Jaisalmer: "The Golden City"
February 27, 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
India is blessed with ancient stone -- deep deposits of granite and marble and sandstone. For centuries, for millennia, masons, architects, artisans and artists have quarried and designed and cut and carved their local stone to build a dramatic and eternal heritage.
The glossy white marble of Agra, the sparkling pink sandstone of Jaipur, the rich red sandstone of Bikaner -- the geological riches are the pride of India and a prize for her visitors.
And now, Jaisalmer -- a golden city! Jaisalmer, the golden-yellow sandstone walls rise up from the hills to dominate and defy the golden gauntlet of the Thar Desert.
And as I climb to the ramparts of the Jaisalmer Fort, I gaze west to the edge of the desert, to the edge of history. The camel caravan route from China to Afghanistan made this desert outpost a wealthy city of traders and merchants.
"The Jaisalmer Fort, with its awesome contours of its ninety-nine bastions, stands on the peak of the 80m (263 ft) Trikuta Hill. In medieval times, Jaisalmer's entire population lived within the fort and even now, thousands of people reside here, making it India's only living fort. Royal palaces, a cluster of Jain temples, mansions and shops are all contained within its walls." [*]
And what golden treasures lie with these golden walls!
The yellow sandstone jalis, or latticed stone work here in Jaisalmer is a rich variety of patterns that seem to be carved into every wall, window and door. "Yellow sandstone lends itself particularly well to fine carving. Soft when newly quarried, the stone gradually becomes harder with exposure." [*]
The best examples of this craftsmanship are the haveli, the mansions that dominate the narrow lanes of the fort. The facades are elaborately decorated and the window screens look like lace. Even the interior walkways and balconies of the mansions are coated and embellished with this fine detail of geometric, floral and animal designs. Petit point in stone.
"The enormous and elaborate Patwon ki Haveli was built between 1805 and 1855 by Guman Chand Patwa, one of Jaisalmer's richest merchants and bankers, who dealt in silk, brocade and opium and had a chain of trading stations stretching across the from China to Central Asia. The six-storied mansion has five adjoining apartments and sixty-six balconies. The carved eaves on the balconies suggest a fleet of sailing boats, and the numerous latticed windows are carved with breathtaking intricacy." [*]
It is breathtaking. I took the tour. Apparently the Patwons were determined to be the "Joneses" that everyone needed "to keep up with." Apparently the Patwons determined that the stone jalis would replicate the brocade and fine silk of their trade. They succeeded.
In Jaisalmer I also visit the Jain Temple complex. I am searching for the best words to describe my experience. I can start with amazing, continue with bedazzling, and end up at unbelievable and zenzational. Here's my first reaction to a Jain temple, "If Michelangelo had seen these carvings, he may have chosen to abandon sculpture."
Built in the 15th and 16th Centuries by wealthy Jain merchants, the seven temples boast their own versions of elaborate rooftop sandstone carvings. From a distance the image is of a four-sided triangle whose sides are covered with undulating concentric circles like a sea in the desert sky.
The interior carvings are encrusted on the walls, the ceiling, the pillars and the buttresses. Filigree in stone. And in the niches of the temple sit the twenty four black and white marble tirthankaras, the enlightened ones who carry the souls from one life to another.
I am astonished. Don't laugh. I feel transported myself.
Bada Bagh lies seven kilometers north of the fort. The royal cenotaphs with carved ceilings and equestrian statues are placed as memorials on the desert hillside that overlooks a green oasis.
Desert. Oasis. Transport. The combination means only one thing: the obligatory camel safari. But no worries my friends, I found a mini-safari. To be honest, a micro-mini safari. About two hours.
The scariest moment is when the camel first stands up, hind legs first. For a jarring instant or two it's like sitting at the top of a sliding pond looking down a 45 degree angle to the sand. Then up come the front legs and I am off.
The driver walks ahead and leads me through the desert scenery of small villages, cattle at a watering hole, kids "hot-rodding" their pet camel, clusters of sheep, black goats, huge birds sitting on the treetop; small shrubs with blue flowers. And finally, every desert photographer's dream -- the silhouette of camel and rider crossing a barren distant dune, as the sun sets behind them in the mountains.
The three days here in Jaisalmer have been just excellent: excellent sights, excellent food, a comfortable hotel with a large swimming pool and a terrace for a late afternoon coffee, and miracle of miracles, I even met a couple of friendly Western tourists. Must be the desert air. Focuses the senses.
When the sun rises again I will ride southeast to Jodhpur, the last of the Three Desert Kingdoms. Will Jodhpur be golden, or pink, or red, or blue? Rudyard Kipling said that the fort is "the creation of angels and fairies and giants." Perhaps Jodhpur is a rainbow.
[*]India. Eyewitness Travel Guides. DK. London. 2005.
# I am reminded of the yellow sandstone found near another golden city - Salamanca in Spain. See my website. www.travelwithjan.com. 2002, Extremadura, "Spain at the Extreme"