JAISALMER - INDIA'S DESERT CITY
The splendour of the East is particularly striking in the Rajasthan city of Jaisalmer, where the rich gold of shifting desert sands provides a backdrop of drama for sylph-like women clad in saris of saffron, carmine, emerald green, fuchsia, blue and gold. Located on the ancient Silk Road close to the border of Pakistan, an aura of mystery surrounds this desert city.
Low yellow sandstone buildings cluster around a fort built for Maharaja Jaisal in 1156. This massive structure towers above the surrounding desert, its gateways tall enough to accommodate elephants carrying ornate howdahs. By the 17th century when the city was a bustling metropolis catering to camel caravans carrying jewels, silks, spices, gold and ivory between the great trading centers, Jaisalmer’s population and the wealth of its citizens reached its peak.
Palatial havelis (manor houses) were built within the walls of the fort for the wealthy. Some, Patwon-ki-haveli (the Mansion of the Brocade Merchants) and Salim Singhji-ki-haveli built for an evil-natured Rajasthani prime minister, still stand, their splendid sandstone carvings intact. Not even the searing desert winds have obliterated the delicate work of those ancient craftsmen.
Today, where little has changed over the centuries, one can wander along narrow cobbled alleyways for hours. Traders sit cross-legged on the floor at the entrance to Lilliputian shops. Chewing betel-nut, they spit streams of “paan” with remarkable accuracy on walls long stained with splashes of crimson. Their merchandise ranges from Kashmiri shawls and silk carpets to hand-painted miniatures, silver chapatti boxes and opium canisters.
Seeking respite from the heat at midday, we stood in the shadows beside a fruit and vegetable stall where the sweet aroma of peeled mangos mingled with the pungent smell of ripening vegetable.
Like the locals, we ate naan (unleavened bread) and biryani (vegetables and rice) with our fingers. Risking a dose of India’s notorious “Delhi Belly” we quenched our thirst with lassi, a delicious iced drink of yoghurt blended with sweetened mango pulp and ice cream and topped off with ground pistachio nuts.
Refreshed and ready for further exploration we moved on, attracted by the resonant boom of a gong that rushed from the doorway of a Jain Temple. Directly opposite, across a narrow alleyway, an ill-hung and battered door gave entrance to a disreputable looking building. Red paint lettering inscribed on the wall announced the presence of an Indian ‘beauty parlour’ with the words “Henna, body massage, head massage, waxing, manicure, pedicure and shampoo”.
Next, we came upon a familial confrontation. From an exquisitely carved balcony festooned with drying bed sheets snapping in the wind, a Hindu mother leaned out, chastising her teenage son on the street below. He, unaffected by her scolding, tossed his hat in the air and sauntered around the nearest corner.
Standing in the now silent passageway, we watched as sacred cows mooched along nosing into garbage mounds, then moving in a slow procession to the nearest drain, they sipped daintily the putrid scummy water.
Piglets, striped, spotted and plain, screeched and squealed as they wallowed delightedly in puddles coated with an oily black effluent. Children, hands outstretched, tugged at our cameras pleading for “Rupee for a good boy” or “Pen please”.
Most of the fort’s inhabitants are of the Brahmin caste. Their homes are tucked away in the curves and hollows of the 99 bastions forming the walls of the fort.
Invited into one of the dwellings, we stepped across the threshold into a cool dark and immaculately clean room. The ceiling was low with a burnished surface of cow dung and red clay. The stone floor gleamed. Hand-crafted shelves made from sturdy branches dipped in whitewash, cradled the family’s treasured brass vessels. Stacked almost to the ceiling in one corner of the main room was the night bedding, folded into squares, each corner matching exactly the one below.
Upon leaving we were invited to join grandma and her beautiful daughter on the entrance steps, and there we sipped black coffee from small china cups.
At the top of a flight of steps we discovered a poignant memorial; a collection of tiny handprints on stone. Sati was once customary for widows, who, dosed with opium, were burned alive on the funeral pyres with the bodies of their dead husbands.
In Jaisalmer, before mounting the pyre, the wives of the deceased Maharajah dipped their hands in henna and pressed them on the wall of the fort. To this day the Sati stones are considered sacred, and the women who died are venerated.
Sati has been banned in India for more than 100 years, but there are hints that the practice is not dead. Occasionally widows are still urged onto cremation pyres in some rural villages.
Many were the sacrifices of the past. When conquering invaders stormed the fort and death for the defending warriors was imminent, the fighting men, dressed in orange robes, courageously left the fort to face their enemies and horrific mutilation. Then, rather than be ravished and carried off by the enemy, their women, in full bridal attire accompanied by their children, jumped from the towering fort walls.
Here, as well as in other places in Rajasthan, I noticed painted signs that occupied a prominent place at the entrance to homes. Featured on each of the signs, Ganesh the elephant god, one of the most popular of the Hindu gods, was depicted seated on a low stool or occasionally perched on a lotus blossom. Endowed with an elephant head and four arms, his first hand held a flower, the second a trident, the third a basket of what appeared to be plump round bread rolls and with his fourth hand he administered a blessing. With one foot resting in his lap – toenails painted scarlet – he was an unusual sight.
Each of these signs we discovered, was an announcement of marriage. Each contained Hindu script and a date – the names of the wedded pair and the day of their marriage.
Seldom mentioned in the guidebooks is a mysterious, one could almost say haunted place, called ‘Bara Bagh’. Built on a hill alongside an oasis and silhouetted against the sky are ‘The Tombs of the Kings’; some of the most impressive monuments I have seen. The first tomb was erected for Maharawal Jait Singh who ruled from 1470 to 1506. Each one of these imperial chatris is protected by a carved ochre, sandstone cupola supported on slender pillars.
Here on the edge of the Great Indian Thar desert, this mysterious city provides a glimpse into the life of India long ago. The Golden City of Jaisalmer is now one of India's major tourist destinations.
WHERE TO STAY
Email | Website | TripAdvisor
+91 2992 269 269
Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer, India
Rates start at about C$270 (based on average rates for standard room). There is 50% off if booking is done through Expedia.
Suryagarh is a luxury 5-star hotel located in a sandstone palace. Dine in your chosen in-house venue or under a star studded sky in the desert.
Email | Book Now | TripAdvisor
+91-2992 252 392
Sam Road, Jaisalmer Rajasthan, India, 345001.
Rates start at about C$166.
Hotel Moomal is a budget hotel in central Jaisalmer. Serves Rajasthani, Indian and Continental cuisine. The bar serves Indian, Rajasthani liquor and wine. Offers sight seeing facilities.
MORE WORLD TRAVEL: