Jaisalmer – The Fort City

Continued from A Day in the Desert

Even as we were leaving for our desert camp, we had glimpsed enticing sights of the golden Jaisalmer Fort located prominently atop a hilltop in the centre of the town. The Fort or the Sonar Quila (made of yellow sandstone) was of strategic importance, giving relief and respite to many a weary travellers. It’s courageous Bhati rulers,offered security to the passing caravans loaded with rich silks and precious jewels and the fort served as a crucial link connecting the east and the west,enabling trade and commerce to flourish. Given Jaisalmer’s strategic importance in the 2000-year old silk route, its no wonder that Jaisalmer is still a rich potpourri of an interesting intermingling of cultures and traditions.

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As with previous fort we had encountered, this one too had witnessed bloody sieges, massacres and the almost inevitable Jauhars. Despite the similarities, every fort feels different.Whereas the Ranthambore Fort smelt of mystery and secrecy, the Jaisalmer Fort was alive with vibrancy, not surprisingly because its one of the largest “living” forts.

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View from the fort
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View of the choc-a-bloc shops lining the bylanes of the fort

As we made our way to the fort, through the narrow and winding bylanes of Jaisalmer overlooked by buildings some reminiscent of an older era adorned by rich carvings and some cloaked by modernity, we suddenly joined the massive rush of humanity entering the fort walls.The fort houses various structures like a magnificent Jain temple, a Royal Palace and various other beautiful architectures along with a plethora of curio shops, shops selling beautiful Rajasthani works of art and eateries.

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A vendor in the fort

Since Jains constituted some of the very rich merchants passing through Jaisalmer, many of them soon settled there and the presence of Jain temples inside the fort built by the Bhati kings, is an indication of the importance they were accorded. Apart from the magnificent forts and the palaces it housed, Jaisalmer town also boasted of magnificent Havelis. One of the most striking ones was the Patwon-ki-Haweli which was constructed in 1805 by Patwa Guman Chand for his five sons. The architectural carvings on its “Jharokhas” was breathtaking and also of interest were the interesting array of household items from the past era, that was on display.

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Jain temple inside the fort
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Patwon ki Haveli
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View from Patwon ki Haveli
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The intricate carvings on the Jharokhas in Patwon ki Haveli

On the night before we were to leave, we witnessed a puppet show in a theater run entirely due to the efforts of one man, Mr. N.K. Sharma, a retired teacher.Unassuming in demeanor and impressive in what he has managed to accomplish, Mr Sharma donated his entire retirement money for the cause of keeping traditional art forms alive and to provide a decent platform for thousands of unacknowledged but extremely talented folk artists.
As the night ended to the dancing of the colorful puppets jiggling to the tunes of melodiously sung Rumi hymns, we looked forward to our next stop at Jodhpur..

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Tourist Tips:

  • If you were to visit Jaisalmer, do keep aside at least 3-4 days as there several offbeat places to see near about Jaisalmer, where you can visit old ghost towns and abandoned villages and experience the relics of the magnificent silk route.
  • We stayed at the Mystic Jaisalmer, a nice non-pricey hotel right in the center of the city. They were even considerate enough to give us free packaged breakfast for the train as we had kids with us.
  • Most of the items in the fort were supposed to 70% costlier than what you could get outside the fort, and almost all were cheaper at Jodhpur/Jaipur.

 

 

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A day in the Thar

Continued from the Ranthambore trip..

From Ranthambore, we took a train to Jaipur and another overnight one to Jaisalmer. As we neared Jaisalmer, the trees vanished and the landscape changed dramatically.We saw more and more army uniforms as we passed the station of Pokhran, given that Jaisalmer is just around 340 kms from the Indo Pak border.The heat was scorching in Jaisalmer.We were to travel another 40 kms to reach our desert camp situated on the edge of the Thar.As we left the Jaisalmer town behind, a vast panorama of open land stretched out on both sides of the road.It was as if we were travelling to the land of nowhere.

img_20161101_141338421As we drove towards the Rajputana desert camp (the one we had booked), we passed several others on the way, an oasis of white roofed tents with some jeeps and camels around. On reaching the camp,a row of small white,tent style cottages greeted us. The cottages were built with concrete walls and a canvas material used for the roofs. Considering the room rentals,I was initially taken aback by the almost spartan facilities, but then on second thoughts, it appeared reasonable when I considered that it’s probably much harder to get even basic facilities in a desert camp situated miles away from anywhere.

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The first thing on the agenda was a jeep safari into the desert and I visualized a leisurely drive up and down the sand dunes awaiting us. The open jeeps promptly arrived and off we went.Soon the driver veered off the road and we were bouncing over a rough shrub strewn track.We reached the “Sam” sand dunes and the driver accelerated wildly. We just managed to hang on to the vehicle by entwining our hands into jeep’s metal side bars.We went uphill on each sand dune on full throttle and hung precariously on the top before descending steeply.The wild life safari in Ranthambore seemed tame in comparison to this. As always, while hanging on for dear life, cameras are far from the mind, except for those poor individuals who seem so bent on perfecting their right “selfie” that they give up their lives for it. Having no such noble intentions myself, I am forced to use a YouTube video to show you the thrills of the Jaisalmer Jeep safaris.

We were finally dropped in the desert and we were relieved to see that all our limbs were intact and functioning.There were some people taking camels to travel deeper into the desert while many others lounged around doing photo shoots. A camel safari agent dogged our heels stating that he would show us the place where the shooting of Kareena Kapoor’s Refuge film happened.There were a group of gypsy women who were dancing and demanding money. Soon, the gypsies and the camel safari agents got tired of us and left us alone.

As I experienced the desert in it’s vastness,it reminded me of the sea and this poem I read on the walls of a hotel in Jaisalmer.

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The nights in the camps are a big attraction.People gather under the open sky and a group of rural folk artists sing and dance.Finger-foods are continuously served as you soak in the ambiance. The folk musicians used a very interesting set of musical instruments.One was called a Kartal, which is just two blocks of wood.Despite its simplicity, it produces a very interesting percussion sound.

 

The dancers performed the “Ghoomar” dance and the “Kalbelia” dance where the dancer bends her torso backwards and lifts a note using her mouth from the floor. Traditionally, the dance is performed by the Kalbelia community whose occupation consisted of catching snakes for their venom.So the Kalbelia dancers wear black and the sinuous movements resemble that of the serpents. Their performances also include dancing while balancing on top of plates and glasses, on knives and on glass shards.

Amidst the dancing and singing, night descended on the desert and it started getting chilly. There was a traditional Rajasthani dinner buffet consisting of various delicacies including Gatte ki Sabzi.

Early in the morning was our camel ride to see the sunrise. The ride was novel and we soon learnt that the trick was to keep your body loose and adjust to the camel’s rhythm of movement.

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What we didn’t bargain for however,was that we would be riding a celebrity. Our camel’s name was Michael Jackson! So, MJ apparently ate 20 kgs of Bajra and Jaggery ! Looking at him peacefully chewing his cud from the previous night, he was probably happier than his namesake.

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As the sun rose high over the desert, we headed back to Jaisalmer town where a magnificent “kila” and the “havelis” awaited us..