Of Havelis, Kings, Sunsets and Deserts, of Rajasthani tinges and tunes…Jaisalmer

18th Feb 2016 – 22nd Feb 2016, Mumbai to Jaisalmer
Temperature in Feb: 19 degrees (Cool at nights, warm in the day)
Travel options: Walk or take a local Rik
Hotel: Welcome Heritage – Mandir Palace

Few journeys in life leave you spellbound, makes us feel grateful for having witnessed culture in its true beauty leaving us spellbound. My Jaisalmer trip was one such trip that will be remembered down the memory lane.

A hasty decision led to a beautiful outcome. I perpetually wanted to experience the Rajasthani culture. Having been to the state’s hill station – Mount Abu, other cities like Udaipur, Jaipur and wildlife safaris in Ranthambore, I wanted to know more about their food, their dressing, culture and way of life. For travellers who would love to visit the Desert Festival, in Jaisalmer, February is when you should plan. The 3 day festival is usually held at 2 locations, and wraps up with a finale at the Sam Sand Dunes on the last day.

Desert Festival was held on: 20th Feb – 22nd Feb 2016
Held at: Poonam Stadium and Sam Sand Dunes.

The city of Jaisalmer covers a radius of 4-5 kms and can be easily covered by foot. A 2-3 day visit is good enough to explore the city. Not many travellers are aware that a direct bound weekly train to Jaisalmer is available from Mumbai; BDTS-Jaisalmer. The train leaves at 2 pm in the afternoon & covers a 16 hour journey. But the drawback, none of the trains to Rajsthan have a pantry, including this one. But the rail yatra online service at particular stations makes up for this loss, although one can’t expect great quality food. Do check your order before you pay. Most of the times you are in a hurry & that gives a chance for the delivery man to deceive you.

The train reaches Jodhpur at 8.00 am, and that’s where most of the travellers alight, many of them being frequent travellers on this route. Once you pass Jodhpur, the only station where there is a Chai wala (tea stall) available is at Osiyan, beyond that you need to wait until you arrive at Jaisalmer.

Our stay was pre-booked at Welcome Heritage – Mandir Palace, 3-4 kms away from the city. A beautiful palace partly converted into a Hotel; they had suites named after the Kings who stayed there. In the room a huge picture of one of the kings is placed right above your bed, this one you can’t miss. The rooftop restaurant in the hotel shares a beautiful view of the Jaisalmer Fort, especially when it is lit in the night.

The climate is usually pleasant in Feb, although the sun is scotching during daytime.

What you should not miss Eating at Jaisalmer:
For Non vegetarians savouring the Laal Maas is an absolute delight.
A traditional Rajasthani thali, dal bati choorma, kair sangri, bajre ki roti, Gatte ki subzi and Pyaz ki kachori, are an absolute no miss for the vegetarians.

Places of Interest in Jaisalmer:

Jaisalmer Fort:
Passing through bylanes we trace our path to the entrance of the fort. This magnanimous architectural feat was built by a Rajput ruler in 1156. At a short distance from the Mandir Palace, we took about 10 minutes to reach the place. Yellow stones used to build the fort gives it the name of ‘The Sonar Quila’ or ‘The Golden Fort’. With the fort being the largest representation, the city is thus called ‘The Golden City’. The fort has 4 entrances, through which we pass one after the other, zigzagging our way to the top. The gates include – Ganesh Pol, Akshya Pol, Suraj Pol and the Hawa Pol. Pol means gate in Marwar – the local language in Rajasthan. The entire fort is a city in itself, and houses ancient families of Jaisalmer, though many have been converted to either a guest house or a hotel. 3 sections / areas of the fort give a picturesque view of the city below and are ideal for landscape photography. There are areas designated for the houses of the Rajputs and that of the Brahmins. The 3 Havelis that Jaisalmer city is known for can also be seen from the top view of the fort – Salam Singh Haveli, Patwon ki Haveli and Nathmal Ji ki Haveli. The Fort also houses the famous Jain Temple along with a museum. Our guide mentioned that Habur was one of the stones that could be found in Jaisalmer and also mentioned its benefits; curdles milk and has other health benefits.My mind however kept wandering to the fact how magnificent this edifice would look during the night.
Travel Tip:
– Hire a guide to understand each section to cover the best locations in the fort even if you have less time on hand.
– Buy the Habur stone from the Government approved shop in the fort. Most shops pose to be Government approved. Many are deceptive.

Patwon ki Haveli:
This traditional house of the mansion of brocade merchants; Patwon ki Haveli is one of the most famous Havelis and is a cluster of 5 different Havelis. It is at a 5 minute walking distance from the Jaisalmer Fort and is now converted into a museum. The entire place is a multi-storeyed building constructed with rooms set around the central courtyard. Exquisite paintings on the wall and skillful stonework describes why this Haveli is the most ornate of the lot. The terrace offers a fantastic view of the Fort, and is a must visit. In the courtyard, traditional garments are sold in the guise of a Government approved shop. Around the Haveli, musicians perform using their traditional Rajasthani musical instruments attracting foreign and Indian tourist alike.
Travel Tip:
 – When you see a musician on the street of Jaisalmer, remember they earn a living playing music on the streets. Be wise enough to give them something they deserve for the art.
– Metalwork collectibles in all shapes and forms are aplenty around the city. Opt for these to gift loved ones back home.

Gadisar Lake:
Usually one ends up visiting this lake during the day, but this rainwater lake surrounded by the small temples and shrines of Amar Sagar was as beautiful in the night as it would have been during the day. The soft lights on the water and the monument standing in the middle of the lake gave it a pristine image. This lake was once the only source of water for the people in the city before the Indira Gandhi Canal was built. Watching the Sunset over the lake is a magnificent view; couple that with a boat ride. The boat keepers are all very friendly and most of them will give you great information history of the place. Our boatman doubled up as a guide. He narrated stories of kings & palaces equally interesting as the boat ride under the stars. He also mentioned that many men from his village have become spies of the neighbouring country.
Travel Tip:
 – A woman & her husband sell Tea and Maggi just outside the Gadisar Lake gate entrance, refreshing for a winter evening.
– Most people in Jaisalmer will try to earn a living doing all kinds of jobs, so don’t be surprised if the Boat keeper tells you he is available as a driver and as a guide for your travel.

The Desert Festival:
One of the main attractions of Jaisalmer, the Desert Festival is a colourful festival like the culture of Rajasthan. Camel rides, Moustache Competitions, snake charmers, entertaining puppet shows, Camel Polo, Cultural programs, Folk songs, dance, theatre, Food, Drinks and much much more is what you’ll find at this 3 day festival. The festival starts with a road procession through the city, followed by a day at the Shahid Poonam Singh stadium and ends at the Sam Sand Dunes. It is organised by Rajasthan tourism and draws huge foreign & local visitors. This year in 2016, the same frenzy continued. Be sure to visit Jaisalmer during this time. The city comes alive during these 3 days.
Travel Tip:
 – Offcourse hotels need to be booked in advance

Bada Bagh:
A few kilometres away from the city, placed upon on a serene hill, a set of Royal Cenotaphs form a cluster in an eerie way. Eerie, cos they are the resting places of the deceased Kings. The sky breaks into a million colours of blue and the place is a great location for silhouette & landscape photography, so be there to capture the monuments. These structures built of solid blocks of stone were constructed by the various Bhatti rulers. The landscape is filled with windmills all around and the sunrise adds to the beauty of these tall structures. The city of Jaisalmer gets its energy from these windmills.
Travel Tip:
 – This place is a must visit during sunrise.
– Since this is a tourist spot, you will find the locals approaching you as a guide. Don’t be surprised if at 6.00 am you find someone at that location when you’re alone, it is usually harmless.

Tanot Mata:
To reach Tanot Mata tourists need to journey through a road from Jaisalmer covering a distance of 153 kilometres, passing through a village called Ramgarh. Though this may not be the Ramgarh that made the blockbuster movie in 1975, this village is spotted when one takes the route to Tanot Mata Mandir on the border of Jaisalmer. Apat from the 10 kms of the stretch which is under construction, the road is straight & clear and one can see sand dunes with grass bushes on either sides. Tanot is a village close to the border of Pakistan and very close to the battle site of Longewala. This is the last point, beyond which tourists cannot enter without proper documentation. The temple gains importance in history due to several reasons. During the Indo-Pak war in 1965, the Pakistani army had dropped bombs in the vicinity of this area but none of them exploded. The temple is now managed by the BSF and is a popular tourist destination. There is also a museum kind of setting inside the temple, where the un-exploded bombs are kept on display.
Travel Tip:
 – Early morning Aarti is conducted by the BSF at this temple, leave early if you want to attend this Aarti.
– Since documentation is required to visit the road ahead of the Tanot Mata Mandir, get the documentation & approval done from the city before you visit this place.
– Reaching Tanot Mata by early evening and watching the Sunset would be another experience.
– On the way, don’t forget to stop for some snacks at Ramgarh & try some Mirchi Pakoda. They are absolutely delicious and not very spicy as the name suggests.

Longewala:
From the Tanot Mata temple, there is a road that takes you to this border called the Longewala border. This barren land closest to the India Pak border is famous for the War of 1971. The infantry posted at the location speaks tales of the war and the sacrifice of our men for the motherland. They have a building that houses a room where the weapons & cavalry used by the infantry during the war are displayed. There are Pakistan weapon tanks and other armoured vehicles for display; they were left by the enemy when they accepted defeat. You can also catch a glimpse of the army bunkers created to display how the army was positioned at that border. There is a Madras Cafe too in the vicinity serving machine coffee, tea and some snacks.

The haunted Town of Kuldhara:
A barren land with ruins of house structures in brick, some old and a few new structures represent the haunted city of Kuldhara. There is a central location in the village where tourists can gather. Local people playing musical instruments specially the mouth harp charm the tourists for a living. There is a temple structure built at that location but there is no Idol in that structure. The village was one of the 85 villages which were abandoned overnight. The story of Salam Singh, the tyrant ruler who forced the village head to marrying his daughter to him. Instead of submitting to the order of this ruler, the villagers held a council with people from 85 other villages and agreed to flee the place, not before cursing it. The others who stayed including the old, committed suicide. It is said that after this curse there have not been any inhabitants in that village. Even today, there are mysterious sightings after dusk and hence not even tourists are allowed after sunset. This was my first visit to a ghost town but like most places, which seek tourist inflow, this place has also been commercialized.
Travel Tip:
 – If you are photographing the musicians, they will expect gratifications

Enroute Sam Sand Dunes:
On your way from Kuldhara village to Sam Sand Dunes you get a chance to view the grand 5 star hotel Suryagarh of Jailsamer. There are 3 spots on the way for adventure sport lovers for a chance on paragliding adventure. This activity is less risky and does not involve more than a 2 minute flying session with a jeep pulling the parachute to make it fly. But the view is good enough to see the sand dunes from a far away sight.
Travel Tip:
 – If you are an adventure junkie, this parachute session is a dampner

Evenings at the Sam Sand Dunes:
Evenings are best spent with Camel rides, on the Sand Dunes of the Thar Desert, the better & more commercialized ones called the Sam Sand Dunes. This place is best visited in winters. The desert is abandoned in summers as temperatures soar to 50 degrees and makes it impossible to survive in the heat. Locals themselves do not venture out of their house before 8 pm in the night. The place is packed with tourists during the better seasons as it is one of the main attractions of Jaisalmer. There are around 20 companies that have their tents arranged there for food, stay and hospitality. A tourist can just walk in at one of these arrangements or pre-arrange for the entire package from one of the many tour operators in the city. The package usually includes a small half hour ride on the camel, the view of the sunset on the sand dunes, a welcome drink, a one hour cultural session along with local Rajasthani meal for dinner. You need to arrange for the travel to& fro on your own. The cultural programs are somewhat interesting but it stretches a bit. The program is held in an open ground surrounded by tents for tourists who prefer to spend the night there. The Sand Dunes get bigger in the summers and could reach about 50 feet in height too.
Travel Tip:
 – The camel ride is usually for half an hour in the package, the camel owner will then tell you to sit on the Dunes until sunset which is about an hour more. He would give you an option to pay another 800 Rupees to take you deeper in the sand Dunes and most tourists agree since that is better than sitting on the sand dunes for an hour.

After 2 days, it was time to head back to Mumbai, but we had other plans enroute. The train that got us to Jaisalmer is a weekly train, hence there was no way we could get a direct train back to Mumbai within 4 days. We instead booked ourselves the Jaisalmer – Jodhpuur Express that reaches Jodhpur at 01.50 pm. Our connecting train from Jodhpur was  to Mumbai was at 09.28 pm reaching Mumbai at 11.35 am the next day. In the meanwhile for the 8 hours we were exploring the city of Jodhpur.

Jodhpur:
Jodhpur was the next stop, since there was time in between connecting trains, we ventured into the city for some shopping. Jodhpur station has a facility of a cloak room to deposit bags. First stop was ‘Spice Stop’. Spices at MV (mohanlal verhomlal ) spice shop at Naya Sadak at the end of Sardar Chowk, close to the Ghanta Ghar is famous for its spices. Getting there is a short distance by Rik from the station. Grab the tea, chicken, vegetables and fish masala.
The Ghanta Ghar is a famous landmark in the city. Don’t forget to taste the best Lassi in town from the shop nearby called ‘Mishrilaal Lassi’.

Meherangarh Fort is a sight away from this place but the climb from the market is steep as it is at a height of 410 feet from the city and the climb is via steps. Rik ride is preferable although longer. The Fort is beautiful and large. Once inside the fort, for people who don’t prefer to walk up to the main area can take the lift that takes you to the highest chamber or the rooftop of the fort from where you can opt to easily walk down the fort and see all the chambers. There is a charge of Rs 35 for the Lift per person. A local Coffee shop outside the lift area at the entrance of the fort is a nice place to chill & grab a small bite. The aerial view is magnificent. The blue Brahmin houses in between the cluster of other houses stand out majestically with a glimpse of one part of the fort. Kites flying in the bright sky give a picturesque view of the city. A photograph of this side of the city is a must on every visitor’s list. While ascending, there are other interesting chambers in the fort and you will find musicians playing different instruments strategically located on the road.

A visit to Janta sweets for the famous rabadi and besan ladoos is a must. Also try the mawa kachori, which is different from the original kachori.
The Jaswant Thada mausoleum and the Umaid Bhavan Palace is a must visit when in Jodhpur.
Travel Tip:
 – If you are pressed for time, ask your Rik driver to take you for a quick view of the city.
– Musicians earn much more from foreign tourist than Indians & hence they would rather give you a snub in comparison at the Mehrangarh Fort.
– Each person offering help is not friendly; they do this for a living and hence act 2 faced.

Our journey back was peaceful, this time we were careful about our food order. I truely believe that I yearned to learn the Rajasthani culture and hence, Jaisalmer  was a must visit for me.

 

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