PictoJournal©: Jaisalmer - The Golden City

Travel article on Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India.

Text by Anu (Arundhathi) and Photos by Suchit Nanda [http://photos.suchit.in/Travel]

The chime of the brass bell of a typical Indian railway station woke me up on the wee hours of a wintery November morning. I peeped out of my comfy air-conditioned coach and was amazed to see the signpost JAISALMER! I didnít expect the train to reach at 4.30 AM. Surprisingly it took just 5 hrs from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. We stepped out of the train a bit drowsily but the joyful face of a driver, waiting to escort us to the hotel cheered us up! After Jodhpur we were here to explore one more city of my favorite Rajasthan- The land of sun & sand, countless colors, poignant folklores, demure women in vibrant veils and men in multihued turbans, of a glorious past and a present in resonant heritage & culture. Yes, we finally arrived in the Golden City of Rajasthan! Golden indeed is Jaisalmer! It is known as the 'Golden City' because the Jaisalmer fort and its bordering town are constructed with the golden colored sandstone from the region. This sand stone castle on a hill in the middle of the desert close to it's border with Pakistan, looks like a movie setting. We were brought to a small hotel not far from the station and within a few moments we were sipping our masala teas, listening to rajasthani music in our room with a traditional rajasthani dťcor.

From our hotelís terrace our eyes were drawn at once to the Sonar Quila, (the golden castle) which looked like a giant golden sand castle towering in the middle of a desert. Instantly we decided to head for the fort first. Made of sand stones, the fortress of Jaisalmer towers 300m high on the only hill in the surrounding desert landscape. The yellow gold of the fortress walls gleam against the milieu of the stolid ground and blue sky. The subtle fusion of Rajput and Mughal architectural designs makes it one of the most beautiful walled towns Iíve ever seen. In fact, it appeared to me like one of the entries in sand edifice contest with the towers and bastions made out of inverted pails! Coming closer we found a beautiful gate to enter this fort. What made us wonder was that though built in the year 1156, this is no monument of the past as 5,000 people still live and work within its walls even today. We strolled through the fort's tiny winding alleys marveling at the natives of Rajasthan living in intricately decorated houses, a few exquisite Jain temples, magnificent gateways and a majestic palace all carved out of the same yellow sandstone. Striding on the cobbled streets and the numerous bazaars, it's delightful to wander round the old lanes gazing up at all the carved balconies. There were lots of glittery stuff that caught my eyes as well, like the sequined Rajasthani skirts, the vibrant camel leather shoes, mirrored bags & belts, cushion covers, silver ornaments and beaded tops dazzling in the bright sunshine. It was like something out of a dream!

On an out of town drive to explore the real desert, a thought crossed my mind as I sat gazing at the sandy terrain from the window of our car that a desert is like a soul. In a desert there's no place to hide from the self or from anything else. The mind freewheels here as the road spins past the wheels while one stares at the desert. From my eyes to the horizon all I could see was barrenness adorned with sand dunes. In such vastness, I found my mind spilling over with reflections from my past, recalling all the stories & poems Iíve heard, pondering over a hundred beliefs and thousand doubts. Reminiscences of delightful and painful moments zipped through my head. So many dreams were created and disposed off. An entire sea of thoughts of mine, the desert guzzled them all! And suddenly a caravan of colorfully dressed camels appeared and pulled me out of my reverie. We were told that from here the camels would give us a ride to the famous Sam dunes as the norm is to do a jeep safari till a preset point and then do an hour of camel safari to Sam, situated 42 Kms from Jaisalmer city.

The camel ride was comical! To begin with, the camels were larger than I had imagined. Since I really wanted to ride on a camelís back (instead of the cart they provide for the faint hearted) Iíd put up a brave front and marched excitedly towards one of them. It was easy to mount a sitting camel. The guide asked me to sit on the front and made my husband sit behind me. He was fortunate as he could hold me but I had only a rope to hold passing through the camelís nostrils. It was very scary at the time when the camel stood up as their legs bend very strangely! They get up hind legs first, so I almost toppled over its head and screamed Godís name. For the first 15 mins., I was completely terrified as to what have I let myself into! As the camel walked, it felt as if some one was lifting up from the back of a cycle I was riding or like doing a see-saw on a cycle on a bumpy road. To add some more excitement the owner of the camel made the camel trot too. But after a few bumps, once I had got the hang of it and I discovered how to ride the camel rather than just being bumped by it, I LOVED it. I absolutely loved it. It was so amusing. We had so much fun as were roaring with laughter! I highly recommend this experience to each one of you.

Just before sunset we jumped off the camel and sat on a dune whilst the guides pitched tents and started cooking dinner for us. It's strange, I'd never been in any desert before, yet as I've seen so many images on TV and in films, it felt peculiarly familiar. I took my shoes off and walked around sinking softly into the fine smooth sand. The Sun looked like a blazing ball of gold and sank quickly into the dunes. The sky was still glowing for a while and then it became dark. And then, this is the part that will stay with me the most; the stars appeared. I had never seen so many stars in my life. The sky was spectacular with millions of stars, a full moon, a few shooting stars and even fast moving satellites were visible. It was wonderful to have watched the Sun bidding farewell in all its glory and covering the entire desert in to a magical dome amidst the melodious tunes played by desert musicians. The camel safari brought us to our camp for an evening of dining and dancing with the local folks. The best one was to see women balancing a tower of pots on their heads and dancing around the bonfire. We were served delicacies like Dal Bati Churma, Ghatte ki Sabzi and the Churma Laddoo for dinner. Our tents looked like the ones in the movies, very tastefully decorated with a nice bathroom attached.

Next morning we were taken to some gorgeous Havelis! Jaisalmer is famous for its old mansions, popularly known as Havelis. Among the others I found Salim ji ki haveli and Nathmal ji ki haveli the most attractive. It has an ornamental blue cupola type roof with intricately carved fascia and many ornate balconies. The largest and most heavily-worked havelis, the Patwon-Ki-Haveli rises five floors high and was the residence of the richest merchants of Jaisalmer. This haveli houses some of the most beautiful rooms and gave us a peek into a past era. This haveli also showcases some of the unusual turbans worn by the men in Rajasthan.

One evening from the top of the fort our eyes fell on a lake at a distance. For a break from the crowded fort we ventured towards it and reached the Gadisar Lake Ė the manmade reservoir of Jaisalmer. Can you believe this lake, just outside the city walls once acted as a reservoir that controlled the entire supply of water to this arid city! We were told in winters one gets to see some interesting migratory birds too due to its proximity to the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. One must carry a good pair of binoculars and a camera with a wide-angle lens to take home some really mesmerizing images. The periphery of the lake has a quaint museum and plenty artistically carved temples encircled by lush greenery. We enjoyed floating around in a boat in the lake viewing the beautiful temples adjoining the lake. By the time we stepped out of our boat our guide offered to take us to the best sunset point in Jaisalmer.

One the way we came across the cenotaph of Sage Vyas, the saint who compiled the Hindu epic Mahabharata. As we went up to it we discovered that Vyas Chhatri is referred as Sunset Point here. Plenty of tourists were already assembled at this point for a breathtaking view of the picturesque Jaisalmer at dusk. The setting Sun casts its light on the fort transforming the castle to look like a golden castle. The sight is sheer poetry in colour!

We spent 3 days in Jaisalmer wandering in and around the fort. The most beautiful among temples inside the fort were the Jain Temples. They were very truly a marvel of architecture dating back to 12th and 15th centuries. The walls of the temples displays sand stone carvings of animal & human figures with amazing details resembling the ones in the Dilwara Temples of Mount Abu. The Parasvanath Temple, we were told is the oldest as well as the most spectacular of all. Like all other structures in Jaisalmer, these temples are also craved out of yellow sandstones. The Gyan Bhandar library in the fort was a great place to prowl as I could glance through some of the rare manuscripts available in India.

Everyday from the balcony of our favorite restaurant it was amusing to sit watching the residents doing their daily chores, men with big moustaches posing for the pictures for foreign tourists, children flying kites, cattle eating the street food from the people feeding them, with the cool evening breeze bringing to us the aroma of flowers and the jingles from the temples. Ironically, the best dinner of the trip was at a great Italian restaurant near the fort gate called Little Italy. Jaisalmer, is really worth a visit.


~ Anu & Suchit Nanda, Nov, 2005
Many more pictures can be seen at: Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, Travel Images

Fact File:

ē Jaisalmer gets very hot in the day in summers but as the night falls, typical of the deserts, the temperature cools down considerably. The best time to travel is between November and February. It is good to wear loose cotton outfits in summer and warm jackets & trousers in winter with a comfortable pair of shoes. Be prepared to walk long distances and climb plenty of steps as most of Jaisalmer sightseeing is done on foot. A large hat or a scarf is a must along with a good pair of shades.

ē Many heritage hotels are available in Jaisalmer ranging from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 4,000 during peak season. Jaisalmer is accessible by air, road and rail. The nearest airport is Jodhpur which is 3.5 hrs away from Jaisalmer. Rajasthani people are known for their warmth & hospitality. Visit Jaisalmer and enjoy the traditional rhetoric of 'Padharo mahre desh' (welcome to our lands). Hurry and plan your vacation to Jaisalmer, for the Sonar Quila beckons you!

Text copyright Arundhathi. All pictures copyright Suchit Nanda. All images shot with Nikon D70 DSLR camera with lens: Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED IF AF-S DX, Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 and Sigma 70-300 f/4-5.6 APO Macro Super Etc.

This article has been printed in Asian Photography Magazine January 2009 issue and can be seen here.