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Golden City of India? 40% migration, no jobs, school dropouts, social backwardness

A typical house in Jaisalmer
By Rajiv Shah 
It is called the Golden City of India. The raison d'ĂȘtre is simple: Virtually no houses in the 70,000-odd population of the small township are made of red bricks reinforced with cement. They are all constructed with yellow sandstone found in the nearby hilly tracks. One can go atop any house, not to talk of the hilltop fort, to fathom that it’s all yellow all the way, everywhere, including the beautiful hilltop Jain temples in the fort premises. Jain temples, we were told, aren’t coloured yellow anywhere, except here.
Jaisalmer becomes a tourist attraction, starting November and ending mid-March, attracting foreigners and industrialists like Arvind Dubash, who celebrated his 50th “destination birthday” here with top Bollywood personalities such as Karan Johar. As part of a small family group, we also visited the city in the third week of January in a Rajasthan trip organized by one of the best known online agencies MakeMyTrip – a city about which I vaguely knew anything other than it has possibly some lovely “sand dunes”, and there was campfire to enjoy in its tent hotels.
We spent two nights there, the first one in the town itself, at Marina Mahal. I didn’t care to inquire, but it seems it was a small two-storey haveli, renovated and converted into a hotel. We preferred to stay on the ground floor, as we did not want to trouble our legs to climb the stairs. The hotel has no lift, which seemed its minus point.
One of the Patwa havelis
We took our lunch in a nearby dhaba-type restaurant. As we had come all the way from Jodhpur following a six-hour cab ride, with a stopovers in between to see places (including a defence museum), it was already late afternoon, and the restaurant owner was about to close shop. Yet, he was kind enough to serve us with tasty Rajasthani dal bati. Thereafter, we decided to proceed to Marina Mahal, where we did nothing but relax.
Peeping through the window of the hotel room, which opened on a small street, I could see three women, with ghunghat on their head, sitting on the a small chabutara outside their small yellow house in the evening sunlight, peeling vegetables. I snapped a few photographs. We chatted for the rest of the evening. On the next day we were to visit the city and the hilltop fort, and then move over to the desert, supposedly the main attraction of Jaisalmer.
After taking breakfast on the hotel terrace, where it was very cold, we were taken by our excellent driver, Gopal Singh, to see five havelis of Jaisalmer, built by Jain merchants in the 19th century. Gopal Singh got hired for us a young and energetic guide, whose surname, I recall, is Charan, a community whose traditional job was to sing songs in praise of gods and goddesses, and of course Rajput rulers, even as chronicling events.
The hill-top fort
Called Patwa havelis, even as Charan took us inside one of them, which has been converted into a museum, I decided to explore how rich is this “golden” town. I asked him: “What is the population of the town? Do all of you live only on tourism?” Charan was quick to respond: “Yes, on tourism, which lasts for less than five months, all around winter. Of the 70,000 people living here, nearly 40% migrate in search of jobs, as there are there are none here for seven to eight months a year.”
Intricately carved exterior, decorated walls, Marwari style miniature paintings, mirror work, merchants’ and their wives’ clothes, the utensils they would use -- we saw all of it for about an hour. Charan also showed us the pagdis different communities would wear to identify their castes and sub-castes. Surely, I thought, there was no place for “outcastes” or “untouchables” -- they dared not wear any pagdi. For, their only job was to clean streets and, of course, human excreta.
All through Charan tried to tell us how the rich Jain merchants, when they lived here, turned Jaisalmer into a major trading centre. They would trade in gold, silver, opium, jewellery, etc., as it was part of the Silk Route, which passed through today’s Pakistan, via Afghanistan, into Iran, Iraq and beyond, he said, regretting, the merchants left this place in a lurch after India was divided. Many of them shifted to Mumbai.
Inside the hill-top museum
The Silk Route collapsed, and the once rich city today is part of one of the most backward areas of Rajasthan and India -- Marwar. Water scarcity is a common feature here, there is very little agriculture, it’s in the midst of Thar desert, there is no industry around, droughts are common, and things would become worse during summer.
And, of course, less said the better about power. Even the two "high-profile" hotels where we stayed didn’t have power for an hour each. In the tent hotel, where we stayed next, the generator didn't work for quite a while, and we were told to make do with our mobile torch!
We were taken to the Hill Fort of Jaisal, named after the 12th century king, Maharawal Jaisal Singh. Charan told us, around 3,000 people lived within the fort premises, with many of the houses turning into handicraft shops, guest houses and restaurants. We could see many foreigners coming out of the houses, converted into small little fancy hotels.
Of the 70,000 people living in Jaisalmer, nearly 40% migrate in search of jobs, as there are none here for seven to eight months a year
The main part of the fort has been converted into a museum. Here, apart from the display of the valour of Rajput descendants of the 12th century king, we were also apprised of their daily life. “They would eat in silver utensils, as they knew, the utensils’ colour would change if poison was mixed into their food”, Charan told us.
Then, Charan took us to the bedroom of a king, where, we were told, he would sleep on a low height bed, especially designed in a way that his legs could immediately touch the floor. “He was trained to stand up in an upright position from this bed to fight back, taking weapon lying next to him, if attacked at night”, he added.
The Jain temples
“What a life!”, commented one of us. “They couldn’t even have a peaceful sleep!” We saw pagdis different communities would wear on different occasions, utensils used for cooking food, the royal dress, weapons the kings would use, and all that. We were also told how the queens would observe purdah – they had separate rooms from where they would observe the king’s durbar through an intricate stone carving.
After spending a couple of hours in the fort, we parted company of Charan. Driver Gopal Singh took us down to the town to another dhaba to have traditional food – a barja roti with tasty mixed vegetable sabzi. Following the lunch, we were taken more than 30 plus kilometres away, to a tent hotel, Sand Voyages Camp.
On reaching there, we hired a jeep, which took us on a bumpy ride to the sand dunes, which is what I wanted to see and experience the most. We were dropped at a make-shift tea stall, next to one of the sand dunes, sat on the charpoi till the camels were brought in to take us on another ride. A young boy, still in his early teens, accompanied one of the two camels we had hired, walking for about 40 minutes. He took our photographs as we rode on.
Back to the make-shift tea stall, I asked the boy, who was the elderly person accompanying the other camel. “My uncle”, he replied. “We live a village not very far away”, he said, showing us the direction where his helmet was situated. “It’s some distance, though... We come here to earn a living.” I got curious.
The teenage boy and girl: Both school dropouts
I asked the boy whether he went to school. “No I don’t. I have stopped going to school”, he replied. “Why?”, I queried. “The teacher doesn’t come to the school. Who would teach us?” I paid him a tip and we parted company. We again went and sat on the charpoi at the tea stall, where a young rural family, consisting of a girl and a boy, both in early teens, and a young village couple, all with costumes on their face, requested us to listen to their song.
They sang a popular Rajasthani song, we paid them the agreed amount, and went up on the nearest sand dune to sit in the bright sun to wait for the sunset, when the jeep was to come to pick us up. The girl came up to us, demanding chocolates. We didn’t have any, I told her. She hung around, starting to play with the sand. As she was playing, I asked her where she lived, and whether she went to school. “No I don’t”, she replied. “There is no school in our village.”
Following the sunset, we rode the jeep again on a bumpy ride, reached the Sand Voyages Camp, were taken to a cultural programme, performed around campfire in the neighbourhood, returned to the hotel, took dinner especially prepared for us, slept in the cold wintry night in the tent.
Next day morning, following breakfast, we began our long journey – about 550 km – to Udaipur, wondering all the while why was this city called “golden” even though it has all the characteristics of backwardness. As I was sitting next to the driver, he began talking about the Marwar region, often dropping hints about the harsh rural life.
A bumpy ride on the jeep
Himself a Rajput, Gopal Singh admitted untouchability and discrimination are rampant in the rural areas. “Dalits are not allowed to enter temples. They dare not. They are treated as untouchables almost everywhere”, he said. And what do they do? “Cleaning job in the village, and agricultural labour as and when there is farming.”
As for women, he said, “Girls do not study much, they are married off at an early age, which is a norm here. And women-folk must observe purdah after marriage...” Gopal Singh comes from a village near Jodhpur, about 300 km off Jaisalmer, part of the Marwar region. He has a farm land, but it's rainfed agriculture. He added, it’s not enough to feed his family, one reason why he must drive taxi to take tourists around.
Social backward and oppression, clearly, characterized Jaisalmer, which is situated 121 kilometres from Pakistan border. Bollywood bigwigs Gauri Khan, Maheep Kapoor, Sandeep Khosla and the “girls’ gang” may have taken an auto ride around the golden city in order to get media publicity, even as attending destination birthday bash of industrialist Arvind Dubash.
However, Jaisalmer, and the entire Marwar region, of which it is part, clearly isn’t a romantic destination if seen from a close quarters. Surely, behind the golden colour lies the dark, dense social and economic backwardness, a very harsh life, which few wish to notice.

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