Jaisalmer, better known by the epithet ‘Golden City‘ for its tawny landscape, is steeped in stories of valour, gallantry, vows, battles, sacrifices and royalty. For as far as the eyes can see, the city, surrounded by vast expanse of amber sand of the harsh arid Thar Desert, glows golden due to the rampant use of yellow sandstone in its fort, many havelis, temples and chhatris.
Colouful pagris of heavily moustached men, women in sequined and mirrored lehengas, delectable authentic flavours of local cuisine wafting from wayside foodstalls, the intricate details of jalis and jharokhas of its yellow sandstone architecture, the overflowing shops of leather mojris, block-printed scarves and miniature art all overwhelm and transport the inquisitive intrepid visitor to a bygone era.
Bordered by Pakistan on its western and south-western side, Jaisalmer, a ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’, is named after the Rajput king Maharawal Jaisal Singh who established it in 1156 AD. Jaisalmer literally translates to ‘Hill Fort of Jaisal’ or the fort for King Jaisal Singh. It is not only one of the largest districts in Rajasthan but also in the country.
Here is what you must see in this historic town:
- Trikuta Fort
Sitting atop the Trikuta Hill is the ‘Sonar Killa’ or the golden impregnable Trikuta Fort with its high walls and 99 bastions. It is the only fort which is still habited by descendents of families that occupied the fort centuries ago. A six-seater vehicle takes the visitors from car parking inside the fort gates. Travelling on foot there on along the narrow by-lanes within the fort, a world of unimaginable artistry is revealed in the exquisite havelis, elaborately carved Jain temples, lace like stonework of balconies and windows and delicate sculptures. The fort has a chekered history with many a battle scars and boasts of being the largest with three concentric walls and four large gateways.
The fort has museum, king’s palace, antique shops, Jain temples, miniature artist Kanu Swami and his shop full of minutely detailed artwork. (Here is how I spent my time in Jaisalmer)
Visit to travel through time and get a glimpse of royal life.
- Sam Desert Safari
Spend a night at the desert camps near the Sam sand dunes in the heart of Thar Desert. Sam sand dunes are around 40 kilometers from the city. Camel safaris, camel carts and a stroll in the golden sand is favourite activity of visitors. The sun set paints the horizon in deepest of yellows. As the sun gradually vanishes momentarily darkening the entire landscape, the moon rises to fend off the darkness bathing the dunes in shining cool silver. The moonlit expanse of sand dunes is as magical as the stories of Arabian nights.
Young camel riders race their camels enthralling the visitors. The soft golden sand tempts us to roll, run and walk barefoot in its expanse taking us back to the childhood days.
The desrert safari also includes a trip to national wildlife park at some extra payment to the camel owners. To have a true taste of what desert life entails, a visit to these dunes is a must-do for all tourists.
I spent a night at desert camp watching the Kalbeliya dancers swaying to folk music late in night. Read my night at desert here.
Khuri is another desert camp which is less crowded than the Sam desert and much more beautiful too. For information on Khuri read my post here.
Imagine an entire town vanishing quietly in the dark of the night to preserve the honour of its women from a scrupulous brutal man with ill intentions!
Kuldhara is an abandoned city mostly in ruins now, formed of 84 villages. As the folklore goes, the beautiful daughter of village head caught the eye of high ranking officer in king’s court. The minister wanted to possess the young girl for his pleasure and declared his intentions in plain words. All village heads already fed up of the tyrant’s evil ways, decided enough was enough and in a quick decision to abandon their villages at night to prevent detection. The villagers left all material possessions in their homes never to return.
Considered to be haunted ruins, the temple, various sizes of houses and the layout of roads and streets are indication of a highly developed society with detailed knowledge of town planning and sanitation methods.
A walk through the abandoned village gives the glimpse of the simple yet organised village life. The houses complete with a central courtyards and place to park carts are amazing example of design principles.
Visit this city in ruins to experience the expanse it occupied and wonder how and where the people of the town vanished without a trace.
- Badabagh cenotaphs
About 6km from the city of Jaisalmer mid-way to Lodurva, are the sandstone chhatris dedicated to male members of royal familly who perished in battles of land and life. With tall windmills forming the background vista, the cenotaphs look picturesque in the setting sun. The yellow sandstone architecture rises from the amber landscape as if establishing its supremacy over the sands and undistinguished rocks around. These cenotaphs were once surrounded by a well-laid garden and hence the name ‘Bada-bagh’. With princely states being dissolved post independence of country, the maintenance and upkeep suffered as did the garden.
The cenotaphs have various designs with some domes being pyramidal, rectangular and circular but bases are mostly square and hexagonal. Each chhatri has a stone slab with the image of a king and the interiors are plain and simple.
Though most tourists give a miss to visit these stunning cenotaphs in favour of other attractions in Jaisalmer but these are worth a visit.
The fort has about seven elaborately carved Jain temples with delicate sculptures of gods and goddesses within its premises. The largest and most popular is the one dedicated to the 23rd Tirthankara of Jains Parshvanath.
With beautiful entrance arches, columns saturated with delicate sculptures and embroidery like design, the yellow sandstone temple is a feast for the eye. The exterior walls of the temple are equally ornate with some gods and goddesses depicted in erotic postures. Other sculptures depict the daily local life of the people, sword fighting, horsemen, elephant fights, dancing girls and women adorning themselves.
The nearby temples such as Lodurva also draw travellers due to its extremely intricate designs and amazing architecture.
The noteworthy quality of these temples is that the large stone pieces are not joined by any cementing material instead the pieces are interlocked thus preventing earthquakes from dislodging the columns. Due to such insight and technique employed by artisans centuries ago, the temples have stood the test of time in glorious magnificence.
Many rich and influential traders of yesteryears built elaborate and intricately carved residences with latticed balconies, canopies, jharokas and jalis. Most popular havelis of Jaisalmer which still retain their grandeur are the:
- Patwaon ki haveli
This is one of the most popular and important havelis in Jaisalmer. Being a cluster of five residences in a narrow lane, it is the biggest and most ornamented of the structures and was built over a period of 50 years.
With the interiors of mirror halls and intricate stone work it is no less than a palace. The exquisite facade, detailed delicate stone work and beautiful interiors are testimony to the richness of its owner Patwa who happened to be a trader of gold and silver brocade threads.
Four out of the five havelis are currently occupied by the ASI and other government offices.
- Nathmal ki haveli
Hailed as the most beautiful haveli with two large stone elephants elaborately carved standing guard at the entrance, this haveli was built by two brothers. The unique feature of this huge haveli is that none of the panels or jharokhas has same design.
- Salim Singh ki haveli
Also known as Jahazmahal for its front facade resembling a ship stern, it was built in late 17th century. The construction of haveli was commissioned by Salim Singh, prime minister of the kingdom. The distinct feature of this haveli is its roof that presumably is in peacock form and its 38 balconies, each with a different design.
- Desert festival
Come February and the usual golden landscape is transformed into a riot of colours. For three days, women bring out their brightest lehengas, bangles and odhnis, paint the pots and diyas, men polish their swords, oil their moustaches and starch their colourful pagris, camels are dressed in most beautiful seats with colorful tassels, mirrors and sequins, kalbeliya dancers hone their moves, folk dances are practiced with a renewed fervour, camels are spruced up for races and the desert town wears a festive look. The Desert Festival of Jaisalmer brings out to fore the best that the city has to offer for the tourists. The opening ceremony with the decked up camels, armed rajput warriors, ghoomar dancers all displaying their skills on an open air stage heralds the three day extravaganza of the festival.
Plan a trip around the festival time in February to revel in the celebrations, culture and cuisine of this royal city.
- Gadisar Lake
The huge lake on outskirts of Jaisalmer city was once the main source of water in the arid landscape. It is an artificial lake built around 1400 AD by the then maharaja Maharawal Jaisal. Many temples, gateways, ghats and pavilions surround the lake.
Migratory birds are often sighted in winters. A popular place to visit, tourists can enjoy boat rides in the lake. The morning view of Trikuta Fort in bright sun from the lake is the most exotic sight.
This 1971 war site with Pakistan evokes immense pride and patriotic emotion. The Pakistanis crossed the border with many tanks in a bid to occupy Indian territory. The Indian Army though outnumbered however retaliated and prevented them from advancing till Indian Air Force launched air strike on Pakistanis. Caught off guard, the enemy retreated abandoning their as many as 64 armoured tanks. The Pakistani tank now placed on a platform is one tourist attraction along with the border pillar that marked the extent of Indian Territory and which the Pakistanis tried to steal.
The army jawans manage and maintain the site. They proudly retell the history of war and sacrifices by the army in 1971 to those who are interested in knowing about our gallant soldiers. Spend a little time interacting with the jawans and show them some gratitude for protecting our nation.
Maintained by the jawans of Border Security forces, the Tanot Mata mandir is close to Longewala war site. It is about 153km from Jaisalmer and is dedicated to Tanot Mata, incarnation of Goddess Hinglaj.
The temple as such is very ordinary brick mortar construction but what makes it special is the story and the display in its gallery. According to the popular story, when Pakistanis attacked the area they targeted the temple launching many bombs in its direction. However none of the bombs that fell near the temple could even scratch its surface and surprisingly none of the bombs exploded.
The temple houses a museum where all the un-exploded bombs are on display for the tourists. Devotees offer and tie a fresh handkerchief in this temple for divine intervention similar to tying threads at many shrines.
Visit to see how the soldiers who fight with guns and bombs double up as pious priests in off duty hours.
For visiting Tanot border relevant passes have to be obtained from BSF officials.
- Bounded by Bikaner on northern side and Jodhpur at eastern side Jaisalmer is well connected by road, rail and air.
- The nearest airport is Jodhpur from where the travellers can either take buses or taxis easily.
- Jaisalmer is connected by railway to major cities like Delhi, Lucknow, Jodhpur, Vadodara, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bikaner, Surat and many more.
Best time to visit:
- This town has abundance of scorching sun at all times of year, but the winters are enjoyable.
- The best months to spend time in Jaisalmer are from November to March as the day temperatures are around 24 degrees.
- Many houses and havelis are converted to home-stays with authentic experiences thrown in for the visitors.
- The family prepares the original home style local cuisine.
- Other budget and high end boutique hotels are also available for the visitors.
- Temperatures drop to sub zero in evening so bring those gloves, mufflers, caps and thick jackets to enjoy desert camps.
- Take necessary permissions and passes a day prior if you plan to visit border areas. BSF headquarters in Jaisalmer issues passes to visit border at their discretion. Our passes and permissions did not take much time since my spouse is in defense services but for civilians it takes one day before the visit.
- Take binoculars, sleeping bags, mosquito repellent lotions and torches to be on the safer side.
- Though the camel safari operators offer to take bottles of Beer and soft drinks for those interedted in spending evenings in desert, but be a responsible tourist and do not discard your empty cans and bottles in desert as it results in destruction of ecology and can hurt camels
- Go local for food choices….the lassi, mirchiwada, dal pakwan and daal baati are mouthwatering food items of the town.
- Bargain, bargain, bargain in the market just outside the fort at Manek chowk.