A walk in the realms of Gold

The more you try to catch it, the more it slips away. This city seems to have been sculpted with sands, nothing artificial and no adulteration involved. The ‘Golden city’, Jaisalmer, sits firmly on the lap of the ‘Thar Desert’, one of the last states to sign a treaty with the British; it takes you on a journey to the illustrious past of medieval India. The city was founded by Deoraj, prince of the illustrious Bhatti Rajput clan. Jaisalmer was positioned strategically and was a halting point along a traditional trade route traversed by the camel caravans of Indian and Asian merchants. The route linked India to Central Asia, Egypt, Arabia, Persia (now Iran), Africa and the West.

The economy of the city is basically driven by tourism, as tourists from all around the world flock the desert land during October-February. Though direct connectivity is still a problem, as Jaisalmer is still considered more remote than its greater cousins- Jaipur and Jodhpur; but taking a route by train just to slip away from the bedlam of city rats will not be a bad bargain. Jaisalmer is well-connected by train and is about 570 kms from Jaipur. A good network of roads join Jaisalmer with Jodhpur (308 kms) and many other destinations in and around Rajasthan. Moreover, the railway station is a unique masterpiece maintained by the Government, the architecture and cleanliness might well surprise you, if you are a regular train traveler.

Stay in the city is not a cause of concern, unlike the hassles you need to go through in other chic locales; this down to earth place is amazingly well accommodated for all. From the rich to the middle classes, everyone can find an encampment out here. The free conveyance to their hotels straight from the station is provided by some hoteliers, one amongst such is the Apollo guest house, perfectly located at minutes distance from the fort. The guest house like many others has been elegantly built using the local sandstone and features the traditional carving, latticework and inlay typical of the surrounding Haveli’s.

The peak time for tourists, as the locals say is between October to February; though the desert festival in the last week of January to first of Feb is something not to be missed out. As deserts are famous for their camels, Jaisalmer is known for its camel safari in ‘sam dunes’, which is about 42 kilometers away from the city. You can have your stay in desert camps, equipped with all necessities and enjoy the dances and folk songs of the local gypsies. If you are a music aficionado or connoisseur of Indian culture, this is something not to be missed out. The beauty does not end in dunes; it only contributes to a mystical beginning. As deserts were bound to have an element of capriciousness and darkness attached, 18 km drive from the city takes you to an uninhibited village, ‘Kuldhara’. It is said that, Kuldhara, once a prosperous settlement for the Paliwal Brahmins, all its residents of that of 83 nearby villages vanished suddenly one night in 1825, having lived there since 1291. In all likelihood they set up base somewhere beyond Jodhpur but no one has ever been sure.  It is said they even left a curse on the villages, bringing death and suffering to anyone who tried to live in these villages. All said and assumed, it is a must see, for the sake of well built houses spread across a large area with no sight of a humanlike critter. Another such wonder is the Tanot temple situated 180 km away from Jaisalmer, near the Indo-Pak border. It is said that during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Pakistani Army dropped several bombs targeting the temple but none of the bombs could fall on the temple and large no. of the bombs in the vicinity of the temple did not explode. After the war the temple management was handed over to Border Security Force of India. This pilgrimage is well maintained by the BSF jawans now. The temple has a museum which has collections of the unexploded bombs dropped by Pakistan.

Getting back to the city itself, Jaisalmer has 1 fort and 3 Havelis from the bygone era, namely, Jaisalmer fort, Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli, Patwon Ki Haveli and Salim Ji Ki haveli.

Jaisalmer fort is sand-dune like monolithic structure founded by Raja Rawal Jaisal, 6th from the Bhatti descendants. It is the second oldest fort in Rajasthan lying tall over all other monuments. Actually two hundred and fifty feet tall and reinforced by imposing crenellated sandstone wall 30 feet high; it has 99 bastions, 92 of which were built between 1633 and 1647. Wells within the fort still provide a regular source of water. Even in present times, you will find that nearly a quarter of the old city’s population resides within the fort.  It is also known as ‘Sonar Quila’ (golden fort) after the famous Satyajit Ray movie of the same name and is a celebrated symbol of architectural fusion between Rajputs and Islamic rules of different eras.

The Nathmal Ji ki haveli was commissioned to serve as the residence of Diwan Mohata Nathmal, the then Prime Minister of Jaisalmer. Maharawal Beri Sal commissioned the construction of this Haveli. The architects of this haveli were Hathi and Lulu who happened to be brothers. There is a very interesting story regarding its construction. It is said that the two brothers started building different facets of haveli simultaneously. In those days there were no such instruments, which could keep a track on continuity and thus when this building came up finally it had irregular shape. The entrance is guarded by remarkable replica of two life-size elephants, and the engraved in the walls are pictures of horses, cattle, cars, fans, etc. The monument is open for sightseeing till 5 pm.

Moving on, the Patwon ki Haveli is another distinct piece of architecture. Constructed by the Patwas in early 1800s, it actually is a cluster of 5 different Havelis. It is said that the Patwas were traders and money-lenders and being extremely rich they could afford such extravagance. This is the largest Haveli in Jaisalmer and stands in a narrow lane. The whole building is made yellow sandstone, the main gateway of the Patwon Ji ki Haveli is in brown color.

The third and the last is Salim Ji ki Haveli, built on the remains of an older haveli built in the late 17th century. The new building was built in the year 1815 and was occupied by the Mehta family of Jaisalmer. The roof has been constructed in the form of Peacock. The haveli is situated beside the hills near the Jaisalmer Fort. People claim that Salim Singh made two additional floors in order to make it as high as the fort but the Maharaja did not take this attempt in good spirit and accordingly the two extra floors were broken down. The haveli consists of as many as 38 balconies and they all have distinct designs for themselves. The front facet of the haveli resembles ship stern and thus this haveli is also sometimes referred as Jahazmahal.

For a foodie, Jaisalmer happens to be a churner. ‘Kadi Pakora’ (flour dumplings cooked in yoghurt), ker sangri (desert beans and capers), bhanon aloo (potatoes stuffed with mint paste and simmered in gravy) – are veggie delights while, murgh-e-subz (boneless strips of chicken stir-fried with shredded vegetables) makes for a meaty ending. The best thing about the food there is its Indian essence as reflected in use of desi ghee in each of their dishes.

Traveling without shopping makes no sense, for your kitty full of souvenirs you can peep in at Sadar Bazar, Sonaron ka Bass, Manak Chowk, Pansari bazar, Gandhi Darshan, Seema gram, Rajsthani Govt. shop and Khadi Gramuddyog Emporium. Jaisalmer, like the rest of Rajasthan is famous for its handicrafts- mirror bags, carpets, rugs, blankets, etc all have ethnicity intact. Not to forget, the famous Rajasthani attire crafted with finesse, whether it is dupatta, ghagra choli, men’s embroidered jackets or footwears.

To conclude, if you are a fan of the desert folklores and want to enjoy the real beauty and hospitality of Rajasthan, then this is Rajasthan for you plattered in a golden dish.

Debojit Dutta