There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 29 January 2018

Jaisalmer in the Heart of the Thar Desert: Part 5 of Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This post covers day 6 of a 16-day journey around Rajasthan.

Jaisalmer was the westernmost point of our jiourney
The size of Germany, Rajasthan is the largest of India’s 29 states. With the Thar Desert covering the north and west it is one of India’s less densely populated states, though with 200 people per km² (the same as Italy) it is hardly empty.

In the 11th and 12th centuries the rise of the Rajputs created some 20 or so petty kingdoms ruled by Maharajas - the ‘Rajput Princes’. These kingdoms, at first independent, later vassal states of the Mughal or British Empires survived until 1947, when the Maharajahs led their ‘Princely States’ into the new Union of India, creating Rajasthan (the ‘Land of Princes’). The rulers became constitutional monarchs until 1971 when the Indian government ended their official privileges and abolished their titles. ‘Maharaja’ is now a courtesy title, but most remain leading members of their communities and some are still immensely rich. Several, like their British counterparts, have supplemented their income by turning forts and palaces into tourist attractions and hotels.


It was an awful night, the inconvenience of rowdy fellow guests paling into insignificance against the sad news brought by an early morning text from home. It would be inappropriate to say more here, but nor can I ignore it; I will just observe that sometimes, without reason, terrible things happen to good people.

After a sombre breakfast we set off with Umed and a local guide to see Jaisalmer. Our first stop was at the Gadi Sagar Tank on the edge of the city - a ‘tank’ can be anything from an actual tank to a substantial man-made lake like Gadi Sagar. Surrounded by temples and ghats it was built in 1367 by Rawal (a local variant on ‘raja’) Gadi Singh to provide the city with water. At the festival of Gangaur in March the current Maharawal (the Rawals upgraded to Maharawals in 1661) still leads a magnificent procession down to the lake, while young women throw flowers into the water to ensure a good husband (I have no idea if this works.)

Gadi Sagar Tank, Jaisalmer
We had reached the tank via the Tilon-ki Pol, a handsome carved sandstone gate built in 1906. It was commissioned by Tilon, a courtesan who maybe felt she needed a stone memorial as all previous erections in her honour had been short-lived. The respectable citizens of Jaisalmer objected, persuading the Maharawal that as he could not possibly pass under a gate built by a prostitute it must be demolished. Tilon, though, had seen them coming and incorporated a Vishnu temple into the superstructure so it could not be destroyed without insulting the god. There may only be a little truth in all this, but it would be a shame to spoil a good story with dull facts.

Tilon-Ki Pol, Gadi Sagar Tank, Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer fort sits on an impressive rocky outcrop in the heart of the city. We drove up to and round it along a curving commercial street, passing en route, the ‘Bloody Good View Restaurant’ (I can vouch for the view, if not the food) and several ‘English Beer and Wine Shops’. Throughout India, alcohol is bought at ‘wine shops’, though they sell very little wine, and are often distinctly disreputable (see Kanyakumari), though we had not previously seen ‘English’ attached to the name. I will pass over the ‘English Bear and Wine Shop’ without comment.

The view from the car park in Gopa Chowk, over massed ranks of tuk-tuks was less bloody good…

Jaisalmer Fort from the car Park in Gopa Chowk
…but walking through the first gate (Akhai Pol) improved it significantly.

Jaisalmer Fort from the square inside the first gate
From the square a narrow passage took us to the Suraj Pol.... 

Suraj Pol, Jaisalmer Fort
and then, after a hairpin bend to impede any attacker’s charging war elephants, to the Ganesh Pol.

Ganesh Pol, Jaisalmer Fort
The fourth gate brought us out onto the Main Chowk and the Maharawal’s palace (left) with many balconies so the people could see their leader and the Maharanis’ palace (right) with latticed windows so the womenfolk could see without being seen.

Palaces, Jaisalmer Fort
The fort was founded in 1156 by Rawal Jaisal Singh of the Bhati clan who modestly named the city after himself. Jaisalmer’s early years were marked by frequent wars with the surrounding states, Bikaner and Jodhpur, and with the Delhi Sultanate. A seven-year siege by Alauddin Khalji, Sultan of Delhi ended in 1298 when the royal Bhatis committed saka, riding out to certain death at the hands of their enemies, while the women committed jauhar, leaping from the palace into the flames of a huge fire in the Main Chowk. 700 years have passed and the Main Chowk is now a pleasant and peaceful square, but it is still disturbing to stand where this actually happened. When Alauddin could not hold the city, the Bhati’s who had smuggled out two infant princes before the mass suicides, regained Jaisalmer. By 1326 Delhi had run through five sultans when the new ruler Muhammad bin Tughlaq (who would last for 30 years) initiated another siege which again ended with the defenders committing saka and jauhar. Gharsi Bhati, one of the earlier smuggled infants negotiated a peace and Jaisalmer remained in Bhati hands, though now as a vassal state. This continued under the more enlightened rule of the Moghuls and Jaisalmer’s position on the overland route between the riches of the east and west brought prosperity. Under the British, Jaisalmer was a princely state, but the opening of sea routes for trade, and the growth of Bombay (now Mumbai) side-lined the desert city. Poverty and, in this drought-prone area, famine were frequent visitors in the late 19th century. Independence brought partition, and the closing of old trade routes into Pakistan, but ironically the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan started Jaisalmer’s renaissance as it became an important military outpost. Now tourism is seen as the route to economic growth.

Rawal Jaisal Singh, founder of Jaisalmer (Photo by Archan Dave, sourced from Wikipedia)
The original is in the Maharawal's Palace; who painted it and when is unknown but it may well have been painted several centuries after its subject's death - so it may not be an accurate likeness
Unlike Rajasthan’s other forts, Jaisalmer Fort contains a thriving community. Whether 20% of the city’s 80,000 people live within its walls (or perhaps just 2,000 - sources differ widely) it feels densely populated. We left the Main Chowk through narrow lanes lined with shops.

Shopping opportunities, Jaisalmer Fort
The complex of Jain temples 100m from the chowk was built between the 12th and the 15th century. It is impossible for the casual visitor to work out which temple is which, and they are all linked by narrow corridors and stairways.

The fort’s soft Jurassic sandstone is perfect for fine and intricate carvings on pillars, walls,...

Jain Temple, Jaisalmer Fort

Ceiling, Jain Temple, Jaisalmer Fort
...and galleries.

Gallery, Jain Temple, Jaisalmer Fort
The sandstone carvings are remarkably similar in style to those we have seen in the Hindu Hoysala temples much further south in Karnataka (see Somnathpur), while the marble statues of the Tirthankas sit in a Buddha-like pose, but their faces, particularly the eyes, are very different. The 24 Tirthankas (‘crossing-makers’), who have appeared at a rate of one every 3 million years, help those who have practiced ahimsa (non-violence) to achieve moksha (release from the endless cycle of death and rebirth) the goal of the well-lived Jain life.

Tirthanka, Jain Temple, JaisalmerFort
We made our way back to the Main Chowk and the Maharawal’s palace.

Highly decorated balconies from which ministers or generals passed on orders to the public or their soldiers are a feature both of the exterior walls and of the inner courtyards.

Balcony in an internal courtyard, Maharawal's Palace, Jaisalmer
And the orders for the generals and ministers came from the Maharawal seated on a marble throne. Higher up in the palace is the even more impressive silver throne used for coronations.

Coronation Throne, Maharawal's Palace, Jaisalmer 
We climbed the five storeys past the armoury and the Tripolia Mahal with portraits of the rulers and a family tree tracing their ancestry all the way back to Krishna (call me Mr Sceptical if you must, but...) and paused in the gallery of 15th century religious statues.

15th century statue, Maharawal's Palace, Jaisalmer
We viewed the private quarters of several Maharawals; rulers preferred low beds - assassins cannot hide beneath them.

Delft tiles in Servottam Vilas, the bedroom of Akhi Singh's (ruled 1722-62), Maharawal's Palace, Jaisalmer
But the palace’s main attraction is the roof terrace. Whether you are looking over the fort's residential area, packed with homes, hostels and boutique hotels…

Jaislmer Fort from the palace roof terrace
…or down to the first gate with Gopa Chowk just outside (where we had parked)…

The first gate and Gopa Chowk
...or back over the fort….

Looking over Jaisalmer Fort
…or across the city to the desert, the views are magnificent.

Looking over Jaisalmer to the desert
From the roof we descended to the zenana, the women’s quarters. This has recently been restored from a pile of rubble and there is not yet much to see. The women of the palace lived in the rooms on the right of this corridor while musicians often played in the room on the left. The women could hear the music, but must never be seen by the male musicians. Living in the zenana was a luxurious imprisonment, but an imprisonment it undoubtedly was.

The Zenana, Jaisalmer Palace
 We left the zenana and the fort and took a short walk through narrow, crowded streets of the city…

The streets of Jaislamer
...where there is always something interesting to see, but you must take care, these may look like pedestrian streets, but motorbikes and cars often push their way through.

The streets of Jaisalmer
The object of our stroll was the Nathmalji-ki-Haveli, built in 1885 for Jaisalmer’s then prime minister. The haveli is the work of two brothers who agreed the overall architectural plan, but worked on the decorations separately, so there are a myriad differences in detail between the right and left-hand sides of the building. They are amusing to compare, but unfortunately do not show up well on the picture. Inside there is a gift shop, but nothing to see otherwise.

Nathmalji-ki Haveli, Jaisalmer
Nearby was a house sporting a fresh and brightly coloured painting of Ganesh. Ganesh is always present at beginnings, and this is the home of a newly wed couple, their names and wedding date incorporated into the design. Over time the painting will fade and become chipped and stained but it will remain, unretouched, as long as the couple stay in the house.

House of newly-weds, Jaisalmer
A couple of blocks north of the Nathmalji-ki-Haveli is the slightly older and rather bigger Patwa Haveli, built for five Jain brothers who made their money as bankers and by trading in brocade and opium. The little square opposite makes it possible to photograph part of the haveli, but the five conjoined houses spread out to right and left along the narrow lane.

The Patwa Haveli, Jaisalmer
The interior is richly decorated, though it could do with some freshening up. We fought our way up the stairs to the top stories. It is important that Indian antiquities are visited by locals and not just tourists, but Indian crowds do tend to push and shove. We contented ourselves with the thought that should a fire break out in this old, dry, building with its wooden floors and beams, we would not have to worry about the flames – we would be crushed in the stampede.

Inside the Patwa Haveli, Jaislamer
The main attraction of the top floor was the view back to Jaisalmer Fort – just as the main attraction of the palace roof had been the view over the city. Oh the irony!

Jaisalmer Fort from the Patway Haveli
‘Back to your hotel for lunch?’ the local guide asked. Once in the hotel we were stuck for the rest of the day, so we suggested he show us somewhere in town to eat a thali - a south Indian dish but local variations are available everywhere and we fancied one.

We located Umed and the guide directed him through the narrow central streets, then through the wider peripheral streets to the very edge of town and another resort hotel. We staged a small, dignified and well-mannered rebellion. ‘No, we want Indian food, not tourist food.’  This comment was also for Umed’s benefit after another visit to an ‘approved foreigner feeding station’ on the road from Bikaner.

The guided nodded, and back in the outskirts directed us to a small, clean restaurant with an entirely Indian clientele. There was no thali on the menu, but having made our point we settled for a light meal of stuffed parathas, tamarind and tomato/chilli pickles, onion salad with lemon, and bhajis. We expected bhajis like those available in every supermarket in England (only better, we hoped), but had actually ordered ‘pav bhaji’, which is, we discovered, a vegetable curry served with soft bread. Still, we learned something and the pav bhaji was good, though it turned out a heavier meal than we had intended.

Parathas and pav bhaji, Jaislamer
And then is was back to the hotel. We had chosen two nights in the hotel rather than spending one evening on a camel ride, followed by dinner in the desert and a night in a tent. Another camel ride would have added little to our lives, the meal, we suspected would be a tourist orientated buffet and January nights in the Thar Desert are distinctly cold - not camping weather at all. Still, we did see some camels in the streets.

Camels on the streets of Jaislamer
Our decision had been made in the mistaken belief (my fault!) that our hotel was in the fort and not an isolated resort hotel. We should not, though, have been disappointed; Jaisalmer’s tourist boom has led to increasing numbers of people staying in the fort, each one of them using 120 litres of water daily, 12 times the quantity the locals were using. The disposal of this water through modern sewers which leak rather more than the open sewers they replaced in the 1980s has resulted in serious erosion of the foundations and several collapses, some fatal so ethical tourists are advised not to stay in the fort. We could have stayed elsewhere in the city but managed to make do with the facilities on hand, bemoaning our misfortune in four-star luxury.

Lunch had been heavier than expected so in the evening we dined on papads, peanuts and beer.

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