We arrived by open-sided jeeps in searing temperatures to see the magnificent honey coloured fort rising out of the semi-landscape. The stuff of which Indiana Jones movies are made!
Jaisal, the leader of the Bhati Rajput clan founded the city in 1156. By the 16th century Jaisalmer had benefited enormously from its strategic location on the camel train routes between India and central Asia.
Cordial relations with the Mughal empire resulted in Maharawal Sabal Singh expanding the Jaisalmer princedom into other administrative regions. The rise of sea trade and the railways under British rule resulted in the declining population and importance of Jaisalmer. Partition in 1947 meant that trade routes were cut and Jaisalmer suffered further. However the 1965 and ’71 wars with Pakistan provided Jaisalmer with a new-found strategic importance.
Today the fort has approximately 3000 people living within its walls. The area contains temples, restaurants, dwellings, shops selling saris, silk scarves, elephant trousers, bed covers and wall hangings all compete fiercely for the tourists’ rupee.
We entered the fort from the east and passed through four enormous gates on our way to the top part of the fort. The last of the gates opens onto the central square, Dashera Chowk.
The impressive 7 storey sandstone Fort Palace of former kings and queens dominates the square and is partly built on the fourth gate. The square is a lively place with tourists, souvenir and some food stalls.
Sunday morning there was a group of young boys aged about 5 – 13 years old wearing traditional Indian dress playing traditional instruments and singing. Strains of “Frère a Jacues” drifted across the courtyard… my mind drifts back to our holiday in the south of France only to be told by our group leader, Sanjeev, that this is in fact an ancient Hindu folk tune! A cute little boy of about 4 years old was dancing energetically, which made my heart melt but Sanjeev disapproved of some of our group who took photos as child exploitation is contrary to the company’s responsible tourism principles. Was this exploitation? Were they being coerced? The children looked happy enough but who was taking the money?
Our hotel was located in the heart of the fort perched high on the hill top with fabulous 360 degree views from the roof-top restaurant where we could gaze over the old and new city and beyond to the shimmering heat of the Thar desert.
We had a delicious Indian vegetarian lunch awaiting us on arrival, luckily for us in the shady part of the roof top! Some of the towns we have stayed in have been exclusively vegetarian and all restaurants have extensive veggie menus. The dishes have been delicious and extremely cheap and I can honestly say that we haven’t missed eating meat!
Following an orientation walking tour of the fort with Sanjeev, the group then ventured out by jeep toward the Thar desert where we met the camel safari! Watching Jon and my friends clambering onto, and then lurching skyward, made me glad that I’d opted to travel by jeep instead of on the back of a camel. (I had sensibly decided before our tour had even started that an hour and a half’s journey on a “ship of the desert” following lumbar spine surgery was not the best idea!)
Saddle sore and thirsty the group swear that the cold beers greeting them had never tasted so good!! (The local guide and I had stopped in a tiny hamlet en route to our camp to pick them up in our jeep!)
Our guides prepared a tasty dinner over an open fire washed down with ice cold beers. We all camped out under the stars on basic, yet surprisingly comfortable, beds.
We had been been warned about scorpions and the need to check our shoes but the only wildlife we encountered were large beetles and a few local dogs who decided to sleep right near our camp… probably hoping for some leftovers!
Once back in Jaisalmer, after a freshen up back at the Deepak guest house we had a walking tour of the fort with the best guide to date, Jittu. The old town contained within the fort has a myriad of narrow, winding streets little more than 6 foot wide. Tall buildings either side helps create cooler, shady streets.
Jittu explains a little about the Hindu and more about the Jain religions and yet again I realise my ignorance! A derivative of hinduism, a central principle of the Jain religion is to preserve all life. As a result Jains are strict vegetarians and prior to entering the temples we have to remove all leather items such as handbags and belts (you can’t even take in a leather purse or wallet.) We also have to take off our shoes which means that we have to move swiftly as the stone pavements are really hot! If you smoke, all tobacco products have to be left outside too. The seven inter-conecting Jain temples date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. The temples are intricately carved from honey coloured sandstone and are a sight to behold.
All around us there are finely carved pillars of warm hued sandstone, beautiful ceilings and small shrines with numerous offerings. What continues to astound me is the phenomenonal craftsmanship! All this splendour has been made with a mere hammer and chisel. It defies belief!
Next we marvel at the Havelis; exquisitely carved, ornate buildings which are further examples of the supreme, ancient craftmanship.
JJittu takes us to the Namal-ki-Haveli, which was constructed by two brothers in the late 19th century. It was used as the prime minister’s residence and is still partly inhabited today. At first glance the two halves of this amazing building look symmetrical but when you look closely there are many differences in the intricate carvings on either side of the building. Allegedly a result of the brothers’ competitive spirit! Inside the haveli it’s equally attractive: the first floor dance room and balcony have beautiful tiles, enamel work and fabulous ceiling.
We wander through the winding streets admiring some of the handicrafts. The competition for the tourist’ rupee means that the vendors are extremely adept at following your gaze or picking up on any words uttered! A brief, admiring gaze of a pink silk scarf and it was instantly draped around my neck! The hard selling techniques mean that “there’s no charge for looking, come inside” translates into a plastic stool being whipped out, chai masala (Indian tea) offered and every item in every possible colour is opened from it’s package! Prices are inflated and bargaining is expected.
The following morning we leave on foot at a reasonable hour to escape the heat of the day. We walk out of the fort through the non-tourist area of Jaisalmer, where the road is full of cows and dogs looking for scraps to eat. Children peer from the doorways curious to see the “goria” (white skinned) and a group of men and children sit around a small fire on the side of the road.
We walk to a lake which used to provide water to Jaisalmer. Women folk would walk several times a day to collect pots of water carrying them back on their heads for the kilometre or so trek back up the hill into the fort.
The lake has tiered steps (ghats) around it and from them people are throwing in bread which results in a fish feeding frenzy. Small boats are tied up awaiting customers and several monuments dot the lake. There is a small hindu temple which we visit with a holy man sat outside in the shade.
He looks over to me proffering a rope and beaded bracelet saying “long life”. As with everything in India there is a fee attached and my cynicism leads me to wonder if this is indeed a holy man or just a chap from the town! Needless to say I didn’t part with my rupees so I’m hoping I haven’t jeopardised a long and happy life!
As we say goodbye to the Golden City rising out of the desert I look forward to our next adventures in Jodhpur.