As our train traversed through kilometre after kilometre of dry scrubland, moving deeper into the north-western corner of India, I started to have second thoughts about our visit to the far-flung city of Jaisalmer. The landscape did not seem to be able to sustain any more than a meagre nomadic existence. Can anything here be worth the twelve and a half hour excursion into the Thar dessert?
Jaisalmer, however, turned out to be a splendid destination, steeped in a thousand years of colourful history, with remnants of wealth and splendour from its time as a prominent hub in the Silk Road. Surprises await the curious everywhere. The bright yellow sandstone fortress towers above the scorched plain with tiers of high, curved buttresses, sentinels and beautifully decorated entry gates. Inside, small winding alleys lead to exquisite structures adorned with the most intricate sandstone sculpting. Historic multi-level private homes or “havellis”, with elaborate balconies and terraces display the past fortunes from the opium trade. Masters of their medium, the skill and patience of stone artists, captured in the detailed symmetrical designs that give shape to the numerous temples in the city, bears testimony to their devotion.
Unlike the fortified cities in Europe, the stone paved roads are not shiny from the footfall of millions of tourists in designer footwear. They are worn smooth by generations of barefoot children and the hooves of cattle and goats that are still lead out of the city every morning.
After the heat of the day, the city explodes into even more life. The streets burst with activity – little general stores, tailors, electrical goods, shoe stands, barbers, blacksmiths, food stalls, furniture – all vying for business. The walls of the city, now gold in the glow of dusk, reflect the activity that it presides over. Jaisalmer was much more than we expected.
Our hotel was located five minutes’ walk outside one of the gates in a newer section of the city. It was a delightful place, just off the main road and surrounded by homes of families where the children enjoyed playing street cricket. Even in this location, and all throughout the newer parts of the city, the buildings boast fantastic sandstone facades following the historical designs. This coherently ties the new to the old. We were also drawn into the excitement of the young entrepreneur who runs the hotel and who is in the process of opening a second. The new hotel will be more elaborate, with a rooftop restaurant and amazing sunset views over the city.
The fact that the only way to reach Jaisalmer is by arduous bus or train journey, makes it delightfully less frequented by foreign tourists. (An airport was scheduled to open in 2011, but has still not been commissioned). We, however, went past a brand new Marriott hotel set within a sprawling green lawn about two kilometres outside the city. Hurry, the designer footwear is fast approaching!
– Jarik –