In the remote westernmost corner of Rajasthan, JAISALMER is the quintessential desert town, its golden, sand-coloured ramparts rising out of the arid Thar like a scene from the Arabian Nights. Rampant commercialism may have dampened the romantic vision somewhat, but even with all the touts and tour buses, the town deservedly remains one of India’s most popular destinations. Villagers dressed in voluminous red and orange turbans still outnumber foreigners in the bazaar, while the exquisite sandstone architecture of the “Golden City” is quite unlike anything else in India.
Getting lost in the narrow winding streets of Jaisalmer is both easy and enjoyable, though the town is so small that it never takes long to find a familiar landmark.
Rawal Jaisal of the Bhati clan founded Jaisalmer in 1156 as a replacement for his less easily defensible capital at Lodurva. Constant wars with Jodhpur and Bikaner followed, as did conflict with the sultans of Delhi. In 1298, a seven-year siege of the fort by the forces of Ala-ud-Din Khalji ended when the men of the city rode out to their deaths while the women committed johar – although the Bhatis soon resumed their rule. The city was again besieged by Sultanate forces in 1326, resulting in another desperate act of johar, but Gharsi Bhati managed to negotiate the return of his kingdom as a vassal state of Delhi, after which it remained in Bhati hands.
In 1570 the ruler of Jaisalmer married one of his daughters to Akbar’s son, cementing an alliance between Jaisalmer and the Mughal Empire. Its position on the overland route between Delhi and Central Asia made it an important entrepôt for goods such as silk, opium and spices, and the city grew rich on the proceeds, as the magnificent havelis of its merchants bear witness. However, the emergence of Bombay and Surat as major ports meant that overland trade diminished, and with it Jaisalmer’s wealth. The death-blow came with Partition, when Jaisalmer’s life-line trade route was severed by the new, highly sensitive Pakistani border. The city took on renewed strategic importance during the Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971, and it is now a major military outpost, with jet aircraft regularly roaring past the ramparts.Read More
Camel safaris from Jaisalmer
Camel safaris from Jaisalmer
Few visitors who make it as far as Jaisalmer pass up the opportunity to go on a camel trek, which provides an irresistibly romantic chance to cross the barren sands and sleep under one of the starriest skies in the world. Sandstorms, sore backsides and camel farts aside, the safaris are usually great fun. Treks normally last from one to four days, with prices varying from Rs600 to Rs1500 per night. The highlight is spending a night under the desert stars, and most travellers find that an overnight trip, departing around 3pm one day and returning the next at noon, is sufficient. Unfortunately, the price you pay is not an adequate gauge of the quality of services you get, and it pays to shop around and ask other travellers for recommendations. Make sure you’ll be provided with your own camel, an adequate supply of blankets (it can get very cold at night), food cooked with mineral water, and a campfire. You should also make sure that your operator is committed to either burning or removing all rubbish (including plastic bottles).
The traditional Jaisalmer camel safari used to head west out of town to Amar Sagar, Bada Bagh, Lodurva, Sam and Kuldera. Some operators still cover these areas, although encroaching development and crowds of other tourists (around Sam especially) mean that there is very little sense of the real desert hereabouts. The better operators are constantly seeking out new and unspoilt areas to trek through – this usually means an initial drive out of Jaisalmer of around 50–60km, though it’s worth it to avoid the crowds. Longer seven- to ten-day treks to Pokaran, Barmer and Bikaner can also be arranged, though these shouldn’t be attempted lightly.
Finally, don’t book anything until you get to Jaisalmer. Touts trawl trains and buses from Jodhpur, but they usually represent dodgy outfits. Some offer absurdly cheap rooms if you agree to book a camel trek with them. Guesthouse notice-boards are filled with sorry stories by tourists who accepted. As a rule of thumb, any firm that has to tout for business – and that includes hotels – is worth avoiding.