Jaisalmer – The Fort, Havelis and Cenotaphs

Jaisalmer, The Grand Desert Town of Rajasthan is charismatic in its rustic old world charm despite being swarmed by tourist traffic during winter. It holds a special charm to every Bengali due to its feature in Satyajit Ray’s thriller “Sonar Kella” since 1971. Buoyed by the cult film’s nostalgia I arrived in Jaisalmer couple of months ago(Dec, 2016). It had been an ordeal to reach Jaisalmer from Jaipur overnight as the sleeper bus of RSRTC that I pre booked could not make up to the Sindhi Camp ISBT, Jaipur due to mechanical failure. Instead they provided an ordinary rickety bus for an overnight journey about 600 kms. It was a night to remember as the bus cruised through excellent highways and sleepy towns amidst bone chill. This one also broke down near Ajmer and we got transferred to another one at 02:45 AM.The night ended near Pokran and we were now amidst the desert. Finally, reached the golden town of Jaisalmer around 12 noon.

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My pre booked hotel was near the railway station which is a bit away from the city center. In evening I opted for a visit to the Cenotaphs of Badabagh which looks fabulous during sunset. It is about 8 Kms outside the town situated among barren rocky landscape overlooking the numerous wind firms.  There are several Rajput Style Chhatris(Cenotaphs) built for memories of deceased royals on rocky slope. Currently, there is a considerable entry fee for this monument but no maintenance or care is taken to preserve it or facilitate tourist safety or amenities. Still the Chattris glow like burning fire as the setting Sun cast its final rays. The Sunset behind the giant silhouettes of windmills is a breathtaking scene.

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Jaisalmer town is built around the Golden Fort. In reality everything here is golden apart from the trees, the sky , the vehicles and the people. The yellow sandstone shines bright and dazzling in bountiful sunshine. Here a commoners house is also built by using this stone and considerable artwork in its windows, doors, jambs. It resembles to other ancient towns Puri and Varanasi in looks with serpentine lanes, old mansions, numerous sweetshops and sturdy, mammoth bulls. Every house here has a Ganesha painting beside the main entrance mentioning the latest marriage taken place in that house.

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The Fort is an unique one with thousands of people still living inside the fort. A broad road encircles the fort at the base of the mound(Trikuta Hill) on which the fort is located. A walk around the fort provides a good idea how the ramparts look different from various angles and the how the golden hue changes from time to time as the Sun moves through the day.

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The entrance is huge with double layered ramparts leading to Dussera Chowk(Main Square) where the Royal Palace is situated. All along there are numerous shops selling garments, bed sheets, caps/hats/pagris and other collectible items. The King’s Palace is the main ticketed sight which now is preserved as a museum. It is multi storied and the mansion is decorated with many artifacts used by the Royals in the museum. The first gallery depicts the lineage of Jaisalmer Royals right from Jaisal, the founder of the dynasty to incumbent King who stays in Gurgaon. Other galleries contain furniture including the Royal throne, palanquins, utensils, garments, sculptures, armaments and many more. Gradually, the trail leads to the terrace which offers a sweeping view of the entire town glowing like a fire in bright sunshine.

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There are several viewpoints around different corners and also there are rooftop restaurants/cafes which are nothing but home terraces turned to cafe offering vantage points. There is a Jain temple complex inside the fort. It offers some good artwork on its walls and facade though photography/entry is partially restricted to non Jains.

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The outer city is a congested marketplace with narrow lanes swarmed by thousands of tourists and locals. There are several Havelis(Mansions) built for  the ministers(Dewan) of Jaisalmer state. The familial mansions were indicators of wealth and property. Hence, each of the Dewans mansions were treasure trove of pomp and show of artwork, sculptures and all other means to show opulence. Today, all of them are abandoned but conserved as museums. Patwa Ki Haveli(The House of Patwas) is them most prominent one.It has two sections, one is conserved by ASI but holds no artifact and another portion is managed by private initiative and holds beautiful collection and artwork.

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The other two prominent ones are Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli which was built for Dewan Nathmal and Salam Singh’s Haveli. Both served as chief minister(Dewan) to the Rawal(King). Nathmal’s one offers interesting story of a contest between two architects between whom the contract was split to built one single mansion. To naive eyes the multi storied mansion appears as one but actually the house is asymmetric with its halves are uniquely different from each other yet without any boundary or partition. A stone elephant stands in front of the entrance depicting the familial status of Dewan.

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Salam Singh was the notorious minister hugely unpopular due to his torturous ways of rule over the people. His ambition eventually grew to surpass the Rawal also in power and stature and he planned to build a house more than seven stories so that it grows vertically equal to the Kings palace and in turn surpass it. However, his ambitions could not see daylight as the King got the upper stories demolished to preserve his stature and curb his ambitions.

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There are several other palaces many of which are out of bounds as they are turned into heritage hotels. Mandir Palace is one which is partially accessible to the non resident tourists and it has a interesting museum depicting the life of Queens and inner household. The artworks are fabulous and visual treat. Walking about a km lies the Gadsisar Lake which is a artifical tank built to provide water supply to the town. It has an ornate gateway called Tilon Ki Pol built by a courtesan and several temples along the shore. It provides a nice view and boating options with patches of greenery and water in midst of the desert.It has a Folklore Museum near it and offers a panoramic view of the town and the fort.

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A trip to Jaisalmer is incomplete without tasting its delicious cuisine. Being a top tourist destination, everything from North or South Indian to Mexican/Israeli/italian food is available. The local delight resides in the sweet shops where the ubiquitous badam milk is available. There are special sweets and fritters that is native to Jaisalmer. Ghontua Laddu, Gundgiri Laddu, Mugair Kachori, Jodhpuri Rabri to name a few. Non Vegetarians would not be able to find anything here much like other parts of Rajasthan. Only top end luxury hotels can provide non veg affairs otherwise Jaisalmer is a Vegetarian’s paradise.

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