850 Year Old City


Jaisalmer is another special place in India.  It’s the “golden city” because it is made almost entirely of sandstone and consequently glows red at both sunset and sunrise.  it was situated along the Silk Route and grew rich by taxing the caravans.

In fact, it became so rich that its ruler built an ornate fort on top of the hill in 1156.  In the 19th century rich locals would build their own mini-castles: ornately carved havelis in the middle of the city.  Today almost every house has some form of a carved sandstone balcony or frontispiece.

We arrived after a six hour bus ride.  The ride itself was a great chance to experience the “real India”: an overcrowded bus where I was elbowed and kicked as I listed to a few musicians play their traditional music that was occasionally joined by the odd belch.  People carried almost everything with them; the oddest thing anyone brought on board: a (at least) 50 year old sewing machine.

We were met at the bus station by our new friend Kailash from the Moti Palace Hotel.  Thank god-as another tourist on the bus didn’t have a place pre-arranged and she was mobbed by at least 15 people all offering her “the best guest house in town”.  Incidentally, everyone we met tried to tell us how were staying at the wrong place but their friend/cousin/brother had the best guest house.

Anyways, we arrived at the place and what a view!  The photo above was actually taken from the window of the 500 year-old, mud floored room that we were staying.  It’s unbelievable where you can stay here in India (by the way, Indians hate staying in this sort of room: they want air conditioning and colour television).

We took in a couple of havelis around town and they were some of the most luxurious houses I’ve ever seen.  One (Salim Singh-Ki haveli) was the old home of a prime minister.  It’s in quite a state of disrepair now, but you can still sense the grandeur.  The old man had a mirrored room build where he could sit and watch women dance behind a screen (remember the whole Purda thing).  This room is on the fifth floor of the building and towers above all the rest of the old town.

The only other building to rival that haveli was one built a couple of blocks down the street by a rich trader.  This building, the Patwa-ki haveli, was almost surreal.  Floor after floor and room after room of intricate carved stone.  Windows of stone lattice.  Cupolas of stone.   All supported by carved pillars of-you guessed it-stone.  To top it off, the owners had silver furniture and were so rich that they had a pulley system rigged up so that a servant could fan them at night.  Here’s a shot:
We were on the roof as the sun set and it was surreal.  The whole building and surround old city turned golden.  Minute by minute you could see the sandstone turn from gold to red and then fade into the night.  There’s a photo of what it looks like below:
There are a tonne of other amazing things inside the walls of the fort.  There’s a Jain temple with some of the most ornate carvings I’ve ever seen.  Their temple is topped off by a cupola that is ringed with Ganeshs (Incidentally, there’s a Ganesh above the doorway of almost every house in Jaisalmer.  He’s considered good luck, so every house one built in during construction).  Here’s a shot of it:
Interestingly, the Jains comprise less than 1% of India’s population but have disproportionate political influence.  It was their philosophy of non-violence that Ghandi adopted.  Also, they refuse to eat any meat or even vegetables that grow underground (e.g., garlic and onions) as they believe in karma and it would be bad karma to ‘hurt’ anything by eating it.

The other thing to see inside the fort is the former royal palace.  As you can imagine, this is room after room of intricate carvings and painted walls and the odd bit of silver furniture.  To give you an idea of how skilled the Rajastanis are with a chisel, check out the photo below.  To give you a further idea, one room has a wooden door that on closer inspection was revealed to be stone.

There’s some interesting history to the fort.  When the rulers of the fort were about to be overrun they and their wives would engage in Saka and Jauhar, respectively.  Jauhar consisted of the women immolating themselves in a massive fire while wearing their best clothes and a drum beat a funereal rhythm.  The next day the men would commit Saka: dress in saffron robes and ride into battle where they would kill as many as possible before dying.  This has happened two and a half times since the fort was created; the last time they didn’t have time to make a fire so they simply slit the throats of their wives and daughters.  Apparently Indian history considers this only half a Jauhar.

Incidentally, while Jauhar/Saka is unbelievably violent, there was one very restrained aspect of battle in medieval India.  The warriors would battle from dawn to dusk, but opposing sides would then gather to play chess at night.  This led to the unfortunate situation where you could be killed by the man you had beaten in chess the night before.

Here’s an interesting piece of modern Indian military history.  Windmills dot the horizon around Jaisalmer and I thought in quite progressive that India was actually using wind power.  However, it turns out that all of these are operate by the military and power a set of floodlights running along the Pakistani border (which you’re not allowed within 30 kilometers of).

One last shot to give you an idea of how gorgeous this city is-and why it’s called the Golden City.  This one was taken at dawn; I’ve no idea why there’s a fire going on:

If you’re looking for a place to stay, get in touch with Kailash Bissa at the Moti Palace Hotel:

On Fort, Chougan Para

Jaisalmer - 345001 (Rajasthan), India


9414244146 (M)

02992-254693 (O)

02992-253494 (R)


Friday, December 15, 2006

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