It's an unscripted pageant with forts, architecture, cultural influence and a tasteful mingling of the past with the present. Gustasp and Jeroo Irani explore Jaisalmer.

In Jaisalmer, the desert dust formed a fine layer on our skin while the past permeated our souls; its gorgeous Sonar Kila or Golden Fort in the heart of town stormed our vision with its sheer girth and power. As we explored it, joining the melee of tourists, cows and honking rickshaws, the stones seemed to speak. The secrets of the past wafted in the air and history itself stretched its limbs, its long arms reaching into our present.

The oldest inhabited fort in the world, strong and overpowering from the outside, brims with colour and a touch of chaos within. The Arabian-nights style collage of towers, turrets and battlements that we had seen from afar turned out to be a maze of narrow streets over which havelis and the Maharawal's palace rose in all their finely carved glory, seemingly etched in lace rather than golden sandstone.

On the narrow streets, pretender sadhus asked for “picture money” and village belles posed as latter-day princesses. In this world of make-believe where the lines between reality and fantasy were blurred, ambling in the fort became an intriguing pleasure.

A masterpiece of defensive architecture, the four-gate fort has 99 bastions that would rain death on advancing enemy with showers of hot oil and enormous boulders. Built in 1156 AD by Maharawal Jaisal Singh, Jaisalmer's fort grabs one by the collar and refuses to let go. For here is an intricately carved balcony, there a wall smothered with sculpture; look upwards and the soaring spires of three densely carved Jain temples thrust upwards. Bhajans floated on the air mingling with the babble of a multitude of tongues — guides spewing their practiced spiels and tourists oohing and aahing at the sights of quintessential India! Yes, Jaisalmer is an unscripted pageant, a spectacle that happens.

Wares on display

All this is overlaid with the thick smell of commerce for everyone seems to be buying or selling something — multi-hued rugs, carpets, silver jewellery, curios — all of it glinting in the sun like a yawning Alladin's cave of treasure.

Everywhere, in and around this Rajasthani honey pot, time seemed to stand still yet ticked away. The contradictions piled up, and clashed and clanged with delightful frequency. As we drove to our fort-hotel Suryagarh, 12 km away, shepherds on bicycles herded their flocks; up ahead, groups of bent Jain nuns, clad in white, walked barefoot, carrying sticks and their worldly possessions tied in a bundle. Caparisoned camels filed past in the desert, led by their cameleers some of whom were talking on their cell phones even as their thin clothing seemed inadequate and unable to keep the chill winds at bay. Occasionally mustard fields unfurled in the sun even as carved temples and forts appeared on the horizon. An ancient deserted village spoke of how its people had fled overnight to protect one of their women who was coveted by Salim Singh, the all-powerful prime minister when Jaisalmer was the capital of the princely state.

Soon the just over-a-year-old fort hotel appeared on the horizon, shimmering like a fugitive mirage. Suryagarh is Jaisalmer's first boutique hotel (apart from a luxury tented camp) for the town till recently catered to tourists with modest demands. Guest houses in the fort and budget hotels in town continue to lure backpackers and tourists from neighbouring Gujarat.

Suryagarh, however, is a game changer, unfolding like a dream in the arid desert, beckoning high-end tourists to enfold themselves in the pomp and pageantry of old Rajputana. This is no wannabe fort but is as close to the real McCoy as a modern-day fortress could be, down to the sati handprints on the walls of the entrance. (In old forts these signify the handprints of women who committed sati when their men died in battle.)

Built with Jaisalmer's honey-gold sandstone, the exterior is aflutter with orange flags and banners, the interior spaces strewn with period pieces — carved doors, treasure chests and antique lamps. There is a tasteful mingling of the past with 21st century trimmings in the long yellow-tiled corridors and the ochre-coloured walls hung with period paintings. Its 62 rooms are opulently furnished and come with all the mod cons while interior courtyards, numerous terraces and viewpoints lasso views of the Thar, spread like a dusty skirt around the fort. We savoured al fresco dinners, drinks in the colonial-style bar, cultural performances in the amphitheatre and even a High Tea on a lonely sand dune.

As we lay back against thick bolsters like oriental potentates, shielded from a wan wintry sun by an orange canopy, a local strummed his ravan hatta, the achingly sweet melody riding the cold desert air. The High Tea in the desert had a surreal quality — cucumber sandwiches, cookies, and chicken satays accompanied by steaming hot cups of tea. In the distance, the soft sand spiraled like a mushroom cloud, our caparisoned camels presented their proud profiles for a picture even as we pondered at the strangeness of it all.

Sheer luxury in the desert; the music of silence, the vastness of seemingly endless spaces… Was it our imagination or was that a camel caravan of yore, lurching its way across the horizon, plying the Spice Route between the East and the West?

Fact file

The nearest airport is at Jodhpur (300 km). Jaisalmer has its own railway station. By way of accommodation, there are a number of options including old havelis converted into hotels, State tourism lodges, small hotels within the fort, tented camps near the dunes outside the city and Suryagarh, the town's only five-star resort.

For more information, visit www.rajasthantourism.gov.in