In the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, camels set the pace of life. They pull the plows that furrow the sandy fields and provide transportation between fortressed cities and isolated dune settlements.
Recently, I spent 10 days exploring the great Thar Desert of Rajasthan in the company of two charming and intelligent camels and their drivers. Mounted on the regal humped beasts, we crossed the sun-scorched wilderness, shared meals with the brightly clad villagers and nomads, and admired the magnificent filigreed and mural-painted architecture.
The trip in Rajasthan began with a short flight from New Delhi to Jodhpur, at the edge of the Thar Desert, and an overnight train ride to Jaisalmer. A 12 th-century golden city dominated by a massive hilltop fort, Jaisalmer derived great riches from its position on the major camel-trade routes between central Asia and India. The merchants who controlled the desert trade built elaborate havelis - mansions exquisitely carved from golden-yellow sandstone and elaborately decorated. Stunningly beautiful portraits, war scenes, and religious and floral designs reveal the customs and history of the Rajput people.
Early on a crisp December morning, we threaded our way through the city's bustling bazaar to the camel serai outside the wall that surrounds the city.
It was here we met our camels, Rodou and Pathan. Although camels have a reputation for being irascible and having a conceited air, I found them to be friendly, amusing, and sensitive. They were responsive to our moods and set the pace of each day's journey accordingly.
The camel drivers were equally interesting. Sange, a dignified, 50-year-old Rajastani, sported a large, brilliant orange turban, patched khaki jacket, and skirtlike pants. Cordial host, talented singer, and man-of-the-world, Sange reminded me of a shy lover as he whispered quietly to his camel Rodou. The other driver, Bima, was a younger and milder man, whose disposition matched that of his camel, Pathan. (Pathan, by the way, had enormous brown eyes with long lashes , and a decided upward tilt to his nose.)
At Bima's insistence, Pathan knelt down stiffly for me to mount. I hesitated before climbing aboard the huge aristocratic animal. Then I put my left foot in a stirrup and carefully threw my right one over his hump. As I settled myself in front of the hump, Bima climbed on behind. Bima clucked and with a loud grunt Pathan straightened first his back and then his front legs. I suddenly found myself about 10 feet up in the air, perched precariously in the saddle.
We headed slowly off into the desert with a rolling gait reminiscent of the swelling of the sea. Looking down the path, I marveled at the sight of Roudou's slender, delicate ankles and large flat feet, which he placed deftly on the soft desert sand, thrusting his huge body forward.
The discomfort in my seat turned to gradual numbness as we began to trot. The first two days I felt relieved when the morning or afternoon ride was over and I could dismount to enjoy the desert solitude. By the third day, however, I had adjusted to the camel's gait and was able to delight in moving with Pathan as he trotted confidently across the terrain.
The Thar Desert varies from sculptured sand dunes, to desolate scrubland, to planted fields browned in the sun, to swamps and marshes teeming with wildlife. Indian gazelles, nilgais (large blue-gray antelopes), spotted deer, sambars (large deer with antlers), and desert foxes abound. Such rare species as the great Indian bustard (large, heavy, long-legged game birds) still survive here. Eagles and falcons soar overhead, peacocks call, and troupes of green parrots scatter before the camels' paths.
Along the way there were Hindu villages with thatch-roofed houses and Muslim settlements with their flat-topped mud dwellings. In the camps of nomads, we were offered tea and wheat cakes.
Wells in the villages, often hundreds of feet deep, were centers for social gatherings. Our camels drank deeply from the water troughs. Then the camel drivers would haul enormous buckets of water to refill the troughs for the next drinkers.
Women chatted gaily as they strolled from the village to nearby wells with three-gallon water jugs balanced on their heads. On the way back with the jugs full, they still talked but walked carefully. Every drop of water for the family's cooking and washing was carried on their heads.
A camel driver who had seen few Westerners asked where we came from in India. When I told him I came from America - across the ocean - and tried to explain the ocean, I was met with polite disbelief. In a land where water is scarce, the idea of a huge body of water can be incomprehensible.
In contrast to the muted desert background, the people of Rajasthan fill their lives with color. The men wear turbans of red, saffron, or orange; the women, bright red saris, columns of bracelets on their upper arms, and thick silver earrings, anklets, and bracelets.
After a week and a half, we reluctantly said goodbye to our camels outside the Pokran railway station. The afternoon train took us to Jodhpur and a change of scenery. Here a magnificent palace and a battle-scarred fort remind one of Rajasthan's history.
The Rajputs are noted for their willingness to do battle to the death rather than surrender. And in the distant past, women would immolate themselves on a mass pyre rather than risk capture by the enemy. Sati, the gruesome Hindu custom of wives burning on their husband's funeral pyres, was commonly practiced in Rajasthan. Six wives and 58 concubines are said to have burned along with Ajit Singh of Manuar.
In Jodhpur, Udaipur, and Jaipur, we stayed in ornate hotels that were originally palaces. When the wealthy maharajahs lost their special incomes in 1970, many judiciously changed their regal homes into opulent hotels.
As a guest in one of these hotels, it is easy to imagine oneself in Rajasthan's affluent past. The apartments are still maintained in luxury, and museum rooms have fascinating collections of art, carpets, enamelware, textiles, and weapons dating back to the 15th century. Curiosities abound. For example, outside the Jaipur palace we saw a 200-gallon silver vessel in which one maharajah transported his drinking water on a trip to England.
After several days in luxurious palaces, we enjoyed another complete change. The Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is primarily a marsh created from the desert for the hunting pleasure of the Bharatpur maharajah in 1907. A plaque recounts that in that year 3,000 birds were killed in a single day's shoot. Now the area is protected, and more than 350 species of birds fly freely. Animals such as nilgais, spotted deer, and wild boar are common in the dense forest surrounding the swamp.
Traveling by punt through the reeds, or by bicycle on dikes between the marshes, we got close to cormorants, egrets, herons, and thousands of painted storks nesting in thorny trees.
Most of the world's 200 surviving Siberian cranes winter at Bharatpur. These four-foot-tall birds have been called the rarest and finest species of crane. Here they are easily observed.
Another winter resident is the bar-headed goose. In 1978, when I led a women's expedition to climb Annapurna, we were inspired by the sight of flocks of bar-headed geese migrating from Tibet to India at 27,000 feet across the summit of that Himalayan peak.
The sheer number and variety of large, brilliant birds makes watching irresistible to novice and veteran alike. At Bharatpur, I became an enthusiastic bird watcher, enjoying an avocation previously incomprehensible to me.
This was the special magic of Rajasthan. In this stark wilderness environment , I learned to appreciate the peaceful lives of the desert people and the charm of the camels. I learned to see things like Saurus cranes, bulbul, and spotted deer. And I was able to bring this appreciation back home.
Now, as I delight in the subtle beauties of the little brown sparrows outside my kitchen window, I'm reminded of the stately Siberian cranes and rose-ringed parrots scattering before the path of our softfooted camels, Rodou and Pathan.
The cooler months of October through February are best for travel to Rajasthan. You can easily and economically arrange a camel trip at the Hotel Fort View in Jaisalmer or through Shikhar Travels, 209 Competent House, Connaught Circus, New Delhi, India 110001.
The companies below offer trips in the Thar Desert this year and next. Wholesome Western or Indian meals, plus comfortable tents for sleeping in the desert, are provided during the camel trips.
Great Himalayan Treks, 1398 Solano Avenue, Albany, Calif. 94706. Phone 800- 227-2384, or (415) 527-8100 in California. Dec. 13-Jan. 5, 1985 (24 days). Cost: days' bird watching at Bharatpur, and a visit to the Taj Mahal in the moonlight.
Inner Asia Travel, 2627 Lombard, San Francisco, Calif. 94123. Phone (415) 922 -0448. Oct. 23-Nov. 15, 1984 (24 days). Cost: $2,450. (plus air fare) Four-day camel trip, sightseeing in eight cities, visit to the spectacular Pushkar camel fair.
Mountain Travel, 1398 Solano Avenue, Albany, Calif. 94706. Phone 800-227-2384 or (415) 527-8100 in California. Nov. 10-30, 1984 (21 days). Cost: $1,975. (plus air fare) Feb. 10-March 2, 1985 (21 days). Cost: $1,975. (plus air fare) Six-day camel trip, sightseeing in three cities in Rahasthan and visits to Gajner Wildlife Sanctuary and a camel breeding farm.
Arlene Blum is a well-known mountain climber and author of ''Annapurna: A Woman's Place,'' (Sierra Club Books, 1983).