Jaisalmer, India. January 2014

January 13, 2014

Pictures of Sam Sands Dunes and Jaisalmer. 

Sunil and I left Jodhpur at 6 am because I have booked an overnight camel safari out of Jaisalmer (280 kms away) and had to be there by 1 pm to register and check-in. Nico has decided to come with me on the safari, since he was planning to do it anyway, but he left Jodhpur by bus a day before. Jodhpur stands on the border of Thar Desert and we were about to enter one of the deadliest places in India. Jaisalmer, the India’s most western outpost is located in the middle of Thar desert and offers one of the most authentic desert safaris in the region, or so they say. I figured to give it a try and spend at least one night in a desert.

Almost immediately after leaving Jodhpur I could see the difference in scenery, the trees were becoming more scarce, while white sand and desert-like plants were getting more predominant. It is a wonderful and serene feeling to witness sunset when driving in the desert. When we finally approached Jaisalmer around noon, a car accident on the main road prevented us from driving through to the city (because apparently, there were no other roads and traffic started to pile up at the scary speed), so Sunil recommended me to have somebody from the agency come and pick me up by a motorbike. Luckily, they were willing to do so, but when a guy came to get me, we figured out a better, dirt-road option to the city.

I used a highly regarded agency, Sahara Travels for my two days/one night safari (Rs.1350), originating right outside Jaisalmer fort. When I arrived, Nico was already there and so were 4 other European students doing an exchange program in Ahmedabad, but exploring India on the weekends.  Because our overnight camp was located in Sam Sand Dunes, about 42 kms away from Jaisalmer, we started our trip in a jeep at 2 pm. About 15 kms to the west from Jaisalmer, we stopped to explore a long abandoned village, which to my knowledge didn’t present any historical value. After browsing for 10-15 minutes, I returned to the car and asked the driver/guide what was so special about this place and what was it called? Apparently, it was a famous cursed village Kuldhara and the story of this place is next.

Established in 1291 by Paliwal Brahmins, Kuldhara was the main village in a group of 84. Despite arid desert and scorching summers, Brahmin community was successful in growing crops and became prosperous. However, one night in 1825 all the people of Kuldhara and other 83 villages disappeared, simply vanishing in the dark. What would force them to leave their settlement after 7 centuries? Legend says that the king (or minister) of ruling kingdom, on the way to somewhere passed Kuldhara. By some chance, he saw the young daughter of the village ruler and fell in love. He asked for her hand but was denied because he wasn’t of the same caste as Brahmins. So, in order to force his way, the king gave all citizens of 84 villages a notice that if they don’t give up the young girl, he would punish all of them. The leaders of the villages got together and in order to preserve their honor and purity of Brahmin caste gathered all the citizens and left their settlement forever. Until today, nobody knows what happened to them and where they settled after, however, there are rumors that they founded another city near Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Despite the abandonment, the villages weren’t re-occupied and the houses weren’t stripped for materials, because, before leaving, the Brahmins sent a curse that anyone who would occupy their land would die. Until now, all the villages stand there alone, cursed and with all their inhabitants long gone. In different state of dissolution, some houses look nothing more than a pile of rubbles, while others still preserved their walls and indoor planning.

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After about 20 minutes in Kuldhara Village, we continued further into the desert. At some point, we stopped to switch the vehicles and instead of the jeep, we all climbed to our own personal camels to proceed to an overnight camp. I have ridden camels before, in Egypt and I really enjoyed it. At first, it seems scary and the height of the animal doesn’t make it any better, however, feeling the slow pace and good nature of your ride, makes it an enjoyable adventure. After about 15 minutes of photo-craze, I finally relaxed and enjoy the beautiful ride in the dunes. Later, speaking with a friend who did an overnight safari as well, I learnt that they went to a place that felt as remote as NYC in the afternoon, so I was very lucky to have no one but our caravan of camels mounting the dunes of Sam Sands.

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After about 1.5 hours of riding, we reached the camp where our driver/guide was joined by other 3-4 men, excluding the camel boys who accompanied us throughout the ride. While our group was happily and freely running up and down the dunes like children, the camp attendants prepared our beds (6 double mattresses next to each other with 6 heavy blankets on top) and were in the process of cooking dinner on the camp fire. A bedouin came to our camp and offered us to buy beer, apparently, we weren’t that far from the civilization, as i hoped, and here I found out that my wallet was stolen. Whatever bad could happen to me, happened. After the rape attack in Jodhpur, theft of $1,000 in Agra, that was just another thing missing from my list of misadventures in India.

Despite all, we had a very delicious and quiet dinner by the fire; conversations, exchange of experiences and just blank star-staring filled the evening way past 10 pm. I went to sleep and even though, I am not big on camping and always have hard time sleeping outside (especially in +0C and wrapped in a dirty blanket), the night was cold but comfortable. Nico was the first to get up even before the sunset to capture some pretty good shots.

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January 14, 2014

After the breakfast, we mounted our rides and proceeded back to the pit stop about 1- 1.5 hours away. On the second day, every one felt as a professional camel rider with many years of practice. It is definitely the kind of experience you want to repeat over and over again. I wish I had time to do a multi-day safari.

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Upon reaching Jaisalmer around noon, i spent a few hours dealing with the police in regard to my lost wallet and by the time I got to my hotel, I had neither desire, nor mental strength to explore the city. I stayed at the wonderful hotel located just outside the Fort, Shahi Palace Hotel. The owner and personnel at the hotel were friendly and very accommodating to my needs – the usual extra blanket and a heater as well as plenty of hot water to shower. The front desk also arranged a masseuse to come to my room (Rs 900), but I had to cut our session short because it was still too cold in the room and because she was old enough to be my grandma and I felt bad for her. After one month of non-stop traveling around India, I thought Jaisalmer was a perfect spot to take a moment off and breath the desert air without rushing to see other places. That was exactly what I did. I occupied a beautiful balcony-table at the rooftop of my hotel overlooking the entire Jaisalmer Fort, ordered dinner and some beer and enjoyed the great views and chats with other travelers staying at the hotel.

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January 15, 2014

Jaisalmer, lying in the heart of the Thar desert, was established in 1156 by a renowned warrior of Bhati Rajput clan – Maharawal Jaisal Singh, hence the name Jaisalmer means “Hill Fort of Jaisal” and it took him 7 years to build the original fort. The ruling family of Jaisalmer belongs to Bhati clan of Yadu Rajputs of Chandravanshi (Lunar dynasty) race who claim to be descendants from Lord Krishna, the defied hero who ruled at Dwarka. The city’s early history was tumultuous, partly because its rulers relied on looting as a source of income. In 1293, the Bhatis raided a caravan filled with treasure which headed for Delhi, thus enraging the then Delhi ruler, Ala-ud-Din Khilji. Bhatis defended the fort for seven years until Ala-ud-Din managed to breach the ramparts and enter the fort, sacking everyone and forcing all Jaisalmer citizens to commit jauhar (self-immolation). Ala-ud-Din managed to hold the fort for 9 years, before loosing it to Bhatis. Later in the 14th century, Sultan Feroz Shah also besieged Jaisalmer, after the Bhatis once again raided his camp near Ajmer. This siege led to yet another jauhar. After just two centuries from its foundation, the city became deserted again.

However, from the 16th century onward Jaisalmer started to prosper due to its strategic location along the traditional trade route traversed by the camel caravans of Indian and Asian merchants. The route linked India to Central Asia, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Africa and the West. The reign of Rawal Sahal Singh marked a prosperous epoch in the history of Jaisalmer, as well as great relationships with Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (gained by a nobleman called Sabala Simha for his services in Shah Jahan’s Peshawar campaign). In the mid-17th century, Maharwal Sabal Singh expanded the Jaisalmer kingdom to its greatest extend annexing areas that belong to the administrative districts of Bikaner and Jodhpur. However, with the accession of Rawal Mulraj in 1762, the fortunes of the state rapidly declined and most of its outlying provinces were lost. Political alliance with British Raj in 1818, along with the development of ports, particularly in Mumbai, and railroads, brought the end to a caravan industry of the region, thus rendering Jaisalmer a drought-prone desert backwater. Sadly, only the wars between India and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 put Jaisalmer back on the map due to its strategic boarder location, but luckily for us, the city was redefined as a tourist destination because it indeed has much to offer. The Golden city once again rose from the sand.

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Unlike most forts in India, Jaisalmer fort is a living one. This breathtaking, mysterious, massive, mirage-like citadel is inhabited; it contains living streets, temples, a royal palace, restaurants,  guesthouses (however, I wasn’t recommended to stay at one) and 3,000 people (mostly Brahmin or Daroga communities) who actually live there. Huge walls encircle the fort that came back from the dead in the past half-century. It is a remote, hard to reach place, but it is definitely worth a visit.

After a great night sleep and hearty breakfast, I left the hotel to see the city. The fort itself, contains 3 layers of walls, 5 kms in circumference. The outer or the lower layer is made of solid stone blocks and it reinforces the loose rubble of Trikuta hill, on top of which the fort was originally built. The second, or middle, wall snaked around the fort. There is a gap of 2-4 meters in between the second and third walls, known as Moti and used to move the guards around the fort. The uppermost part of the fortification consists of merlons (kanguras), gun holes and balconies (jharokhas) From the innermost, or third, wall the Rajput warriors once poured boiling oil and water as well as massive blocks of rock at their enemies, who would become entrapped between the second and third walls. The defenses of the for include 99 bastions, of which 92 were built between the period of 1633-1647.

I entered Sonar Quila (another name for Jaisalmer fort) from its east side, near Gopa Chowk, passed through 4 massive gates along the zigzagging route to the upper part. Truly a living fort, its winding lanes looked alive and animated already at 8 am. Since Jain Temples are open only from 8 am till noon, I thought it would be a smart idea to head there first. Along the way, while taking photos of a beautiful craft shop, I met a Japanese guy, Shuhei who became my travel partner for the next few days. Apparently, after quitting his job in Japan, Shu decided to take time off and travel the world. India was his first stop and he was really enjoying his time there.

We both headed to Jain Temples, after paying Rs.200 admission and camera fees, removing our shoes and leather objects, we collected our audio guides and went inside. Jain Temple complex consists of 7 carved temples built between the 12th and 15th centuries. They all are connected by walkways, staircases and corridors, making it an adventurous place to discover. Resembling to a large extent the Jain Temple of Ranakpur, yet, they were very different; built of soft yellow stone, they beautifully blended in with the rest of the Golden city. I wish the audio guides worked, but they kept automatically switching from one language to another thus serving no use to us.

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The first Jain temple we entered was Chandraprabhu temple, built in 1509 it is dedicated to the eighth tirthankar, whose symbol is a moon. The fine mandapa and intensely sculpted pillars, forming a series of toranas were beautifully and intricately carved, however, they look very similar to the lavish Jain temples I have visited before in Udaipur and Ranakpur.

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To the right of Chandraprabhu is the quiet Rokhabdev temple, with the traditional Jain sculptures placed around the walls and pillars skillfully carved and decorated with gods and apsaras.

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We visited the Parasnath, located behind Chandraprabhu temple and exited through a door to the south, which led to small Sheetalnath, dedicated to the tenth tirthankar, whose image in the temple is composed of eight precious metals.

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Browsing around and trying to follow the guidance of our broken audio guide, we stumbled on Sambhavnanth – the courtyard where Jain priests grind sandalwood in mortals and where many locals come to pay their tribute. We were lucky to witness not one but two different ceremonies at the Temple, both were, what it seemed to me, family affairs.

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There were a few more places to check out at the Jain Temple Complex and first of all the Gyan Bhandar (underground library), Shantinath and Kunthunath Temples. After about 1.5 hours spent there, both, Shu and myself were overwhelmed by all the carvings and endless passages. When we finally left the Jain Temples, we collected our shoes and headed straight to the Royal Palace. Even though, the fort’s palace looked magnificent and surreal rising above the mega fort, many people I spoke with, neither ever visited it nor advised me to do it, claiming that there was nothing there to see, especially after all other Rajasthani palaces that I’ve been to. However, with plenty of free time to walk and explore the fort, Shu and I decided to give the Palace a try and it was a wonderful 2 hour tour around the Raj Mahal.

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Rs.300 admission fee and Rs.100 per camera allowed us to start the tour. There were no guides on the premisses, so we had to use the audio guides which were useful but a bit boring. The elegant seven-storey Raj Mahal, built on top of the 4th gate Hawa Pol, towers the main square of the fort. Guiding us from room to room, the audio recording filled in the knowledge gaps about the Jaisalmer history and kings, introducing us to their armory, coronation process, genealogy and showing a few rooms that preserved their appearance since the time of ruling kings – Rang Mahal, the bedroom of the 18th century ruler Mulraj II, a gallery of finely wrought 15th-century sculptures donated to the rulers by the builders of the fort’s temples and absolutely spectacular views of the fort from the rooftop. Given that we weren’t constrained by time and that Raj Mahal was nearly free of visitors, Shu and I took our time to leisurely explore every room and corner of this incredible palace.DSC_8614

Before exiting the Raj Mahal, we checked out a fascinating jewelry shop recommended in every travel guide – Hari Om Jewellers. The owner, and second generation of jewel master showed us some incredible rings with the finest carvings of pretty much everything, from India’s top 10 gods to all sights of Jaisalmer or ever Rajasthan. I wish I had enough cash at that moment to buy a souvenir but after I have been robbed, I had very little spare money.

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From the top of the Raj Mahal, Shu and I spotted a rooftop restaurant so we headed there to have lunch. It was a lovely place to sit on the sun, enjoy the fantastic views of the fort and the city below, converse and get to know each other better. Shu was a true Japanese gentleman – shy, thoughtful and intelligent, and at the same time, courteous and funny. I really enjoyed his company and felt really lucky to have met him. After traveling in India, I realized that a company of a man is mandatory in order to stay safe and sane, in addition, Shu was a very interesting and nice person to travel with and share observations.

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Having spent half day in the fort, we decided to go down to the city and check out the restored part with the bazaar and famous fairy-tale like Jaisalmer Havelis. Old Jaisalmer town is a complicated labyrinth of tangled streets, so we had to use map.google and people’s directions in order to find Patwa Haveli. Located on the narrow street, Haveli is a complex of five buildings built by 5 merchant brothers between 1800 and 1860. The history of the Patwa Haveli dates back to early 18th century, when the patwas were struggling to set up their trade and business. On the advice of a priest at the Jain Temple, the patwas brothers left Jaisalmer with the intention of never returning (they were told by the priest that their business would never succeed in Jaisalmer). The legend has it that the patwas were immensely successful thereafter and their business spanned across banking and finance, silver, brocade and opium trade.

Eventually patwas rose to such heights that they were called upon to finance the state deficit. This brought the clan back to their old city. The then head of the family, Ghuman Chand Patwa, decided to give each of his five sons a separate and elaborate mansion, ignoring the advice of the priest. Thus came up the five grandiose havelis facing the Jaisalmer Fort.

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Unfortunately, the lives of the patwas took a different turn upon their return to Jaisalmer and their fortunes started dwindling. Consequently, they had to abandon the city-state again, leaving the havelis at the mercy of care takers. The care takers became the owners in the course of time and decided to put the havelis up for sale.  Mr. Jeevanlalji Kothari, native of Jaisalmer, purchased the first haveli, hence it was renamed after him Kothari’s Patwa Haveli. One the first haveli is open for public and presents its visitors the glimpse into the life of the rich Jain merchants.

Shu and I, paid the admission fees (Rs. 150 entry and Rs. 70 per camera) and hired a guide (Rs.100) to personally introduce us to the lifestyle of rich and famous of the 19th century’s Jaisalmer. A wonderful haveli was delicately built from sandstone by the best masons of the time. It indeed represents a state of art, both inside and out. Gorgeously carved stone doorways, jalis, screens, balconies and turrets along with a sophisticated and adequate museum inside, made 2 hours to fly by. Our guide was an interesting character, whose name I wish I recorded; he was also a landowner and a farmer from a place on the boarder with Pakistan. Good natured and intelligent, he shared his great sense of humor and well as his opium recipes with us. I highly recommend hiring a guide for a tour around the haveli, since every room had its secrets and interesting story attached to it and many, even simple objects, displayed in the Haveli, take on very different meanings once they story is told. My favorite was an opium trade room, for obvious reasons.

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It started to get dark and our guide escorted us to another Haveli – Nathmal-ki-Haveli, located just a few blocks away. Built in late 19th century, this haveli used to be a prime minister’s house and until now is partially inhabited. The part shown to us was mostly a craft shop with some very interesting souvenirs, however, our guide told us to pay attention t the room itself. Apparently, it was built by two brothers who couldn’t settle on one design for the house, so they split the house and built each side the way they wanted, except for this particular room because it was a shared one. They found a solution by dividing the room in the middle and decorating each half the way they pleased, thus creating this interesting hall with two sides looking nothing alike.

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It was already dark when we thanked our guide for such an interesting tour and headed back to Shahi Palace hotel. Shu stayed in the hotel in the Fort, but I invited him to come and have a dinner with me at the roof-top restaurant in my hotel. It was a cold evening but the full moon reflecting off the Golden city made it an idillic setting to enjoy the night.

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