Close your eyes and picture Rajasthan, if scenes of Camels with their colourful attire crop up in your head, then you are probably thinking about Jaisalmer and the things to do in this wonderful ‘Golden City’. A rather small, but culturally rich city on the westernmost edge of the country, Jaisalmer attracts tourists who visit hoping to get a feel of the authentic desert culture. Famous for being on the crossroads of trade routes, Jaisalmer has retained an age-old cultural charm, probably due to its remote location and it is this charm that makes tourists brave the sweltering heat and visit Jaisalmer. It is no wonder that Jaisalmer, with its many things to do, is one of the most visited destinations of Rajasthan.
JAISALMER THINGS TO DO
1. Explore the centuries-old living fort:
The Jaisalmer Fort also known as the Sonar Qila or Golden Fort dominates the city’s landscape and being 250 feet tall, is distinctly visible from any part of the city. Housing more than 2000 residents, this 12th century sandstone-behemoth built by Rawal Jaisal is a ‘living fort’ with 99 bastions purely for defensive purposes. One can spot huge balls and cylinders made of stone on nearly every crenel to be thrown down on any invading armies. From a distance, the entire fort shimmers like a mound of gold, mildly distinguishable from the Trikuta hill it is on, it is when we get closer that its real beauty can be appreciated. No wonder, it has the status of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site (just like Lumbini).
After passing through the various gates or Pol of the fort, the first major Chowk or courtyard to be reached is the Dussehra Chowk, a busy intersection of people, cows and bikes. Stop a moment here to take in the views and architecture of the surrounding palaces and buildings. This Chowk appears to have changed very little, it has always been teeming with traffic, just that the composition seems to have changed. The Maharawal Palace housing the Fort Museum is the highlight of the Dussehra Chowk.
The fort houses people from the Brahmin and Rajput communities, whose families were once in service of the Rawal. Generations after generations have been living here, some in structures that are well beyond 200 years old. When walking through the lanes here, keep an eye out for beautiful houses, you never know around which lane they may appear.
The fort also has temples such as Lakshminarayan temple and 7 Jain temples and they are the most fascinating structures on the fort. The temples close by noon and have different opening and closing times, so do time your visit accordingly. The views from a few portions of the fort, including a few havelis are to die for. The most popular viewpoint is the Cannon Point, from where you can spot all the landmarks of Jaisalmer and even the giant windmills from nearby.
2. Stroll through the golden lanes:
The reason why Jaisalmer is called the Golden City becomes quite apparent as you approach the fort; rows upon rows of houses built with golden sandstone, that has been mined from the quarries nearby, decorate the lanes of Jaisalmer. Most buildings here utilise the Jurassic-age sandstone that is available locally. Unlike the blue-houses of Jodhpur, the percentage of sandstone-houses here is quite high and it is quite a spectacle to watch them glisten in the rays of the sun. The evening sun’s rays bouncing off them create an illusion as if the houses of Jaisalmer are bathed in gold.
Jaisalmeri sandstone is known for its softness which is why it is preferred by sculptors and builders for exterior walls. Further, it retains colour with ease, hence most temple architecture here utilises Jaisalmeri sandstone in interior work as well. The Jain temples on top of the fort are outstanding examples of temple architecture using Jaisalmeri sandstone. The statues on the walls of these temples depict couples in various poses of the Kama Sutra, reminding us of the temples at Khajuraho. This ease in workability is the reason why we find many Jharokha and Jaali containing exquisite work on the houses atop the fort. Many of the paintings that you see on the ceilings of these temples are nearly three centuries old.
3. Visit the magnificent havelis across town:
The most spectacular havelis in terms of architecture and utility are found in Jaisalmer. The ones at Bikaner may be known for their external grandiose, but a combination of utility with beauty is exemplified in the havelis at Jaisalmer. The most famous havelis across town are the Patwon ki Haveli, Nathmal ki Haveli and Salim Singh Haveli. The Salim Singh Haveli is best avoided, it has a grumpy owner who is particularly rude to tourists wishing to click photographs, Further, the Haveli is mostly occupied by the family and only a minor portion is open to the public.
The Nathmal ki Haveli has an interesting story behind its asymmetrical structure; two brothers started constructing the Haveli from opposite sides till they met in the middle. There are two lion-statues outside the Haveli that give an appearance as if they are guarding the Haveli. Members of the family still live in the Haveli and have a few interesting stories to tell as well, if you manage to make it worth their time buying souvenirs from their shop.
Of the three, the Patwon Ki Haveli is the largest and most spectacular, with a part of it even being managed by the ASI and the other parts being managed by the state government. There are five havelis built in the 19th century by a merchant Guman Chand Patwa for his five sons, which are together known as the Patwon ki Haveli. The most famous attraction here is the room with a gold ceiling. These havelis are known for their exquisite mirror-craft and gold-work that adorn both the walls and the ceiling.
The havelis offer a glimpse into the past by showcasing artefacts such as coins, postage stamps, letters and even weights and measures, all preserved in excellent condition.
4. Get spooked at the ghost-town of Kuldhara:
Just on the outskirts of Jaisalmer is a picturesque ruin, with nearly 600 huts which at first glance would look like a model town or a movie-setting. But, Kuldhara was once inhabited by people, Paliwal Brahmins to be more exact. The Paliwal Brahmins once occupied this and many other towns nearby, until one fine night in the year 1825, when the people of Kuldhara decided to vacate town silently. Various theories exist for the reason for their disappearance, one of them is that the local Prime Minister of Jaisalmer, Salim Singh, sought the hand of the daughter of Kuldhara’s chief in marriage. Fearing the tyrannical Salim Singh, the entire village fled, leaving most of their possessions and houses behind.
Another theory is that they fled the place due to some natural calamity such as an earthquake or drought, but that does not explain why they had to do it overnight. Whatever the reason, they certainly left behind a village that is intact even today. So intact that there are stories that ghosts inhabit this place now. Yes, like Bhangarh Fort near Jaipur, Kuldhara too, is considered haunted and is thronged by people hoping to get a feel of the supernatural. You could club Amar Sagar Lake, Lodurva and Khaba Fort with Kuldhara to make it a half-day excursion.
5. Watch a puppet show at the Desert Cultural Centre:
Kathputli, a form of puppetry, which is famous worldwide, has its origins in Rajasthan, so there is no better place to watch a Kathputli show than here. And when in Jaisalmer, the Desert Cultural Centre is the best place to have an evening of cultural performances. The centre houses a museum of local arts in addition to a performance stage where musical events and puppet shows are held. The puppet show features an energetic performance by performing artists, who manage to take you into a journey far from reality. There are two puppet-shows held in the evening: the first in Hindi and the next in English.
The museum here is a potpourri of arts, handicrafts, household articles and musical instruments. As per the founder, Shri. N. K. Sharma, the museum is a repository of information of Rajasthani culture. The founder has tried to collect items of cultural significance and preserve them. One particular item that caught our eye was the Kavad, or the storytelling box that uses paintings to tell stories. In olden days, scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata were painted whereas today’s Kavads feature scenes from modern history.
The Folklore Museum nearby is also managed by the same people and is worth a visit, with the same entry ticket being valid for both locations.
6. Salute the martyrs at the Jaisalmer War Museum:
Dedicated to the Indian Armed Forces, the Jaisalmer War Museum houses artefacts and war trophies from the wars fought by the forces. Situated on the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer highway, the museum showcases crucial weapons used in, and war-spoils, such as tanks that were destroyed during, the 1971 Battle of Longewala.
The museum even features a separate hall dedicated to Longewala, which is close to Jaisalmer; the hall explains in detail the events that took place at Longewala. The museum is a great place for war-buffs and history-buffs to indulge themselves in. There is a mini-theatre here that shows 10-minute films at regular intervals. The museum is situated on the highway from Bikaner and falls nearly 10 kms. before Jaisalmer. The Akal fossil museum nearby is a great place to visit if you are travelling with kids.
There is one other museum which is inside Jaisalmer itself, the Government Museum. It displays a good collection of miniature art on marble stone and a few select examples of Usta work. However, the collection here is limited and could be viewed during a good half-hour visit.
7. Find peace at the Chattri complexes:
Jaisalmer, like Jodhpur, has two complexes of Chattri, one being the Vyasa Chattri and the other being Bada Bagh. The Vyasa Chattri complex, named after the composer of Mahabharata, is inside the city and is being used even today as a Hindu cemetery. Though it is used by people during the day, the evenings here turn out to be wonderful as tourists and musicians occupy the Chattri complex. The Chattri here were built for no royalty, they were built for the influential brahmins of Jaisalmer instead. Tourists staying nearby opt to come here for a good view of the sunset. We opted to visit the Bada Bagh instead of spending time here, especially as it was midday and the last rites of some deceased were in progress.
Bada Bagh was the place where the cenotaphs of the royalty were built. An oasis in the middle of the desert, Bada Bagh was famous for its orchards of orange and mango trees, many of which exist to this day. As the Chattri here are made completely of yellow sandstone, the ageing of sandstone is quite prominently visible, the older ones sport a tinge of gold, whereas the newer ones are more yellow than gold. Each Chattri has a number of surrounding Chattri that are smaller. The one in the centre is for the king, whereas the surrounding ones are for his queens. Various rules govern the building of Chattri, including one that it must be built after the marriage of a grandson and that a pot of water must always be kept at the Chattri.
Bada Bagh is huge and the only sizeable Chattri complex that we could think of in comparison was the one at Orchha. It is definitely worth a visit if you can manage the time. If you are not looking to visit the desert at sunset, then the best place to view the sunset and the fort at this time, would be Bada Bagh.
8. Go on a day-trip to the places nearby:
Jaisalmer has many places nearby that could be covered in one of the day-trips, the most popular being a trip to Tanot Mata Mandir, Longewala and Indian border. Tanot Mata Mandir became famous during the war of 1971 with Pakistan when the temple was repeatedly targeted by the Pakistani forces, but was not harmed. Quite near to this temple is Longewala, the scene of a classic David vs Goliath battle where a handful of men from the Indian Army held out against much larger forces whilst awaiting help. The border can also be visited, after receiving proper permission from the army.
Alternately, one could also go to Pokhran, Phalodi and Ramdevra in the opposite direction. Pokhran, made famous through the testing of India’s first atomic bomb, offers a fort and a trek to the salt lakes. We ourselves visited Pokhran on our way from Bikaner to Jaisalmer, even stopping at the protected army base where the blast was conducted.
Phalodi, on the other hand, has a great palace, Lal Niwas, now converted into a heritage hotel in addition to a few beautiful havelis and a dilapidated fort. Usually, people stay at Phalodi during the months between October and February to watch demoiselle cranes being fed at the nearby village of Khichan. Ramdevra is known for its temple dedicated to the saint of Rajasthani folklore, Baba Ramdev.
Another popular option is a visit to the villages of the Bishnoi in the Desert National Park. The Park offers a chance to catch the elusive Desert Fox, perhaps preying on a Gerbil. The Bishnoi, being very protective of flora and fauna around them, do a good job of maintaining the National Parks around. A visit to a village guarantees one a sight of traditional mud-houses and thicket fences to contain animals and in general, an insight into the life of an Indian villager.
9. Watch the sunset from a camp at Sam Sand Dunes:
Imagine watching the sun set over stretches of sand covering the landscape for as far as the eye can see. Surely a sight to behold! This is what Sam Sand Dunes has to offer to people who are decide to stay at any of the camps around. Strictly speaking though, the camel rides start from a village nearby and end with a sunset view while on the camel. Most camp operators provide a package deal that includes dune-bashing as well as a camel ride at sunset along with tent-accommodation.
Hotels in Jaisalmer could arrange for this package deal, make sure that the deal also includes a cultural show at night as well as dinner and breakfast. The cultural programme is the highlight of the stay at any of the camping locations. The better camping locations usually have a Khalbeliya troupe performance that lasts for a good three hours. You can expect a show of traditional Rajasthani folk music and also some acrobatic performances by the dancers, including some dangerous stunts. We strongly recommend choosing to stay at any of these good camps.
The Sam Sand Dunes are also a one-stop place for all things adrenaline, be it dune-bashing or paragliding or paramotoring or quad-biking. On your way to the Sam Sand Dunes, you will find plenty of these spots offering these activities. Some camp operators offer these as a part of their packages.
The Sam Sand Dunes are, however, touristy and crowded during the tourist season, if you would rather spend time at a place that is less crowded and less touristy, then the dunes at Khuri may be more to your liking, but expect lesser amenities as well here.
10. Shop for camel leather products and puppets:
If you are looking for camel leather products, then Jaisalmer is definitely one of the places to shop at. The dazzling number of shops with their brown merchandise sure do catch the eye of one afar. You could shop at the Desert Cultural Centre itself for string puppets, the proceeds of the sale go directly to the artisans.
If you are looking to purchase purses of camel leather, then the Manak Chowk markets at the entrance of the fort are a great bet. We found a couple of shops that offered good products at great prices, although we had to haggle a bit with them. But then, haggling really is part of the Indian shopping experience.
The shops inside the fort sell all sorts of souvenirs, from fossil-stone glasses to yellow stones that could curdle milk; exercise caution when you buy these yellow stones. We also explored the Pansari Bazar, on our way to Salim Singh Haveli, but could not find anything worthwhile to buy there.
11. Experience the delicacies of the ubiquitous desert cuisine:
The cuisine of the Thar region and in general, Rajasthan, revolves around the usage of minimal water in cooking, with water being substituted with ghee, milk, curd or even oil in some cases. Consequently, the dishes that you could hope to find here would be Bajra Roti, Bejar Roti, Gatte Subji and Ker Sangri.
Bajra is a hardy crop that can withstand tough desert conditions with ease and Roti (flat pancake) made of Bajra (a millet cereal) is a standard of Rajasthani meals. Our personal favourite is the Ker Sangri, a tangy dish made out of a local shrub berry and a type of bean. The result is an oily mixture that can withstand the harsh climate of the desert and still taste just as spicy and tangy a day after its preparation. One place we recommend visiting is the unassuming restaurant, Desert Boy’s Dhani; if you can get past the name and visit this place, you will be in for an amazing Rajasthani treat. Order any of the traditional items from here.
If you are looking for street-food, then head over to Gopa Chowk to enjoy a few Mirchi Badas and hot Samosas. For those with a sweet-tooth, the Dhanraj Ranmal Bhatia Sweets is the best place to get the traditional Gothua Laddu, made from gram flour, ghee and Khoya (Ricotta cheese). This outlet has been serving people for over ten generations and the recipe has been passed down from one generation to the other.
12. Enjoy a romantic boat-ride on the Gadsisar Lake:
What was once the only source of water for the people of Jaisalmer has now turned into a boating destination with sandstone temples in the backdrop. One of the few surviving heritage lakes of Rajasthan, Gadsisar manages to remain a favourite meeting-spot for the locals, much like how it was centuries ago. In times of drought, water from the lake was distributed to the citizens of Jaisalmer, the process being overseen by the Rawal himself.
The Tilon Ka Pol, a gateway at the entrance of the lake, was built by a famous musician named Tilon who managed to find her way into the court of the Maharawal. When rumours abounded that she found her way into his bedroom as well, the queen, furious, decided to pull down the structure to show the musician her place. But Tilon, as the ballads claim, was as good at using her brain as her tongue, installed a Murti of Krishna and turned the Pol into a temple and effectively saved it from destruction. The structure stands even today, albeit with locals occupying it.
We visited Gadsisar Lake at night, where cool winds welcomed us to a rather rare sound at Jaisalmer, the splashing of water.
13. Get stunned by the Badal Vilas tower:
The 200-year-old Mandir Palace, a heritage-palace-turned-hotel, built by the late Maharawal Moolrajji hosts one of the most unique structures of Jaisalmer, the Badal Vilas tower. Gifted to the Maharawal by the craftsmen of Jaisalmer as a token of thanks to their royal patron, the five-storeyed Badal Vilas towers over the surroundings, as a metaphoric symbol of royalty that has made the Mandir Palace their home now. The structure is built in the shape of a Tazia, a miniature replica of a mausoleum paraded around by Shia Muslims during Muharram. The tower has five intricately-designed balconies, each of a different design, that is appreciable when viewed from closer quarters.
In addition to the The palace has two wings for public viewing: Jawahar Vilas and Zenana Mahal. They are both museums housing different items such as family portraits, furniture, artefacts, utensils, jewellery and weapons. We personally did not visit the palace, but the Tazia Tower is definitely a major drawing factor for people wishing to visit. If you do happen to visit, do let us know in the comments. Do also let us know if we have missed any of the other things to do.