This historic fortress city in north-west Rajasthan has an evocative location on the edge of India's Thar Desert
My Kind of Place: Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India
There’s no way you could call Jaisalmer a well-kept secret. Even if you’ve only been to this desert kingdom in Rajasthan in your imagination, you’ll know it for its larger-than-life golden sandstone fort. Seeming to hover above the city, this desert citadel, founded in 1156AD, commands immediate attention. You could easily spend the larger part of a day marvelling at the array of ancient structures within the fort. Here the intricately mirrored and painted Rang Mahal. There the Palace with its sculpted balconies and labyrinth of rooms. Everywhere from the ancient rooftop, are sweeping views over the city. That the fort is still a living urban centre, barnacled with assorted handicraft stores amid other businesses, that liberally punctate its winding lanes, adds a human dimension to history.
The city that sprawls beneath the fort buzzes with similar energy. Aficionados of striking architecture flock towards the sandstone havelis (traditional mansions). These hallowed portals throw light on the life of the wealthy merchant community that settled in Jaisalmer from as early as the 18th century. The Patwon Ki Haveli – built by siblings, who grew wealthy on trade in jewellery and brocade, is a good illustration of artisanal work on sandstone. Carvings that resemble elaborate lace on the stone-doorways, balconies and turrets, richly display the quality of 19th century craftsmanship. Nathmal ki Haveli – with its sandstone elephants guarding the entrance, clustered with carvings and wallpapered with paintings, offers you similar rapture for your dirham.
A comfortable bed
An abundance of hotels, in a wide range of budgets and styles, pepper the “Golden City”. If you’re okay with staying a 15-minute drive out of the bustling centre, Suryagarh (doubles from 18,000 Indian rupees/Dh1,036 a night), is capable of wrenching awe out of the most blasé guest. Constructed to look like a fort, this spacious property – with its gardens and terraces, patios and courtyards, and cavalry on camelback to welcome you in, recalls the opulent living of times past. Make the most of the host of off-the-beaten-track excursions that the hotel curates. Don’t miss the Silk Route Exploration (think of an interpretative route of places that merchants might have stopped here between the 16th and 18th centuries). Worth indulging in also is a sand-ritual at the Rait spa, that has conceptualised a range of therapies – using a blend of native materials and lore.
If on the other hand, you want to stay more towards the centre of town, in a hotel that is walking distance from the Fort, clean and neat and satisfying a more basic requirement, the Nachana Haveli – converted from a 280-year-old private mansion is potential answer (doubles from Rs4,000/Dh225).
Find your feet
While the main city is built for exploring on foot, it pays to rent a car for a day to explore a few out-of-the-way gems. The village of Kuldhara – 20 kilometres out of the city, believed to have been abandoned overnight by the Paliwal Brahmins, is worthy of a walk through. The sophistication the village shows in the building and planning of roads, design of homes, techniques of water storage and so forth, will have you taking enough images to start a gallery.
Also a few kilometres out of the city centre, is the Vyas Chhatris (a cluster of cenotaphs), commemorating rulers of times past, which are worthy of your time. Architecturally extravagant, they also afford good views. Try to get here for sunset.
Meet the locals
The Gadisar Lake, a man-made lake that was the city’s lifeline before piped water made its presence felt, is quite popular with locals, and is a great place to strike up conversations. Short boat rides are possible on the lake.
Book a table
Even if you’re not staying at Suryagarh, booking a meal here ought to be counted amid Jaisalmer’s essential experiences. There are several to choose from. The Halwai breakfast (Rs4,130/Dh238) for instance, is a traditional breakfast that offers a sumptuous spread of local savoury and sweet dishes. You’d also do well booking a Picnic at the Desert Oases & Pastures. Interesting, not just for the local delicacies on offer, but also because it gives one a feel for the pastures – which are as much a feature of the desert heartland as the dunes. Parasols, musicians, orange-turbaned waiters – add character to the experience. (Rs11,850/Dh682; best booked at least a week in advance).
The narrow market lanes inside the fort and in the city – are studded with enthusiastic store owners, trying to persuade you into purchases ranging from hand-woven woollen shawls to bags with mirror-work and embroidery. While boutiques and government emporiums have fixed prices, most market stalls are open to a bit of bargaining, and will go as far as 50 per cent below the marked price.
If hand-carved silver rings adorned with mythological symbols, delicately-engraved bracelets, and exquisitely fine-rings mean anything to you, pop into Hari Om Jewellers. Other odes to small-scale manufacture may be had at Bellissima – a women’s co-operative store that creates all permutations of handcrafted goods – from patchwork embroidery quilts to ornate bags and rugs.
An evening on the sand dunes. The biggest and most popular are those at Sam, which is approx 42 kms from the city. Sunset sweeps the vote on the best times to visit these dunes. Camel rides can easily be organised here.
If you harbour a deeper interest in the unique flora, fauna, and bird life that characterise the desert, Desert National Park is the answer. Stretching over 3,162 square kms, the area is home to some of India’s most endangered and elusive bird-species. The great Indian bustard thrives here, as does the unique white-browed bush-chat. You’re best off hiring a guide, who knows the lay of the land, to accompany you on these adventures.
What to avoid
Beware of touts. It is best to pre-book a driver/guide, with fixed rates, from a reliable source. Your hotel is likely to have a trusted recommendation.
Flights from Dubai to Jaisalmer via Jaipur cost from Dh1,092 return, including taxes with Spice Jet. Travellers can break their journey with a stay in Jaipur before proceeding to Jaisalmer and other Rajasthani cities.