Jaisalmer, India

There's a Feast in the Thar Desert

Jockeys drive camels in a heat of the festival's camel race, held at the Sam Sam Dunes, 40km from Jaisalmer.
Festival of the senses
A hijra shemale dancer dances behind a group of Rajput musicians.
Against light
Female audiences try to enjoy the procession that opens the Festival of the Desert, taking place against the morning sun.
Utsav Fashion
Young participants ride camels along an alley linking Lake Gadisar to the base of the Jaisalmer fortress.
rosy celebration
Troupe of Rajputs celebrate the Desert Festival effusively.
Rajasthani Fashion
A rajput with an extravagant mustache and beard, an eventual participant in the Mr. Desert contest.
bearded entourage
A competitor in the Mr. Desert race arrives at Sahid Poonam Singh stadium on a camel.
The shadow
Participant in the inaugural procession of the Desert Festival, already in the Sahid Poonam Singh stadium.
desert band
The band's musicians on camels, disbanded after the procession has ended at the Sahid Poonam Singh stadium in Jaisalmer.
in caravan
Participants in a camel competition parade in front of the single stand of the Dedansar stadium, on the outskirts of Jaisalmer.
desert pauiteiros
Pauliteiros exhibit their dance between competitions held at the Dedansar stadium.
socializing on the sands
Camel owners await the start of the camel race along the road through the Sam Sam Dunes.
sand fraternity
A gesture of affection between two brothers who own camels at Sam Sam Dunes.
king on wheels
One of the bikers who star in the pit of Death in Sam Sam's dunes.
central bench
Makeshift bench on top of a haveli during the inaugural procession of the Desert Festival.
Decorated Mount
Indian military man on a camel dressed in Rajasthani fashion.
A brash assistance
Sahid Poonam Singh stadium's multicolored bench filled with Rajasthani women's saris.
pure interest
Desert spectators follow the camel races held at the Sam Sam Dunes.
sun trio
Camel owners descend from the top of the Sam Sam Dunes, after an afternoon selling small desert rides to the festival-driven crowd.
As soon as the short winter breaks, Jaisalmer indulges in parades, camel races, and turban and mustache competitions. Its walls, alleys and surrounding dunes take on more color than ever. During the three days of the event, natives and outsiders watch, dazzled, as the vast and inhospitable Thar finally shines through.

Day 1 – The Parade

The charm of the night spent on the top of another Arabian Nights fortress in Rajasthan and the tiredness accumulated during the long journey from Varanasi (26 hours straight on board the Howrah – Jodhpur Express plus 5 hours by bus) make us ignore the alarm clock. We are afraid of missing the opening of the Jaisalmer Desert Festival. So we got up with a start, rearranged our backpacks and ran off.

We walked along the alleys at the top of the fort. We went down almost at a run to its entrance where, probably as the procession passed by, none of the rickshaws from the usual fleet were waiting for us there. We continue along other winding alleys until we come to Satya Dev Park and Gadisar Rd. the open avenue in the vicinity of the homonymous lake.

The commotion and confusion generated by the event are concentrated there and the willful initiatives of the police and signalmen do little or nothing to alleviate them. We cross Gadisar Rd. On the other side, different groups of musicians, dancers and maidens dressed in the good silky and exuberant fashion of Rajasthan, live together and rehearse their skills.

A group of pauliteiros exhibits different choreographies, the crimson of the angrakhasTwo dhotis e pajamas and the intense orange of pay, the simple or elaborate turbans worn by Rajputs in general and which, in many cases, define their caste, their religion, and even their social and economic status.

Hijra musician and dancer during the Jaisalmer Desert Festival, Rajasthan, India

A hijra shemale dancer dances behind a group of Rajput musicians

Up the street, hundreds of Rajasthani ladies swathed in ghagras (a kind of saris) gaudy, adorned with the prolific jewelry of the region and with their hands adorned with intricate mahendi paintings, they each carry a metal bowl on their heads.

They wait short of a parallel line of musicians from a band mounted on camels and dromedaries. At the front of the parade, a transsexual dancer hijrah in outfits as or more exotic as the other ladies, he concentrates the public's attention with the subtlety and sensuality of a complex twirl.

From Side to Side of Jaisalmer

Finally, the musicians receive an indication to play on the march and inaugurate the Shoba Yatra procession. We ran to anticipate them. We soon realized that the parade would go up the street we had arrived on.

Jaisalmer had put off the usual hustle and bustle of his daily life for a few hours to attend the procession.

In anticipation, thousands of enthusiastic spectators disputed both sides of the alleys, now on the asphalt, now on a level above, on the elevated walkways along the façades of the havelis, the secular buildings of sandstone, lacy and charming, of the city.

Jaisalmer Desert Festival Spectators, Rajasthan, India

Makeshift bench on top of a haveli during the inaugural procession of the Desert Festival.

The musicians pass us. Here are the pauliteiros and the dancers. And then an entourage of revelers, distinguished by white garments crowned by pink turbans.

Participants cheer up Jaisalmer Desert Festival, Rajasthan, India

Troop of Rajputs Effusively Celebrate Desert Festival

Free of any artistic exhibition, his troupe celebrates the day and the festival like no other, given over to folk chants and chants that sing, facing each other with hands pointing to the sky.

The musicians of the camel-riding band and other participants follow, with the right to such a mount for sporting some of the longest and most dazzling mustaches and/or beards in Rajasthan.

Camel procession during the Jaisalmer Desert Festival, Rajasthan, India

Young participants ride camels along an alley linking Lake Gadisar to the base of the Jaisalmer fortress.

 Desert Festival: the ultimate destination

The parade skirts the foot of the slope that welcomed the jaisalmer fort and the Hanuman roundabout. Cut to the homonymous avenue and turn into the Sahid Poonam Singh stadium. As you would expect in these arid parts of the India, the enclosure is made of clay.

Accordingly, as they pass, the camels raise a dust that the wind throws on the bench in the enclosure, full of children and women who, strung in red, orange and pink saris, make up the brightest audience we have ever been able to appreciate.

Jaisalmer Desert Festival Women's Bench, Rajasthan, India

Sahid Poonam Singh stadium's multicolored bench filled with Rajasthani women's saris.

The parade ends in front of this folkloric audience, but also the most haughty and formal of the VIP caucus, filled with politicians and high-ranking dignitaries from different parts of the India and from abroad to, by their presence, honor and praise Jaisalmer and the festival.

Eccentric Costumes and Mustaches

The camels are then driven out of the stadium. The remaining parades flock to the aridity of the soccer field where they allow themselves to be photographed with the anxious public.

Competitor of Mr. Mustache Competition, Desert Festival, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India

A competitor in the Mr. Desert race arrives at Sahid Poonam Singh stadium on a camel.

Shortly thereafter, they remove part of the ceremony attire which, in the midday heat, oppresses them and merges with the crowd, already divided into sectors established by ropes.

This was followed by several competitions, notably the Mr. Desert competitions – in which the longest and furry mustaches in Rajasthan compete – and another one involving turbans.

Rajput with lush mustache, Jaisalmer Desert Festival, Rajasthan, India

A rajput with an extravagant mustache and beard, an eventual participant in the Mr. Desert contest

This one begins with a more serious dispute carried out by native competitors. And it continues with another one involving foreign participants, including one or two Portuguese.

The day's events are closed an hour later, in time to prevent the verspertine furnace from causing casualties.

It returns at night, again in stage mode, with live music, stunts by local Kalabazes gymnasts, snake charmers, puppet shows and fireworks.

Day 2 – Splendor to Camel

The next morning, we woke up on time. With time even for breakfast that the delay had forced us to skip the previous one. At nine o'clock, we already shared a rickshaw with other passengers, also on their way to the Dedansar stadium, like the one from the day before, a mere naked man with a solitary bench.

When we arrived, we found dozens of Rajputs haughty, each on his camel, any of the animals dressed in a colorful multicolored coat of wool pompoms and trinkets that hang and dangle below the animals' backs, some with miniature Indian flags projecting from their heads.

Rajput Exhibition, Jaisalmer Desert Festival, Rajasthan, India

Participants in a camel competition parade in front of the single stand of the Dedansar stadium, on the outskirts of Jaisalmer.

Os Rajputs seated between their bosses, in turn, they are dressed in white, crowned by special turbans with sashes of various colors.

Folklore and Fashion of Rajasthan, by Foot and by Camel

When the competition opens, they parade stiffly on their mounts and wield different types of swords and sabers characteristic of their clans or battalions. Others, without military affiliation, hold traditional red and yellow umbrellas.

The juries in the stands analyze the successive participants in detail while, back and forth, they try to impose their votes. Soon, the pauliteiros the morning before and other musicians step in to cheer the hosts until the results are announced.

Pauliteiros exhibition during the Jaisalmer Desert Festival, Rajasthan, India

Pauliteiros exhibit their dance between competitions held at the Dedansar stadium.

This is followed by a tug-of-war between a local team and one made up of foreigners. The program continues with a long game from polo to camel, played, of course, between two gifted Indian teams.

About halfway through the game, we decided to return to the city. We run away from a maddened cow that spreads confusion outside the stadium and get into a rickshaw already recruited by two policemen. It is the conversation with this unexpected duo of authority that we return to our base atop Jaisalmer Fort.

Day 3 – Finally, the Sam Sam dunes of the Thar

On its final day, the festival shifts in weight to the Sam Sam Dunes, located just over 40km west of Jaisalmer, and just a few miles from Pakistan. We follow him. We descend from the fort to the Hanuman roundabout. There we haggled over places in one of the jeeps that provided transportation to the desert.

We ended up sharing it with Adil, a Gujarati tourist discovering Rajasthan. We arrived at the dunes well before the start of hostilities. In time to deny the camel rides offered by the owners of the animals spread over almost a kilometer on both sides of the road hundreds of times.

The heat is even more atrocious than Jaisalmer's. Accordingly, the three of us took refuge in a shrine nearby. Saved by the shadow of the humble cafe, we drank soft drinks and shared French fries.

We indulge in a lively chat about the peculiarities of Rajasthan, the cultural richness of India and the Indian colonial history of Portugal. “I know that our Diu was until some time Portuguese. Goa, too, right? I've been to Diu more than once, the Goa not yet. I have to take care of it.”

Time to Face the Sam Sam Dunes

In the middle of the conversation, we noticed a small herd of cows wandering off the road. In the scenario we were in, that view had a surreal edge to it, so we quickly apologized, said goodbye and chased the animals until they veered off the road into a wasteland full of garbage.

Camel Owners in the Sam Sam Dunes, Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India

Camel owners await the start of the camel race along the road through the Sam Sam Dunes.

However, most of the visitors installed in Jaisalmer were admitted to the Sam Sam dunes and that hyper-tourist stronghold of the Thar was left to a crowd eager to escape and have fun.

Despite the brazier still being felt, we walked along the dunes, among large clans of men of Bhil, Bishnoi and other ethnicities and their camels, always resisting the repeated offers of walks.

Camel Owner Brothers, Sam Sam Dunes, Rajasthan, India

A gesture of affection between two brothers who own camels at Sam Sam Dunes.

Around 17:30 pm, some as spectators, others as participants, they all cross the road and take position for the camel race that is about to begin.

The police officers present force the public to line up along two ropes stretched out at the ends of the dusty open space that served as a track.

Camel racing spectators, Desert Festival, Sam Sam Dunes, Rajasthan, India

Desert spectators follow the camel races held at the Sam Sam Dunes.

The Great Camelid Competition

After a long wait, the camels and jockeys there sprint from the foot of some distant dunes, galloping towards us and towards the field tent that served the event.

The competition was held by knockouts. That rush was repeated, like this, several times until a final duel determined the winner.

Camel Racing, Desert Festival, Sam Sam Dunes, Rajasthan, India

Jockeys drive camels in a knockout of the festival's camel race held at the Sam Sam Dunes, 40km from Jaisalmer

Excited by the aura of prize giving, the crowd ignores the string corset. It swallows up the participants and worships the victor as the desert hero to whom, triumph after triumph, he had promoted himself. But as that demigod of the sands had declared, the race also designated the most dramatic loser.

One of the camels had broken a leg. He was struggling with enormous suffering. To the owner's displeasure, the support veterinarian examined him. With no hope of a cure, he injected her with some substance and put an end to her life.

The ecstatic crowd is little or nothing affected by the setback. After the ceremony, he crosses the road again and invades the dunes which there, to the south and towards Pakistan, ascend to majestic heights.

Camel owners were finally able to cash in on the countless camelid rides they provided. In a nearby sandy valley, another spontaneous and free attraction competed with his offer.

Several local bikers circled the dunes at great speed, in a kind of Desert Death Well that gathered and kept a good hundred curious people engrossed.

Motorized stunts over the Thar Desert dunes, Rajasthan, India

One of the bikers who star in the pit of Death in Sam Sam's dunes.

The sun soon sank behind the vast yellowish Thar. Inspired countless group photos and even more selfies. By the time we left him back in Jaisalmer, the kite flying contest was over.

Several resistant ones made their cirandar in that dry and almost dark sky of Rajasthan about to welcome the Universe.

Camels over the Sam Sam Dunes of the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India

Camel owners descend from the top of the Sam Sam Dunes, after an afternoon selling small desert rides to the festival-driven crowd.

More information about Jaisalmer and the Desert Festival at Incredible India – Jaisalmer

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