If Jaipur is the Pink City and Udaipur the City of Lakes, how can Jaisalmer not be the Golden City? Every edifice, from its fort downwards is made of the same golden sandstone, known in the rest of the world as Jaisalmer stone.
Perhaps it’s fortunate that Jaisalmer’s airport has little, if any, civilian traffic. You have to take a flight to Jodhpur and travel by car to Jaisalmer. It’s four hours well-spent, because it gives you a superb orientation to the desert. Don’t be misled into thinking that the desert is an unending expanse of flat barrenness. I discovered that it is a living force that changes its face every few kilometres. While the desert around Jodhpur is full of twisting roads that wind around low, rocky hills that resemble sleeping dragons, by the time I reached Jaisalmer, I had seen relatively lush vegetation, sparse, stunted keekar trees, a short burst of sand dunes, village markets with mounds and mounds of fresh vegetables, and miles of barren land broken only by a lone cactus.
To say that Rajasthan is all desert is to veer very far from the truth indeed. For, if Jaipur is desert, how would you describe Jaisalmer? It is sandy desert, where a single tree immediately captures the attention. Roads leading into the town are completely flat, much to the joy of taxi drivers, who navigate their vehicles at speeds of 100 kmph or above!
Unlike Jodhpur with its rocky outcrops in pre-historic shapes, Jaisalmer only has one hill, and that is the site for the fort. I learnt that Old Money continues to flow in Jaisalmer, but you could have fooled me, because there are no houses of the Rich and Famous the way there are in Jaipur. No shopping malls, no clubs, no glitzy restaurants – nothing in other words, to tempt locals into parting with their cash. Barista and Café Coffee Day have not deigned to open up branches here, neither have Shoppers Stop, Lifestyle or Westside. Of the large hotel chains, only Taj is here, managing a property built by a local.
Because of its high temperatures in summer (said to cross 50ºC) Jaisalmer is considered a winter destination, when it receives the majority of its visitors between October and March. Every tourist that visits Jaisalmer is attracted by two things: the fort and the sand dunes. Both are unique. The fort is one of the few living ones in existence: inside, the thick walls with 99 buttresses, are crammed with private homes, guest houses, handicraft shops, cyber cafes, Jain temples and cold drink stalls. There are areas that swarm with groups of foreign tourists, shepherded by multi-lingual guides, and patches where you’ll see only locals sweeping their stairs or washing clothes. There are lanes full of historic buildings, whose exteriors are a maze of intricate filigree work, and others that are dismayingly modern. There are narrow alleys where you squeeze yourself through, that have a range of handicraft shops: leather, embroidery and silver, and others where you can get Parle biscuits, Dhara oil and not much else.
I was torn between the conflicting desires of seeing as much of worth within the fort, and exploring it at leisure. Because time was limited, I chose the former option, though I admit, not without a pang of regret. Visiting the Jaisalmer Fort is like taking a trip into the pages of a history book, and you don’t necessarily appreciate incessant footnotes being recited by a history teacher! Young Manish Purohit (whose opening words to me were, “I am a Brahmin”) was as far removed as you can get from a tourist guide in other tourist destinations like Agra, Jaipur or Udaipur. He didn’t aspire to be westernized, didn’t ask me the cost of my camera (something I’ve been asked innumerable times by members of his tribe) and didn’t ply me with questions about when I wanted to pack in some shopping. Either he’s an edelweiss in the desert, or a product of his environment in isolated, laidback Jaisalmer.
The big disappointment inside the Jaisalmer Fort were the guest houses. When you have a unique location in an 11th century fort, mind-blowing views and the treasure trove of handicrafts that Rajasthan has, there’s no excuse for poky bedrooms with dark blue walls, tube lights and lumpy mattresses. Down in the town, things were not much better. The royal palace had been partially converted into a hotel which was appallingly maintained. Only Nachana Haveli, the present Maharawal’s cousin’s property, had been converted into a haveli hotel with flair and a lot of passion (see box). For the rest, you’re better off living in the modern resorts away from the fort. At least you won’t find handloom towels masquerading as wall hangings in the guest rooms.
The old part of the town of Jaisalmer is spoken of in the same breath as its fort, and there’s no doubt that one is a continuation of the other. Both are made of the same golden sandstone that exists nowhere else but Jaisalmer, and which is both inexpensive and plentiful enough to be used as a fascia for every building in the town. Neither is the effect overpowering on the one hand, nor monotonous on the other, as would a town built exclusively of say, Udaipur’s green marble. Sandstone being a soft stone, it takes particularly well to open lattice work, and the first thing you notice about Jaisalmer is its plethora of intricately carved screens on the fronts of all the havelis of old. Some of these – Nathmalji’s haveli and Patwon ki Haveli to name but two – are must sees on every tourist itinerary, but there are scores of other tiny havelis with intricate carvings on them. The most famous of these is the Tilla Darwaza at the entrance to the small man-made lake just below the fort. The lobby of the resort in which I stayed – Rajwada Fort – also incorporated old and new lattice worked balconies into its otherwise modern design.
There are sand dunes in two places off Jaisalmer: Sam and Khuri. Both are approximately 40 kilometres out of Jaisalmer, in two different directions. You reach there by car (your hotel will arrange this for you) and then mount a camel around sunset to watch the sun’s last rays over the dunes. You will have hundreds if not thousands, of fellow travellers with you, most screaming at the top of their voices, but should you choose to spend the night in one of several tented camps on the main road, you will have only stars for company, and only silence to lull you to sleep. Fort Rajwada, like many resorts in Jaisalmer, has a tented encampment in Sam, where evening entertainment includes Mangniyar singers and Kalbelia dancers.
For a city dweller, the total silence of that night is something I’ll remember forever.
How to get there: flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Jodhpur. Hire a cab to Jaisalmer, but note that you pay return fare, whether the taxi is from Jodhpur or Jaisalmer. Most tourists from Ahmedabad drive all the way down. The route is via Barmer.
Where to stay: The most premium places in Jaisalmer are undoubtedly the modern resorts. Spread out along two roads – the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer road and the Jaisalmer-Sam road – each is sprawling with courtyards, gardens and swimming pools, and each makes innovative use of golden sandstone in a number of ways. They are all managed by professionals. The best is
Suryagarh Ph 2992-269269, Kahala Phata, Sam Road 15 kms outside Jaisalmer town.
Fort Rajwada 1, Hotel Complex, Jodhpur-Barmer Link Road, Jaisalmer. Ph: 2992-253233, 253533, 254608.
Hotel Rawal-kot Jodhpur Road, Jaisalmer. Ph: 2992-252638, 251874.
Gorbandh Palace, No. 1, Tourist Complex, Sam Road, Jaisalmer. Ph: 2992-253801-7
Besides these, rather ethnic places include: Hotel Jaisal Castle, 186, Jaisalmer Fort.
Mandir Palace (in a part of the present ruler’s palace) Ph: 2992-252788, 252951.
Hotel Nachana Haveli, Goverdhan Chowk, Jaisalmer Ph: 2992-252110
Shopping and eating out: The most interesting buys in Jaisalmer are goods made of camel leather. These include western-style sandals, mojris, fashionable yet serviceable hand-bags, cowboy hats, peaked caps, mineral water bottle slings and travel luggage. All are inexpensive by big city standards.
Embroideries and silver do not appear to be made in Jaisalmer, though both are sold here for the benefit of tourists. Garments are made by small-town tailors, and could prove to be fun buys rather than fashionable garments. A rather poor grade of frankincense is farmed hereabouts. You can sometimes get it in a few shops, but it is more for curiosity value than anything else.
Gotuwa is the name of a laddoo that is commonly available throughout the town – you’ll see men sitting outside sweet-shops pounding a mix of sugar, khoya and besan boondis with a mortar and pestle. Jaisalmeri bhujia may not be as famous as its Bikaneri variant, but it’s less spicy and marginally thicker with a more pronounced flavour of black pepper. Good with drinks.
Restaurants are not very common. Trio in Goverdhan Chowk serves multi-cuisine, with a sprinkling of Rajasthani vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Desert Boys Dhani is the best restaurant hereabouts. They really do go that extra mile for the best vegetarian dishes in the local cuisine: kaju dakh is cashew nuts in a thick besan gravy and malai onions elevates the humble onion to the status of a vegetable.
Every hotel, big or small has facilities for meals. Suryagarh has the most staggering variety of food, possibly in the whole of Rajasthan: on special request barbecue meals with a Rajasthani twist are done out in the open, under the stars, near a disused lake or at the dunes, with Mangniyar performers to enliven the proceedings. You can opt for pure vegetarian meals too, or modern Rajasthani. Their inhouse halwai does a range of delicious mithai.