Monday, January 03, 2011

24 BY CITY - Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer lives up to every international tourist's perception of the exotic East, from snake charmers to tightrope walkers, magicians to men with record-breaking moustache lengths. It is all here, amidst the shifting sand dunes of the Thar Desert.
Jaisalmer Fort
If Granada's Alhambra is named so because it is presumed to turn red at dusk, the yellow sandstone used to build the Jaisalmer Fort turns a golden yellow. It is also called Sonar Kila (Golden Fort).
The Jaisalmer Fort is different from others in Rajasthan in that it is a living fort – people actually live in it! The entire population of Jaisalmer was once encompassed within the walls of this fort built in the 12th century atop the Trikut Hill. Over the years, the population spilled over beyond the ramparts.
The palace is only one of many sights to see. A saunter through the fort will give you an insight into the architecture of the period it was built in. The fortification itself is a grand evocative structure with its many pol/prol (gates). There are modest homes, traditional facades of shops and grand havelis (residences) owned by prosperous traders of yore. Don't miss the exquisitely carved temples of the Jain community.
Steer clear of touts and self-appointed tourist guides at the Fort.
Jaisalmer's prosperity was due to its prime position on ancient trading routes. As a result, the city's magnificent havelis were built predominantly by prosperous merchants.
Some residences, like Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli continue to be private and off-bounds for tourists. Do also see/visit Salim Singh Ki Haveli and Patwon Ki Haveli. Some are within the Fort itself.
The unique five-storeyed Tazia Tower in the Badal Mahal is symbolic of floats taken out during Muharram by the Shia sect. Badal Mahal itself is now partially a heritage hotel.
If museums are your preferred route to understand the cultural history of a place, do visit the Jaisalmer Folklore Museum and the Desert Cultural Center. Take in the art, photographs, artefacts and crafts at both museums. There are also performances in the evening. Check local listings.
Gadsisar Lake
If you are not heading out of Jaisalmer to see the sand dunes, do spend the evening at Gadsisar Lake, once the only man-made source of water for Jaisalmer. Head to Tilon Ki Pol, the archway to the lake and watch the canopies and structures around the lake take on a golden hue at dusk. A great place for bird-watching.
As is true of any tourist location in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer is a shopper's paradise. Besides the puppets, apparel, junk jewellery and home linen, Jaisalmer is famous for bags, footwear and musical instruments made of handcrafted camel leather. Do bargain.
There are many restaurants serving world cuisine for the international traveller within the fort. But do dine at one of the Haveli-turned-hotels. Some even provide al fresco dining options and folk dance performances. A Rajasthani thali (platter) is a great way to sample many Rajasthani specialities at one go.
Jaisalmer is a great base to explore places nearby. The Rajasthan Tourism Offices can guide you to book camel safaris and nights out under the desert sky at the Sam Sand Dunes and Khuri Village. Other getaways include Lodhurwa (the erstwhile capital of the Bhattis, exquisite Jain temples), Bada Bagh (ancient cenotaphs 0f the royals, spectacular at sunset) and Kuldara (an abandoned village shrouded in mystery).
The Annual Desert Festival is a showcase of everything desert and everything Rajasthani from polo on camel-back to folk music and dance performances. The next one takes place between February 16 and 18, 2011.
Rajasthan Tourism – Jaisalmer
Station Road, Tel.: 02992-252406
Tourist Information Counter, Rly.Station

(An edited version appeared in Culturama's January 2011 Issue)

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