Jaisalmer is a diadem of gold and sand set gracefully down in the arid wastes of the Thar desert. The beauty of this honey-coloured city is matched only by the luminous desert all around it, where camel caravans laden with precious goods once tramped across the dunes.
The name of Jaisalmer means “hill fort of Jaisal”. It was founded by Jaisal Singh, a Rajput of the Bhatti warrior clan. The Rajput kings reigned from 1156 to 1949, when their state was incorporated into Rajasthan.
Jaisalmer owes its name of “golden city”, to the colour of the sandstone it is built from. The warm yellow stone and the amazingly sophisticated, intricately-worked merchants’ houses (havelis) give the town a unique charm and atmosphere.
This golden city owes its historical importance to its wealth and its function as a staging point on the caravan route between India, the Arab world and Africa. Camels coming through carried such goods as silk, indigo, sugar, dried fruit and opium.
Jaisalmer is divided into the upper town inside the ramparts and the lower town clustered round the outside.
Each year in January or February Jaisalmer and during two days, golden city of the Thar desert, becomes a colourful three-day showcase for Rajasthani folk culture. Camel procession, competitions such as turban tying and longest moustache take place, as well as the Miss Desert and Mr. Desert contests and folk music and dance during evenings….
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Sonar Quila, the Golden Fort stands on Trikuta Hill in the heart of the city.
It is 76m tall at highest point and is surrounded by 5km of ramparts. It is one of the world’s largest forts.
It was built by Rawal Jaisal in 1156, in an architectural style combining Rajput and Mughal elements.
Among the remarkable monuments within its walls are the Raj Mahal or royal palace and seven Jain temples. One can to amble for hours through its narrow lanes with their colourful houses.
This magnificent seven-storey palace inside Jaisalmer Fort was built in the 15th century and has been well restored.
A terrace provides a bird’s-eye view of Jaisalmer and the ramparts. Some of the rooms can be visited, including the king’s apartments. The palace also serves as a museum for a collection of weapons and artefacts.
The seven interconnected Jain temples inside Jaisalmer Fort are quite simply splendid.
They were built between the 15th and 16th centuries and are dedicated to the seven Tirthankars (Jain saints) Chandraprabhu, Rikhabdev, Parasnath, Shitalnath, Shantinath and Kunthunath.
The interiors, with finely carved white marble in the Dilwara style, make them fitting rivals to Ranakpur temple. Absolutely not to be missed.
2 – Havelis
Patwah Ki Haveli
The Patwon Ki Haveli is the most impressive of Jaisalmer’s havelis (urban mansions) and one of the largest in Rajasthan.
In fact it is a complex of five havelis. It was commissioned by Guman Chand Patwa, a rich Jain banker, in 1800, and took 55 years to build.
Two of the five havelis can be visited. The intricacy of the delicately carved façades is breathtaking.
Nathmal Ki Haveli
The Nathmal Ki Haveli was built in the 19th century and was used to house the prime ministers.
There is an interesting tale about the building of the mansion. Its architects, Hathi and Lulu, happened to be brothers.
It is said that they started building the two sides simultaneously, and when the haveli was completed the symmetry of the façade was found to be less than perfect.
Salam Singh Ki Haveli
Salam Singh Ki Haveli is the last of the three most significant havelis in Jaisalmer.
It was built in 1815 by Salim Singh, prime minister of the kingdom, and occupied by the Mehta family, a highly influential Jaisalmer family in those days.
The haveli boasts 38 balconies, each differently designed. The front façade looks like the prow of a ship, and the place is sometimes called Jahaz Mahal, the “ship palace”.
3 – Gadi Sagar Lake
It was dug out in 1367 by Rawal Gadsi Singh, the first Maharaja of Jaisalmer. Until 1950 it was the city’s only water supply.
It is reached through the Tillon Ki Pol gateway, built in the late 19th century by a courtesan named Tillon.
There are many temples by the lake, and some small pavilions built directly on the water that give the place a distinctly romantic charm.
Gadi Sagar lake Museum
This small museum to the right of the Tillon Ki Pol belongs to a private citizen.
It is a mine of information about Rajasthani culture.
The host, whose father created the museum, will give you a lively guided tour of the museum, with a touch of humour (He speaks excellent French too).
The Bada Bagh (“big garden”) is a group of cenotaphs or chhatris 6km north of Jaisalmer. These are the cenotaphs of the Jaisalmer Maharajas since 1743. A joy to behold at sunset.
5 – Lodhruva Jain temple (15km)
Lodhruva temple is a Jain temple dedicated to Parshvanath, the 23rd Tirthankara.
Destroyed in the 12th century and rebuilt in 1970, it is a gem of a temple, with finely carved jalis (latticed screens) and torana (arch).
Twenty kilometres from Jaisalmer on the sand dune road you’ll find the ghost town of Kuldhara.
The desert wind has blown off the roofs but the walls are still standing, as are some temples and tanks.
It is said that its inhabitants were Paliwal Brahmins, who are now scattered throughout Rajasthan. Why they abandoned the place is a complete mystery.
Fifteen kilometres from the ghost town of Kuldhara stands a fort once occupied by the Paliwal Brahmins.
There is nothing of great interest inside other than the view and a few craftwork items.
Around the fort are the ruins of the homes of 80 families who lived here for over 200 years.
7 – Sam and Khuri Dunes (40km)
The Sam and Khuri dunes offer a good glimpse of the Thar desert, but unfortunately they are very touristy. Even so the trip is worth it for the beauty of the desert.