A trip to the oasis called Osiyan, near Jodhpur, throws up myriad experiences
The SUV veers away from the Jodhpur-Bikaner Highway to a narrow tarmac strip. It comes to a halt at a closed railway gate. The driver honks loudly, drawing the attention of the gateman who wakes up from his siesta, ambles across and opens the gate.
The train is nowhere in sight. The road, except for a short dusty, muddy makeshift patch, runs good and straight. Isolated villages dot the landscape and we take in the serenity of a timeless lifestyle.
The Bentinck connection
The landscape is dry and rugged, with a sprinkling of small, dry bushes and mushroom-shaped, stunted trees. In the middle of nowhere, and in the midst of dried-up land, you spot a school named after Sir William Bentinck, and a board that proclaims it is for sale.
The ancient oasis town of Osiyan (also spelt Osian), about 65 km from Jodhpur, stands virtually on the edge of the Thar. The driver has a lot of information on the town. Earlier called Upkeshpur, this oasis had a considerable population of Rajputs, who later became Jains. It was a flourishing desert town on an important trade route.
Caravans from Persia, Afghanistan and Central Asia were supposed to have arrived here to trade, the driver continues. Osiyan was an important pilgrimage centre between the 8th and 9th Centuries. This becomes obvious from the surviving Hindu temples.
There are a set of remarkably well-preserved Jain temples here. All of them have been built using Rajasthani sandstone, and are richly carved. Among them, the old Jain temple dedicated to Mahavira is the major attraction.
The statue of Mahavira here is said to be over 2,000 years old. The beautiful ‘thorans’ or arches, carved pillars and the sculptures are simply amazing.
Now, Osiyan is more of a pilgrimage centre. The narrow streets around temples are chock-a-block with shops, pilgrims, blaring music, and cows and bulls standing nonchalantly.
Soon, there is an obvious change in the topography. You begin to see sand dunes, acres and acres of golden sand, peacocks scampering across, people on their haunches waiting for a bus, and women in their bright traditional dresses carrying pots of water.
Riding a camel
There are also tented stays and camel rides across the desert.
No Rajasthan experience is complete without a feel of the gently rolling sandy desert.
The most romantic and evocative aspect of the desert is, perhaps, the dunes. They seem to be so unrealistically alive, pulsating with life, constantly shifting.
The best way to explore the desert, even if it is only for an hour, is on camelback. The animals are strong and a bit smelly, but riding them is great fun. On our way back, the driver stops for a while at one of the shops.
Boys sell cool drinks, and the buildings and walls are painted with the logos of all popular brands, a contrast to the colours of the desert. The desert is not lonely any longer.K. PRADEEP