Rajasthan: Jaisalmer, The Golden City

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Jaisalmer is in the middle of the Thar Desert, in northwest Rajasthan and Pakistan. Jaisalmer has a long history. It was in a good location, with a spring for water, and was a halting point along a traditional trade route used by the camel caravans of Indian and Asian merchants. The route is one of only two that linked India to Central Asia, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Africa and the West. The Jaisalmer rulers gained their wealth through taxes levied on the many passing caravans.

The Jaisalmer Fort (picture from rajasthantourism.gov.in):

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The history of Jaisalmer predates that of all the places we have visited so far on this trip. It was built in 1156 AD by the Bhati Clan of Yadu Rajputs of the Chandrawasnshi (Lunar) race, who claim descent from Lord Krishna. It was founded by Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal, thus the name. The fort stands on the top of a small hill, Trikuta Hill, in the midst of the great Thar Desert, and has been the scene of many battles. Its massive yellow sandstone walls, give it the name of “the Golden Fort,” thus the name for the city.

Trade and the Muslim influence

The importance of the trade routes to the development of areas like Jaisalmer is clear. This ancient international trade was a major development of the Muslim era in the Middle East, Persia, India and Indonesia. The big development during this time was the emergence of Islamic Sharia courts which imposed a common commercial and legal system throughout their sphere of influence, which extended from Morocco in the west to Mongolia in the northeast and Indonesia in the southeast. This legal system allowed letters of credit, issued in places like Egypt or Tunisia, to be honored in India or Indonesia. These letters of credit enabled trade to move without the need for the reverse movement of hard money, gold or sliver. This really is the beginning of modern trade and commerce, and provided for a trade boom throughout its area and a period of relative wealth among its rulers.

The Muslim influence in India started by the early 700s. Bin Qasim invaded the sub-continent at the orders of Al-Hajjaj bin Yousef, the governor of Iraq and minister of defense of the Umayyad Caliphate (the second of the four major Islamic caliphates established since the death of Muhammad). Qasim’s armies, with a force of 20,000 cavalry and 5 catapults,  defeated Raja Dahir, the last Hindu ruler in Sindh and parts of the Punjab in modern Pakistan, at what is now Hyderabad, Pakistan in 712 CE. He then, with 6000 Arabian horsemen, proceeded to subdue more land (including what is now Gujarat and Rajasthan), reaching to the eastern bank of the Indus River, and established the dominion of the Umayyad Caliphate from Lisbon in Portugal to the Indus Valley. Though this conquest was short lived, lasting only until 738 CE, when the Muslims were driven out India in the Battle of Rajasthan. This set the stage for many centuries of Muslim invasions and rule in North India.

The Umayyad Caliphate at its peak:

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At its peak, the Umayyad Caliphate covered almost 600 million square miles (15,000,000 km2), making it the largest empire the world had seen at its time, and the fifth largest ever to exist.

After the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate about 750 CE, the Thar Desert region was in relative chaos for several hundred years, until the founding of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206. Jaisalmer grew out of that period of chaos before the Delhi Sultinate.

Travel to Jaisalmer

The drive from Bikaner, where we were last (see this post) and the nearby Rat Temple (see post) to Jaisalmer was through the Thar Desert, so much of it was dry and used mainly for animal husbandry. This photo shows a small desert village, a few round huts made of sticks and thatch.

Men follow a herd of goats through the desert.

At sunset we come into Jaisalmer. The Jaisalmer Fort is silhouetted ahead of us at  the top of a low hill.

The fort as we drive by.

Our hotel. Nice pool. I didn’t bring a bathing suit, though.

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Hotel in morning sun, built of yellow sandstone with round rooms echoing bastions of the nearby Golden Fort.

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Gadsisar Lake

First we go to Gadsisar Lake. The lake was built to serve as Jaisalmer’s water source by the city’s founder Maharawal Jaisal in 1156 CE. It was rebuilt in 1367 CE by the then-maharaja of Jaisalmer, Maharwal Gadsi Singh, for whom it is named. We cross an old stone bridge to get there. Since this is a tourist area, a camel is on the right, ready for you to take a camel cart ride.

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Rajasthani puppets for sale, strung up by the side of the road.

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Fortifications, a small bastion with arrow silts, from an earlier era.

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We start to see buildings through the trees.

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Looking down onto a temple complex. The lake is behind this, just barely visible.

The Jaisalmer rulers celebrated here with music and dance parties on its banks and in the pavilions that are here.

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There are a number of buildings that are in the water. These are old, and, when it is drier, you can walk out to them. The one pictured below has stairs that rise about 15 feet, so maybe the water is about 10 feet deep now. The pigeons like this place.

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A few sadhus are here.

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This is a Siva temple.

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We entered.

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The main shrine.

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Bats live in the temple, hanging from the ceiling during the day.

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Looking out through the pillared hall towards the lake.

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Below is the legendary, “Concubine’s Gate,” the Tilon ki Pol.

This gate was erected by the rich concubine and then-famous dancer Tilon in 1658. When the king threatened to tear it down because he did not want to pass with his queen and the royal household through a gate constructed by a concubine, she managed to erect a Krishna shrine on its top in the night before demolition was planned. She even found a priest ready to sanctify it immediately for an appropriate fee. So she prevented the demolition and literally forced the king, the queen, and the royal household through the gate.

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Many catfish are in the lake, so it must not dry out completely anymore. Boys will try to sell you bread to feed the fish. The locals do not think that they are good to eat, so they are not used as food. I remember fishing for catfish with my grandfather in Oklahoma. He sure thought they were good eatin’. I am not sure when or how they were planted in the lake.

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It is a beautiful place, and I have read that sunsets are great here. This was not in our plan for the day, though. The next several photos give you an idea of the place, with its wide steps leading into the water.

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Jaisalmer Fort from the lake area.

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Walking away from the lake area.

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There are several shines here. We were told that they were Muslim. The guide could tell because of the lack of human figures in the decoration, only flowers and designs. This is typically Muslim, due to their restrictions on “graven images.”

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Here is the camel again, fully decked out in colorful decorations.

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Jaisalmer Fort

The fort stands in the Thar Desert, on Trikuta Hill, and has been the scene of many battles. Its massive yellow sandstone walls rise above the surrounding countryside, a visible mark of the power of the local rulers.

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Outside the fort is the small city of Jaisalmer, with many shops for all the tourists. We were told that about 80% of the city population is only here during the tourist season, and that all these people go back to their villages when the season is over.

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One shop we noticed was the “Government Authorized” Bhang Shop. Bhang is a concoction, a drink, made with ganja, marijuana. It is legal here, as an ancient tradition. There are quite a few Westerners outside the Bhang Shop.

We have heard of bhang being used throughout India during some Hindu festivals like Holi, where the consumption at such occasions is a standard practice, but we had never come across it before.

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Jaisalmer Fort was built in 1156 AD by the Bhatti Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal (Rawal is the Jaisalmer equivalent to Raja), from whom it derives it name. The Bhati were a clan found in what is now Rajasthan and Gujarat in India, and Southeast Pakistan. These tribes were involved in animal husbandry. The Bhati were Chandravanshi, a type of Kshatriyas (warrior caste). Krishna was born a Chandravanshi, and the Bhati claim descent from Krishna, as part of his clan.

Rawal Jaisal, the eldest son of the Rawal of Deoraj, was passed over in favor of a younger half-brother for the throne of Laudrava.  Laudrava was 15 km to the north-west of present day Jaisalmer, and it was ancient capital of the Bhati dynasty. The city stood on an ancient trade route through the Thar Desert, and was vulnerable to frequent attacks. From Wikipedia:

Enlisting the aid of Shihabuddin, a Muslim invader from Ghor in Afghanistan, Jaisal captured Laudurva. As he had previously agreed with his ally to allow the city to be sacked for 3 days he was left upon gaining the throne with a ruined city.

While checking out Trikuta, a massive triangular rock rising more than 75 meters out of the surrounding sands, as a more secure location for a new capital, Rawal Jaisal met a sage called Eesul, who was staying on the rock. Upon learning that Jaisal was of Yaduvanshi (Krishna’s clan) descent, Eesul told him that according to ancient mythology Krishna and Bhima had come to this location for a ceremony, where Krishna had prophesied that a descendent of his Yaduvanshi clan would one day establish a kingdom here. Eesul showed him a spring which Krishna had created and his prophecy carved into a rock. Encouraged by this meeting Rawal decided to move his capital to this location despite Eesul predicting that it would be sacked two and a half times.

So it was that Rawal Jaisal established his new capital in the form of a mud fort and named it Jaisalmer after himself.

For about the next 150 years, during the Islamic invasion of India, Jaisalmer escaped Muslim conquest due to its isolation and the natural protection provided by the Thar Desert. Finally they agreed to pay annual tribute to the Delhi Sultans.

The walls of the fort rise above us. I can see how they might slow down an invading force in the days before cannons.

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To the left is an old portion of the wall, on the right, a new section. While these walls have survived for many hundreds of years, they are under threat today. The threat comes for the fact that there are many (about 500) families that live in Jaisalmer Fort today, attracted there by the tourist activity. Their life in the fort was not a problem until the Indira Gandhi Canal was built, about 30 years ago. Now these people have water beyond the limited well water they had had for the previous centuries. And their waste water goes into the hill, and the extra water is causing problems, thus the washed out sandstone from 1000 years ago.

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A street vendor makes a necklace from alphabet charms.

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The sign does not show it now, but this used to be the Government Approved Bhang Shop. The local government only gives out one permit each year, and this place lost out in the bidding this year. Our guide took us here.

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I noticed this sign, “U.S. out of Humbolt,” on the wall. For those who do not know, Humbolt is a place in Northern California famous for its marijuana crop.

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They have rows of pipes on a shelf. This place kind of reminds me of a California Medical Marijuana shop. Beside bhang, they have cookies and more products.

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We are nearing the entrance to the fort now. Imposing as it is, there is some awful history associated with this fort. From Wikipedia:

The first jauhar (mass suicide) of Jaisalmer occurred in 1294, during the reign of Alauddin Khilji of Delhi. It was provoked by Bhatis’ raid on a massive treasure caravan being transported on 3000 horses and mules. Alauddin Khilji was so outraged that his army marched upon Jaisalmer. Rawal Jethsi sent the children, elderly and sick, together with some troops to refuge in the desert and applied a scorched earth policy to the countryside surrounding Jaisalmer while building up a massive store of food within the fort. According to local ballads, the Bhatis defended the fort for 8 years during which the forces left outside of the walls occupied themselves attacking the supply lines of the besiegers. During the siege Rawal Jethsi died and was succeeded by his son Mulraj II. By 1294 the besiegers had received sufficient reinforcements that they were able to impose a complete blockage of the fort which soon exhausted the Bhati’s ammunition and food. The Bhatis, facing certain defeat, decided there was no alternative but to perform the rite of jauhar. 24,000 women committed suicide, most on a funeral pyre though some were killed by the swords of their male relations when the pyre proved too small. The men, 3,800 in number then threw open the gates of the fort and advanced to their death. For some years afterwards Jaisalmer remained abandoned before the surviving Bhatis reoccupied it.

In the late 14th century, Sultan Ferozshah also besieged Jaisalmer after a prince of Jaisalmer raided his camp at Anasagar Lake near Ajmer and carried away his prize steed. The siege led to the second jauhar of the prophecy, the suicide of 16,000 women and the death of Rawal Dudu and his son Tilaski together with 1,700 warriors.

During the 15th century the Bhatis once again reoccupied the site and continued to rule with some independence.

The “half jauhar” of the prophecy occurred in the 16th century when Amir Ali, an Afghan Pathan chieftain obtained Rawal Lunakaran’s permission to let his wives visit the queens of Jaisalmer. Instead of a retinue of palanquins containing women they were full of armed warriors, which took the guards of the fort by surprise. When it seemed to the Rawal that he was fighting a losing battle he slaughtered his womenfolk with his own hands as there was insufficient time to arrange a funeral pyre. Tragically immediately after the deed was done, reinforcements arrived, sparing the men from the Jauhar and Amir Ali was defeated and blown up by a cannon ball. Hence, it is called a half jauhar.

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A man gets out of a car. He is wearing the kind of clothes that Jain men usually wear to temple. There are several important Jain temples in the fort. Cars cannot enter the fort after 8:30 in the morning, so are parked outside, and all the tourists walk into the fort.

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We are about to enter into the Jaisalmer Fort, also known as the Sonar Quila, or the Golden Fort of Rajasthan

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The fort contains 3 layers of walls. The outer or the lower layer is made out of solid sandstone blocks and it reinforces the loose rubble of Trikuta Hill. We are about to enter through the gate of this first wall.

We are coming to the first gate.

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Above it is a small Ganesh figure.

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Through the gate are more walls and round bastions. There are 99 bastions all together in this fort.

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Entering through a gate in the second wall. The second wall, the middle wall, snakes around the fort, between the first and third walls.

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From the innermost third wall, the Rajput warriors used to hurl boiling oil and water, and massive round blocks of rock as missiles on the enemies when they got trapped between the second and the third walls.

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These walls reach up quite high, so it would not be easy to scale them.

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A flock of pigeons.

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Puppets and dangling earrings, hanging on a wall for tourists to see and buy. 

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Through the gate in the third wall, we enter the interior of the fort.

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Above this gate is finely carved sandstone ornamentation.

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Women selling tourist items sit at this gate. Everyone who comes here will pass by them, so this is a good location for selling.

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The gate itself is armored.

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Before I enter the gate, I see something up on a wall.

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These are stairs, set into the wall.

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Coming through the last gate.

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So many people have sat here over the years that the sandstone seat is smooth and polished.

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High up the wall is a balcony, a jharokha.

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Looking back at the gate after passing through it. It really is quite grand.

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It opens up to a courtyard.

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In this courtyard is the Raj Mahal, the royal palace. This palace, within the fort walls, was constructed around 1500 AD.

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The chhatri, domed pavilion, on the top of the palace is the highest spot in the entire fort.

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Some of the walls look pretty old.

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This tall building near the palace must have been women’s quarters.

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I say this since there are no normal windows, just the pierced jalies, used to keep the privacy of royal women.

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A doorway with a “horseshoe” arch, typical of Muslim architecture. These are common in Rajasthan.

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A Hindu temple, on this first courtyard. We climb up the stairs.

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Beautiful carved sandstone on the temple.

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The main deity of the temple.

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Close-up, with his shining eyes.

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An opalescent Ganesh.

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And a Siva lingam, with bronze Naga, holy snake.

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Vendors seem to be everywhere, hawking their wares.

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Narrow streets are lined with goods for sale, hanging from the walls.

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We see many Ganesh paintings on walls of buildings. If you look closely you will see a date. Each of these commemorates a marriage.

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The narrow streets are designed this way, to keep the lower reaches in cooling shadow most of the day. This is a good idea for a city in the desert.

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Narrow streets do not preclude the building of houses where the upper floors extend over the street.

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A typical street in the fort. This is a bit out of the tourist area, so there are not all the shops lining it.

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Another great opalescent Ganesh.

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The fort has an ingenious drainage system called the ghut nali which allows for the easy drainage of rainwater away from the fort in all four directions. Over the years, haphazard construction activities and building of new roads has greatly reduced its effectiveness. This is the start of it, where water would be drawn from a well, and sent coursing down to provide water for lower locations.

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An old building and a new one, side by side. These are both surely family residences. That they are still building new buildings here shows the vibrant economy brought about by the tourists.

 

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The detail of the carved sandstone on this jharokha shows the quality of the craftsmanship involved in these buildings.

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Paintings for sale to tourists.

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I am not sure what this painting of the soles of the feet is really about, but it is interesting. Perhaps it is a reflexology chart?

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An old doorway, made with carved sandstone. The lintel is like the one above the gate through the third wall.

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Looking down onto Jaisalmer city from the fort.

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Outside the fort in Jaisalmer city

The rest of the day was spent wandering through the city outside the fort.

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Shopping for antique dancer’s clothing

A big objective for us was to find antique tribal dancer’s ware. Jaisalmer, in the midst of the tribal area, is a great place to shop for these kind of items. I wrote about this in this post.

Our guide took us to the best place that he knew, R.B Co-Operative Art.

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The place was filled with textiles.

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The owner sat with us, and as he understood what we were looking for, had his assistants bring out piles of possibilities.

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They get these items from tribal people, usually after big events, like weddings. For the event, the women will make new pieces of clothing, and afterward will offer up an older one for sale. It is all handwork, with traditional designs for the village or family that date back for generations.

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This is material for a skirt, made with embroidered metal-wrapped thread. It weighs about ten pounds.

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Walking through the city

In the city are many exquisite homes with beautifully carved sandstone. Here are two such houses.

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The streets are narrow. Like in the fort, designed this way to keep cool shadows falling on the walkways.

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There is a row of havelis, houses for rich traders, most built in the 1800s.

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Many stories high are these havelis, with carved balconies, and pierced sandstone windows, like in the palace within the fort. I think that some of these traders accumulated enough wealth to challenge the rich local Maharajas. 

Below is a shot of the first, and maybe the most famous of these havelis, the Patwon ki Haveli, one of five in a row built in the same era. It was constructed in 1805 by Guman Chand Patwa. It is well maintained for a building older than 200 years.

These havelis are also known as the “mansions of brocade merchants.” This name has probably been given because the families dealt in gold and silver threads used in embroidering dresses. However, other theories claim that these traders made considerable amount of money in opium smuggling. The big traders in the Thar Desert were of the Mawari tribe. Opium trade and use were a part of the tribal culture. If fact, when you visited a Mawari household, the first thing they would offer the guest would be an opium pipe. (We went into several local places of business and were never given this offer, though they did offer coffee or tea.) The time that this haveli was constructed, 1805, was a peak time for Mawari income from the opium trade done by the British East India Company from India to China. So I am pretty sure that this opium trade is what built this rich man’s house.

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A close-up of the workmanship.

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This is next to the Patwon ki Haveli, nice but not really in the same league.

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A woman stands in a window of the Patwon ki Haveli for a photo. I think she has rented clothing from a nearby vendor.  You can see the detail of the carved sandstone, beautifully done.

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Another women tries on costume from the vendor. This is what a tribal dancer might wear.

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More exquisitely carved sandstone havelis.

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Here these buildings almost touch above the street.

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A door with carved wood and sandstone. Ganesh is carved into the center of the lintel.

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Underneath the balconies, these carved decorations are pretty typical. These pieces are carved separately, and inserted into holes in the balcony floor.

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Bada Bagh

Bada Bagh (literally Big Garden) is a garden complex north of Jaisalmer. It contains a set of royal cenotaphs – memorials, or chhatris, of deceased Maharajas of Jaisalmer, starting with Jai Singh II (d. 1743)

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We look back on the Jaisalmer Fort at the end of the day.

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Somehow the sense of this desert outpost and 900-year-old fort really captured my imagination. Maybe it is all the “golden” sandstone, I don’t know. Maybe it is the idea of the caravan stopping here for water and supplies. Something abut this place really endeared itself to me. I really enjoyed Jaisalmer. I would recommend it to anyone visiting Rajasthan. Maybe it is a reason to visit Rajasthan in the first place.

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4 Responses to “Rajasthan: Jaisalmer, The Golden City”

  1. Srinivas Ranganath Says:

    Your blog was lesson in history and tourism of Jaisalmer and it revived what I learnt durin my school days!

  2. Surya Says:

    richard,

    my wife and I will be going to tiru this Thursday and have reservations for 4 days at ramana ashram. we are having trouble finding a place with availability for a few days after we have to leave the Ashram. could you suggest a place or two we may try to find room.

    thank you surya

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      There are places that have costs ranging from a few hundred rs per day to several thousand. I suggest that you get here, and then find a place. I am sure that there are rooms available, and it is best that you look for yourself, I think.

  3. Vijay Prakash Sharma Says:

    Great work of photographic ethnography.

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