The Old Indian Hope Trick
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"Tawa chapatti, tawa chapatti!" The red-turbaned man seated by the pool's wall begins singing the moment we come into view. A mischievous grin flashes under a generous twirling moustache and his eyes light up.

"Tawa chapatti" - well, that's what it sounds like anyway. He waves to us as one-handed he keeps playing his discordant ditty on a graceful stringed instrument.

"'What is he singing?", I ask our guide, Jitu. "Is it about the pool?"

It's a rare oasis in this barren edge-of-the-desert place. Jaisalmer sits on the brink of the Thar desert, said to be second in size to the Sahara, and water is rare here. That's why the Gadi Sagar - this lake - was constructed over six centuries ago to supply drinking water for the community. Now it connects to the Rajasthan Canal, and people now swim here instead.

But then maybe he was singing about the ornately carved stone gate, the Tilon-Ki-Pol, nearby. Jitu had just finished explaining that it had been built by a local prostitute, Tilon, long ago. The Maharajah felt it would not be proper that the pool's main gate also be one with connections to a house of ill repute, so he had another gate built and used. But Tilon was wily and made sure her gate could not be pulled down, ensuring its security by having a Krishna temple built above it.

Smaller than many of the fort cities in Rajasthan, in north-west India, Jaisalmer (population around 50,000) is called the golden city because of local sandstone from which it was constructed.

One evening we visited the sunset viewing place on the outskirts of the city, From this vantage point, with the silhouettes of burial cenotaphs behind, we watched the sun dip towards Pakistan, only seventy or so kilometres away across the desert.

As we waited for the sunset, I picked up a piece of honey-coloured stone, Jaisalmer stone, and began to understand why the city glows so. Tiny specks of mica - or maybe quartz - are sprinkled throughout this rock and each catch the light. No wonder the buildings, particularly the fort constructed over 800 years ago, in 1196, seem almost alive, or perhaps more like the film set for the tale of a magic kingdom.

Jaisalmer Fort dominates a flat landscape, visible for kilometres as you approach from the east, from Johdpur. Slowly it settles into a more realistic perspective as you reach the city, but still it is the defining landmark visible from most places, and it is easy to see how it has survived the many sieges and sackings over the years.

Unlike most other forts in the area, this one is a teeming, lively warren of Jain temples, shops selling embroidery and fabrics, the seven storey palace of a former maharaja, private homes and even hotels. Jitu pointed out to us his own home in the centre, beside a shady tree.

Later we climbed steep spiralling stairs to a bed and breakfast within the fort and, as happens when overseas, met some Australians renting a room there. And as also happens, found that they live just a few suburbs away from our home in Sydney.

Their room was clean and neat, the view over the fort village almost total, and they were ecstatic about their discovery. But before you start to take notes, the future of the dwellings in the fort is uncertain. There is concern that the foundations are crumbling, and there was talk, even then, of evicting the tenants and clearing the fort of all but a few inhabitants within the next few months.

One place where there is unlimited space is on the Sam sand dunes, about 45 minutes from Jaisalmer. While some sneer at the triteness of camel rides on a sand dune, the fact remains that these massive beasts are more at home on the soft slippery sand than any human in a pair of sneakers. It's the easy way up to the crest of the dunes to view the sunset, an ideal end to the hot day.

"Tawa chapatti!" As we turn to leave our man strikes up a blazing finale. At last Jitu translates for us.

"September 11 and the Iraq War have been bad for us here," he tells us, "He's saying how glad he is that the tourists have returned."

Well, of course we put a 20-rupee note in his hand. "Tawa chapatti," we say, or something like it.

And then we remember the one Hindi word we know.

"Namaste." The greeting that doubles as hello - and goodbye. Rather appropriate, we think.



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