Describing an Indian city as picturesque seems pointless. In fact, which Indian city is not picturesque? But today we are talking about a place that is quite different from the majority of significant populations of the Indian subcontinent: Jaisalmer, the golden city.
Jaisalmer is located 660 kilometres southwest of Delhi, and quite close to the Pakistani border. It is completely surrounded by sandbanks and dune areas in the great Indian desert of Thar. It presents a very dry and warm climate, being especially hot in the months of May and June. In the political sphere, it is the capital of the Jaisalmer district, in the state of Rajasthan, one of the twenty-eight states that make up the Indian Union.
But what distinguishes this city from the other famous destinations in Rajasthan? Well, in many ways it is completely different. If we take four of the most representative places of Rajasthan as a sample, we see that they look little like each other, but much less if we compare them with Jaisalmer:
Pushkar, one of the landmarks of any trip to India, is a small sacred city, completely white, which is located surrounding a central lake. One of the characteristics that draw attention to travellers arriving in Pushkar is that it is a strictly vegetarian place, and it is forbidden to consume meat and drink alcohol throughout the urban area, including all the restaurants specialized in foreign tourists.
The city of Jaipur is famous throughout the world as the pink city, named for the color of its houses and palaces, with a unique building such as the “Hawa Mahal“, the palace of the Winds. Lately, and thanks to being declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, the Jantar Mantar is well known, a curious set of instruments for making astronomical calculations, an instrument of enormous measurements.
Udaipur, one of the most visited cities for tourism, is characterized by huge palaces located on the shores of the lakes, some of them nestled in the middle of the water.
And finally, as a comparison, we quote Jodhpur, the blue city. The entire population lives in blue-tinted houses, and these are situated around a hill, crowned by Fort Mehrangarh.
In Jaisalmer, it has three identifying features that are what make the difference. One is the ochre color of the stone with which the most important buildings are built: the fort, the temples and the palaces, here called Havelis. Along with the sand of the surrounding dunes, also yellowish, they have contributed to promoting the name of “Golden city“.
The second characteristic is the desert itself, which meant isolation and a clear barrier with respect to other areas of Rajasthan, marking its own history, so much so that in the past the state of Jaisalmer existed. The last of the differences in the architectural splendour with the decorative profusion of the Havelis and the temples of this fortress-city.
Jaisalmer’s founding dates back to the 12th century, when Raja Maharawal Jaisal Singh, a Rajput monarch, established his residence on Trikuta Hill (Three Summit Hill). On this promontory, he had a fortress built which still stands and proudly displays the 99 bastions on its wall. Currently, more than 15,000 inhabitants still live inside the fort (dating from 1156). Jaisalmer means “the fort on the hill of Jaisal”
The history of the city has been troubled, having gone through moments of great suffering for its inhabitants. One hundred and thirty years after the construction of the fort, the Delhi’s khilji encircled the fort, the resistance was heroic, lasting seven years until succumbing to the year 1293. When the khilji entered the city to plunder it, they found no one alive, because the inhabitants had committed collective suicide.
The Bhatti, a clan originally from Punjab and who had migrated south in the 11th century, were in the majority in Jaisalmer. An ancient Bhati and Rajput practice were Jauhar. This custom consisted of self-immolation, with which one wanted to avoid the dishonour of being captured by the enemy. There were no survivors in the city, but there were in the surrounding region, and these people migrated to Punjab and Sind from what is now Pakistan, founding the Bhutto clan there.
The collective death of the inhabitants of Jaisalmer, following the Jauhar rite, was repeated in the middle of the 14th century. So it was to end the siege of the Delhi sultan Firuz-Shah Tughluq, a fierce persecutor of Hinduism and a faithful follower of Muslim orthodoxy.
The state of Jaisalmer, in the form of a principality, continued throughout the centuries until at the end of 1818 it became a British protectorate. During this period, the city had moments of great brilliance, especially due to the fact that it had become an obligatory passage for camel caravans on the commercial route that linked India with Persia, Arabia, Egypt and the routes that led to Africa. Jaisalmer’s end as a state was in 1949 when it became part of Rajasthan. Currently, the main commercial activity revolves around tourism.
The main tourist attraction is the fort with the royal palace “Maharaja Mahal”, the Havelis, the eight temples of the Jain cult and the four of Hindu religion.
The Havelis are noble buildings and have a certain historical and especially artistic value found in India and Pakistan. The term haveli is of Persian origin (hawli) and means “closed place”. Depending on the region where these buildings are, they may have Persian and Mughal architectural influences. In Jaisalmer, they were the mansions of the wealthy merchants and for their construction they spared no effort or money, turning them into authentic works of art. In the sandstone of the walls, the stonecutters left infinite details engraved. The balconies are spectacular for their meticulous work, as are the arches, doors and some wall paintings.
Among the visits to the city, it is worth highlighting first of all the walls. It is interesting to walk around the outside as it is essential to visit the interior of the fort with the royal palace. Of the unique buildings, the temples are part of the essence of Jaisalmer. The best, in our opinion, is the Chandraprabhu temple, dedicated to the eighth Tirthankar, the Jain prophet Chandraprabhu, built-in 1509. It preserves all the architectural virtues of ancient Rajput. Other Jain temples of high interest for his sculptures are those of Rikhabdev, Shitalmath, Parasmath, Sambhavanth, Shantinah and Kunthunath. The two most important Hindu temples are those of Lasminath and Surya.
The most significant haveli is Patwon-ki Haveli. All of it is a real gem of Indian architecture. It is made up of five attached Havelis, forming a uniform set. Its construction dates from 1805 and belonged to a wealthy jewellery merchant. One of the sections is now a museum. Other interesting Havelis are the Salim Sigh-ki Haveli, built-in 1815 by Prime Minister Salim Sigh, the Shree Nath Haveli, Mehra Haveli and Nathmalji-ki Haveli.
If the traveller wants to find a quiet and peaceful place, just walk to the outskirts, about 900 meters southeast of the fort, where the artificial lake Gadi Sagar is located, its construction dates back to 1367 and it fills up thanks to the rains. In its environment, there are some small temples.
Anyone looking for smells, colors and sensations will find them on the market. There, although it is four steps from the walls and the Havelis, one seems to be far from the tourist attractions, with the constant flow of visitors.
One of the most popular tourist activities in Jaisalmer is desert safaris. By jeep to get away from the city and then on a dromedary, the groups go into the dunes. The main show is to watch the sunset, but the excursion has other attractions such as the campfire or if you want to sleep under the stars.