Jaisalmer, the golden city of Rajasthan is known for its proximity to the Thar Desert. Many travellers throng this town for a view of the Jaisalmer Fort, to ride a camel or enjoy a sunset by the dunes. As we drove along the Jaisalmer–Bikaner highway, we expected our experience to be just that – beautiful, yet predictable. The highway was punctuated with small sand dunes, typical desert vegetation and occasionally, domesticated camels.
In the distance, we glimpsed massive tents pitched on sand dunes. Curious, we made our way towards them to find out more. As it turned out, that was a camp site belonging to a family from Bikaner who open it up for travellers during the winter. “The route is frequented by bicycle tourers and off-road enthusiasts and we host them here. A lot of them carry their own equipment and we give them space to pitch their tents and enjoy their privacy,” said Mr. Dushyant Singh Tanwar, the man who would become our host for the next few days. We set up a camp fire and decided to pick Dushyant Singh’s brains to learn more about the area.
While our original plan to go to Jaisalmer would have taken us to beautiful sand dunes, this unexpected detour gave us the option of experiencing something truly unusual. “Have you ever seen 50 camels marching together in the desert? Would you like to experience the life of a Charwah?” (Charwah are men who herd hundreds of camels through the Thar Desert.) “We will leave at 4.00 am to reach the camels by first light. Goodnight!” Dushyant Singh greeted us and left for his tent.
At 4:00am, we were greeted by the winter chill and an open 4*4 Jeep to navigate through the Thar Desert. What followed was nothing short of an adventure in itself, with most of us trying to cover any exposed part of the body from the biting cold. The silence of the vast desert was only broken by the sound of the 4*4 put to good test. We realised how easy it would be to lose our way in this area without the guidance of our kind host.
An hour into the drive, we saw a settlement in the horizon – the village of the Charwahs. As the Sun’s first rays sliced through the darkness, we finally got a glimpse of where we were. None of us said anything for the next few minutes, taken in by the vastness and sheer beauty of the Thar Desert. Surrounded by countless sand dunes with not a human in sight for miles, we finally heard them – the sound of over fifty camels, grunting. Dushyant Singh stopped the Jeep and asked us to follow his lead by foot. We walked over a few small dunes and then caught the first glimpse of these gentle giants waking up to the morning sun.
As we got closer, every camel sized us up, cautious of our unfamiliar faces. The leader of the ‘Dera’ as they call it, walked up to us and greeted us with a big smile. What he did next, wiped the smiles off our faces. He walked up to us with a huge bowl filled with fresh camel milk from this morning. “In order to experience my life, this is the first step you have to take. When we walk these camels for hundreds of kilometres, we do not always have food or people around us to help. Camel milk becomes our only source of nutrition and hence this is a custom which you must obey,” he said handing the bowl to us. Fresh camel milk is not the tastiest breakfast you will ever have and it will probably not suit most people, as we soon found out. With the camel milk in our stomachs and the camels around us now a bit friendlier, we sat down with the Charwahs to understand their lives and daily routine. These men and women lead a life that may sound primitive to some, but is integral to keeping the traditions and cultures of Rajasthan alive and they take great pride in this.
We spent the next couple of days trying to understand their lives and getting to know more about the gentle giants of the Great Indian Desert. We learnt that winter in the desert can be as challenging as it is beautiful. Spending a cold evening huddled in the middle of fifty odd camels is an experience we won’t soon forget.