Desolate, austere and aristocratic, the magnificent city of Jaisalmer looks like a shimmering sandcastle, rising out of the desert surrounded by a small growing town. Founded in 1156, by Rawal Jaisal Singh, this is one of the most entrancing cities in India with an ancient yet amorous aura right out of a fairytale. The city has a very small town feel to it, the entire city complete with intricate balconies, temples and minaret’s, narrow maze-like streets leading no where in particular, shops and elaborate havelis, all painstakingly carved out of yellow sandstone. Jaisalmer has a surreal almost magical feeling to it. It's all too much to take in at once, the emptiness of the barren, parched winter of the desert, embellished with sand dunes and a few green prickly thistles in between, the motley Gypsies dancing to the tune of drum beats, Camels carrying men in vibrant turbans. The barrenness of the desert is strangely calming.
The golden city of the desert lies 80 km from the Pakistani border. Strategically located on the verge of the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer prospered because of the camel caravans coming from Central Asia. The rich traders built carved yellow sandstone havelis inside the Jaisalmer fort. Most havelis, including the fort, were built with yellow sandstone because it’s abundantly found in the natural reserves here. Jaisalmer is like a saga, a dazzling oasis in the arid desert, a dream made of golden sandstones.
The Fort (Sonar Kila) has a few thousand people living inside. The centuries old fort is not particularly known for its grandeur. The charm of the fort lies in the fact that it is still inhabitated. Life hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years. Precious rain water is still collected from the terrace through the tunnels that run along the roof. Many houses are over eight hundred years old and still owned by the same family, generations after generations. The fort was ingeniously assembled without using mortar, kept together with locking bricks. The walls of the fort and the havelis are artistically adorned with some very well preserved paintings of 'ganesh’, and other hindu gods and goddesses. When a couple got married they would paint a new mural for luck and fertility along with the name of the bride and groom. The havelis on either side of the narrow cobblestone streets that ran through the palace also had the most intricate detailing on the buildings that had been carved into the stone. The town built around its massive ancient hill-top fort is very well preserved. The medieval stone havelis with small sitting balconies overlooking the busy market below and the roof top offer great views of the hustle bustle in the market. The traditional wooden doors and shutters are all generations old and lead into room built entirely of stone with alcoves for altars and delicately latticed arches. Even if you choose to just walk around the fort it’s an amazing experience, the notable absence of hassle, few motor vehicles and cow infested streets all adding to its charm.
Another highlight was touring through the city's old havelis, once inhabited by ministers and merchants, some of which have families living in them while others lie vacant. These intricately carved Havelis keep the heroic and glorious culture of the state alive. The opulent havelis are an affirmation to the gratifying regal history of Rajasthan. The yellow sandstone walls, alleys and exotic buildings with intricate carvings evoke the minds of all. The architecture reflects the lifestyles of the affluent merchants who lived in Jaisalmer. The havelis became art galleries to display fine architecture and artwork in their own right as ornamented paintings and stone sculptures of gods, women and trade caravans embellished the outer walls and courtyards. Some of the more popular havelis here are Patwon-ki-Haveli, Salim Singh-ki-Haveli, Nathmalji-ki-Haveli.
Most of the havelis have been restored to be converted into hotels. These havelis exhibit the perfect coalition of tradition and history. The massive fort and resplendent havelis amalgamate Mughal and rajput styles with impeccable carvings on walls, ethereal facades and extravagant balconies. These ornate havelis bring back the historical splendor of the chivalrous rajputs offering cherished memories for the tourists. Patwan ki haweli is exquisitely carved with stunning windows and door frames. The detailed sandstone embellishments can be unlocked and used against the enemies.
When the Jains took refuge in Jaisalmer, the Maharaja gave them permission to live inside the fort. Given the city’s acute location on the trading route, the Jain merchants soon became wealthy. They built a cluster of seven exquisitely beautiful, Intricately carved, very detailed temples dating back to the 12th and 15th centuries; Each temple is dedicated to one of the 24 Jain prophets. Jain religion was founded during the sixth century and is very similar to Buddhism;It is based on non violence and preaches against non violence, killing animals and insects. The temples are hand-carved from the honey colored sandstone, depicting symbolic Jain doctrine in the front elevation, a beautiful temple dome, ceiling with traditional Jain carvings and the traditional doors at the Garbhagriha.
The Gadi Sagar is a man made lake, was once the water reservoir that supplied the city with water. There are a few small chatris, which are small dome like structures in the middle. Village children often spend afternoons cooling off in the lake. It is a nice break from the boisterous city offering some interesting ghats.
The Desert Festival, held in February is a tourist-oriented fair which spans three days of turban tying competitions and camel polo. The full moon marked the crowning point of the Desert Festival, which drew nomads, gypsies, villagers, and tourists alike. For the finale of the Desert Festival the Maharaslila, a dance performed under the full moon to please Lord Krishna is performed.
The highlight for the more adventurous travelers is the Camel safaris in the desert. The colors of the desert are stunning. A cloudless blue sky, dazzling green shrubs, golden rock breaking luminous under the scorching sun all add to the charm. Experiencing desert life wading through the sand on the back of a camel and watching the sunset sitting on a sand dune can be one of the most fascinating experiences. The safari stalls to camp in the desert, where the camel owners sing traditional songs around the fire, replacing the traditional drum with a water canister, Rajput men step barefoot into the middle of red hot smoldering ashes. The men are often joined by the kaalbelia dancers, women dancing skillfully on fire. Isolated sand dunes serve as beds in the desert.
The royal palace has been converted into a very well organized museum, displaying generation old items once used by the royal families. The old fort is an endangered monument because the medieval drainage system is now overloaded. History of the palace transports you back to the time when it was attacked by the mughals and the chivalrous rajput army defeated. Tradition demanded that Jauhar was performed and the royal queens followed by the princesses and other women bathed, bedecking themselves in their bridal finery only to walk into the holy fire under drum beats, burning themselves alive to avoid humiliation once the fort was taken by the enemy. At the first break of dawn, the brave rajput men would lead their army to battle and kill as many of the enemy before they were killed themselves.
You can easily spend an entire day just exploring and getting lost in the maze like alleyways of the fort - at every corner lie ornately carved balconies right out of Romeo and Juliet, a flash of scarlet odhna disappearing through a sandstone archway, with old men whiling the days away with brightly colored turbans and wispy moustaches, old ladies dressed in lehengas more colorful than a painters pallet, a few goats thrown in for good measure, and of course the always obligatory cow... Jaisalmer is one of the most magical places, The streets are as narrow as an alley in Venice, It is honeycombed with tiny passageways leading around the fort and to the various ramparts of the fort walls. It truly feels like you have stepped into a storybook and traveled back in time to the days of the Knights of Arabia.
There are many nice rooftop restaurants with amazing 180 degree views of the city and desert beyond. Some of the best Indian meals were eaten in Jaisalmer on the rooftops of old havelis.
Wander the lanes until you emerge at a rooftop restaurant, to be entertained with energetic singing and dancing to the beat of traditional folk music, while watching the sunset.
The people all over India are warm and friendly. They tend to value people and place high values on relationships; it's refreshing to see how people can be so happy with so little. Even the hard selling and touts are missing. Sellers are persistent, but instead invite you in for tea and thali or take you over to their homes to see the art of creating traditional crafts.
The inside of the fort and the streets surrounding it are full of shops selling appliquéd bedspreads and camel leather shoes. Jaisalmer is famous for its embroidery. The market also lies outside the fort and is famous for picking up local handicrafts like exquisitely embroidered garments with mirror work in a brilliant mosaic of colors, traditional rugs, blankets and shawls, silver jewellery, stonework, carpets made from camel hair, and colorful silk and cottons, intricate stonework sculptures and Tie-and-dye fabrics. Rich throws, embroidered Rajasthani skirts, delicate sequined camel leather shoes, mirrored bags and leather belts grab your attention at the many shops lining the fort area.
Rajathani cuisine is a treasure house your taste buds will relish. Cooks use minimum water and use more milk, buttermilk and clarified butter instead, probably due to the water shortage in the desert. Dried lentils, Sangri and Ker, also enhance the taste of various chutneys made from local spices as turmeric, coriander, mint and garlic. In addition one must sample the malpuas and Boondi laddoos. Rajasthani food is spicy and basic offering endless choices of exotic vegetarian and non- vegetarian preparations where meat is marinated, flavored with spices, encased in mud pots and buried in the sands left to cook overnight on coal. The popular dishes being Safed maas, Lal maas, Achar gosht, Mookal pithode, Rajasthani murgh soola, Dal bati churma, Laapsi, Gatte ka saag, Khichadi, Channe ka saag, Dal Roti, Raabdi, Kachori, Baingan Boorani, Sookhi gobhi.
When in Jaisalmer do try the lip-smacking Khasta Kachori and vegetarian biriyani at Jaisalmer Junction. Sumptuous food can be sampled at the warm and inexpensive eating joint- Little Tibet inside the fort. If you prefer a more sophisticated place head for Restaurant Trio in the Old Town
The breakfast in the German Bakery is wholesome and fresh while the Brochette and pasta arabiata are excellent at Little Italy.
For an ethnic touch, you can choose to stay in a restored haveli complete with their own courtyards Fort Rajwada, Narayan Niwas palace hotel, Mandir palace hotel are on the more expensive side but well worth the magnificent ambience, providing you with modern amenities while maintaining the medieval charm. Desert Guesthouse caters to the budget travelers but is clean with attentive staff.
There is not much to ‘do’ at Jaisalmer. That makes is a perfect setting for an idyllic holiday, far from the madding crowd. However, taking a few of the magnificent walks around the fort is an absolute must. Enjoy your breakfast watching the sunrise and spectacular views from your hotel room or one of the many rooftop hotels. Whether you want to enjoy international gourmet dining in a one of the restaurant or prefer a cozy home-cooked meal, Jaisalmer offers the best of both worlds. You could also visit any of the villages that have been abandoned. The architecture is typical to the desert nomads with traditional designs painted on them. If the desert sun is too much for you then its nice to sit on your cushioned balcony watching the people going about their daily lives, saris hanging out to dry, the dinging of the bells in the temples, cows wandering slowly by or lounging on a rooftop restaurant and watching the sun set over the perpetual expanse of burnished golden land bathing you with the most magnificent color.
Golden indeed is Jaisalmer. It’s like being transported to another world, another time, where anything can happen, where the color, music and laughter just take you away. So rich and exotic that it's almost magical,
How to reach Jaisalmer
Road: Smooth network of roads and luxury coaches connect Jaisalmer to all the major cities of Rajasthan such as Bikaner, Jaipur and Jodhpur. The main Bus Stand is situated near the Railway Station, but all the major buses are available from a Bus Depot situated at the city centre.
Rail: There are daily trains to Jaisalmer from Jodhpur, which is well linked to all the major cities by the network of trains such as Agra, Jaipur, New Delhi, Mumbai and many more.
Air: Jaisalmer is well connected by the flights to and from New Delhi, Jodhpur and Jaipur. The Jaisalmer Airport is in the cantonment area, which is 5 km away from the city center and is managed by the Indian Air Force. It is operational only from September to March, the prime season.