The billowy tents you’ll see among the sands of the Thar Desert belong to the Serai in Jaisalmer, a tented experience that marks the beginning of a new luxury in Western Rajasthan. It’s 21 billowy tents in total, an oasis-in-the-dessert style dream come true and unrivaled frontier elegance with splendid landscapes.
India’s great Thar Desert is a surprise for most travelers, an afterthought among the country’s tigers and the Taj Mahal. Here, the medieval kingdom of Jaisalmer has blossomed into a modern desert retreat with luxurious tented lodging and a plethora of activities to enjoy. Aptly nicknamed “The Golden City” for its yellow sandstone hills and massive 12th-century fort, the historic city resides in the heart of an ancient area prized for desert safaris and intriguing cultures.
When exploring this beautiful desert, guests traveling to Jaisalmer in search of an authentic rural experience venture to the acclaimed Serai Desert Camp. The camp’s private estate sprawls over 100 acres, 30 of which are scattered with luxury tented suites, surrounded by sands and native desert brush. Named to Travel + Leisure’s 2010 It List and included on Conde Nast Traveler’s 2010 Hot List of prestigious properties, the Serai showcases the Great Thar Desert with understated elegance. The 21 opulent canvas abodes rest on raised platforms crafted of golden Jaisalmer sandstone. Padded benched seating in the open-air relaxation lounge creates an entry into the tent. A covered living area, en-suite bathroom and spacious bedroom encompass nearly 1,000 square feet of space. Traditional and modern styles blend seamlessly throughout the suites’ décor, utilizing deep reds and echoing the sands outside with tan and brown hues. Six luxury tented suites feature a private walled garden and a plunge pool, while the Royal tented suite boasts its own private spa and lounge tents.
A wide array of activities in the stunning landscape are available to guests, each excursion promising new discoveries and thrills. Jaisalmer Fort lords over the area, set atop the golden ridges of Trikuta Hill. Inside the mammoth fortress, several temples, palaces and stately mansions known as havelis populate the streets. Jaisalmer is a living fort that can be compared to the castle complexes of Europe – a place where the wealthy coexisted with commoners behind the sandstone enforcements, kept safe from the threat of attacking armies of tumultuous eras past. Today, many of Jaisalmer’s residents live inside the fort as generations have before them, more now for the sake of community and less for protection from roving hordes. The remainder of the population is dispersed on the outskirts of the city, tending to sizeable herds of camel, sheep and goat.
Desert hospitality is as warm as the soft sands that surround the region, both within the city and in the surrounding tribal areas. On Ker & Downey’s “Forts & Palaces” journey, guests will interact with one such tribe, the Bishnois, who are a Hindu sect found outside of Jodhpur. The Bishnoi consider themselves charged with protecting life at all costs, illustrated by several followers in their history having sacrificed their own lives for the sake of threatened trees or hunted animals.
An astounding commune with the earth exists within their culture, as strict vegetarian diets are practiced and followers rebuke the Hindu tradition of cremation by burying their dead. Not only are funeral pyres impractical in the arid desert, Bishnoi prohibit the cutting of trees for any purpose. Many speculate that burial was adopted because they prefer their bodies become one with the earth after death. Not unlike Stateside animal rights activists, Bishnoi leaders are quick to publicly chastise those who violate their ideals, including famous Indian actors and sports stars known for enjoying hunting in the fragile desert.
Even given this attitude, Bishnoi are a friendly and spirited people, where women are known for dressing always in bright colors that reflect their passion for life and men in traditional white dress that symbolizes the purity of their spiritual beliefs. Creatures seem to sense the Bishnois’ fierce commitment to the preservation of life – it is not uncommon to find wild spotted deer and blue bulls leisurely milling about in Bishnoi settlements.
Beyond the Bishnois’ safe village haven, an intriguing menagerie can be found in the Desert National Park, a 1,220 square mile expanse of dunes, rock formations and salt lake beds. Falcons, eagles, kestrels and buzzards inhabit the crags and sparse tree life, while the desert fox, desert cat and black buck are common mammal residents. This collection of wildlife, including the endangered land-dwelling bird, the Indian bustard, can often be spotted near the banks of the Sudashri water hole.
The Thar Desert is also an archeologist’s playground as the area is well-known as a hotbed for fossils of prehistoric plants and dinosaurs. The surprising diversity of this unique desert comes to life on safari in a 4-wheel drive vehicle from Serai Camp, or on the back of a lumbering camel.
For three days each year in February, Jaisalmer’s culture and heritage are showcased during the famed Desert Festival. The rolling dunes of Sam just outside Jaisalmer play host to the throngs of travelers in search of whimsical activities and authentic Rajasthani entertainment. Sprawling sands are brought to life by intricate rangoli artwork, composed of brightly-colored finely-ground powders, and punctuated by the vivid hues of red and orange traditional dress that adorns festival patrons. Foreign visitors are encouraged to participate in several lighthearted contests, among these being the turban tying competition and a “nationals versus tourists” tug of war match. Additionally, local men face off in the longest mustache contest, an amusing battle of whiskers, and ferry containers of life-giving water over the slick sands in the water pitcher race. Camel races and camel-backed polo matches – a unique desert spin on a dignified sport – are among many of the festival’s famous attractions. The daytime gaiety is balanced in the evenings by the soulful performances of folk artists, dancers and singers who weave tales of romance, bravery and tragedy with traditional instruments and rhythms. The final day of the festival is traditionally held in the nearby deserted village of Kuldhara where festival-goers are treated to the past splendor of the rural settlement. Once a prosperous town, the wealthy Paliwal Brahmins that excelled at business and agricultural endeavors here are said to have vanished literally overnight, refusing to continue to provide sizeable tax revenues to the corrupt heads of government. For one day the empty buildings of Kuldhara are alive with activity: snake charmers and vendors lining the streets, women painting the homes in bright colors of celebration, blacksmiths plying their trade in the still-standing shops and all manner of liveliness. The use of this historic place is another of the many ways that the local Rajasthanis pay homage to centuries of tradition and rich culture during the festival. With the Jaisalmer Fort as its backdrop, the jubilee closes each year with an impressive light and sound show, tinting the golden surroundings under a moonlit sky – a fitting conclusion to a whirlwind three days.
While frivolity is a favorite pastime, restful moments at a leisurely desert pace are not uncommon, especially within Serai Camp’s luscious estate. Conceived by the world-renowned Raison d’Etre spa company, the Serai Spa administers natural treatments in a soothing garden setting. Indian spices and chemical-free products create a comforting blend of relaxation and renewal in the canvas treatment suites. In addition, each pool found at the camp is designed with inspiration from the stepwells found throughout the desert. As the name implies, these centuries-old wells are marked by a set of steps that descends into the water. Access to vital water sources in arid areas was simplified using this architectural style, and access to the Serai’s sparkling pools is made just as effortless. From the sweeping sands to the luxurious interior of your spacious private tent, the Great Thar Desert offers surprises in a harsh climate. Vibrant cultures with a swelling national pride and hospitable spirit mesh with natural wonders to create lifelong memories of this enchanting desert paradise.
For more information about customizing your journey India or any other destination, contact your travel professional.