 98%. Although the salt had not deposited during the monsoons, what I witnessed was a never seen before sight. For the first 45 minutes, I took the camel ride, heard local musicians singing folklore of the kings and the battles fought; what was stored in was a storm approaching from as far as my eyes could see. The locals warned all of us to flee and without questioning, we did. Because the moment, all of us boarded the bus and started to ride away, the thunderstorm hit us and what could have taken 30 minutes to reach the venue, it took us nearly an hour to reach Sanchal Fort.
The last night at the fort, I decided to spend it with all the fellow travelers pool side, talking, jamming with ASK and Atman (local musicians of the group) and adding each other to the contact list and on social media. The storm followed Barmer and we heard the news next day of the incessant rains affecting areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat due to which the journey back to Ahmedabad from Barmer took almost 12 hours. I reached home safe (Udaipur) although after 3 days but that’s another story for another time.