To the Land of the Kings 5: Jaisalmer

Going further by train to the northwestern region of Rajasthan and the surroundings give way to a more barren landscape. The train stops at Jaisalmer, the last city before the road stretches west to the border with Pakistan, and while there is a sense of being far-flung (it’s a 7-hour trip from Jodhpur), it’s far from desolate. Passengers spill out from the train, forming a crowd in the station, and no sooner than I exit the platform than rickshaw drivers approach me to offer their service.

Being a popular stop in the Rajasthani travel circuit, Jaisalmer is hardly middle of nowhere. But its golden fort rising from the desert like a mirage nonetheless evokes exoticism and mystery, and this is perhaps my most rewarding stop in this trip.

As with before, I arrive at my hostel without any significant interruption, do some online work, and then explore the city a bit in the evening. This time, I am accompanied by Sri, a tourism student from Bangalore who does a kind of internship work at the hostel. We watch a puppet show at the Desert Cultural Centre before having some momos (Nepali dumplings) from a food stall just outside the fort.

Jaisalmer’s fort rises out like a golden sandcastle.
Inside the fort is a thriving commercial area, where narrow streets are lined with shops selling all kinds of things.
The fort is home to a group of Jain temples with intricately carved designs.
Restaurants inside the fort provide panoramic views of the city.

I explore the fort proper the next morning before I go to my camel safari tour in the afternoon. The fort is home to a thriving community, and narrow streets are lined with shops, hotels, and restaurants. The main courtyard is home to the Fort Palace Museum, which is actually the Palace of the Marawahal (the Jaisalmer version of the maharaja). Also inside the fort are a handful of Jain temples built from marble and sculpted with intricate designs.

And, of course, there are pushy locals forcing you to avail of their touring services, which predictably leads to the shop of a cousin selling overpriced textiles and souvenirs. I’m learning that this is all part of a trip to India, but I end up buying nothing because (thankfully?) their credit card machine encounters some network problems, so all is fine.

The Gadi Sagar lake just outside the fort served as the city’s water supply until 1965.
Jaisalmer is home to a number of havelis, with the Patwa-ki-Haveli perhaps the best of them.
The Nachana Haveli is a 280-year-old haveli that has been converted to a hotel.
The Desert Cultural Centre hosts a traditional puppet show every evening.
Historian and folklorist LN Khatri welcomes guests to the Thar Heritage Museum.
Thali is a traditional Indian-type meal consisting an assortment of dishes served on a platter.

The next afternoon, after returning from the desert, I continue exploring Jaisalmer. Outside the fort walls, there are a couple of interesting sights as well. Foremost are the havelis, mostly concentrated in the northern part. Havelis are traditional ornate houses mostly built by the Marwaris, who built their fortune partly through opium trading. These houses are so exquisitely designed that they turned into tourist attractions, and one — the Patwa-ki-Haveli — even functions now as a museum. Another haveli, the Nachana Haveli, is a 280-year-old building that is now a hotel with a great rooftop restaurant.

Further north is the Thar Desert Museum, a worthwhile stop for some backgrounder on the region’s history and culture. It’s a private museum owned and operated by LN Khatri, a historian and folklorist who has over the years collected various things that define Rajasthani culture.

South of the fort lies the Gadi Sagar lake, a picturesque area surrounded by temples and more golden sandstone buildings. The lake actually was the original water supplier of the town until 1965. It’s now mostly a recreation spot, with half-hour boat trips taking visitors around the lake.

Jaisalmer isn’t a big town and, by sunset, I’ve pretty much covered all ground. But the appeal here, really, is imbibing the atmosphere of being under the shadow of its magnificent fort, imagining life as it was during the heyday of the camel trade.

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