On our third trip to India, we focused on local festivals mainly in the northwest of India, including the cities of Jodpur, Jaipur and Jaisalmer. We started with the Jaisalmer Desert Festival where the warm, luscious colors of the Thar Desert provide the perfect backdrop for this annual event which takes place during the month of February. Also known as Maru Mahotsav, the festival is attended mostly by locals but there are some international visitors.
The festival commences with a procession beginning from the Jaisalmer Fort in early morning and ending at the Shahid Poonam Singh Stadium almost at midday. The commencement ceremonies at the entrance of the gate take place in the morning which should be an ideal photography lighting situation but is actually far from ideal because in early morning the Fort casts large shadows over the spectacle, the area is too small for the crowd size and there are not many vantage points from which to shoot. Once out of the Fort, it’s difficult for spectators to accompany the procession through the streets to the stadium, so we tuktuk’ed directly to the stadium.
As they enter the stadium, the decorated camels, elaborate costumes and gorgeously dressed young women in colorful saris provide for perfect photographic subjects, this is a photo-worthy part of the festival, a true spectacle. At this point in the procession however, the sun is virtually overhead, and harsh lighting casting shadows on faces is not very interesting.
The events the next few days are based on the folk and local culture, with puppet shows, folk music and dance, camel races, camel polo matches, tug of war, juggling events, turban tying and longest mustache competitions. Some of the competitions (turban, mustache and juggling) are held on the large stage set up in the middle of the stadium, best viewed from the photographers’ pit right in front of the stage. Any sort of photography credentials gives you access, and although you’re shooting up at the stage, the alternative is to roam around the general spectator section which is some distance from the stage.
The sports events such as the camel polo are held at a different stadium. There are reserved sections but even if you manage to get a coveted seat in a tented section, the crowds walking in front make it virtually impossible to get great shots, so bring a hat and sunscreen and scout for any area for better viewpoints.
On the last day, the venue switches to the Sam Desert where the horse and camel racing are held. Here the itinerary becomes more opaque as the start and end times for the various events are not widely advertised and information is scanty, especially in another language. The wait times between events can be lengthy and the overall experience is anti-climactic. For best photography of the desert events, you will need a longer zoom lens, maybe a 300mm.
The city of Jaisalmer, a relatively small city by Indian standards (89,000 population) has some noteworthy and camera worthy spots. The city’s most distinguishing feature is the Jaisalmer Fort (860 years old), one of the few remaining ‘living’ forts in the world, where nearly a quarter of all inhabitants still live inside the Fort.
One of the best places in Jaisalmer for a panaromic shot of the fort is called Sunset Point, or Sooli Dungar. Another well known spot is called Vyas Chhatri but it has a radio tower and interferes with the view. At sunset some sadhus and musicians make their way here to pray and to collect tips from visitors, which were surprisingly few.
South of the city is Gadisar Lake, an artificial lake located in the southern part of the city, a tourist attraction as it has many chhatri or elevated dome shaped pavilions, and shrines.
Although Jaisalmer is almost entirely a sandy landscape, forming a part of the great Indian desert, the desert experience is nowhere near that of say, the Western Desert in Egypt where you have the huge windswept dunes seen in movies and read about in adventure novels. The hills in the west are covered with bushes, while those in the east feature tufts of long grass. The general aspect of the area is that of an interminable sea of sandhills, of all shapes and sizes, this is where the locals come to vacation and star gaze. Desert camps are everywhere, catering to an emerging middle class population that is thirsty for getaways from the routine of everyday life.
The most popular desert retreat for the locals is the Sam region mainly due to its proximity to Jaisalmer, it is a touristy area with noisy children, carved up dunes and short, uninteresting camel rides, far from the sublime desert experience you envision. To say we are disappointed is an understatement.
The Khuri Desert, a bit further from Jaisalmer, has bigger dunes, some of them unspoiled, and a good sunset photo is possible. There are also many camps in this area promoting the desert experience. We explored some of them but were not enticed to stay as they are mostly marketed to the local population, although some do have private desert access.
Near Jaisalmer is Kuldhara, an abandoned village. Once a prosperous village inhabited by Paliwal Brahmins, it was abandoned in the 19th century for unknown reasons, possibly because of dwindling water supply, an earthquake, or according to local legend — because of the atrocities by the Jaisalmer State’s minister at the time, Salim Singh. The trip from Jaisalmer to the village will provide great photo opportunities of rural village life.
Mondisti trip tips:
- You will need a zoom lens of at least 200mm as the event distances are far.
- Stay a few days after the festival to visit some of the sites around the city.
- Jaisalmer is not a large city so any of the hotels right in the city will be a decent distance from the events.
- The local tuktuk is great for going from your hotel to the festival events.