When one thinks of Rajasthan, one usually thinks of the vivid pink of Jaipur or the awe-inspiring Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur, or even the Lake Palace of Udaipur and failing all that, the sand dunes of the Thar Desert. Jaisalmer gets not too many mentions and I find that a crying shame because the fort is gorgeous.
Built in 1156 alongside what was then a major trade route to Persia and Africa, the fort is made entirely out the golden sandstone native to the region. The choice of building material helps camouflage the fort against its surroundings, indeed the fort looks more like the mountain it is on rather than a fort from a distance. It also gives the fort a nickname of the Sonar Qila, (The Golden Fort).
No binding materials like mortar or cement were used in the construction, stones are interlocking and have held together through countless earthquakes. The fort is also unusual in the aspect that it is a living fort, 4000 people actually call the fort home, they not only live their lives in the fort but also run their businesses in it, if I am not wrong, it is the only such fort in India.
To be frank, our impression of Jaisalmer was not favourable when we first arrived. The city itself is horribly dirty and the municipality needs to step up its game but all thoughts fled our mind when we saw the fort. We had arrived at the golden hour of sunset when the dying rays of the sun bathe the fort walls in rosy hues and the fort is at its prettiest then.
We entered the fort and crossed its 4 gateways all set at an angle from each other to slow down attackers in time of battle. The gateways lead to the Dussera Chowk, so named for the Dussera celebrations held there every year. From this point, the visitor has two options, they can walk around the fort and see the many Jain and Hindu temples in the complex, take in the view from the ramparts or they could head into the palace. The first day we decided to look around and just get a feel of what a living fort looks like.
It was quite an adventure, narrow lanes with the hustle and bustle of humanity, traffic and of course, cows. Shops, houses, hotels and restaurants all stood cheek by jowl with each other. The clash of modernity and the bygone era was fascinating to see, a gorgeous jharokha with glass shutters, sandstone walls with DTH dishes, a pair of jeans drying on a wall that probably existed before jeans were even thought of, it was astonishing to say the least.
From the Dussera Chowk it was a short walk to the best vantage point in Jaisalmer. Set on top of a cannon tower, this place gives a panoramic view of the city. From here one can see the various havelis or merchant houses, the railway station (last station on the line) and far off in the horizon, windmills. The havelis are something I really regret not being able to see. These houses were built by prosperous merchants as a way to showcase their wealth. They feature lace-like sandstone carving all over the facade and are considered the hallmarks of Jaisalmer architecture. Ah well, one should always leave something for the next time.
The second day we decided to visit the palace. A word of advice, when you enter the fort you will be literally swarmed by guides trying to show you around the place, some may even try the old trick of saying that the palace is closed and offer to show you the rest of the fort and some shops as well. Do not fall for this, at best you will spend an hour of your life listening to things you already knew or at worst stuck at a shop where your guide has an arrangement being forced to buy shoddy handicrafts. To bypass this and actually see the palace at your own leisure, take the set of stairs that are to your right when you enter Dussera Chowk, (the doorway to the staircase is adorned by the handprints of all the queens who committed Sati) and purchase a ticket for the palace and rent an audio-guide. The audio guide will cost you INR 300 per person, (INR 150 if you’re a student) and you will have to submit a photo id as a guarantee. The audio guide is very helpful, one just has to follow the signs and play the appropriate sections of the guide. The guide provides an in-depth history of the fort and the various conservation efforts that are being undertaken to maintain it.
The main palace has three primary wings, the king’s side, the queen’s side and the nursery. Each Maharawal or king has left his own stamp on the palace and the various areas inside it. There is a sizeable armory on display, featuring guns, bayonets, spears and even guns that were meant to be mounted on elephants.
The bedrooms on display provide a glimpse of life during the olden times. What was interesting was the lack of ostentation. The beds were simple, more like charpoys rather than the huge four posters one expects in a royal bedroom. The only glaring sign of them being a royal bedroom was the original Dutch tiling that covered the walls and sometimes the ceiling of the room, it must have cost a pretty penny to get it done in those days.
Standing on the terrace of the palace in broad daylight, the desolation of the landscape really hits home. The fact that all the houses in the city are the same colour as the neighbouring landscape does not help. I felt very lonely and insignificant standing on that roof even though I had nearly fifty odd people around me, I wonder what it would be like to stand there alone and contemplate the vastness of the desert and the hardy people who have made this their home for centuries now.
When to go: October to February. The nights tend to get really cold so please carry warm clothes if you are sensitive to low temperatures.
How to reach: Jaisalmer does not have an airport so road and rail are the only options. The nearest airport is in Jodhpur.
Child friendly: Yes, though please keep an eye out for slippery surfaces and narrow and steep staircases.
Elderly friendly: Not really. There are steep and narrow staircases and some of them are slippery to boot, people with mobility issues may have problems.
Tips: Please hire a certified guide and ask to see certification before hiring. Please pay no mind to the touts who can get harassing at times, they will chase you on their bikes if they can. The government is cracking down on it though this problem does not seem to be going away anytime soon. Also, the entrance to the fort is walking distance from the parking area, ignore any person who says otherwise and tries to persuade you to take an auto. If your guide asks you to visit any shop with him, ignore or refuse, this is usually a ploy for the guide to earn commission from the handicrafts shop selling cheap and shoddy merchandise at high prices.
P.S.: Photos courtesy Mr. D and my brother Dev Bhattacharya. Dev is also a very talented 3D artist, for a look at his work, please visit deohboeh.artstation.com. 🙂