It was nearing midnight. We’d been on the road for close to nine hours, having left Mandawa at three in the afternoon.
The deserted highway, smooth and wide, was sheathed in golden desert sand under a pitch-black sky. Our drive constantly interrupted with herds of prancing wild camel, stoic buffaloes, and abandoned cattle which merged with the darkness of the night. We were on our way to Jaisalmer in the north-west frontiers of Rajasthan.
I will never forget the calm words of my 22-year-old driver, Budharam Bishnoi, the first time an animal sneaked in front of our speeding vehicle: “Jitna aapki suraksha karna mera dharam hai, utna hi inn jeevo ka suraksha karna bhi mera dharam hai. Aap chinta mat karein.” [Just as it is my duty to protect you, it is also my duty to protect these animals. Don’t worry.”
Budharam is a bishnoi, a Hindu sect found in the western Thar desert. Often called India’s first environmentalists and famed for their eco-friendly lifestyles, they are guided by 29 [bish means 20, noi means nine] principles, of which eight deal with protecting wildlife and nature.
His words instantly assured me. I knew I was in safe hands.
My destination, the medieval golden city of Jaisalmer, is no stranger to travellers who brave the desert and distance to reach its splendours. Not much has changed here, one of the world’s few living forts, over the past thousand years. People continue to live, work, pray, and play within the UNESCO-listed fort as they have been doing since its inception by Rawal Jaisal in 1156. It is the reason Jaisalmer still survives and has not been turned into a crumbling ‘protected’ monument.
Come join me on a virtual tour of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan’s last bastion, and discover its rambling fort, exquisite havelis, and ethereal temples, all carved out of iridescent golden sandstone. ❤
SONAR QUILA: THE GOLDEN FORT OF JAISALMER
Till a couple of centuries ago, the entire city-state was contained within the fort measuring 460 metres long and 230 metres wide. The sea of havelis and shops below the hill, to the right, are a later addition.
The year was 1156 AD. Rawal Jaisal, the eldest son of Rawal Dusaj, a Bhati prince of Yaduvanshi descent, had just been passed over by his younger half-brother for the throne.
As many a prince would do after him in the centuries that followed, Jaisal set off in search of his own kingdom. After much wandering he eventually reached Trikuta hill, a 75-metre-high triangular rocky outcrop 17 kilometres away from the old capital Lodurva. Here he met a sage called Eesul who told him that according to Hindu mythology the god Krishna had visited the hill in the ancient past and prophesied that someone from his own Yaduvanshi clan would one day establish a kingdom on it.
On hearing this, Jaisal set up a mud fort and called his new kingdom Jaisalmer. Jaisal after his own name and Meru after the mythical abode of the gods. And hence, Jaisalmer was born.
But the way forward was going to be a bumpy one before things got better.
In the years that followed, Jaisalmer witnessed many sieges including the nine-year siege by Allaudin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate. The fort was also the site of two-and-a-half jauhars wherein the womenfolk practiced mass self-immolation or were killed by their husbands to protect their honour in the face of certain defeat at war. The saffron-stained handprints of these Rajput women still mark the gateways of Jaisalmer Fort.
Each siege led to stronger fortifications and tightened security creating the fortress one sees today. 99 bastions, four monumental gateways and three layers of fortified walls dotted with cannons encase the city-state perched on the hill; all made of locally excavated golden sandstone earning it the moniker ‘sonar quila’, the golden fort.
Wedding invitations in Jaisalmer take the form of murals. Everyone is welcome to join in the festivities.
By the time the Mughals established themselves in Delhi, the rulers of Jaisalmer had learnt the art of building political, matrimonial, and cultural alliances, paving the way for a period of peace, stability, and prosperity.
This peace was amplified by the caravans of camels which passed through Jaisalmer as part of the Great Silk Road. Jaisalmer’s location on the trading routes offered its residents the opportunity to partake in the trade and for rulers to impose taxes. Meanwhile, periodic attacks on neighbouring Gujarat, Malwa, Mewar, and Marwar had forced the wealthy Paliwal and Jain communities to look for an alternate safe haven to set up base. Their arrival in Jaisalmer, accompanied with the finest artisans and most learned scholars, gave it sumptuous havelis and hallowed places of worship decorated in the finest craftmanship.
However, when the British shifted trade routes in the Indian sub-continent to Bombay and Calcutta in order to control trade by diverting it away from the Great Silk Road, Jaisalmer’s fortunes also came to an end.
Dominating the expansive Dussehra Chowk in the heart of the fort is Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum crowned with the eight-metalled Meghadamber [a royal heirloom umbrella symbolic of the Hindu god Krishna]. Once home of the royal family, the palace’s five beautifully carved mahals are connected with maze-like narrow corridors, steep staircases, and tiny door frames that lead up to the terrace and Jaisalmer’s widest vistas. On the palace’s left facade is the stepped Sation Ka Pagothia where both sati and jauhar used to be carried out.
Throughout its history, Jaisalmer’s rulers and subjects have lived side-by-side in one large community within the fort, as they do so even now. Its temples and squares are still the site of pomp, pageantry, and gatherings. The narrow lanes flanked by tall sandstone havelis continue to keep it cool in the blistering desert heat whilst a centuries old drainage system called Ghut Nali drains water out in all four directions.
Not much has changed in Sonar Quila. And therein, is its greatest charm.
Left: Local residents consider the Sati and Jauhar handprints on Jaisalmer Fort’s gateways to be sacred; Right: A local musician plays the double flute.
Sonar Quila, Jaisalmer’s golden fort is made of local honey-coloured sandstone.
Cannons on the ramparts helped to protect the Jaisalmer city-state.
Left: Jaisalmer kings’ silver throne, Fort Palace Museum; Right: View from one of the palace balconies.
Laxminath Mandir , a centre for worship and community life inside the fort.
DIAPHANOUS HAVELIS HEWN OUT OF GOLDEN SANDSTONE
Location and protection. Isn’t that what ultimately attracts merchants? Jaisalmer, back in the 18th and 19th Centuries, had both, making it a magnet for wealthy traders.
Yet Patwon Ki Haveli, Jaisalmer’s grandest haveli complex with some 60 exquisite jharokas, each unique, is a denial of the city’s promise for prosperity.
In the early-19th Century, the Patwa family were struggling to set up their business in Jaisalmer. A priest at the local Jain temple advised them to leave and never return since the city was not financially auspicious for them. As prophesised, once they left, their business in opium and brocade boomed to dizzying heights, spanning across some 300 centres across Asia. They became so wealthy that Jaisalmer’s rulers turned to them to fund the State deficit.
Back in their hometown, the then patriarch of the family, Ghuman Chand Bapna Patwa, chose to ignore the priest’s advice and built five grand mansions, one for each of his five sons. Soon enough, as per the prophecy the family’s fortunes dwindled and they were forced to abandon their homes leaving it with caretakers. One such caretaker sold the first and largest haveli to Jeevanlal Kothari, and it survives today as Kothari’s Patwa Haveli, a museum.
Patwon Ki Haveli , Jaisalmer’s most beautiful and lavish haveli complex, comprises of five interconnected havelis. Top left: A vintage photo of its owners.
Lavish havelis were not the exclusive prerogative of the affluent traders in Jaisalmer. Its politically influential lived in homes just as, if not more, extravagant. Two, in particular, stand out and are a short walk from the Patwon Ki Haveli, albeit in opposite directions: Nathmalji Ki Haveli and Salim Singh Ki Haveli.
Nathmalji Ki Haveli was the home of the Diwan or Prime Minister and was completed in 1885. Its fabulously ethereal façade is the artistic endeavour of two Muslim stone-carver brothers, Laloo and Hathi, who worked independently on its left and right wings. Descendants of Nathmalji’s family now reside inside and sell an array of artefacts and souvenirs in the courtyard.
In contrast to Nathmalji’s politically correct life is the 18th Century Salim Singh who is still remembered for his lust, cruelty, and extortion which forced an entire Paliwal Brahmin community to leave their homes overnight. But more of that in the next blog post. A Diwan as well, his home, Salim Singh Ki Haveli or Moti Mahal as it is also known, was originally eight floors high. The king had two of the top floors knocked down since he wasn’t too keen on anyone having a home taller than the royal palace.
Covered with 38 balconies and countless intricate carvings, especially around Sheesh Mahal on the top 6th floor, the entire edifice, ornamentation included, is made of stone blocks which can be dismantled and assembled again, anywhere, anyplace.
On the fringes of the city is Badal Vilas or Tazia Tower. Shaped as a tazia [a float used in a Moharram procession], the five-storeyed structure was a gift to Jaisalmer’s rulers by the resident Muslim stone-carvers. Jaisalmer’s last king and his family continue to live in it along with their herd of majestic stallions.
Though all of Jaisalmer’s famous havelis described above are outside its fort walls, the 450-year-old Baa Ri Haveli within the fortifications is no less worth a visit. Neither grand nor overtly ornate, yet extremely atmospheric, the compact grey-stoned haveli frozen in time once belonged to the Brahmin priest family who were the king’s advisers. The family has since turned it into a museum describing fort life in the past through cooking utensils, furniture, and clothing.
Windows with a view. Baa Ri Haveli inside the fort used to be the residence of the king’s brahmin priest advisor.
Made of assembled cut stones, Salim Singh Ki Haveli is as poignantly poetic as its owner, Diwan Salim Singh, was cold and cruel.
A descendant of Diwan Nathmalji stands outside her 19th Century ancestral home, Nathmalji Ki Haveli.
Current home of the royal family: Tazia Tower, a gift from Jaisalmer’s Muslim stone-carvers to their Hindu royal patrons.
JAISALMER’S JAIN TEMPLES: AN IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY’S GIFT TO THEIR NEW HOME
When the Jain communities moved into Jaisalmer in the 15th and 16th Centuries from neighbouring Gujarat, Malwa, Mewar, and Marwar in search of a safe place for themselves and their wealth, the first thing they did were to build a series of seven Jain temples inside the fort dedicated to their 24 Tirthankaras.
However, ask any local and they will firmly state there are eight, and not seven, temples. An eighth temple was added in 1997. Together, the cluster house over 5,200 idols.
Jain temples are well-known for their splendid art and Jaisalmer’s Jain temples are no different. Carvings of Hindu deities, mythical figures, and naked dancing nymphs cover the walls, ceilings, and toranas [gateways]. Amidst all the lace-like embellishments, the idols of the Tirthankaras sit cross-legged, silent and meditative.
Jaisalmer’s Jain temples are a cluster of eight interconnected temples straddled across a road and five centuries.
Often considered to be the most beautiful temple in the complex, Shri Chandraprabh Swami Temple is dedicated to the 8th Tirthankara. It was built in 1509 and contains 1,645 idols. The oldest and main temple is the Shri Chintamani Parshavnath Temple built by the Jain panchayat in 1473 and dedicated to the 23rd Tirthankara. Its principal idol is made of clay, coated with crushed pearls and is believed to be over two thousand years old. Down a flight of steps is the Shri Jin Bhadra Suri Gyan Bhandar established in 1500, a library of 2,638 ancient manuscripts and paintings.
Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions and was founded by Mahavira, a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, in Bihar, India. A nontheistic religion, it teaches salvation through the perfecting of one’s soul and is centred around 24 Tirthankaras or spiritual teachers. Jains form less than two percent of India’s population and live mainly in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The temples are best visited early in the morning when the crowds are thin and soft golden light dapples its stone walls. Just remember no leather items are allowed inside the premises, so make sure you leave behind any leather belt, wallet, or shoes.
Makara, a mythical creature in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, guards one of the Jain temples.
Left: A Jain priest going about his duties inside the complex; Right: Main idol in Shri Chandraprabh Swami Temple. Tirthankaras are identified by the markings on the pedestal.
Delicately carved nymphs and deities hold up the stone ceiling of Shri Chandraprabh Swami Temple.
Left: The idol of Parshavnath in Shri Chintamani Parshavnath Temple is coated in crushed pearls and said to be some two thousand years old; Right: A naked shalabhanjika adorned in jewels.
Left: Vishnu, Laxmi, and Garuda. Jainism, an offshoot from Hinduism, often contains sculptures of Hindu deities on its temple walls; Right: Shri Sambhavanath Temple’s idol.
– – –
I hope you enjoyed the above virtual tour enough to undertake the actual journey as soon as the world opens up! There is more coming up on Jaisalmer, so watch this space. Wishing you all happy travels, always. 🙂
- Staying there: I stayed inside the fort at Hotel Garh Jaisal Haveli. It has the bestest views in Jaisalmer, awesome food, and super-helpful staff.
- Getting to Jaisalmer: I used Rajputana Cabs for an intercity drop from Mandawa.
- Getting around inside Jaisalmer: I walked.
- How many days?: I stayed for 4 days.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my 35-day solo and independent road trip through Rajasthan from 17 October to 20 November, 2021. To read more posts in my Rajasthan series, click here.]