Taking It Slow in Jaisalmer, India’s Golden City
Imagine a golden city in the middle of a desert. A place where people still live within fortress walls. A place of constant sunshine and blue skies. Pinch yourself. No, you’re not dreaming. This is for real.
Located in the heart of the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, is Jaisalmer, a small yet enchanting city. Unlike Delhi and many other Indian cities, Jaisalmer is very clean and laid back. The streets are barely cluttered even though you’ll see the occasional cow, dog, pig or goat traipsing alongside pedestrians, motorbikes and auto rickshaws. In the evening, the city’s pink skies come alive, with birds and bats heading home and children flying kites from open rooftops.
Jaisalmer is also known as India’s golden city because many of its buildings are made from yellow sandstone which reflects the sun’s rays. Jaisalmer’s architecture is also stunning, revealing filigreed patterns and detailed sandstone carvings.
A Golden Fort
Also known as Sonar Qila, Jaisalmer’s Golden Fort dominates the skyline. The UNESCO World Heritage site is the second oldest fort in Rajasthan. It’s different from other existing forts in India because people still live within its sunbaked walls. In fact, some families have lived here for generations. Many have opened stores selling spices, leather goods, pashminas, books, sweets and other souvenirs.
If you have a couple of hours to kill, a great place to stop is Kuku Coffee Shop. Tucked away in one of the fort’s discreet corners, the coffee shop is the best place to enjoy the sunset while having a cup of cappuccino. For non-coffee lovers, Kuku also serves great mint tea. All drinks are made with bottled water. While you drink, you can chat with the owners, Kuku and Tony, who love to share travel stories with visitors.
Jaisalmer is one of the best places in India to see havelis. These traditional mansions are made from huge, interlocking sandstone blocks. Three of Jaisalmer’s most famous havelis were built during the 19th century by the city’s wealthy merchants. Patwon ki Haveli is the largest and oldest, consisting of a series of five adjoining havelis, each built for the owner’s five sons. Havelis usually have highly decorated jharokhas, or balconies, intricately carved sandstone facades and heavy wooden doors and windows. Inside the haveli, many of the rooms overlook a central inner courtyard.
Sleep Under the Stars
The Thar Desert is Jaisalmer’s biggest tourist attraction. Many hotel and tour operators have capitalized on its natural beauty and offer visitors the chance to go on a camel safari in the desert. The safari can last as little as a few hours to as long as a month. If you’ve never ridden a camel, then you should try an overnight safari with Mystic Jaisalmer. You ride into the desert and sleep under the stars, with the camels resting on a nearby dune. The sound of their bells tinkling softly in the desert breeze will remain with you forever.
A Royal Cremation Ground
Bada Bagh is located about six kilometers from the city center. The name translates “big garden” although today, what remains is a series of domed cenotaphs. The cenotaphs are also known as chhatris, the Hindi word for umbrella, because of the strong resemblance between the two. Each cenotaph is dedicated to one of Jaisalmer’s past rulers.
Paddling on Lake Gadisar
Lake Gadisar is within walking distance of many of the hotels in Jaisalmer. The artificial lake is quite picturesque, dotted with sandstone pavilions that look magical at sunrise and sunset. It was built around 1400 by Maharwal Gadsi Singh to conserve the city’s water supply. Today, the freshwater lake is one of Jaisalmer’s main attractions. While there, you can paddle around on a rental boat, go bird watching, or feed the numerous catfish that live in the lake.
Best Place for Leather
One thing Jaisalmer is noted for is its leather goods. Although many shops claim to sell camel leather, many in reality sell sturdy goat and buffalo leather. You’ll be spoiled for choice if you’re looking for authentic leather messenger bags, purses, pouches, hats, journals and belts. Be sure to bargain for the best price.
More Bhang for Your Buck
In Jaisalmer, you can legally buy a cannabis product called bhang. Bhang lassi is a popular cannabis-laced yogurt drink and Jaisalmer is the only place in India where you can find a government approved bhang lassi shop.
Because of the desert’s arid conditions, Rajasthani dishes are traditionally vegetarian. In Jaisalmer, you should try ker sangri, a type of caper than grows in the desert which is often curried and eaten with rice or naan. You can also try kadi pakora, a fried dumpling cooked in a yogurt sauce. However, non-vegetarians need not panic, as many restaurants offer a wide variety of meat dishes such as murgh e subz, or chicken cooked with vegetables.
Getting there: Many airlines fly from Narita to Jodhpur. When you get to Jodhpur, you can take the six-and-a-half-hour Delhi-Jaisalmer Express train to Jaisalmer. Alternatively, you can fly into Delhi and take the 18 hour Delhi-Jaisalmer Express straight to Jaisalmer. When booking train tickets, be sure to book AC Class 1 and 2 tickets, which are the most comfortable sleepers you can get on any Indian train.
Getting around: Jaisalmer is a tiny city, so many of the main attractions are within walking distance. However, to get to Bada Bagh, you may have to rent an auto rickshaw or taxi.
When to visit: The best time to visit Jaisalmer is during the high season, from October to March, when the temperatures drop to 7 or 8 degrees Celsius at night. In the summer (April to August), temperatures soar to a maximum of 40 degrees Celsius, so remember to bring your sunscreen, sun hat and loose, breathable clothing. It’s also wise to carry bottled water with you at all times.
Where to eat and stay: Mystic Jaisalmer is the perfect place to unwind and is very close to Gadisar Lake. Also, guests can try Hotel Tokyo Palace which caters specifically to guests from Japan because it accepts Japanese yen. Both hotels have excellent restaurants, but be sure to explore other great restaurants in the city as well.
Photos by Jesse Ramnanansingh.