When you think of a desert, it’s natural to conjure images of a blistering sun, endless barren sea of sand, where the only trace of life are thorny cacti that seem to drink all of desert water rather selfishly and shiny black beetles with pointy stings digging in and out of sand. I remember these from the movie “The Mummy”. But, the Arabian Nights paints a rather subtle and dreamy picture. I’d like to envision Jaisalmer as the desert from The Arabian Nights and imagine myself on a magical carpet gliding over shimmering sands underneath the starry skies.
When you first lay your eyes on Jailsalmer, you will at once know why it is also known as The Golden City. The name owes its gratitude to the golden honey-hued sandstone used in construction of architecture and houses alike. But, the city has earned this moniker after its Rajput ruler, Rawal Jaisal, who founded it in 1156 AD.
This desert city is wrapped in layers that once peeled back reveal more secrets than you thought it kept. Allow them to unravel slowly, one after the other.
Jaisalmer Fort: The city is built in and around this imposing fortress, rising above the desert lands like a mirage from the bygone era. This fortified structure also known as Sonar Kila or Golden Fort follows you in every lane, every historical monument and from balconies or windows of almost every restaurant you park yourself for a meal. This breathing fortress that was once a focal point of battles fought between the Mughals, Bhatis and Rajputs is now home to around 4000 residents, which is almost one-fourth of the entire population. Built with an amalgamation of Mughal and Rajput style of architecture, the fort is no less urban from the inside.
Before you take yourself out for this fascinating tour, I suggest you charge yourself up in Trikaal Street Cafe that sits right at the foot of the gate. Ritesh, the amicable owner of this quirky little cafe, will regale you with his journey as you watch him whip up his star attraction, the Tandoori Chai, that’s served in terracotta cups with steaming hot Maggie for company.
There are bikes on hire if you want to avoid taxing your legs coz it’s a real steep climb up there.
Four massive gates open up to winding alleyways lined by houses, temples, restaurants and plenty of handicraft shops. One shop in particular sucked us in. Tees hung outside in eye-catching colours and nostalgic prints that seem too real to be painted by wrinkled but expert hands of Mr. Premdas. An artist par excellence and fabulous repute, he’s also well traveled and has the anecdotes of his celebrity encounters captured in his elaborate photo album. It’s a different thing to buy a ready made one over the counter or online. But it’s overwhelming to witness the print of your choice come to life right before your eyes.
Life inside the ramparts is a living relic of the past with teeny bit of present garnished over. Men, young and elderly, assemble at the temple porches for a chitchat and to play cards, while kids frolic around. Bikers appear out of nowhere gearing up the incredibly narrow lanes, leaving you wondering how they pull off this circus with such ease. It’s nice to see and relive this kind of old-school entertainment far away from the faces being buried in cellphones.
Reach to the top and you’ll be rewarded with views like this.
Jain Temples: Situated inside the fort are a cluster of 7 temples that were built in the 12th and 15th centuries, dedicated to various Jain Tirthankars (hermits). These painstakingly carved temples are perfect embodiment of the fascinating architecture that’s also a place of worship.
Patwon Ki Haveli: Surprises often pop out from places you least expect them to. Patwon Ki Haveli is one such. This stunningly traditional and ornately decorated residence of the five Patwa brothers of Jaisalmer, looks like a honey-coloured lacework of stone towering over the narrow alley and staring down over the peddlers of beautiful handicrafts.
The riches-to-rags story of the haveli dates back to eighteenth century when the immensely successful businessman, Ghuman Chand Patwa, decided to gift each of his five sons a separate and grandiose mansion facing the Jaisalmer Fort. Unfortunately, the fortunes of the family started dwindling to an extent that led the once affluent brothers to abandon not just their paradise, but the city as well. Out of these five grand structures, only the first one was bought by another rich man, Jeevanlalji Kothari. This particular haveli, owes its current glory and splendor to him.
No sooner do you step into the lane, you’ll be swarmed by the tour guides eager to take you around the building. The usual reaction of every tourist is, “why do we need a guide for a building?” But believe me, for this one you do. Inside the mansion, there’s museum and a shop for antique furniture. The walls are adorned with exquisite mirror works and fascinating paintings. The lattice or jali carvings let the sunlight stream in and illuminate the place in beautiful patterns. There are around 60 balconies and numerous archways, each designed uniquely. With so much of art and history on display, you do need someone to enthrall you with its anecdotes, don’t you.
We were lucky to have met Sachin who’s not only a treasure trove of information but also a very talented photographer. “Take a guide, madam. If not the information, you will need someone to click your pictures. There are lot of photo opportunities in there”. Sachin was way too modest in saying this. There can be no match to his photography, knowledge, amicability with total strangers and immense love for his place. Speaking to him, I realized that 100 bucks could buy us a souvenir or a beverage in some restaurant. But to them, it feeds their families.
Salam Singh Ki Haveli: Did you know the word Haveli is derived from two words – Hava means breeze and Veli mean light? Me neither. It was the grouchy but immensely knowledgeable Mr. Tiwari who explained this to us.
Salam Singh Ki Haveli is another engineering and architectural marvel that’ll leave you awestruck one floor after the other. The haveli sits in a busy street, so parking is few feet away. All that frustration of braving the sun dissipates once you buy the ticket and have made your acquaintance with that storehouse of information. Be warned about the ticket though. All this knowledge transfer is for those privileged few who shell out the buck. You will be shot with stern looks and dismissive answers if you try to extract information unpaid. And believe you me, those 20 bucks are worth it. Every word coming from his mouth is like a valuable pearl you’ll want to weave into a necklace and carry back home. The man’s a genius and a warm friend when you spend time with him. We spent close to two hours while our driver kept ringing reminders. But we just couldn’t let this iota of knowledge slip away.
So, the haveli…
Brace yourself because this piece of information is going to knock your head right off. This three storeyed building can be unscrewed, dismantled to its last bit and rejoined again. Engineering marvel indeed! The staircase is fascinating too. Every step of it is built with an ascending height and a ceiling that drops down when you least expect it. You know why? It’s a trap for the thieves, the entire structure is. So that when the thief is climbing up, he keeps on climbing up without knowing that he is about to bang his head on that drop. And if vice versa, descending height catches him off-guard making him lose balance and get tossed down. The windows of the Haveli are even more intriguing. In those days, the kings had many wives. Of course, there used to be a favourite one. Talking in open was considered a blatant display of rudeness and audacity. So, when the king did want to have a chit chat, he’d sit in one window and the queen in the opposite. They’d then share sweet-nothings… gesticulating. No wonder we Indians are so expressive…Everything about this Haveli is awe-inspiring. Even the bathrooms were built to recycle water and ensure zero wastage. Water was equivalent to gold back then. Women folks would tread kilometers of the merciless desert on foot to get few litres of it back home. Even small kitschy stuff like incense holders were designed for multiple purposes. I’d go on and on about everything I learned there. It’s really magical how people survived such unforgiving conditions in those years with such genius techniques. We are indeed privileged.
Vyas Chhatri: Rajasthani architecture is ever so beautifully imprinted on these intricately carved golden sandstone Chhatris or cenotaphs, knows as Vyas Chhatris. It’s a cluster of chhatris that used to be a memorial ground for the Brahmin class of people. The name is eponymous with sage Vyas who had penned the ancient epic, Mahabharata. It’s a brilliant point to catch the view of the fort; and the sunset from here is breathtaking.
Kuldhara Village: A village that was…
Kuldhara, an abandoned village 19 kms to the west of Jaisalmer, was established in the thirteenth century and was inhabited by around 1600 villagers. This once-upon-a-time happy and prosperous hamlet was abandoned in the early nineteenth century for the reasons yet unknown. Folklore has it that people left due to an earthquake that rattled them and perennial scarcity of water. If there exists a bunch of people that have a pragmatic approach to causes, there also exists a bunch that believes in myths and legends; which I personally feel provide a larger scope for the imagination.
What’s left now are the ruins of the houses that were once alive and temples that echoed chants and prayers. No wonder people call it a haunted village. The mystical scene is bound to haunt you for days to come. But to me, it was pure nostalgia.
Gadisar Lake: Oasis in the heart of the desert, literally. Relive history while floating on the placid and azure Gadisar Lake, a man-made reservoir built in the 14th century by Maharawal Gadi Singh.
This lake was the only source of water for the people of Jaisalmer. Today, this pristine lake turns into a spectacle at dusk; the rays of the sun appear to be bouncing off the golden Shiva temple – that appears to have risen from the waters – before diving into the lake and spreading shimmer all around. The drama is completed by the setting sun who makes the sky turn orange, then pink, then red before it’s completely out of sight. The silence is punctuated by chopping of oars and few stubborn birds that just refuse to return home.
Sam Sand Dunes: You can’t claim to have seen a desert unless you’ve actually gotten under the skin of it, you know, when the desert winds ruffle through your hair and the grains of sands stick to your face, and when you are forced to drag your feet up the dunes while dusting the sand off your shoes. I am almost reliving each of those moments while writing this.
Sam Sand Dunes is an experience of a lifetime.
It’s a 41 kms drive to the west of Jaisalmer; and you wont mind the distance as you lay back in the seat listening to Rajasthani folk music, while the city is left far behind and all you see on both sides are trees that seem to have a curse of never bearing a flower upon them and a long black ribbon of tar road ahead. On the way, you will pass Kanoi, a smaller version of Sam, where you’ll see the parachutes making an unsuccessful but desperate attempt to fly, one end tied to the jeep that also makes an unsuccessful attempt to make them fly, while the tourists stand by hopeful of the paramotoring experience. The area up to 500 metres from Kanoi looks like a graveyard of butchered parachutes.
Dunes Activities: The desert adventures start after 4 pm and continue until late night.
Start off with a Quad Bike; it’s like a trailer before the real movie. An expert accompanies you until you get the hang of the macho vehicle; after which you can take it for a long drive or move around in circles. Get pictures clicked or a video made which you can show off big time everywhere on social media.
If you’ve grown up watching Dune Bashing on TV shows or heard stories about them, and wondered if it’s really the way it is. Yes, Dune Bashing is everything you’ve ever imagined it to be. I wonder why they call it that, when it’s actually the dunes that bash your backside and bones without mercy. The drivers have mastered their craft really well. They know exactly when to make you hold on to dear life and when to make you scream your lungs out. It is when another jeep full of screaming passengers passes by, that you stand upright, all confident and show off like you are another Lawrence of Arabia. What really makes your blood rush through your veins is when they park the vehicle in a nosedive position in one of the steepest dunes and get off to click your pictures.
Camel Safari: This is how you conquer the sands. By riding the ‘ship of the desert’.
What better way to explore this unending ocean of sands, sitting atop the magnificent animal, bobbing up and down with every graceful step it takes. Its walk is so graceful and stylish, it reminded me of myself walking the ramp in that heavily embroidered traditional Indian wear. Admiring the dunes from height is a wonderful experience. Plus, the camel can take you to places where even the sturdiest of vehicles cannot go. Picture yourself on the camel standing on the top of a very tall dune, looking to the horizon. You get the exact same experience you just imagined.
By the time you’ve had the fill of these heart thumping adventures, the day comes to a close. This is when the guide leaves you to yourself for that slice of solitude; to soak in the most enchanting scene you are about to witness. Plonk yourself down in the sand that has now started to cool. Winds carry along with them the songs of folk artists that are performing for a bunch of people at a distance. You’ll be glued to the horizon as dusk washes over the desert sands in a rose tinged glow. Motes of sand change colour from shimmering gold to a matte dark chocolate. There’s a different kind of peace to the desert. And you’re one with it.
Romance of the desert is deeply felt living in the desert itself. I strongly recommend you spend a night in one of the desert camps. Believe you me, the experience is enrapturing. Also, the camp provides a base for all the activities you can do until late night without having to think about driving back to your hotel in Jaisalmer.
Besides, staying in a mud or a Swiss tent is gratifying; what with all that exceptional Rajasthani hospitality where you’re treated like royalty.
After the sun disappears below the horizon, bonfire is lit in the centre of the camp, mattresses laid out to stretch your legs and the aroma of kebabs being barbecued is carried by the breeze straight to your nose. Rajasthani folk artists captivate you with their mellifluous singing and ever so graceful moves, while the mouthwatering servings of crisp onion pakoras, manchurian with a local twist and piping hot beverages keep coming until you plead them to stop.
So much of everything is on platter that you don’t realize night has fallen and it’s time for dinner. Looking at the scrumptious Rajasthani spread replete with Lal Maas, Dal Baati Churma and more, you wish in your head, that it would be nicer to have controlled your gluttony earlier.
It is here, in these camps, that you get an experience of peering into the stars for hours and spotting a constellation like never before.
We loved our stay at Joggan Camp. Hit https://www.jogganjaisalmercamp.com/ for inquiries and bookings.
Shopping: Craftsmen and artists constitute a major portion of the city’s population. Therefore, shopping in Jaisalmer is quite unlike high-end boutiques, malls and designer labels we are used to. It’s real and rustic, which is why tourists from all over the world flock here for artisanal products that are a result of days of manual labour. Bhatia Bazar, Sadar Bazar, Pansari Bazar, Sonaron ka Bas and Manak Chowk are a shopper’s haven. There’s everything for everyone; you just have to loosen your purse-strings and be ready to wander around tirelessly.
What best to reflect the soul of Rajasthan than the intricate mirror-work painstakingly embroidered on vibrant fabrics and hand bags. Bandhani print dress materials and camel wool duvets are an excellent take-away.
Camel hide products like laptop bags, wallets, diaries, hats and shoes are omnipresent and a great buy.
The hand-carved furniture is exquisite.
The product that is rare and indigenous to Jaisalmer is the Fossil Stone or the Hadur Stone. It is said that the stone can be used to ferment milk into yogurt without the aid of a starter culture. Only other place that’s home to the Hadur is Fatehpur Sikri in Agra. The smallest size producing few grams of curds can be really costly, but is definitely something to boast about back home.
Eye-catching souvenirs like kathputlis (wooden dolls), brassware, rugs, shawls, carpets, carved wooden boxes, antiques, lamps, trinkets and others are found almost everywhere in Jaisalmer.
Stay: Luxury of waking up to a birdsong and a feel of the bygone era is only possible if you’re in a place that was built using the bit and pieces of the bygone era, of course. Just 20 minutes drive from Jaisalmer Airport, this colossal hotel leaves you awestruck with its regal opulence, every nook and corner demanding your attention. Brace yourself to experience the love, warmth, hospitality and majestic grandeur like never before in this beautiful oasis of tranquility, Hotel Fort Rajwada.
Click here for my post on Fort Rajwada.
For further inquiries and bookings visit their site: http://www.fortrajwada.com/
Food: is an obsession here; and people of Jaisalmer seem rather happy with their tastebud-tantalizing dishes, the recipes of which have been passed down through centuries and have barely altered. Some of these dishes include the Ker Sangri Ki Sabzi which is a traditional Rajasthani dish made using dried Ker Berries and Sangri Beans that grow nowhere else but the desert. Also, the combination of secret spices and method of cooking are unique to the land and difficult to replicate anywhere else. Thus, savoring them in their birth place is worth all the efforts your tummy has to make.
Almost every household in Jaisalmer rear goats and cattle. Thus milk and milk products form a major source of livelihood, apart from tourism. Take a stroll down the market and you’ll find huge cauldrons of fresh milk boiled, mixed with saffron and served with a fat layer of cream, nuts sprinkled on the top.
Many hip and trendy restaurants are mushrooming, but it’s the old-timers that win hands down.
Dal Baati Churma, a local favorite and mine too, is Dal – lentils curry, Baati – ghee coated dough balls, served with a generous drizzle of ghee (clarified butter) and Churma, which is crumbs of Semolina Laddoos at the side. Monica Restaurant, at an earshot from Jaisalmer Fort serves the best in town. Wash it all down with their creamy Cold Coffee.
Cafe Da Kaku is an 853-year-old bastion that offers magnificent views of the city. Their menu boasts of Chinese, Mexican, Indian and Japanese dishes. Have dinner here. The rooftop sitting, candle lit tables, soft music and the city below lit up with yellow light bulbs, is an experience that’ll stay with you until you return to Jaisalmer once again.
Want to taste a lot of variety in a single sitting? Ask for a Rajasthani Thali at Natraj Restaurant. They make the best Thali in Jaisalmer. The super-long queues and wait time suggest that too.
Craving for a break from the rich ghee-soaked food? Just inside the Fort’s first gate, Jaisal Italy has delectable Italian and Indian dishes including bruschetta, antipasti, pasta, pizza, salads and desserts, plus the Spanish Omelettes and pancakes. All this is served in an exotically decorated indoor restaurant and also the Dastarkhwan seating on the rooftop that offers unobstructed views of the fort.
Jaisalmer is a place where even the time has paused to rest a while. November to early March are best months to pay a visit. Winter has arrived, air is crisp and weather is welcoming.
After a blissful day full to the brim with culture, conversations and food, as I try to wash this city off my face, I hear the desert winds whispering to me the song that by now had dissolved into my soul “Kesariya Baalam Aavo Sa, Padharo Mhare Des”…