The Magic Golden City

Trip Start Aug 21, 2006
Trip End Feb 13, 2007

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Flag of India  ,
Thursday, January 4, 2007

Jaisalmer isn't like any other city I have seen. It is a living legend, a jewel lost in far western Rajastan, a dream made of golden sandstones.
The 850 year old Jaisalmer fort is not particularly large or strong. But the charm is, it is still inhabitated. The same life has been going on inside for nearly a millenium. Everything is built in golden sandstone, the color of the great Thar desert. Palace of the kings, grandeur mansions of the wealthy merchants, smaller havelis of common people, every building has been designed for both visual pleasure and practical daily life in a desert. Both the exterior and interior were exquisitely carved. The thick walls and small windows shut out overwhelming heat. Every drop of precious rain was collected from the roof terrace through a series of funnels. Many of the houses are over 500 years old, and still inhabitated by the same family, generations after generations
We were fortunate enough to find lodging in one of these 500-year-old havelis. The family lives on the ground floor: Mr. and Mrs. Lala, their two boys, and grandma. After entering the haveli, we first come into an open courtyard. On the left is a spacious kitchen, and facing the entrance is a half-open area used as living room, dining room and bedroom. We stayed on the first floor, which the family has converted into a one-room guesthouse. Very homely atmosphere.
We immediately dived into the numerous Italian restaurants in town and meant to give our taste buds a treat. But after our gums were glued with their sticky "mozzerella" cheese and some ingenius salty tiramisu, we sought refugee back in local Indian food. It turned out that our hosts (especially the grandma) were fantastic chefs! We had all the rest of our meals with the family, and I found myself looking forward to the next meal as soon as the previous one was finished!
The royal palace is the only un-inhabitated home in Jaisalmer fort. It has been converted into a very well organized museum, displaying items once used by the royal families. Audio guide with different languages is available. It was especially touching to hear the voice of the descendants of the Maharajas (kings), now leading a trust which renovates and protects the fort, telling the history of Jaisalmer. The old fort is among the world's most endangered monuments, mainly because the medieval drainage system is now way overloaded. "Our wish, is that our grandchildren will be able to welcome your grandchildren to visit the beautiful Jaisalmer Fort!"
The most thrilling history of the Jaisalmer fort was when it was seiged, and all effort to defend the fort had failed. The fort was doomed to fall into the hands of the enemy. The last night, starting from queens and princesses, all wives and daughter bathed, put on their best sarees and jewelry, combed their hair with rosewater, and sprayed perfume over themselves. Then, under drum beats and hymns, they stepped into fire one after another, burning themselves alive to avoid humiliation once the fort was taken by the enemy. When the dawn arrived, the husbands and fathers would put on their armoury, open the gate, make their last charge, and kill as many as possible before they fell down themsevles.
The Jains seeked refugee in Jaisalmer at the time when they were prosecuted. The Jaisalmer Maharaja gave them permission to live inside the fort. Taking advantage of Jaisalmer's critical location on the trading route, the smart Jain merchants soon became wealthy. They built defense facilities for the fort, in return of the Maharaja's hospitality, as well as a cluster of seven beautiful Jain temples. Each temple is dedicated to one of the 24 Jain prophets. There were "holy men" dressed in yellow-and-red robes, trying to ask for "donation" from unsuspecting tourists and then put the money in their own pockets.
Walking on the almost traffic-free narrow ancient lanes outside of the fort was very enchanting. All the golden houses, old or new, were so beautifully carved. There were the large havelis, built by prime ministers and rich merchants. Patwa-ki was the most impressive. It was finer than the palace. My eyes tried in vain to scan over its exquisite windows and door frames, trying to memorize its beauty. But it just overwhelms!! Curiously, no glue ws used for these multi-storey havelis. The large stone blocks were stacked as LEGO, as secured by metal "staples"! All the decorative sandstone flowers can be unscrewed and thrown at attacking enemies. Narrow and steep stairs, small doors, nothing is random. All was designed for self-defense!
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