Jaisalmer, the golden citadel of the Thar desert has emerged as one of the most popular tourist destinations in this part of the world. Few places can match the magnificence and grace of this ‘museum city’. Jaisalmer was founded by Rao Jaisal in 1156, making it the oldest “living” fortified city in Rajasthan. For many, a visit here is the start of an enduring romance. Located in the heart of the Thar Desert on the far western border of India (55km/34 miles from Pakistan), it was strategically positioned on one of the central Asian trade routes, and fortunes were made by the Rajputs and Jain merchants who levied enormous taxes on caravans laden with silks and spices, particularly during the 14th and 16th centuries. In the 18th century, some merchants, wanting to expand their homes, moved out of the fort to settle on the plateau below. Much as in the Shekhawati region, the wealth generated by their taxes was used to decorate the havelis of these wealthy Jain businessmen. Where frescoes satisfied the Shekhawats, here power was expressed by the construction of mansions whose soft sandstone facades were embellished with intricate, almost lacelike carvings. These oft-photographed sandstone mansions are indeed breathtakingly beautiful, but it is Sonar Killa, literally “Golden Fort,” that makes it worth traveling this far west. It may not be as impressive as Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort, but its charm lies in the fact that this is the world’s only inhabited medieval fort, its families living in homes they have colonized for more than 800 years. Built entirely from yellow sandstone, the fort rises like a giant sandcastle from its desert surrounds, with great views from the tiny guesthouses that lie within its ramparts. Within you will find a place with no traffic, minimal pollution (watch out for the cow dung), and an awesome sense of timelessness. It takes no more than a few hours to tour the fort, including stops to visit the Jain and Hindu temples. And if you want to ride a camel into the sunset, Jaisalmer is probably the place to do it. So plan to spend 2 or more nights, not least because it takes so long to get here.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Jaisalmer’s main attraction is its yellow sandstone fort, whose 9m (29-ft.) walls grow in a roughly triangular shape, springing from Trikuta (Triangular) Hill, on which it is built, and buttressed by 99 bastions. Within you will find a number of elaborately carved havelis overlooking the narrow streets, but the best examples of Jaisalmer’s unique havelis are situated in the town below. End the evening by taking a trip out to Sam Dunes to watch the setting desert sun from the back of a camel. If you’re more sedentary, head for Mirage, the rooftop terrace at the Narayan Niwas Palace, for the best view of the Golden Fort; as the sky darkens, the fort starts to glow.
Other attractions are Gadsisar Tank, excavated by the Maharaja Gadsi Singh in 1367, which has a few temples and a chhattri (cenotaph) overlooking it but is principally worth visiting to access the nearby Folklore Museum. The private museum contains some interesting exhibits, particularly the handcrafted items (look for the mobile temple, and the depiction of the tragic love story of Princess Moomal and King Mahendra). Exhibits are not well labeled, however; if the proprietor, Mr. Sharma, is not on hand, a guide could prove useful here. Entrance (not always charged) is Rs 10 (25¢), or donations are welcome; hours are daily 8am to noon and 3 to 6pm. A shop at the end of the museum sells reasonably priced postcards (and overpriced books). The best way to visit Jaisalmer’s desert surrounds is on a camel safari (see below). Many include the following places of interest. Amar Sagar is a small settlement with a palace and a restored Jain temple built around the shores of a lake that lies 5km (3 miles) northwest of Jaisalmer. Barra Bagh, which lies 6km (33⁄4 miles) north of town, is a mini-oasis where you can view a collection of cenotaphs to Jaisalmer’s Rajput rulers. Another 10km (61⁄4 miles) north lies Lodurva, once the capital of the Bhatti Rajputs before Jaisalmer was built. The main attractions here are more restored Jain temples, with the usual fine carvings. The entrance to Thar Desert National Park lies about an hour (45km/28 miles) from Jaisalmer, near Khuri. Wildlife you are likely to encounter include deer, desert fox, black buck, and the rare long-necked bird known as the Great Indian Bustard.
THE JAISALMER HAVELIS
Haveli refers to a traditional, ornate Rajasthani “mansion,” with one or more internal courtyards. Steps lead up to an ornate door through which you enter a central courtyard, around which the family apartments are arranged. The facades of the Jaisalmer havelis, built as elsewhere by the town’s wealthy merchants, are unsurpassed for the delicacy of their relief carvings, filigreed windows, and lacelike screens and jarokhas (small projecting balconies). A testament to the softness of the sandstone but even more to the skill of the silavats, Jaisalmer’s community of stonemasons, these beautiful facades, some of which date back more than 300 years, have been perfectly preserved, thanks largely to the hot, dry climate. You will find them dotted all over town, but the most impressive are Patwon ki Haveli, Salim Singh ki Haveli, and Nathmalji ki Haveli. Patwon ki Haveli actually comprises five ornate houses built by the wealthy Patwon for his five sons between 1800 and 1860. The houses are connected from within (though some are privately owned and not open to the public) and have flattopped roofs. Inside one of the houses is the Basant Art Emporium, where you can pick up truly exquisite handicrafts—but certainly not at bargain prices—collected by the owner from the desert tribes. The Patwon ki Haveli is open daily between 10am and 5pm; admission is Rs 10 (25¢). South of this, near the fort entrance, is Salim Singh ki Haveli, built by a particularly mean-spirited and greedy prime minister who extorted the hell out of the Rajput’s kings’ subjects, and even squeezed the royal family by providing huge loans and then charging exorbitant interest rates. It was apparently once two stories higher, but legend has it that the Rajput king blew away the top floors in a fit of pique, and Salim Singh was later stabbed to death. It’s not necessary that you enter it, and it’s not always open (though times advertised are 8am–6pm, up to 7pm in summer, with admission of Rs 15/35¢). You can’t enter Nathmalji ki Haveli, but it’s still worth swinging by to play “spot the difference” with the beautiful facade. The right and left wings look identical at first glance, but they were separately carved by two brothers—the numerous tiny differences can take hours to discover (this is where a guide comes in handy!). It’s on the road to Malka Pol (just ask for directions). Note that many of the havelis now house overpriced handicraft shops. If you want to buy something, you will have to bargain hard to get the prices down.
Jaisalmer is located at 26.96° in the north and 70.9° in the east. It has an average elevation of 229m.
Jaisalmer is situated on the border of India and Pakistan in West Rajasthan. The area of Jaisalmer is about 5.1 sq.km. The maximum summer temperature is around 41.6°C while the minimum is around 25°C. The maximum winter temperature goes up to 23.6°C while the minimum is 7.9°C. The average rainfall is about 15cm.
The majority of the inhabitants of Jaisalmer are Yadav Bhatti Rajputs, who take their name from an ancestor named Bhatti, renowned as a warrior when the tribe was located in Punjab. Shortly after this, the clan was driven southwards, and found a refuge in the Indian desert, which was henceforth, its home. Deoraj, a famous prince of the Bhatti family, is esteemed as the real founder of the Jaisalmer dynasty, and with him, the title of Rawal commenced. In 1156, Rawal Jaisal, the sixth in succession from Deoraj, founded the fort and city of Jaisalmer, and made it his capital as he moved from his former capital at Lodhruva (which is situated about 15kmto the south-east of Jaisalmer). In 1294, the Bhattis so enraged the Emperor Ala-ud-din Khilji that his army captured and sacked the fort and city of Jaisalmer, so that for some time, it was quite deserted. After this, there is nothing to record till the time of Rawal Sahal Singh, whose reign marks an epoch in the Bhatti history in which he acknowledged the supremacy of the Mughal Emperor, Shahjahan.
The Fort or Sonar Killa
The golden hued fort perched atop the 76metre high Trikuta hill was built in 1156, by Rwal jaisal, a Bhatti Rajput and decendent of the yadav clan. The fort built in Jurassic sandstone has its base encircled by a wall of solid stone blicks, above which the hill protects and supports the ramparts, forming a double line of defence. The bastions are in the form of half towers surrounded by high turrets and joined by thick walls. The entire living area is well protected inside the ramparts of the fort. It is approached through the Ganesh Pol or the ‘Elephant Gate’ from the main market, followed by the Suraj Pol or the ‘Sun Gate’, Bhotta Pol or the ‘Haunted Gate’ and finally the hava Pol or the ‘Wind Gate’. The Hava Pol stands sentinel to the royal palaces and leads to the main enclosure, the hall or Public Audience. The palaces of the rulers built atop the main entrance form a imposing edifice crowned by a huge umbrella of metal mounted on a stone shaft. The fort is dotted with many intricately carved haveli’s (mansions), which have become the major attraction of the museum city. Some of the important ones are Patwon ki Haveli This largest and most elaborate haveli of Jaisalmer is a classic example of Rajputana architecture. It was built by the five sons of Guman Chand Patwa, a rich brocade merchant. The construction began in 1800 and was completed in 50 years. The fabulous five storeyed structures have extensive corridors and chambers which are supported by intricately carved pillars.
Some one thousand people still live in the tiny village inside Sonar Killa, or Golden Fort, which has twisting lanes so narrow they can be blocked by a single cow (be warned that these animals know that they have the right of way, so step aside). Exploring the fort is easily done in a morning—you access the fort through Gopa Chowk, ascending the battle-scarred ramparts to enter the main courtyard, overlooked by seven-story Raja Mahal, or Maharaja’s Palace. Take a quick look around Raja Mahal (it’s not one of the state’s most impressive palaces), pausing in Juna Mahal. This is the palace’s oldest part, dating back to the early 16th century, with additions and embellishments taking place over the next 200 years. The palace is open from 8am to 1pm and 3 to 5pm, and entry is Rs 50 ($1.15). Stop for a cup of chai on the rooftop of Hotel Paradise for sublime views, or head straight for the beautiful Jain temples, which lie west. The best among these (Rishabnath and Sambhavnath) are open only to non-Jains between 7am and noon. Entry is Rs 10 (25¢) and you will have to pay Rs 50 ($1.15) to take a camera in. No leather is allowed within the temple, and menstruating women are restricted from entering. Constructed between the 14th and 16th centuries, these temples are typical of Jain craftsmanship, with every wall and pillar as well as the ceiling covered with the most intricate relief carvings, and large statues representing the Jain tirthankaras, or “Enlightened Ones”—note that you cannot enter the caged sanctuaries in which these sculptures sit, or touch or photograph them. A small library has a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and miniature paintings. Take a breather at Toap Khana (Place of Cannon) for the views, then head north, turning right at some stage to find Laxminath Temple (if you’re lost, ask for directions). Although the Jain temples are worth a visit to see the intricacy of the carvings, it is the Hindu temple that pulsates with energy, particularly if you get here when worshippers chant their bhajans, devotional songs (about 10:30am and at several other times during the day; check with your hotel). From here it’s a short walk back to the main courtyard.
Jaisalmer Tourism Information
Unlike any other city, this desert fortress is one of Rajasthan's most exotic and unusual towns. Jaisalmer, an important ancient trading centre because of its strategic location on the camel trade routes, is often described as the 'golden city'. The town stands on a ridge of yellowish sandstone, crowned by a fort, which contains the palace and several ornate Jain temples.
Nathmalji ki Haveli
It was the haveli of Nathmalji, the Prime Minister of the erstwhile State in 19th century. The magnificent mansion was ornately carved by two brothers Lalu and Hathi and displays excellent craftsmanship. The brothers worked separately, one on the right side and other on the left side epitomising the side-by-side symmetry during construction. Interestingly, while one concentrated on the right, the other concentrated on the left, and the result is a symphony epitomizing the side-by-side symmetry during construction. Paintings in miniature style monopolies the walls in the interior. Mighty tuskers carved out of yellow sandstone stand guard to the haveli.
Salim Singhji Haveli
This conspicuous mansion belonged to Salim singh Mohta, the tyrannical Prime Minister during 18th century. Its upper story has an elaborate projecting balcony supported by carved brackets in cantilever style. The fort is also studded with several Hindu and Jain temples dating back to 12th – 15th century. Rishbdevji Temple is one of the finest temples of the walled city. Other important Jain temples are Sri Sambhavnath Temple, Sri Ashtapadi Temple, Chintamani Paraswanthji temples, Sri Sheetalnath temple, Sri Shantinath temple etc. The Gyan Bhandar or Library established as a part of Jain temples of the fort has some of the oldest and rarest manuscripts in the country. This haveli was built about 300 year ago and part of it is still occupied. Salim Singh was the prime minister when Jaisalmer was the capital of the princely state and his mansion has a beautifully arched roof with superb carved brackets in the form of peacocks.
Badak Vilas Mandir Palace
This excellent palace complex near the Amar Sagar Gate is the present home of the erstwhile royal family. Tazia Tower, the pagoda shaped tower rising form the Badal Vilas palace complex is an architectural marvel and landmark of the town. The Muslim craftsmen of Jaisalmer built it as a ‘token of love’ and gift before migrating to Pakistan in 1947.
Gadisar or Gadsisar Lake
The rain fed artificial lake was an important source of drinking water in the past. It is facility by gardens and sacred shrines. Boating facility is also available. The Tilon-ki-Pol, a beautiful gateway to the lake and the ghats (steps) were built by a renowned courtesan and singer.
Folklore Museum or ‘Sanskritik Sangrahalaya’
It is set on the banks of Gadisar Lake in Mehar Bagh garden and exhibits the rich cultural heritage of Jaisalmer.
It is located on Police Line road and has a large collection of wood and marine fossils as well as sculptures dating back to 12th century form ancient townships of Kiradu and Ludarva.
Jaisalmer Tour Information
This ancient capital of Bhatti rulers is an important Jain pilgrim centre. The magnificent jain shrines here, testifies the glory of the bygone era. An ornamental gateway ‘Toran’, at the entrance of the main temple is a master piece of craftsmanship.
Sam Sand Dunes (42km)
No visit to jaisalmer is considered complete without a trip to the Sam and dunes. Exciting camel safari amidst the dunes and viewing sunset from here is an unforgettable experience.
Desert National park (42km)
It is set in the backdrop of rugged terrain, with sweeping sand dunes and scrub covered hills. The park is home to chinkara, black buck, desert fox, wolf and desert cat etc. But, the star attraction is the great Indian Bustard, the tall and heavy endangered bird. Other birds seen here are, sand grouse, partridges, bee-eaters, larks and shrikes. Migratory birds like demoiselle crane or ‘Kurjan’ also visit the park. Spiny tailed lizard, monitor lizard, vipers, kraits etc., can also be spotted in the park.
Wood Fossil Park, Aakal (17km)
The unique fossil park, on the Barmer road is a palaeontologist’s delight.
This is one of the larges and most elaborate haveli in Jaisalmer and stands in a narrow lane. It is divided into six apartments, two owned by the Archaeological Survey of India, two by families who operate craft-shops and two private homes. There are remnants of paintings on some of the inside walls as well as some mirror work.
Spending some time in the desert on camelback is touted as one of Jaisalmer’s mustdo activities, and although you can spend a night or even two “camping” out in the desert (some outfitters have semi-permanent camps, with en-suite tents), trekking to sites of interest during the day, most people choose to spend only a few hours in the desert, usually watching the sun set from Sam Dunes. Keep in mind that the popularity of these short trips means you will more than likely be surrounded by noisy travelers in areas that are looking increasingly degraded—with discarded bottles and cigarette packets, and kids cajoling you to buy warm colas and make “donations.” If you can cope with staying “on board” a camel train for 2 to 3 hours every morning and afternoon, the best experience is to go on a trek that stops at various desert villages and temples, and lets you enjoy meals around bonfires under the stars and sleep in a temporary but comfortable camp—you will need to pack warm sleepwear for this, and you’re pretty much at the mercy of fate when it comes to the group you land up with. It’s not always a guarantee, but the pricier the safari, the better your chances. If this doesn’t sound like too much of a commitment, and the idea of a communally enjoyed sunset doesn’t ruin the romance for you, you can either take a camel ride at sunset from Sam Dunes, about an hour from town by car, or from Khuhri, which lies almost 2 hours away by car. The latter is obviously less popular, so it’s not as busy, but it is no longer the unspoiled experience it was a decade ago. Almost every hotel and innumerable agents offer camel trips in various locations (you can opt for one just outside of town, where there are no dunes, but lovely fort views), or you can drive out yourself and negotiate directly with one of the camel drivers who line the road with camels—the state of the saddle is a good indication of which one to choose. Personally, we found the entire experience overrated, but then we like our luxuries, of which solitude is highly rated, and never more so than in India.
Once a year in winters, and on the middle of the continually rising and falling stark yellow sands of the great 'Thar Desert', the empty sands around Jaisalmer come alive with the brilliant color, music and laughter of the Desert Festival. The tourist authorities organize the festival as a major tourist entertainment around January-February. The high points of the festival are - snake charmers, puppeteers, acrobats and folk performers do rapid trade. Camels, the lifeline of the desert, play a foremost role. The tourist dances, turban tying competitions and tug of war are the big draws of this festival.
Jaisalmer Distance Guide
|Jaisalmer||to||Sawai Madhopur||720 Km|