Romantic Desert Citadel
Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
195Trip End Feb 28, 2013
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Where I stayed
What I did
28 November to 1 December
INSIDE THE LIVING FORT
A Rajput ruler, Jaisal, founded the fort in 1156 by and it was reinforced by subsequent rulers. The 856 year old fort has 99 massive bastions and one entrance through four gates in a series. The fourth gate opens to Dashera Chowk square where Jaisalmer Fort's uniqueness as a living fort becomes apparent. 3000 people reside within the walls. Tourism and the area’s many military installations (Pakistan is just a few km to the west) are the pillars of the local economy. It has an ancient water tank system but, with so many people, water is pumped up to hundreds of rooftop plastic tanks every morning. A decade ago, the increased water drainage was undermining the fort and three bastions collapsed and parts of the fort palace were leaning at an alarming rate. Foreign aid organizations helped remediate the problem. Hot water is heated with wood and, when the solar farms come on line, they expect to use that energy and phase out the wood heat.
We explored the interior of the citadel, a labyrinth of narrow streets lined with mirrored and embroidered textiles, clothes, brass wear and jewelry for sale. Within the high walls, the maze of narrow lanes is lined with Havelis (traditional homes). Their fronts have intricately carved patterns and lattice work out of sandstone. Surprises are around every corner. Dogs, cows (and plenty of cow pies). Beeping motorcycles make their through the maze as well so we keep our eyes ahead of us. The centerpiece is the beautiful Jain Temple, which happens to be right next to our Hotel. Mud Mirror GH.
OH MY GOD! THEY HAVE OUR PICTURES!
We could see a giant "DEEPAK RESTAURANT" sign from our roof at Mud Mirror hotel. We stayed at the tiny Deepak Rest House in 1990 and had a magical time. We did not really want to go over there fearing it might spoil our great memory of that visit. We've revisited favorite places before and found them totally gone or changed beyond recognition. But that big DEEPAK sign taunted us. We just had to pop our heads in to see it for old time sake. Everyone knows the place and we were easily guided to the entrance.
They have a big poster board displayed on the wall promoting their safaris including the one we took in 1990. Dave pointed to one of the faded pictures and said “Do the pants on the guy in this picture look familiar?” The photos were a bit old but I recognized the 22 year old picture of Dave. And next to that was one of me riding a camel. At the time, we had mailed a packet of photos from our fantastic camel trek to Denish and asked him to pass them out to the villagers we had met and photographed. He eventually created a giant poster and included a handful of the photos we had mailed! And the board has been there ever since. We could not believe it!
We asked to see the legendary room #9, the one in the wall with the best view. We had stayed in it when were here before. It too has been remodeled by knocking out the old squat toilet and bucket shower bathroom, and adding a new one. We told them to reserve it for us. We added two days to our stay in Jaisalmer just so we could stay in Room #9.
OUTSIDE THE WALL AND AN 18TH CENTURY HAVELI
We walked the city outside the wall to the north! The urban growth outside the citadel surprised us. The windy haphazard lanes are cluttered with small ma & pa shops selling everyday items and services, not unlike many smaller Indian towns. Many of the new buildings were in the haveli style but, unfortunately, not all are.
We popped in for a quick tour of the tall Salim Singh-ki-Haveli (Moti Mahal) This 18th-century haveli has an amazing, distinctive shape. The top story spreads out, like a hammer head, into a mass of carved lattice verandas and graceful arched balconies. Salim Singh was a notorious 19th-century prime minister of Jaisalmer whose ill treatment of the area’s Paliwal Brahmin community led them to abandon their 84 villages and move elsewhere.
Inside Salim Singh-ki-Haveli was not very impressive. The guide explained how air shafts catch the desert breeze and help keep the tall structure comfortable. The view of the fort and the city below were stupendous!
The Jain temples dating from the 15th and 16th centuries are right outside our hotel. Lala (one of the brothers running Mud Mirror) told me he'd talk to the guy with the key for the Jain Temple and have him let me in at 7:30 AM, before the groups of tourists would arrive. So up early it was.
I went by myself. Dave felt that seeing it once (22 years ago) was enough. I remember being so impressed by the beauty of the exquisite carvings then that I had to see it again. I had the temple all to myself, at least at first.
22 YEAR REUNION
After 3 nights at Mud Mirror, we packed up and checked into Deepak Rest House and settled in room # 9, right in one of the 99 Bastions. It has three windows on the 180 degree contour which afforded us spectacular views over the ever expanding town around the base of the Fort and the Thar Desert. We now met Deepak, the man, and recounted our story. Deepak’s elderly mother came by too and, even though she speaks very little English, seemed to be happy to see us.
We went over to Desert Girl’s Guesthouse and reminisced with Denish, our guide from 1990. He had moved to Germany and worked there for a number of years before returning and building Desert Girl’s Guesthouse. His wife Chena is outgoing and friendly too. They certainly are wonderful hosts. Desert Girl’s is newer and more modern than Deepak Rest House and we would have loved to stay there too. But, we just had to return to good ol’ room #9.
MOTORCYCLING AROUND JAISALMER
We began to walk over to the big Shiva Motorbike rental shop but spotted a tiny rental place with a few rusty motorbikes in front. We decided to give Desert Motorcycles, the 'little guy’, some business. The man gave us the key and a map and suggested a five stop route to the east of the fort. We planned to drive 42km to some dunes too.
Our first stop was the Bada Bagh Cenotaphs about 12 km out of town. The onion domed sandstone monuments, near the shallow river gorge, honor Maharajahs and Maharinis who lorded over the area and were cremated here. One of the monuments had a wood signboard labeled 1650 in English. But most of the lettering on the small sandstone slabs was in Hindi spaghetti script. It was impossible to tell which monuments were new and which were old. Modern mortar made us think much was relatively new construction. Some of the collapsed unreconstructed domes made us think it was very old. Who knows?
The next sight on the map was a small old Jain temple. We zipped by without even taking a photo, a rarity for us.
Then there was a tiny fort like crumbling ruin on a short bluff. After snapping a picture from the distance, we drove through the small village and visited with the colorfully dressed women and village children, who came running out to see the foreigners. Their homes were simple mud blocks and basic.
We came to another ‘preserve’ village. We could not really tell what was being preserved and what was just old! Nearby was another Jain temple behind a newish wall. From a distance, we could see the carvings lacked the detail of the notable temples in Jaisalmer so didn’t go inside.
Then we looped back toward Jaisalmer to the intersection 6 km from Jaisalmer with ‘luxury’ hotels and luxury tent camps. And just a few hundred meters from them were little mud and dung huts. Now these were the old fashion hand-made structures with stick roofs. We thought the other village was ‘basic’. But these obviously poor people took basic to another level. They herd goats.
We began to ride out to a notable sand dune town 40 km further but turned around after 10km of exploring the desert. It was too long of drive for just a sand dune.
Heading back toward Jaisalmer again, we came to a good view of the fort in the distance and climbed up a building site that turned out to be a Courtyard Marriot opening in October 2013. Ramesh, the Guajarati project manager, showed us to the top floor for the unobstructed view. Unlike other construction project in India, they do not allow the women workers to bring their children onsite while they work. And the workers get paid overtime if they have to work beyond 8 hours to finish a concrete pour or other task that cannot be interrupted.