Like a ship appearing in the horizon over the vast ocean, the city of Jaisalmer rises out of the barren landscape of the great Thar Desert. The terrain is hostile but it is compensated by the warmth and colour of the people much like the characters in an Arabian Nights’ fable. You cannot peel your eyes away from the sloped sand-dunes that surround you while making your way through them on the popular camel safaris. This desert citadel is truly a fantastical oasis in the midst of the mighty Thar and it gets its name from the Bhati Rajput ruler, Rawal Jaisal, who founded the city in 1156 AD.
The indented sandstone partitions and slender lanes are decorated with exquisitely carved structures, through which camel carts rattle by at a leisurely pace, giving it a charming, medieval vibe and an extremely laid-back atmosphere.
In medieval times, Jaisalmer’s opulence increased due to its location on the main trade route linking India to Egypt and Arabia. The Bhati Rajput rulers lined their coffers with additions from traditional taxes levied on caravans passing through the city. They also amassed wealth through various other dubious means.
Over the years, the remote location of Jaisalmer kept it almost untouched by external influences. In the 14th century AD, Ala-ud-din Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, besieged the fort for nine years in an effort to take back the treasure that had been looted by the Bhati Rajputs from his imperial caravan train. When the fall of the fort was imminent, the women of the fort committed Jauhar, an act of mass self-immolation, while men donned saffron robes and rode to their certain death. Duda, son of Jaitasimha- a Bhati legend and hero, also perished in the ensuing battle. Many left the city in search of new homes such as Talwandi and Larkana. After the battle, not much is known or remembered of the dark period that followed.
Duda’s descendants continued to rule Jaisalmer, and in 1541 AD they even fought the Mughal Emperor Humayun, though their relationship with the Mughals was not always hostile. In the days of the British Raj, Jaisalmer was the last kingdom to sign the Instrument of Agreement with the British Government.
Eons have gone by and the buildings of Jaisalmer have managed to endure the hot and pummelling desert winds. It is a paragon of beautiful culture and harsh climatic conditions. Together, they leave a lasting impression on tourists who visit the city.
The old city was completely surrounded by a wall, but much of it has crumbled in recent years. The colossal golden fort, which is the essence of Jaisalmer, is entered through the First Gate, which is a burrow of narrow streets with Jain Shrines and old bastions. The central market, Sadar Bazar, lies right below the hill. The entire city boasts of an assortment of different views that culminate into one magnificent experience.
The so called ‘Rajput Culture’ includes gallantry, heroism, and staunchness even in the face of adversity. Cuisine is a key element which is much influenced by the north Indian ‘dry and rich’ style of cooking.
Music, dance and several festivals form a crucial part of the unique Jaisalmer lifestyle. While spinning in a circle, their bodies sway and as the tempo rises, it feels like they are under the influence of a divine presence. The songs of Jaisalmer are sung in accompaniment of varied musical instruments such as the ‘Kamayacha’ which has a large, circular resonating chamber, which makes a deep smashing sound.
As the winter falls, the tranquil city of Jaisalmer eagerly awaits the lovely Desert Festival. The grandeur and craze witnessed during the festival is awe inspiring. The barren landscape of the desert suddenly seems to be bathed in beauty and colour. All of a sudden, the quaint city of Jaisalmer, seems to be filled with life, music and joy.
The folk culture in the city seems to be on a high as the local men and women get dressed in their gorgeous Rajasthani attires to match the traditional music that accompanies the Desert Festival. In addition there are camel/horse sports, food-stalls serving the traditional cuisine, beautiful desert craftsmanship and artwork, etc. The festival is guaranteed to capture the heart of any visitor.
The vendors on the streets sell beautiful crafts that symbolize beauty in simplicity and the relatively low cost eliminates thinking before buying! The food is basic and without complications which inexplicably results in the bursting of flavours within your mouth. The culture is rustic, almost of an artisan genre that fills the imagination with images of the brilliant Rajput men with the desert in the background, gallantly defending their home. The people give the city a life without boundaries, and are eventually looked after by the hot, yellow sand.
The moon rises over the desert; a huge orange orb that changes colour as it rises. It is surrounded by the seared red earth and shrivelled up shrubs, almost like hot tundra. Yet, it presents scenes of incredible beauty and seems to retain the patina of its former glory. Jaisalmer tends to etch itself in the human heart.
Written by – A.Swarup