Timed to coincide with ‘Holi’, the Hindu Festival of Colours that marks the arrival of Spring, the Thar Desert Photography Expedition™ takes us into the heart of the Great Indian Desert, in the northern state of Rajasthan, to photograph the life of its remote villages and bustling cities, the immense landscape that enfolds them, and the exquisitely saturated colours of a region that has long represented the Indian subcontinent at its most iconic.
If few places conform as closely to most foreigners’ idea of ‘India’ as Rajasthan does, nothing is more central to this state than the vast desert that lies across most of its territory – encompassing 70% of the total landmass of Rajasthan, the Great Indian Desert is in both geographical and cultural terms the very essence of Rajasthan.
Also known as Thar Desert, this mighty expanse of fixed and shifting dunes, rocky outcrops and salt pans extending for over 320,000 km2 between India and Pakistan is one of the driest and most inhospitable environments on earth.
Deriving its name from the local word ‘t’hul’, meaning ‘sand ridges’, the Thar is home to about 40% of the population of Rajasthan, the second largest state in India, making it the most densely populated desert in the world.
Against the muted hues of this scorched landscape, over centuries, the people of Rajasthan have developed a sophisticated language of colour denoting castes and tribes that has made the region famous the world over.
Rajasthan’s art, architecture, folklore, costume and jewellery, along with most other products of its culture, are closely associated with colour – from its gilded miniatures to its boldly tinted cities and the brilliant palette of the region’s ‘signature’ turbans and saris, colour is, famously, the overriding visual characteristic of the state.
The context, in which such superlative taste for colour grew, is the immense, ochre emptiness of the sands that blanket most of the state, where numerous nomadic and semi-nomadic communities continue to live, and where a colourful culture rich in tradition endures.
While Rajasthan’s reputation as India’s ‘most colourful state’ is amply deserved, it is the contrast between the arid, vastly monochromatic backdrop of the Thar Desert and the intensely saturated colours characteristic of its culture that make the region immensely photogenic – It is this contrast that the Thar Desert Photography Expedition™ sets out to explore.
Accordingly, the journey spans the desert and its cities, interweaving diverse opportunities to photograph distinct aspects of Rajasthani life and culture, from the tribal communities that traditionally inhabit the Thar, to the vibrant urban centres that make up Rajasthan’s most important desert cities and town.
In keeping with its emphasis on local colour and custom, the expedition includes the opportunity to photograph ‘Holi’, the Hindu Festival of Colours that sees scores of people in the streets smearing each other with coloured powder and water in a kaleidoscopic celebration of the end of winter, the arrival of spring, and symbolically, the triumph of good over evil.
Joyous, boisterous, and dazzling, Holi is a visual feast not to be missed.
Formed from a union of small kingdoms, dubbed ‘Princely States’ during the British Empire, each ruled by a ‘raja’ (‘king’ in Sanskrit), Rajasthan is steeped in history and tradition much of which has been seen as emblematic of the Indian subcontinent.
The region’s very name – Rajasthan, literally the ‘Land of the Rajas’ – conjures up images of opulently dressed maharajas living in princely splendour; of imposing desert forts, and camel trains laden with precious goods wending their way through the dunes; of bazaars shimmering with luxurious fabrics – of much, if not all, that outsiders regard as quintessentially Indian.
Yet the traditions of this frontier region reflect millennia of interaction, peaceful and otherwise, with foreign cultures, particularly ones from Central Asia; from the prehistoric migrations of Indo-European tribes through to the medieval Muslim incursions, since the earliest of times, the northwest edge of the Indian subcontinent has been a crossroads of civilizations.
Contact with the outside world also came by way of commerce – once on a spur of the Silk Road’s southern route, the Thar Desert formed a key segment of the ancient network of economic and cultural trade connecting China with the Mediterranean, functioning as a corridor of cultural transmission between distant and diverse communities.
For centuries, the caravans that traversed the Thar with goods as diverse as opium, sugar, spices, textiles, tortoiseshell and ivory, introduced new traditions, costumes and styles to the region, contributing to the formation of an extremely diverse culture.
At the basis of Rajasthani society, cultural and ethnic diversity continues visibly to define the character of a state where every clan and community still has its own distinctive costume, jewellery, and ornaments. This includes the significant proportion of the state’s almost 75 million-strong population made up by ‘tribal’ peoples, who also frequently have their own gods and festivities.
An essential symbol of the wearer’s identity, reflecting ancestry, occupation, marital status, and religious persuasion, amongst other social markers, contemporary Rajasthani dress is thought to have changed little from the costume worn centuries ago.
Evident in both rural and urban environments, this living tradition of costume contributes greatly to the colourful atmosphere characteristic of the region.
From a photographer’s perspective, the sum total of these elements is a glut of opportunities across different subjects and environments – if the landscape and villages of the Thar seem to hark back effortlessly to a remote past, with their well-preserved architecture and hectic markets, its urban centres pulsate with colour and energy, at once modern and historical, progressive and traditional.
The Expedition’s itinerary is crafted and paced to explore such opportunities at the optimal time.
Travelling across the Thar Desert to photograph some of its more remote villages, and embracing the great Fort Cities of Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and Jaipur, the journey unfolds in the run-up to Holi and builds to a crescendo that culminates in the sacred town Pushkar, where we photograph the most colourful of all Hindu festivities against the backdrop of one of India’s oldest and most important religious sites.
Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s celebrated ‘Blue City’, a magnificently colourful market town on the eastern fringe of the Thar Desert, is the starting point of our photographic journey. Amongst the most bustling and colourful cities in India, Jodhpur offers excellent photographic opportunities across a range of subjects.
Enclosed by a 10km-long, 16th century city wall, Jodhpur’s old city spreads at the base of the colossal Mehrangarh Fort, the ‘Sun Citadel’ of the Rathore dynasty, an architectural marvel that stretches for over 5km along the top of a rocky hill, which was once the heart of the Kingdom of Marwar (‘the region of the desert’).
Its gigantic ramparts rising from a sheer-sided sandstone outcrop that towers 120m above the old city and its distinctive indigo-tinted houses, Meherangarh Fort is considered the most majestic building of its kind in India; in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “He who walks through it loses sense of being among buildings. It is as though he walked through mountain gorges.”
Vast, ornate, dramatically positioned, and extremely popular with visitors from the surrounding region, for whom it is also a centre of religious pilgrimage, Meherangarh affords spectacular views over the Blue City and presents outstanding opportunities for architecture and urban landscape photography, as well as people photography.
Beneath the stone citadel, cascading towards the city wall in countless shades of blue, the old city is a tangle of indigo-coloured houses, temples, shops, and bazaars in a seemingly constant flow of bikes, rickshaws, camel-drawn carts, and the occasional elephant, transporting people and goods, across a medieval maze of cobalt lanes.
Vibrant and intensely-colourful, the old city presents innumerable opportunities for street photography, which we explore extensively during the day as well as after sunset, when the city becomes particularly atmospheric.
Our base in town – an 18th century Rajput palace looking directly onto the fort, in the heart of the old city – is ideally positioned for access to shooting locations, enabling us to make the most of our time on the ground.
From Jodhpur, our journey continues into the surrounding Thar Desert, where we explore the rural villages of Marwar, one of Rajasthan’s most important historical regions.
Here, we spend time with the tribal communities who inhabit this part of the desert – including the Bishnoi, a sect whose 500-year-old beliefs in protecting trees and wildlife have earned it the title of the ‘world’s first environmentalists’.
This takes us to the so-called ‘dhani’, the tiny hamlets where, utilising the extremely scarce natural resources at their disposal, the indigenous dwellers of the Thar Desert live according to customs and traditions that have remained largely unchanged for centuries.
To make the most of the photographic opportunities that this environment presents, during our stay in the area, we base ourselves in a 17th century fort that was once the headquarters of one of the most important ‘Jagirs’ (fiefdoms) of the Kingdom of Marwar; this provides us with easy access to some of the more remote dhanis, enabling us to immerse ourselves in the unique atmosphere of this region of the desert.
From Marwar our journey through the Thar continues 300 km north-west, to the remote town of Jaisalmer, in the westernmost corner of Rajasthan, near the border between India and Pakistan, a region so arid and wind-swept it is known as Marusthali, or ‘Land of the Dead’.
Set high on a ridge that emerges abruptly from the desert plains, the 99 honey-coloured circular bastions of its hilltop fortress rising sharply against the vast, open vistas of the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer, the so-called ‘Golden City’, shimmers like a mirage.
A medieval fortified town built entirely of yellow sandstone – to which, at certain times of the day, the sun imparts a golden glow – Jaisalmer retains a distinctive atmosphere that recalls its origins as a staging post for camel trains.
Founded in the 12th century, Jasialmer was a major halting point on the east-west caravan trade routes, its exquisite temples and lavishly decorated merchants’ havelis (mansions) a reminder of the wealth accumulated through the taxation of silk, spices, precious stones, and countless other precious goods that once passed through here.
Dominating the town and the surrounding desert, the hilltop fortress of Sonar Kila (‘Golden Fort’, a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is the last living fort in India – a honeycomb of houses, palaces, temples, and bazaars that is home to a quarter of the city’s population.
Our time in Jaisalmer is spent exploring this living structure alongside the life and architecture of the Old Town that stretches below its ramparts, where some of Jaisalmer’s most magnificent havelis are found.
Built to accommodate in comfort and seclusion the extended families of the rich merchants who commissioned them, these grandiose buildings functioned as status symbols for their owners who, in an effort to outshine their competitors, had them embellished with ever-more intricate carvings and frescoes.
One of these remarkable buildings serves as our base in Jaisalmer; located just below the fort, the royal haveli we call ‘home’ during our stay here provides a vivid glimpse into the workings and atmosphere of these extravagant townhouses, along with easy access to the different areas of town that we photograph during this part of the workshop.
Not far from Jaisalmer, where the desert edges closer to the Pakistani border, there lies a pristine stretch of topaz-coloured sand dunes.
Though only about two kilometres in length, this band of high, wind-scored dunes encapsulates the forbidding, desolate beauty of the Marusthali, the most arid portion of the Thar Desert, where the sand accumulated over the past 1.8 million years, forms a landscape of rolling dunes and sandy plains.
Constantly sculpted by the wind into varying shapes and sizes, the sand dunes of the Marusthali are amongst the most iconic sights in Rajasthan (so much so that they frequently appear in commercials and Bollywood productions).
Whilst in Jaisalmer, therefore, we also take the time to travel to this area to photograph this ancient, incessantly shifting landscape, alongside some of the isolated villages of this very sparsely populated region of the Thar.
Beyond Jaisalmer, we travel 450 km east, across the Thar Desert, to the town of Pushkar. The journey, which spans Western Rajasthan from its western to its eastern limits, presents the opportunity to observe the changing desert landscape and provides access to an important religious site.
The resting place of a 14th century Rajput ruler, whose heroic deeds and miraculous powers turned him into a local Hindu folk deity, the shrine illustrates the breath and particularity of local traditions and belief.
Worshipped by different social groups within India, and revered by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike, the temple of this hero-saint draws pilgrims from far and wide, and offers excellent opportunities for people photography.
When we reach Pushkar the light is beginning to fade over the valley where, surrounded by mountains on three sides and sand dunes on the fourth, this small pilgrimage town lies.
Encircling a sacred lake that Hindus believe was created when a lotus blossom slipped through the hand of Lord Brahma – the God of creation – Pushkar is amongst the oldest and most sacred towns in India.
As one of the five sacred dhams – the pilgrimage sites that devout Hindus must visit at least once in their life – Pushkar sees a constant stream of pilgrims, who come to pray at the over 400 whitewashed temples that ring the lake, and bathe in its holy waters.
It is here that we photograph Holi, the Hindu festivity that, once a year, for one day, turns this tranquil pilgrimage town into a blizzard of colours during which all distinctions of caste, class, age, and gender are eclipsed in a flurry of ‘gulal’ (coloured powder).
Celebrated all over India, Holi is an ancient Hindu Spring festival that takes place over the course of two days, the first of which is called Holika Dahan, and the second Rangwali Holi.
Though outside of India the festival is known primarily for the throwing and spraying of colours that takes place on the second and last day, from a photographer’s perspective, the whole event presents excellent and extremely varied opportunities.
This is particularly the case in Pushkar, a small town where Holi is celebrated with great enthusiasm, whose layout and architecture are ideal both in terms of setting and access to viewpoints.
On the eve of Holi, celebrations begin with Holika Dahan (‘Holika’s death’, from which Holi takes its name), a huge bonfire on which an effigy of the demoness Holika is ritualistically burnt.
Amassed from pieces of wood that the inhabitants of the town bring to it in the days prior to the festival, the Holika pyre symbolises the victory of good over evil, or more specifically, the power of ‘bhakti’, devotion to a personal god, over malice.
On Holika Dahan, as evening approaches, people gather in ever greater numbers in the town’s main square, where the pyre is assembled, to attend ‘puja’, the prayer ritual that opens the ceremony.
Just after sunset, as the pyre ignites, the air swells with the pounding of drums, and people begin to sing and dance around the fire, praying that, like Holika’s effigy that represents it, their ‘inner evil’ be consumed by the flames.
Later in the night, after photographing the ceremony in the main square, we head into different neighbourhoods where, marking the festivity in their own way, people gather around small fires, whilst the women sing, dance, and shower one other with flowers in anticipation of the following day’s Holi celebrations.
On the morning of Rangwali Holi, heralded by the sound of drums, crowds of young people armed with balloons and squirt guns filled with coloured water, and pouches full of dry pigment, begin to assemble in the streets.
When they converge onto the main square, the town erupts into an enormous, immensely colourful street party; a no-holds-barred play fight with only one rule: blast as many people as possible with as much, and as many, colours as possible.
As the crowd grows and the revels get into full swing, ever larger quantities of pigment are discharged from all angles – from windows, balconies, and rooftops, sackfuls of gulal rain onto the streets below, combining prismatically mid-air with the dye rockets bursting from beneath, saturating the atmosphere with colour as far as the eye can see.
At the appointed time, when the colour fight suddenly stops and the dust settles, the town re-emerges quite transformed, its architecture tie-dyed in primary colours, with every exposed surface – every facade, doorway, and balcony – soaked in pigment, and every alcove and recess a pale background.
For us, Rangwali Holi is, therefore, a particularly intense day; one in which we shoot almost uninterruptedly from dawn to dusk. After photographing the colour fight and its aftermath, as the energy of the festivities begins to ebb from the town, we climb a nearby hill where Hindu pilgrims come to pray.
Crowned by a small temple, the hill, which Hindus believe to be of divine origins, offers dramatic views over Pushkar and the surrounding landscape; it is an ideal spot from which to view the town, particularly at sunset, when the lake at its centre often turns a decisive shade of pink.
From Pushkar, the last part of our journey takes us 150km north-east, to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. The largest and by far the busiest of the cities that we photograph during the expedition, Jaipur’s striking architecture, enormous bazaars, and intensely chaotic streets are a thrill to explore and, in photographic terms, present their own set of challenges and opportunities.
Based on mathematical grid, Jaipur’s orderly layout stands in marked contrast to the labyrinthine arrangement of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, lending the capital a very different atmosphere from that of the medieval towns that we photograph during the first part of the expedition, to which it forms an interesting counterpoint.
The first planned city of its time in India, Jaipur was built as a ‘new city’ in the early 18th century by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh in accordance with the principles of Vastu Shastra, the traditional Hindu system of architecture, which calls for strict geometrical planning.
Divided into nine rectangular sectors corresponding to the divisions of the ancient Hindu map of the universe, Jaipur’s famous pink walled city is the product of its founder’s bold attempt at combining the latest contemporary knowledge of astronomy with ancient Hindu religious and philosophical principles.
In so doing, Jai Singh – ruler of the Kachchwaha Rajput clan, and a renowned astronomer in his own right – intended to create a city that, besides providing protection for its inhabitants, would offer them the ideal living and working environment in which they could thrive, both spiritually and materially.
So successful was the Maharaja in his endeavour, that much of what Jaipur is today closely corresponds with what he had envisaged – a flourishing commercial city structured by a sumptuous architectural frame that married grandeur with functionality.
Devised to foster all aspects of commerce, the straight and unusually wide and regular roads that separate the Old City‘s nine blocks were created to house specialized markets for specific goods, in particular textiles and jewellery.
Criss-crossing at right angles, their sidewalks purposely widened to facilitate the flow of pedestrians, the thoroughfares still function as originally planned, connecting a seemingly never-ending succession of bazaars, each containing hundreds of shops, selling an immense variety of items – from handicrafts to precious stones and everything in between.
In photographic terms, this intensely hectic and colourful environment presents an almost overwhelming array of opportunities – a multitude of subjects and moods that we explore extensively during the day, when much of the gem cutting and trading takes place, and in particular, after sunset, when the emporia come alive with shoppers.
As this involves working in both mixed and low-light conditions, in a crowded, fast-paced environment, it calls on many of the technical and decision-making skills that participant are given the opportunity to acquire during the expedition.
During our time in Jaipur, we also explore its remarkable architecture, a blend of Rajput and Mughal concepts of style and design, whose stateliness is enhanced by the uniform pink colour that characterises it, from which the capital derives its informal title of ‘Pink City’.
One of the most significant monuments in the Old City is the astronomical observatory of Jantar Mantar. Meaning literally “instruments for measuring the harmony of the heavens”, Jantar Mantar is a collection of architectural astronomical instruments for measuring time and celestial altitudes, predicting eclipses, tracking stars in their orbits, and performing other complex astronomical calculations.
Built of local stone and marble, the instruments are huge structures set in a courtyard with lawns, which give the visitor the impression of walking through solid geometry and offer excellent photographic opportunities.
In its modern incarnation, Jai Singh’s ideal city is, therefore, also ideal for photography. Filled with magnificent architecture, splendidly chaotic, and supremely colourful, Jaipur is, in many respects, the essence of a historical Indian city, one whose modernity is still visibly defined by tradition.
Its markets overflowing with garments, jewellery, ornaments and handicrafts that have their origins in the multitude of artistic, cultural and artisanship traditions of the communities that inhabit the Thar, Jaipur also brings together the many different strands of our journey, forming a fitting conclusion to our photographic exploration of the Thar Desert and its people.
Open to photographers of all levels, the Thar Desert Expedition is a fairly intense journey that traverses the Great Indian Desert and involves extensive travelling.
Photographing in the Thar Desert presents its own challenges and rewards, and requires falling into step with the rhythms of this particular environment. On the vast desert’s horizon, the dawn light grows harsh rapidly, and remains unforgiving till dusk. Besides very early morning rises, this means photographing in high contrast situations for the majority of the time.
More challenging still, is the natural shyness of most desert dwellers; the development of different techniques with which to approach and photograph people in this very traditional region of India is, therefore, a key aspect of this Expedition.
Encompassing rural and urban environments, the workshop extends from the hamlets of some of the desert’s most sparsely populated areas, to its most densely inhabited towns, offering a wide choice of opportunities ranging from landscape to people photography, and requiring of participants a good amount of flexibility both as travellers and photographers.
The festival of Holi, as well as the time we spend with the tribal communities in Marwar, in particular, provides superb opportunities for photographing people in their environment, and throughout the workshops opportunities for street photography and environmental portraiture abound.
As such, the workshop is ideal for photographers who enjoy adventure and diversity, and who are interested in exploring Rajasthan and the culture of the Great Indian Desert, on the occasion of its most colourful, religious festivity. For photographers who have already travelled to Rajasthan, the Expedition provides the opportunity to explore in depth a key element of the region’s cultural and geographical identity.
Whilst the workshop includes numerous opportunities for both natural and urban landscape photography, as well as architecture photography, it is particularly well-suited for photographers who are interested in people and street photography.
As is always the case with our photographic journeys, curiosity, flexibility, a strong sense of adventure, and a good level of fitness are essential to participate.