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.
The streets of Jaisalmer are flanked with numerous pale honey-coloured facades, covered with latticework and floral designs, but the city’s real showpieces are its havelis, commissioned by wealthy merchants during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Every part of Jaisalmer Fort is made of soft yellow Jurassic sandstone. Outside, the thick walls, punctuated with barrel-sided bastions, drop almost 100m to the town below, while inside narrow winding streets are flanked with carved golden facades. Two thousand people still live within its walls; seventy percent of them are Brahmins and the rest, living primarily on the east side, are predominantly Rajput. A paved road punctuated by four huge gateways winds up to the fort’s main chowk (square) – large round stones lie atop the ramparts above the entrance, waiting to be pushed down on the heads of any approaching enemy. The main chowk was the scene of the three terrible acts of johar during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the women of the royal palace, which overlooks the chowk, had a huge fire built, and jumped from the palace walls into it.
The chowk is dominated by the Palace of the Maharawal, open to the public as the Fort Palace Museum. The palace’s balconied, five-storey facade displays some of the finest masonry in Jaisalmer, while the ornate marble throne to the left of the palace entrance is where the monarch (known in Jaisalmer as the maharawal rather than the maharaja) would have addressed his troops. Inside, the museum offers an intriguing snapshot of the life of Jaisalmer’s potentates through the ages, with artefacts ranging from a fancy silver coronation throne to more homely items, such as the bed and thali dish of a nineteenth-century ruler. There’s also an interesting array of other exhibits – from fifteenth-century sculptures (including an unusual bearded Rama) through to local stamps and banknotes, while the rooftop terrace gives unrivalled views over the city and the surrounding countryside.
The fort has a number of Hindu temples, including the venerable Laxminath Temple of 1494, however none is as impressive as the complex of seven Jain temples. The temples, connected by small corridors and stairways, were built between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries with yellow and white marble shrines and exquisite sculpted motifs covering the walls, ceilings and pillars. Two of the seven temples are open between 8am and noon; the other five only open from 11am to noon, when the whole place gets overrun with coach parties, so it’s best to visit before 11am to see the first two temples, then come back later to see the rest.
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 Rs750 to Rs2000 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. We’ve listed a few dependable operators here, though the list is far from exhaustive. 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, Lodurva, Sam and Kuldhara. 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, or pretend to represent one of the well-established operators. Some offer absurdly cheap rooms if you agree to book a camel trek with them, and then rescind their offer (of a room) if you change your mind. Guesthouse noticeboards are filled with sorry stories of tourists who accepted. As a rule of thumb, any firm that has to tout for business – and that includes hotels – is worth avoiding.
Specialist agencies allow you to book direct through their offices in Jaisalmer. Reliable outfits include:
Erected on a base of soft bantonite clay, sand and sandstone, the foundations of Jaisalmer Fort are rapidly eroding due to huge increases in water consumption, mainly related to tourism. At the height of the season, around 120 litres per head are pumped into the area – and due to problems with the drainage system, a large proportion of this water seeps back into the soil beneath the fort, weakening its foundations. The results have been disastrous. In 1998 six people died when an exterior wall gave way, and five more bastions fell in 2000 and 2001. Jaisalmer is now listed among the World Monument Fund’s 100 Most Endangered Sites.
An international campaign, Jaisalmer in Jeopardy (JiJ), has been set up to facilitate repairs throughout the fort, including assistance with upgrading underground sewerage. The scheme relies largely on donations; see the website for details if you’d like to help. Despite the work so far carried out, however, some authorities think the best way to save the fort would be to evacuate its two thousand inhabitants and start repairs to the drainage system from scratch, an expensive and time-consuming venture much opposed by the guesthouse owners inside whose earnings depend on tourism.
Given all this, some people (and guidebooks) suggest that travellers should avoid staying in the fort in order to relieve pressure on its crumbling foundations. Unfortunately, this also has a serious side effect in that it deprives many local hoteliers – some of whom have been in the fort for decades, and who are in no way responsible for Jaisalmer’s current plight – of a living. Remember that if you stay in the fort, you can do your bit by minimizing your water usage as much as possible.
Top image: Fort in Jaisalmer, India © saiko3p/Shutterstock