I have been thinking if I should really go all the way to Jaisalmer, a town in western Rajasthan removed from the rest of the tourist towns. But the temptation is too great. Jaisalmer has in offer some spectacular havelis or merchant mansions that are among the best in the entire country. Add to this the allure of a desert landscape that surrounds Jaisalmer, I decide to visit the place anyway. An overnight train from Jodhpur is a convenient way to save time.
Road to Jaisalmer
At Ranakpur, I wait for a bus to Pali where I intend to catch a train to Jaisalmer via Jodhpur. My tickets are all confirmed. The bus out of Ranakpur is crowded and it is late. Someone tells me there will be another one in half an hour. I decide to wait for the next bus. Big mistake. I end up waiting for an hour and a half. The bus that arrives is not any less crowded. I change at Sanderav for a connection to Pali. I miss my train from Pali to Jodhpur. I’ll have to take a bus but I have enough time to catch my overnight train to Jaisalmer.
I meet Lal Singh on the bus. He has been home to see his family. He is a teacher at Jodhpur. I chat with me along the way asking him many things about local customs and traditions. He is only too happy to answer them.
‘The turban we men wear is a status symbol. People of my caste in my village wear colourful ones. White turbans are only for funerals,’ he explains. ‘But in other villages, white turbans may be worn at all times.’
‘What about the dresses that women wear? I notice that every tribe dresses differently.’
‘Marwar widows wear blacks and blues but in Mewar the women those colours at all times. These things cannot be generalized. Every region of Rajasthan is different. It’s a long tradition.’
‘Do all Rajasthani men wear earrings?’ I ask pointing to the pair he wears.
‘I think most of us wear.’
It is just past sunset. We pass a neem tree by the road. The tree is decorated with garlands. A circular platform is built around it. A cauldron nearby is cooking something on a burning fire which lights up the tree. Behind the tree is an Enfield Bullet decorated with garlands. Some people are doing a puja to the bike. Nothing in this scene strikes me as unusual until Lal Singh explains.
‘This is Bullet Baba,’ he points to the bike. ‘People worship it.’
I am curious.
Lal Singh continues, ‘Long ago there was an accident right at this spot. The rider died hitting this tree. The bike was towed to the police station but the next day it reappeared miraculaously at this spot. Since them people have been worshipping it.
‘Some years ago a man bought the bike and took it to South India. Bad things happened for him as well for the people in this village. The bike was brought back. Things are now in order.’
I arrive at Jodhpur, take leave of Lal Singh, have dinner and hit an upper berth on my train to Jaisalmer.
I sleep quite well and the train arrives on time in the morning. As soon as I step out of the train, I feel the place is special. Perhaps it is the morning hour and the freshness in the air. The streets are clean with little traffic or noise. I wait for a while at the station till someone assists me at the cloak room. I dump my backpack here and take just a few things in my day pack. This will be enough for tonight and tomorrow. My return train is tomorrow night.
I walk from the station and arrive at a roundabout. The circle is constructed of stone. Pillars of the parapet stand on a low plinth. Inside, lots of columns stand at various heights. At the top, they are crowned with little kiosks of four pillars. This basically is an introduction to Jaisalmer’s architecture. Stone is the common medium and even simple structures are beautiful.
I walk through an old gateway that survives in parts. The old bastion of well-cut stones is apparently stacked up without mortar. Its thin embrasures are clearly visible. Holes in the bastion make a nice hideout for pigeons. The sun is still not up on the horizon though the first light of day is well past. This is western India where sunrise can be as late as seven. I pass dozens of stone houses with beautiful facades, walls of loosely assembled stones plastered with mud and in some places large stone slabs taking the place of many smaller brick-sized stones.
I stop at a house and start taking pictures of its facade. The residents stare at me for while but quickly realize I am tourist. I carry on snapping. The house is like a palace but the people who live in them seem ordinary. I doubt they do anything more than camel herding, farming or trading in goods of the region. Yet they have made their wealth. Their houses stand grandly. I don’t know if they have lavished on these buildings but its seem commonplace in Jaisalmer. This house is not alone. Lots of houses are like this. The facade on this particular house is a mix of beautiful jharokhas: open or closed, large or small, formal or flamboyant, but never simple in decoration. The level of detail is overwhelming. Every part of the facade is chiselled with motifs. If this be the wonder of simple houses, what should I expect of the famous havelis of Jaisalmer?
Moments later I have the first view of Jaisalmer Fort. The sun is just out and is shining directly on the high walls and bastions standing on a low hill of rubble. If someone has given this city its epithet of Golden City, I can understand now. The fort grows golden with the rising sun. As if to complete the picture, a red-turbaned man drives his cart on wheels. His camel pulls it upslope. The fort stands spectacularly in the background.
Soon I arrive at the inner walls of the fort and its bastions. A few vendors are selling fresh flowers at the gateway. This would be for devotees on their way to the temples within the fort. There are Hindu as well as Jain temples within. I can see stone cannon balls lined on the lower ramparts. Above the lintel of a gateway I can see beautiful reliefs that include the linings of merlons on top. The style reminds me of those of Gujarat. Early vendors open up their shops selling miniature boxes, wooden painted toys, old painted window shutters, textiles and colourful postcards of the Rajasthani landscape. Jaisalmer is a popular place for foreign tourists.
Located on top of this hill, the fort gives grand views of the bare flat landscape that surrounds Jaisalmer. The palaces are high up but the town that has been built on the slopes within the fort walls are congested. Walking away from regular paths, I find litter, piss places and India’s age old tradition of defecation in public. Sticking to the normal tourist paths, the situation is somewhat better. I make a meagre donation to a couple of sadhus strategically seated near the entrance to a museum. A Korean tourist shrieks in horror as a cow brushes past her, pauses and starts shitting.
It is still early to be visiting the museum, which is closed. I walk around the lanes between houses until I arrive at the group of Jain temples. The temples are about 500 years old, perhaps older. They say most of them have been built using tenon and mortice joints without application of cement or mortar. Hindu builders were employed. A crowd of tourists has gathered at one of the temple entrances. A guide is explaining to them in a foreign language. I remove my footwear. Bags are not allowed inside and there is no provision to keep them anywhere. A security guard nearby is issuing permits for cameras. I request him to keep my bag and camera. He agrees.
There are five Jain temples in all. The first one I enter has a beautiful torana arch with S-curves and pendentives. The priest tells me that this is the Chandraprabhu Temple. I admire the mandapa and the beautiful domical ceiling. The style is similar to that of Mt Abu and Ranakpur, except that the stone here is the same yellow sandstone as most buildings of Jaisalmer. I climb up to the walkways on a higher level and get an eyeful of this mandapa space and a closeup of its dome. A woman comes around, sweeps the floors and then proceeds to clean the sanctums one by one. I stand to admire the Ganesha pedestals in the dome. He is generally six-armed, often riding an elephant and not a mouse. He plays drums or blows on a conch or a double pipe. He is really not the Hindu Ganesha but a Jain replacement. Surrounding the main shrine and its shikara is an ambulatory on a plinth four feet high. Since this ambulatory is so close to the shrine, it gives a unique eye-level perspective and intimacy to the reliefs and sculptures on the shikara. The other temples I visit are Parshawanth Temple, Kuntanath Temple and Adinath Temple. Some of these contains painted ceilings. They do not have the same beauty of marble but are an interesting study.
Back at the Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum, I admire the facade for many minutes before going in. I climb up to the highest levels and get spectacular views of town. Jharokhas are elaborate. In one case, a jharokha projects out of another larger one. The palace is an airy building with jali screens, open courtyards, corridors, chhatris and jharokhas. Jharokhas are generally decorated with bangla roofs or chhaparkhats. More than architecture, the level of art is supreme. Each aspect of the building is profusely decorated, often as fine as silver filigreed jewellery. The museum collection is modest but it has interest – old revenue stamps, coupons which the words “Court Fee”, iron armoury, excellent sculptures preserved from temples of the region. One framed family tree of the royalty claims direct descent from Lord Krishna himself.
Before seeing anything further, I take a room in town.
‘You want to go to Sam Sand Dunes?,’ the receptionist enquiries. ‘Only Rs. 1500.’
He offers a trip to the dunes, accommodation for tonight and all meals. Strangely, he has come up with this offer after I have paid for my room. The room is nice. I take rest for a while. The heat outside is just a hint of what is to come in summer.
I walk to the bus station and enquire about transport to Sam. No one knows. Someone says there is a bus at 1 pm. Another disagrees saying that there is no bus till 4 pm. A third claims that there is no bus and even if there were to be one I would have to spend the night at Sam. Three blind men in a desert. For a popular tourist destination, Sam is badly connected. Tourism has set it up nicely so that tourists are forced to spend for private transport. Perhaps good for local economy but not for my wallet.
I have lunch and walk to Patwon-ki-Haveli. The building lines an entire street, spills over to the opposite side of the street which is connected by a bridge to the main building. The haveli is huge and grand. What is interesting is the way it stands humbly by a common street, unlike grand palaces of emperors with vast gardens, gateways, woodlands, stables and outhouses. It has no particular approach. It has no grand appearance from a distance because the streets and others buildings hide it cleverly. It is a grand building in humble surroundings that perhaps do not suit it but are uplifted by it.
Across the street from the haveli is an open space where a man is sitting on a bench. He wears a moustache coiled up on both his cheeks. I walk to the bench for a far view of the haveli’s facade. The facade is packed with jharokhas, reliefs, pendentives, jalis, chhajjas and brackets. With so much packed details and variations, I end up studying it for many minutes. I pull out my sketchbook and make a sketch. Meanwhile a couple of tourists come by. They pose with the man with coiled moustache. He uncoils it and holds each end delicately. Each side stretches more than a foot long.
After the tourists are gone I ask him, ‘I know in Rajasthan there is a man with a Guiness Record for this. Are you the one?’
‘No. That’s my father,’ he replies. He does not smile. I think he is disappointed that he has to live under the shadow of his father’s record-making moustache.
I pay a small entry fee to visit the haveli. I am impressed by everything I see, particularly the munim’s chamber, something we wouldn’t see in houses these days. Walls are beautifully decorated but I can’t help feeling that some of them are too well restored. The use of quadrangles and courtyards is ingenious. I am learning to see that these are elements of traditional Indian architecture that are lost in modern city constructions. Other buildings extending from this haveli, or rather part of it, are also open. I visit one of them, an abandoned building with minimal restoration and no furniture. It gives me the chance to admire the spaces in their very essence. I climb all the way to the open terrace to be rewarded with a wonderful view of the fort in the distance.
I walk from here to Nathmal-ki-Haveli. This is not really open to tourists since there are families living in it. A couple of guys at the entrance allow me to enter the quadrangle and take a peek for a few minutes. Unlike Patwon-ki-Haveli, there is no open corridor running around the quadrangle at a higher level. One of the guys tells me the story of its construction.
‘You see this side is different from this one,’ he points to the facade. I didn’t notice this in the beginning but delving into the details I see it now. ‘They were built by two brothers. There was sort of a competition between them about who could build a better one, which is why the facade is so full of details.’
One such difference is a blind arch standing instead of an open cusped arch. Even the stone elephants flanking the entrance are different. The facade is impressive in the same manner as Patwon-ki-Haveli though with varying details. I thank my guides and take leave of the kids playing cricket on the street in front. I walk around the building and spend many more minutes admiring the haveli’s walls on side streets. The sun is setting. I don’t think I can squeeze in one more haveli for today.
I walk back towards my hotel by a different path and end up at Tazia Tower, a multi-tiered tower that I had seen many times from the fort and Patwon-ki-Haveli. It stands on the terrace of another haveli that goes by the name of Badal Mahal. The tower has beautiful balconies with arched bays whose movements are mirrored by sweeping chhajjas under ribbed canopies. An octagonal chhatris crowns the top. In every ordinary building of Jaisalmer, there is something interesting to see. It is a paradise for lovers of Indian architecture.
In the morning I walk to the last of the great havelis: Salim Singh-ki-Haveli. From the road I peep through an open doorway. The place appears to be in active use. I hesitate to ask. I content myself with admiring the facade. What is most unique about this haveli is its splendid canopy. It stands crowning a two-storey tower which in turn stands on a building that’s two levels high. The balcony projects out to reveal hundreds of pendentives on its underside. Sweeping chhajjas give the canopy its grace. There are as many as elevan bays in the canopy towards roadside. Standing in a line they form an impressive perspective.
I think I am done with the havelis of Jaisalmer. I still have much time left. I wish I had done more research. Only later I learn that there is much more in the area – Bada Bagh, Lodurva, Wood Fossil Park at Akal, Desert National Park, Khuri; but they were going to be inaccessible anyway with limited public transport.