Kunzum Travel List #21: Jaisalmer – The city in the fort, and beyond

The Jaisalmer Fort
The Jaisalmer Fort

This is a city that has always lived in a fort – and continues to do so even today. The fort may be the main attraction, but Jaisalmer has much more to offer on its platter.

[The Kunzum Travel List is a compilation of great holiday ideas and available as an e-book, and in paperback by December 2011. To read more and to order the book, click on Kunzum Travel List.]

You may also want to read the following on Jaisalmer:

* Kuldhara, an abandoned town where the rich Paliwal Brahmins once lived and disappeared forever one night when they could not take the harassmenthhff of the authorities any longer. Click here.
* High on Bhaang in Rajasthan, without being a nuisance

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First, the fort itself

It is tough to distinguish between the historical and the present in the fort – time lies intertwined here. Built in 1156 by Bhati ruler Rawal Jaisal on the Trikuta Hill, it is also known as Sonar Qila or Golden Fort  because of the use of yellow sandstone which takes on a honey-gold hue in the setting sun. It has a perimeter of 5 kms (3 miles), rising 76 metres above the surrounding countryside and marked by 99 bastions. Jaisalmer fell along an important ancient trading route, doing business with Persia, Arabia, Egypt and other African countries. With the rise of Bombay during the British rule, all trade moved away leaving Jaisalmer isolated. The economy is driven by tourism now.

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Within the milieu / ramparts of the fort are beautiful Jain temples, old havelis or mansions, a palace museum, restaurants, hotels and shops. The Jain temples are particularly noteworthy because of their fine carvings, with each temple boasting its own unique design.

Atop the wall along the entrance gates, you will see rounded stones which were meant to be thrown at advancing enemies; this gives a feeling of war-readiness even today. The central courtyard within the fort is called Dusshera Chowk, and the royalty celebrated the Hindu festival of Dusshera here till 1974 after which it was shifted outside the fort. Women would watch the proceedings from behind the stone-meshed windows.

A visit to the palace and museum gives you an insight into the times gone by. Most notable are the exhibits of arms and the throne. You get beautiful views of the city and beyond from the upper floors; a sun clock on the terrace tells you the time if you know how to interpret the same. The chambers used by the kings and queens give you a peek into their personal lifestyles.

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The fort with a view of the city beyond
The fort with a view of the city beyond
Palace and museum building within the fort
Palace and museum building within the fort
The Jain Temples
The Jain Temples
A beautifully sculptured ceiling with the Jain temples
A beautifully sculptured ceiling with the Jain temples

Beyond the Fort

Walk around town and you will see many havelis (mansions), some going back centuries, built by rich businessmen. Most continue to be inhabited but are welcoming of visitors. Some of the better known ones are Salimji ki Haveli, Patwon ki Haveli and Nathmalji ki Haveli; these are best accessed by foot or on cycle rickshaws.

Two other spots not to be missed are the Vyas Chhatris and the Gadsisar Lake. The latter was built by Maharaja Gadsi Singh in 1367 to serve as a water reservoir for the entire fort. Its banks are dotted with temples and shrines; it also attracts migratory birds during the winters. Away from the hustle and bustle of the town, it is a calm oasis where one can spend hours – on the edge of the water or in a boat.

The Vyas Chhatris are the cenotaph of Sage Vyas who wrote the Hindu epic Mahabharata. This is the place to go for stunning views of the setting sun, and also to see the Jaisalmer fort glow in the evening light.

The Gadsisar Lake
The Gadsisar Lake
The Vyas Chhatris
The Vyas Chhatris
Sun setting over the Vyas Chhatris
Sun setting over the Vyas Chhatri

Sam Dunes

These come highly recommended but don’t go with very great expectations lest you come back disappointed. The Sam (pronounced ‘some’) Dunes, located 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Jaisalmer, do not live up to the imagery of the Arabian or Saharan deserts, but make for an enjoyable evening out. A one-hour long camel safari starts at the parking lot, but ends within 10 minutes – the rest of the time is to be spent on the dunes enjoying the views of the beautiful sunsets and getting yourself entertained by local artists. You can go for a short visit, or stay at the dozens of camps along the road to Sam.

Setting sun over the Sam Dunes
Setting sun over the Sam Dunes

Food

If in Rajasthan, food can never be out of the mind. As usual, I was out looking for traditional cuisine – eventually got some authentic stuff at an eatery outside the fort. A family run place, they cooked in the kitchen and served in the modified living room. When I requested to go easy on the pure oil at its fatty best (baati or flour dumpling eaten as a bread are usually served after soaking them in oil) the grandfather got upset over the very idea! Sorry grandpa, cannot roam around with an oily belly!

The Bhatia Market is so named as most shopkeepers come with the family name Bhatia. I ordered Indian sweets at Dhanaraj Ranmal Bhatia – the proprietor is the seventh generation running this business. Wow! They serve common sweets like petha, kalakand, peda, different kinds of ladoos including some they claim as their own recipes: Ghotua (made from besan, mawa and kesar) and Panchdhari (made from moong daal, mawa, maida, pure oil and sugar). Delicious and fatty!

Samosas for sale at Dhanaraj Ranmal Bhatia eatery
Samosas for sale at Dhanaraj Ranmal Bhatia eatery

Jaislamer: Travel Tips

• Weather: Mild winters and very hot summers.
• Best time to go: October to February.
• Best Reached: By road. Or take a flight to Jodhpur and by road from there.
• Recommended Stay: At least 2 days.
• Combine trip with: Bikaner and Jodhpur

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