The prince and I
‘What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well...’ ― Antoine de Saint- Exupéry, The Little Prince
The prince’s hotel, Nachana Haveli, used to be the royal family’s private home. The place looks like an Indian oasis. Outside the entrance are plants and fountains. The entrance is carved in an oriental style. The hotel receptionist is a kind and helpful older Indian man. I walk inside, taking in the black and white photographs of the royal family. Down the hall, there’s a beautiful courtyard. I walk up the stairs to the second floor, and enjoy my favourite ‘Indianism’: a rooftop restaurant overlooking the stunning Golden City.
I wait in the entrance for the prince. While I wait, the hotel sir requests a local boy working at the hotel took to take me to all the sights by bike. I sit on the back, and away we zoom! Pigeons fly over the fort like in a movie about kings and knights. There is something mystical about Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The forts on the hilltops combined with the dry, desert landscape give a different aura. We visit the Fort museum. One of the most striking things is the different shape of windowsills. The view below gets a whole new outlook through, round, square, and Arabic-looking, half- circles (like the windowsills I saw in the Lake Palace in Udaipur). I love listening to the audio guide, and learning about the history of a place, while walking around alone. It reminds me of what my close friend, Sunniva, said: ‘I had the best time walking around Versailles alone with an audio guide, exploring the flower gardens.’
When the enemy attacked the Fort, the women in the royal family would throw themselves in a fire, and burn to death, to avoid rape and torture. I listened to the ‘song of suicide’ - women hymning to beating drums, and shrug. We drive the scooter further up the fort. Later, we stop at tombs, exquisitely carved Jain temples, and old havelis with beautiful architecture. After, he drives me for a look at the lake. In the setting sun, we zip past windmills, and arrive at some ruins. The ruins rise on the hillside in interesting Moghul shapes. ‘It’s a popular place for locals to go for a walk,’ the local boy explains. From another cluster of ruins, we see the windmills and the Fort from a distance. It glows like gold in the sunset. Guarding off enemies for centuries, it still stands strong (forte means strong in Italian). To end the evening, I attended a traditional puppet show. I sit in the front, and admire the colourful puppets come to life. Slowly slipping away into my very own dream world.
When I come back to the hotel, the prince has already arrived. He apologises time upon time for being late. It wasn’t his fault though, the traffic was jammed because people were celebrating that the Gujarati candidate won the election. Apparently, it’s good because he’s pro- development, whereas some candidates want to keep the status quo, which isn’t that fantastic. Anyway, the prince kept muttering his trademark: ‘oh-oh-oh, one should never keep a woman waiting.’
The prince and his family run the beautiful antique Indian hotel Nachana Haveli. He tells me that his family and him used to play in the open courtyard, and that there used to be fruit trees. ‘Good memories,’ he said. I’m served amazing dinner. The prince is chatty; it’s great listening to his many stories. His favourite hobby is being in the wild, seeing wild animals, and hunting. Though a very gentle fella’. He says that his friends think he’s too spaced out, but he strikes me as a highly reflected and humble person. He quickly felt like someone I had known for years, an ability not everyone has. I remember the first time I went over to my Sunniva’s for enchiladas. I went with another girl, also named Sunniva. The Sunniva we went to had all these stories, and I was laughing the whole evening. Somehow, after that one night, I already felt close to her. Little did I know that a year later the three of us would become roommates and lifelong friends.
At night, we brought blankets and drove several kilometres into the dessert. I observed the infinite desert horizon. We spotted a deer running fast in front of the
car, eyes glaring in the headlights of the jeep. I saw many dessert plants, bushes and cactuses that were completely new to me. We stopped at an ancient house in the middle of the dessert, and climbed the stairs to the rooftop. The silence of the dark-blue night was immense. I have never seen stars like that before. Millions upon millions of stars, some in clusters, some unclear, some strong - like diamonds spread across the sky. We looked up at the stars for an hour or so, not feeling the cold. Just listening to the silence, and enjoying the nothingness. After, we drove past a deserted village. The houses were all brick, but ‘chopped off’ at the top, half buried in sand. ‘The legend has it that the place is cursed,’ the prince began. ‘80-90 years ago, the prime minister of Jaisalmer at the time (he kidnapped and killed the dying king’s children to get to power), saw a village girl crossing the road. The prime minister had many wives, but asked the village to take this village girl as his wife. The village refused, knowing what kind of man the prime minister was. In return, the prime minister told the village he would relinquish them with high taxes. The village responded by fleeing. When the prime minister’s men came to capture the fleeing villagers, a storm set in, and they were lost. Some say they survived. Today, the local people of Jaisalmer are afraid of this place because they think it’s cursed. My hunting assistants refuse to come hunting in this area with me. That’s why I hunt alone on this road. The stone of the village ruins is the only red sandstone in all of Jaisalmer. The stone in the ruins would be worth a fortune in today’s shortage of sand stone for building. Below the ruins lie furniture, jewellery, cutlery and other riches. Even so, to this day, the village lies untouched, not one stone removed,’ said the prince.
We stop by one of the palace gardens in the dark - in the middle of the dessert. ‘The gardeners have to work hard to keep the flowers alive in the rough dessert terrain,’ said the prince.
The Secret Garden
‘And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles... She listened to him until he flew away. He was not like an Indian bird, and she liked him and wondered if she should ever see him again. Perhaps he lived in the mysterious garden and knew all about It.’ ― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
We came back at 4 a.m. and I fell asleep fast in my hotel room. At the crack of dawn, we went horseback riding in the morning light. When we got back, I slept some more. A few hours later, when I woke up, we had breakfast: chocolate pancakes, Indian fruit salad with guava and chico, ginger- and lemon tea with honey, and a natural milkshake made of chico. India never ceases to amaze me, not the least in the food department. The prince took his open ‘desert cruiser’ like you see on safaris in Africa. We drove to the private, royal desert garden. ‘The symmetry was planned to perfection, so you could sit on one end, and see everything that was happening on the far side of the garden through a small window,’ he explained. ‘At parties, they would fill up these lotus carvings in the lake with water. The guests would sit amongst the lake and flowers.’ I looked around me – roses, jasmines, prince of days and lilies in every colour, sending out a sweet aroma. The place was so serene. A secret garden in the desert with chirping birds, green, little bee-eaters, peacocks and parrots! ‘By planting protective trees, and continuously attending to it, the garden keeps going in its unnatural environment,’ said Mr. S.
When the prince was young, he used to go riding with his friends. They rode to the garden to stand under a stone ‘shower’ while sitting on their horses. There were peacock carvings everywhere. The peacock plays an important role in the Indian culture. ‘One of the reasons is its symbolization of love,’ said Mr. S. ‘They are one of the few species that are never seen mating in public. The only visible aspect is the male attracting the female with a feathery dance during the Monsoon. Just like love, it’s private between the lovers. They used to think that peacock males impregnated the females by crying a teardrop on the female. A king once saw his daughter viewing chickens’ more rough mating process in the palace courtyard. Not wanting her to believe this was love; he changed out the chickens with peacocks. Now his daughter could get the message that she didn’t have to do anything to get a boy - her potential suitors had to do all the work of proving themselves worthy for her.’ Girls let’s sit back! As soon as we start being possessive about that one peacock, he will fly away, and look for another. The Prince’s words might save us for a lot of nonsense. This things are easier said than done, though.
For lunch, we had homecooked Indian food. When I asked what Mr. S’s favourite food was, he just replied: ‘whatever is put in front of me. We are truly blessed to have food at all.’ When I asked if there was a water shortage in Jaisalmer, he told me, ‘Not today. In the old days people wouldn’t drink water, but rather buttermilk, curd and milk. When I grew up there weren’t many fruits or vegetables, but rather meat and daal (made out of lentils). It’s only in modern times that they’ve started importing fruits from Jodhpur.’
Our last stop was at another private royal garden. He took out his rifle and showed me how to aim correctly. We walked around the park. Up the grassy hill, behind a house, stood a small, square pool made out of stone. It looked very old. ‘When we were kids, we used to swim in the pool after riding our horses to the garden. The pool is also used at parties.’ ‘A desert Jacuzzi,’ I said. I saw a stone water filter shaped as a labyrinth. The water filter was designed so that the sediments in the water would sink to the bottom at the end of the trail. What remained was clean water.