Commonwealth Games Blogs

A tale of change through sport

JAISALMER, RAJASTHAN - India is a sensory overload that hits you as soon as you arrive. There is the clash of traffic and the spicy foods, the brightly-coloured saris and the beguiling music.

But beyond the sights, the sounds, even the tastes, it's the mosaic of smells that make this place like nowhere else I've been: the fresh marigold garlands outside temples; the sticky-sweet of gulab jamun stands; the burning garbage in the alleyways; the herbal twang of paan being chewed on every corner; the rivers ripe with sewage and mortal remains; and the strong savoury of a warm curry on the stove.

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My love of smells meant I wasn't disappointed when I stepped off the train in Jaisalmer in the 4 a.m. darkness last week. I was yet to marvel at the town's picturesque golden fort or the sand dunes laid out to infinity. My first impression came when I filled my lungs with desert air: dry, earthy, robust, desert air.

Desert times

The "Golden City" of Jaisalmer is on India's northwestern frontier with Pakistan, in the Thar desert. It was an outpost for camel caravans along the trade routes that once connected Asia with the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The local rulers in Jaisalmer made a small fortune off taxes levied on passing traders. Hundreds of years of this wealth led to the construction of a beautiful golden fort that crowns the town, as well as several elaborately-carved private mansions called havelis.

To see my photo essay of Jaisalmer, click here.

The business in trade eventually dried out (along with the region's wealth), when sea trade took over, and even more so, when the Indian-Pakistan border was shut during partition.

The town was only recently revived, over the last 30 years or so, by an influx of tourism. Today the fort, in all its crumbling glory, is overrun with visitors, banners announcing Lonely Planet-recommended travel agencies, signs demarking restaurants with "higinic" food and a "distinct flavour," and young hustlers hoping to sign you up for a camel safari.

"I hate camels," I plainly said to my aggressors. That seemed to get the point across.

But as business has boomed, so has construction in the town.  Areas that were once swathed in soft sand and peppered with small trees are now covered in multi-level hotels and guesthouses. There are over 250 here now compared to around 25 in the early 1990s. And with the improvements in transportation and communications, the old romantic hideaway has made way (for-better-or-for-worse) for the 21st century.

Traditional games threatened

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The changes in the local environment and in the influences on the region are reflected heavily in the sports played by its residents. People have turned from games played with sticks and stones to mountain bikes and football.

I was fortunate to run into a school tournament of the traditional game kabaddi, which I will describe in a future post, and see an evening's game of sitolia (pittu), played by some neighbourhood children. In tourist shops I also saw photos of kite flying and games of camel polo, which usually take place during the winter, when it is cooler outside.

But for every one of these examples, there is a book of others in the memories of the town's older residents.

"Dhee was a good game," said Devilal Mali, a hotelier, looking up from his computer.

The game involves throwing a stick and having the other participants run up a tree before being caught by the stick catcher.

"Before I was like monkey, I could climb really fast up trees," reminisced Devilal's brother Jora, with a smile. "Now I'm a bit heavy."

Another favourite was Hidmidkhe, which involved finding a white stone in the desert on the night of the full moon. The Mali family of four brothers used to play that game not far from where we were standing in their hotel.

"At that time this whole place was sand," said Jora, motioning to a vast area leading straight up to the fort.

Many younger people have never heard of these games; they stopped being played in Jaisalmer years ago when the desert surrounding the fort was replaced by a tight-knit maze of sandstone homes, and days of waiting for caravans in the sand turned into busy nights catering to tourists.

"At that time, people were not so busy," admitted Bakhra, the third Mali brother. "Life was simple."

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As Bakhra said these words, the last of the sun had set in the desert to the west, giving way to a full moon over the fort to the east. It was the perfect time for round upon round of Hidmidkhe.

Those sports may be lost now, along with much of the desert outpost feel of the town. It seems tourist turbans and camel safaris have taken over for good. But every once in a while, when the moonlight hits the fort just right, I can imagine what it was like playing those desert games, back then.

UP NEXT: While gymnastics takes the hot seat in the Games, we go back to the original Indian gymnastics tradition of Malkhamb.

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