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Journey to Jaisalmer

This year, go where you’ve never been. Our suggestion: A golden Indian city unlike any other

By Joshua Berida

 

I did not know what was in store for me when I traveled to Jaisalmer. I got used to the chaos of big Indian cities where auto-rickshaw drivers and taxis wantonly blaze through the roads, cows wander the streets, and street vendors and pedestrians vie for space along the sidewalks.

It takes around 12 hours by train to Jaisalmer from Jaipur; and as soon as I stepped out of the cabin, I knew I was in a different place.

 

Images By Joshua Berida

Images By Joshua Berida

OF HAVELIS AND FORTS

Jaisalmer does not have the blitzing traffic, high rise buildings, and the in-your-face aggression of big Indian cities. Yellow sandstone replaces concrete, and camels replace cows wandering the streets. The laidback atmosphere and slower pace of the city is a welcome relief. I look at the massive structure wrapped in mist as I unpack and prepare to explore.

The towering Jaisalmer Fort stands watch over the golden city. The buildings at the foot of the fort match the yellow hue of the surrounding desert. The block-like houses and stores are different from the usual structures I have seen back home and major cities in Asia.

Jaisalmer Fort or Sonar Quila (Golden Fort), built in 1156 AD by Rawal Jaisal, is a spectacle from afar. As I get closer, I become more aware of its details and majestic façade. The cracks and scratches on its face are a testament to its perseverance and determination to thwart invaders.

GOLDEN WARES In the market for scarves, carpets, souvenirs, and trinkets? You can always find them at the Golden Fort. Topmost: The tawny-tinged Golden Fort watching over the city

GOLDEN WARES In the market for scarves, carpets, souvenirs, and trinkets? You can always find them at the Golden Fort. Topmost: The tawny-tinged Golden Fort watching over the city

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fort is an imposing presence from the outside, but bares its beating heart once you enter its walls. Life fills the tight streets and corners as the usual store venders selling scarves, carpets, souvenirs, and trinkets vie for my attention.

The colorful textiles line the walls with their distinct Rajasthani design of elephants and maharajas in blues, reds, yellows, and greens. Foreigners have invaded the fort, not in a swashbuckling sense, but in the varied restaurants that serve native, Italian, and French cuisine.

The fort provides multiple viewpoints of the golden city below. I stand in awe as the afternoon sun swoops down to turn the rows of houses and stores into a tawny and yellowish hue. The city is indeed golden.

SNAPSHOTS OF LIFE From left: A local walking the streets of Jaisalmer, produce on sale, the rolling terrain of the desert, and narrow streets display local finds

SNAPSHOTS OF LIFE From left: A local walking the streets of Jaisalmer, produce on sale, the rolling terrain of the desert, and narrow streets display local finds

I am already fascinated with the yellow sandstone structures of the city, but the havelis (private mansions) where the elite lived are another reason to visit. These elaborate estates housed the maharajas, their wives, servants, children and all their possessions. The two most notable are the Patwon Ki and Salim Singh Havelis.

The Patwon Ki Haveli belonged to Guman Chand Patwa, a prominent businessman in Jaisalmer’s history. Construction began in 1805 and all five clusters of havelis were finished within 60 years and given to Patwa’s five sons.

Upon entering the narrow walkway, the visually striking façade of one of the havelis greet visitors. The yellow sandstone-carved windows and balconies and the intricate designs are a remarkable sight and an architectural wonder. I walk up the stairs and look down from one of the balconies to experience how the elite looked down on the people below. Farther, inside the mansion, I got to see another overlooking view of the golden city bathed in sunlight, magnifying its color.

Salim Singh Haveli was built on the foundation of an older estate in 1815. This haveli had a distinct feature, its peacock-like roof. This mansion has around 38 balconies with their own unique design.

The day is about to end, and the last rays of the sun fell on the Golden Fort watching over the city. Its lion color slowly dissolves and fades into a reddish gold as the sun finally set.

 

JOURNEY TO THE DESERT

“I’ve only seen the desert on TV,” I think to myself as my friend and I book a tour to the Thar Desert. I was eager to ride a camel and explore the sandy expanse just outside the city.

For someone from a tropical country, sand is nothing new, but this experience is different, there is no ocean in sight. On camels, our group, along with two guides, trudged through the desert in slow measured steps. The cold and windy weather contrasted with the scorching heat I expected.

The patches of green amid the expanse of brown, and the lack of buildings anywhere nearby are rejuvenating. I feel every bump when my camel walks over and down a sand dune. There is not much talking involved in our group; the silence of the desert and its raw beauty does most of the speaking.

We finally stop at a campsite where we will have dinner. The sun set in the horizon, painting it into a golden, red hue. There are several sand dunes as far as the eyes can see.

Our small group of tourists and guides break the silence as we talk about our lives back home, and mundane things like how much would an iPhone cost, under a blanket of stars. The wind grows chillier, and I am only wearing shorts; I did not expect the cold weather.

One of the guides makes a fire to keep us warm as we ate dinner. He sings a song for us, I do not know the words, but just like the silence of the desert, it makes sense and no sense at the same time.

It gets darker as the night goes on. We drive back to the small city of Jaisalmer on a 4×4 leaving both the emptiness and fullness of the desert.