I had heard a lot about Jaisalmer and how beautiful it is, but nothing can quite prepare you for the city. The fort in Jaisalmer is the only living fort in the world, and we stayed at a hotel inside the fort itself, which is the best thing to do.
The whole place looks magical, like a scene out of Arabian Nights. It looks like someone has put up a historical set, and opened it up for the public, and that the next time you come, it might disappear! There are lots and lots and lots of shops inside the fort – the city, after all, is a tourist city. Its entire economy depends on tourism. Once you’ve been there, it works such magic on you that you would want to visit it again and again.
I think I spent most of my time walking while looking up, because almost all the houses have beautifully carved jharokas and balconies. I kept poking the husband in the ribs and pointing out almost every second house! The guide was also amused, said this is so normal for them that they don’t even see it! Apparently, the government has passed an order that all houses built in Jaisalmer have to have a sandstone front and have to have some carving on the doors and window, since the carving and the sandstone is all that attracts tourists to the city.
There are a lot of Jain temples, built in between and 12th and 15th century, inside the fort, and again, all I can say is that the carving is awesome! The biggest temple has got 11 dancers carved on the roof, with musicians below them, and one figure of Indira. The Jains believe that once the temple is closed, the dancers descend from the roof and dance for the Gods. How quaint! The statue looks like it is made of marble, but is actually made of desert sand! Every year it is polished with diamond dust, milk, sandalwood, and turmeric, which gives it the look of marble!
The entire temple is built on the basis of interlocking columns, since there was no water for limestone joining at that time, and cement was not invented yet. One of the other temples had different form of Ganeshji carved on the roof. Seeing it just takes your breath away! Especially when you think of when they were built and what kind of ability and skill it would have taken then, to make something that is so timeless in its beauty, without the technology that we have access to today.
The museum in the fort had some interesting things on display – line the entire family tree of the rulers, right down to the present king. There was also the king’s bedroom, and one of the king’s nightgown on display. It’s so huge that both the husband and me could fit into it, and still have some space left over!
One of the most elaborate and magnificent of all the havelis (bungalows) in Jaisalmer is Patwon ki Haveli, which was built between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who made their fortunes by trading jewelry and fine brocades. The entire façade of the haveli is made of sandstone, which has through-and-through, intricate carving. I went crazy photographing close-ups of different sections of the haveli! And the most amazing thing is that there is a similar house, which was made in 1993! It belongs to someone who is based in Surat, and would have cost him Rs. 1 crore to build! The sandstone is cheap, but the carving is really expensive, about Rs. 500 per square foot!
Following the trend of converting palaces into hotels and leaving a section open for visitors is Badal Mahal, which is topped by the Tazia Tower. Each story of this five-tiered tower has a beautifully carved balcony. Muslim craftsmen built it in the shape of a Tazia and gifted to the king. Tazias are ornately decorated bamboo, paper, and tinsel replicas of a bier carried in procession during Muharram. Visitors can’t go into the tower, because the king has his residence in that section of the palace.
Surprisingly, this desert city also has a lake! A man-made lake, but a lake nevertheless – the Gadisar lake. At one time it was the town’s main water supply, but is currently a big tourist attraction. Who wouldn’t want to go boating in the desert?
And of course, how can I neglect to mention the desert itself?
We went to Sam Sand Dunes for New Year. It is a one hour drive on a lonely road, there are hardly one or two small villages along the way. Sam is not really just sand dunes, though, there are a lot of shrubs too, which I wasn’t expecting. It just didn’t fit into my mental image of what a desert should look like, but it did give me a sense of serenity and timelessness, despite all the crowds that were there for New Year. We plan to return here again, and spend a couple of days in the desert.
New Year celebrations were organized by the hotel, and were held at one of the many desert camps. There was traditional Rajasthani folk music and dances organized at the venue, along with dinner and drinks. While we had originally planned on staying till 12:30 am at least, it was too cold to even think about it. While we were sitting in front of the fire it was fine, but our backs were bearing the brunt of the cold air blowing in, despite all the layers of clothes we were wearing!
The New Year program was an interesting experience, though it wasn’t really what I was expecting. I had a completely different image in my mind, fueled by all the things we had heard from people when we mentioned we were planning to spend New Year at Jaisalmer! It was a little disappointing, but an experience worth remembering nonetheless.
(All images copyright Modern Gypsy)