The small city of Jaisalmer is a desert town on the border between the Indian state of Rajasthan and Pakistan. Its sandcastle like fort seems to come right out of the Thar Desert with a tall, formidable wall. Inside the fort walls, Old Town is still a vibrant part of the larger city.
The 500-year-old fort including wall, palace and homes are all built of yellow sandstone giving the appearance of a sandcastle glowing in the desert. Because of its look, Jaisalmer is nicknamed the ‘Golden City’. The only entry into the fort complex is on a steep, stone path that passes through four large gates. The path has sharp corners that were designed to slow down any surprise invaders. The large fort takes over the entire top of the hill above town.
Inside the fort walls, much of the Old City remains. The maze of narrow lanes in the fort are paved with yellow sandstone and the homes come right up to their edge, making the town beautifully monochromatic. The buildings are decorated with wonderfully detailed designs carved into the screen windows, doors and Juliet balconies. With ¼ of Jaisalmer’s population living within the fort walls, it has a lively atmosphere. There are local markets and homes but also a lot of tourist shops and guest houses. The nice part is that cars cannot navigate the narrow streets and most motorcycles drive slow and don’t usually honk. We were warned that touts in Rajasthan are among the most aggressive in India. Thankfully, we didn’t experience that in Jaisalmer. We found them to be friendly and would easily take ‘no’ for an answer.
The traditional Rajasthani turban is still worn by older men and we saw a few of them in town. Different regions in Rajasthan have different coloured turbans and different ways to tie them. Most of the people that live in the fort are from the Brahmin caste, which is the highest level in the Indian caste system. Brahmins are vegans and also don’t eat onions or garlic because the smell is offensive. That’s nice, but then we really don’t understand how they can tolerate dog dung all over the streets and the smell of open sewage.
Compared to the ornate carvings on the homes and temples, Raj Mahal (Royal Palace) inside the fort is relatively bland. There are a few carved balconies and columns, but most of the walls are plain, undecorated sandstone. It seems strange that the palace is so underwhelming considering the rest of the town is very elaborate.
There are many temples inside the fort, but the seven Jain temples are the most exquisite. Built between the 12-15th centuries, every inch of the Jain temples’ walls, doors and columns have intricate carvings that look like wood carvings rather than stone. There are elaborate arch ways, called Torans that have extraordinary details. The Torans surround a vaulted ceiling which has more carved designs. Most temples have an inner shrine with a statue of a Jain Tirthankara (teacher). Around this shrine are statues of the other Tirthankaras. There are carvings on the walls of mythical creatures, and people, some clothed and some nude. Jain priests are minimalists and are commonly nude so this is carried through in the artwork. One of the temples has brightly painted walls, columns and ceiling.
Beside the palace, the Hindu temple, Laxminath Temple, is plain on the inside, but the outside is beautiful. The windows were carved to look like fine lace and the doors like wooden lattice.
Outside of the fort, Jaisalmer has many incredible Havelis. These are traditional, ornately decorated mansions, typical in Rajasthan. These houses are architectural gems carved with amazing detail. Some were homes to prime ministers and community leaders while others were owned by opium dealers. Nathmal Ki Haveli has an interesting story as it was built by two brothers. They competed with each other to make their side of the house more beautiful. The result was two similar, but not exact sides of the Haveli. Can you spot the small differences between the right and left sides of the first Haveli pictured below?
The small man-made Gadisar Lake has a small temple in the middle. After monsoon season, the temple appears to be floating on the lake. We visited during dry season, so the lake was very shallow and it didn’t have the same effect. The lake was originally used as a water reservoir for the city, but now there is a modern pipeline that bring water to this desert town.
There is a group of cenotaphs at the lake and another group of them in the north end of the city. Cenotaphs are memorials that are commonly used in Rajasthan. They have a very nice design, and we think they are quite photogenic.
Staying in the desert, how could we not go for a camel ride? These awkward looking animals are equally awkward walkers. Sitting on them isn’t exactly comfortable, but it is fun. We rode Raj and Lela through the sand dunes of the Thar desert. The desert has a few plants and birds, but is mostly desolate. There is, however, an incredible beauty in the natural waves of the golden sand dunes that can’t be duplicated. While our guides were cooking our dinner over an open fire, we watched the sun set behind the desert giving the sky a red glow. We visited Jaisalmer in the spring. In the day it was over 40°C, but at night the temperature was close to 10°. We shivered on the sand while eating our lovely dinner.
On our way to the camels, we stopped by another Jain Temple. Amer Sagar temple is 200 years old and is also built of sandstone which is covered in incredibly detailed carvings. After visiting the temple, we stopped at the ghost town ruins of Kuldhara. The citizens were apparently once very wealthy, trading gems and gold. The legends say that the town was deserted overnight because of either persecution by the state minister or because of an earthquake depending on who tells the story. There are apparently 84 of these abandoned towns in the area.
Coming up next: Jodhpur – The Blue City
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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