Jaisalmer is a city in the middle of the Great Indian Desert in the northwestern part of India in the state of Rajasthan. In January-February, Jaisalmer celebrates desert culture with an eventful Desert Festival. The program includes camel racing, camel polo, folk music, snake charmers, turban tying competitions and the famous Mister Desert contest. Many events take place in the dunes of Sam.
Until the end of the 19th century, Jaisalmer lay on one of Asia’s most prosperous trade routes, connecting China, Tibet and the Ganges valleys with the ports of Gujarat and Sindh. But the advent of the railways marked the beginning of the decline of its glory as a trading center, and it finally fell into disrepair in 1947, when the western border was closed after the division of India.
Jaisalmer is located on the border with Pakistan, on a yellow sandstone ridge in the west of the Thar Desert. Above the city rises a fort with a beautiful palace and several graceful temples. Most of the population are descendants of the first inhabitants of the city. The name means “Hill Fort of Jaisala”.
This is a city that has almost risen from the dead in the last half century. Now Jaisalmer may not be as influential as it used to be, but it is certainly not forgotten – in fact, it is one of the largest tourist cities in Rajasthan. A few leave here without climbing a camel in the Thar Desert. The competition among mushers to get your ass in the saddle can be fierce, with some mushers even employing unsavory tactics to impose their services.
The Jaisalmer Fort is a breathtaking sight: a massive sandcastle rising out of the sandy plain, like a mirage from a bygone era. The fort was founded in 1156 by the leader of the Rajputs, Rawal Jaisal, after they settled here. The fort is located on the Trikuta (three peaks) hill in the center of Jaisalmer. The fort itself consists of five interconnected palaces, including Raj Mahal (Royal Palace) and Badal Mahal (Cloud Palace), as well as three temples built from the 12th to the 15th century, a Hindu temple and many elegant mansions. Massive sandstone walls and 99 low, sturdy towers rise 300 meters above the city.
During the day they appear brownish-red, but when the sun sets, the walls magically turn a golden honey hue. The fort is heavily defended by a double row of bastions and is riddled with a network of narrow streets and lanes, where shops adorned with bright embroidery, a royal palace and a huge number of organizations eager for tourist rupees are located. Despite the commercialization, it’s hard not to succumb to the charm of this desert fortress.
Beneath the bastions, the narrow streets of the old city hide splendid havelis, entirely hewn from the same golden sandstone as the fortress; hence the name Jaisalmer – “Golden City”. Surrounding the fort is a more modern city built from the same honey-coloured stone. The best views of the fort come from the rooftops of these houses, many of which have now been converted into local-style hotels.
Style of skillful sculpture of four Jain temples (Jain temples) of the 15th century. on the territory of the fort is repeated in the carved facades of merchants’ houses, built 200 years later and protected from sandstorms on the northeast side. But much more impressive than individual monuments – beautiful, but not always accessible – is the general atmosphere of the city, which gives it a special charm.
Everything here is bathed in the transparent light of the desert, which makes the stones shimmer and the shadows shine through.
The landscape outside the city is harsh but beautiful. The national desert park is interesting for its diverse landscapes, wolves, desert and Bengal foxes, desert cats, markhorned antelopes, and many birds are found here. The Akai Petrified Forest contains the fossilized remains of a forest that is 180 million years old.
To see the desert in all its splendor, head there at sunrise and sunset. Beyond Jaisalmer you will find the road ending at the village of Sam , where tourists, hawkers, guides, camel drivers and beggars flock at sunset. They all congregate here because it is the only place that can be reached by road and has the widest and most beautiful view of the dunes. Nearby Indian military installations are a reminder of the proximity of the troubled border with Pakistan.
Longer camel safaris can be arranged through the Jaisalmer travel agency. Ask your camel driver to guide him to the relatively under-touristed village of Kuldhara. This is one of 84 villages left over 160 years ago by the Paliwal Brahmin clan, who, having lived there for several centuries, suddenly, overnight, gathered and left, not wanting to pay a new unbearable tax on the land. It still looks like an abandoned village: a group of dilapidated square buildings built of sandstone.
Outside the desert, 40 km southwest of Jaisalmer, is the village of Khuri . Mostly tourists are attracted here by the desertedness of the desert and beautifully decorated adobe houses. There are places to stay to experience the authentic flavor of desert life, and you can also hire camels here.
History of Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer was founded back in 1156 by the head of the Rajput Bhati clan named Jaisal. Bhatis, who trace their lineage to Krishna, ruled until the country gained independence in 1947.
The city’s early centuries were tumultuous, in part because its rulers profited from plunder, but by the 16th century, Jaisalmer flourished thanks to its strategic location on the routes between India and Central Asia. Ultimately, the city developed a strong relationship with the Mughal Empire. Maharawal Sabal Singh expanded the principality of Jaisalmer in the mid-17th century by adding areas that are now divided between the administrative divisions of Bikaner and Jodhpur .
Under the British, the development of maritime trade (especially through Mumbai) and railroads meant that the importance and population of Jaisalmer declined. The division in 1947, with the closure of trade routes to Pakistan, seemed to seal the fate of the city. But the wars in 1965 and 1971 between India and Pakistan gave Jaisalmer a new strategic importance, and since 1960, the Indira Gandhi canal in the north has brought life-giving moisture to the desert.
Today, the basis of the city’s economy is tourism and a large number of military bases in the area.
Landmarks of Jaisalmer
The fortress was founded in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisal, and subsequent rulers fortified it, so it became the object of a number of battles between the Bhatis, the Delhi Mughals and the Jodhpur Rathores. You enter the fortress from the east side and pass through four massive gates on your way to the top.
The fourth gate leads to a large square, Dashera Chowk , where it becomes clear why the Jaisalmer Fort is considered unique: it is a populated fortress where about 3,000 people live. It is riddled with narrow, winding paths lined with houses and temples – and handicraft shops, guesthouses, restaurants and massage/beauty parlors. When walking around the fortress, watch your bags and pockets – there have been cases of theft.
Indian/foreigner including audio guide and photo Rs 30/250, video Rs 50/150;
8.00-18.00 April-October, 9.00-18.00 November-March
The elegant seven-story palace of the former rulers rises above the main square of the fortress and is partially built on Hawa Pol (the fourth gate of the fortress) . The 1.5-hour audio guide is available in six languages, and it makes sense to take it, but you will need to leave a deposit of 2000 rupees or a passport / driver’s license / credit card.
The most interesting places are the Rang Mahal (bedroom of the 18th century ruler Mulray II) , decorated with mirrors and paintings , a gallery of 15th century forged sculptures donated to the rulers by the builders of the fortress temple, and a breathtaking 360-degree view from the roof. And in one of the rooms there is an intriguing collection of stamps from the former Rajput states.
Entrance 30 rupees, photo/video/mobile phone 70/120/30 rupees;
Within the walls of the fortress, seven beautiful Jain temples made of yellow sandstone, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, are intertwined like a labyrinth. The intricate carvings of the temple rival those of the marble Jain temples at Ranakpur and Mount Abu and are of incredible quality due to the soft, warm stone. Before entering the temples, you need to take off your shoes and all leather goods.
Chandraprabhu is the first temple you will visit. It is dedicated to the eighth Tirthankara, whose symbol is the Moon. The temple was built in 1509. Here stands a statue in an almond, whose carved columns form a series of torans. To the right of Chandraprabhu is the quiet Rikhabdev temple with beautiful sculptures in glass cabinets along the walls and pillars adorned with beautiful statues of apsaras and gods. Behind Chandraprabhu stands Parasnath (Parasnath) , where you get through a beautiful carved torana, which is crowned with the image of a Jain tirthankara.
The door to the south leads to little Shitalnath (Shitalnath)dedicated to the tenth tirthankara, whose image is made of eight precious metals. A door in the north wall leads to the charming dark Sambhavanth hall in the forecourt; there Jain priests grind sandalwood in mortars for religious use. Steps lead down to Gyan Bhandar , a fascinating little underground library founded in 1500 that houses priceless ancient illustrated manuscripts. The other two temples, Shantinath and Kunthunath , were built in 1536 and feature many sensuous carvings.
Laxmi Narayan Temple
The Hindu temple of Lakshmi Narayan, standing in the center of the fortress, is simpler than the Jain temples. It can be recognized by its brightly decorated dome. Believers offer grain, which is distributed before entering the temple. Inside the holy of holies there is an image hung with garlands, and in front of the entrance there is a convex silver architrave.
Inside the fortress, and outside too (especially on the streets leading to the north) , Jaisalmer is full of fabulous haveli – with luxurious carved stone doors, jali (carved lattices) , balconies and turrets.
The whale in this haveli pond is Patwa-ki-haveli, which dominates the narrow street. Its intricate stone carving looks more like golden lace. The building consists of five sections and was built between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who made their fortunes in brocade and jewelry. The building makes the strongest impression from the outside. The first of the five sections is open as a private museum, Patwa Ki Haveli (Indian/Foreigner Rs 50/120, photo/video Rs 40/70; 8.30-19.00) which reproduces life in the 19th century in great detail.
entrance, including a guide 20 rupees,
photo / video 20/50 rupees;
8.00-19.00 May-September, 8.00-18.00 October-April
This 18th-century haveli has an amazing, distinctive shape. The top floor is replete with carvings and graceful arched balconies crowned with blue domes. Salim Singh was the prime minister of Jaisalmer in the 19th century and was notorious. His mistreatment of the Paliwal Brahmin community forced them to abandon their 84 villages and leave.
entrance 20 rupees;
This late 19th century haveli is also used as the prime minister’s residence and is still partially inhabited. It is very unusual from the outside, it is all covered with carvings, and on the 1st floor there are beautiful paintings, which were painted using 1.5 kg of gold. British postcards from the 19th century and an image of Queen Victoria hang around the doorway. The left and right wing – the work of two brothers, whose spirit of competition and gave light to this work of art – are similar, but not identical.
Center and Museum of Desert Culture
Indian/foreigner Rs 20/50,
photo/video Rs 20/50;
Located next to the Tourist Reception Center . This interesting small museum has material in English and Hindi on the history of the different principalities of Rajasthan, exhibits on traditional Rajasthani culture. They include Rajasthani music (with video) , textiles and phad paintings . Also in the evenings, half-hour puppet shows are held here (Indian / foreigner 30/50 rupees, photo / video 20/50 rupees; 6.30-19.30) with English commentary.
Thar Heritage Museum
on the right side of the Kort road;
entrance 40 rupees
This privately owned museum near Gandhi Chowk Square features an intriguing assortment of artifacts from Jaisalmer and the surrounding area. Most likely, the tour will be personally guided by the founder of the museum, local historian and folklorist L.N. Khatri. The museum’s opening hours vary, but if it’s closed, just look for Mr. Khatri at his Desert Handicrafts Emporium nearby on Court Road.
This majestic 14th-century man-made reservoir southeast of the city walls was Jaisalmer’s key source of water until 1965, and it is because of its importance that it is surrounded by many small temples. This is a favorite place for waterfowl in winter, but at the same time it can dry up almost completely before the rainy season. Catfish, which are the most abundant in the lake, accumulate in front of the shore in a wriggling mass when someone throws bread crumbs into the water. Boat rental (8.00-21.00) costs from 50 rupees to 100 rupees for half an hour.
It is said that the beautiful gate ki-Pol (Tilon-ki-Pol) , which blocks the way to the reservoir, was built by a famous prostitute. When she offered to pay for the construction of the gate, the maharawal did not give permission for this, explaining that he would have to pass through them in order to go down to the pond, and this would be beneath his dignity. While he was away, the prostitute built the gate anyway, and to prevent the Maharawal from demolishing it, she decorated it with a statue of Krishna.
Arrival in Jaisalmer
Barkers line the buses bound for Jaisalmer from Jodhpur, hoping to direct tourists to those guesthouses and hotels in Jaisalmer where they will earn a commission. Upon arrival in Jaisalmer, most of the buses are surrounded by a swarm of touts, which vied with each other to attract the attention of tourists.
If the autorickshaw has a sign with the name of the place where you want to stop, the trip there should be free (just in case, ask if it’s free) . In any case, do not believe anyone who offers to take you “anywhere” for just a few rupees, and be critical of any claims that the hotel you want is “crowded”, “closed” or “not so good anymore”.
Also be very wary of offering rooms for Rs 100 or similarly absurd prices. Places offering these prices are almost certainly part of the camel safari pushback process, and their goal is to get you out of your room and on a camel ride as quickly as possible. If you do not agree to their safari, the room rate may suddenly increase, or you may be told that there are no more rooms.
Barkers are not as common on trains, but the same happens outside the station.
Where to stay
Staying in the fortress is the best choice if you want romance and a special atmosphere. There are also a lot of good hotels outside the fortress. Prices in many fluctuate depending on the season: if there is a holiday, the rooms are expensive and hard to find, but in the off-season, most places have good discounts. Discounts are great from April to August: it’s damn hot in Jaisalmer.
Ten years ago, the entire Jaisalmer fortress was in danger. It could have been washed away by water due to a leak in the ancient sewer system. The main problem was material progress in the form of running water for the inhabitants of the fortress – something that was not even dreamed of during the construction of the fortress. Three ancient bastions collapsed, and some parts of the fortress palace tilted anxiously.
Since then, the English organization Jaisalmer in Jeoprady (www.jaisalmer-in-jeopardy.org) and several Indian organizations, including the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH; www.intach.org) have raised funds and carried out much-needed restoration work to preserve the fortress. The main thing was the renewal of the sewer system, the renewal of the pavement of the streets and the repair work inside the palace.
Now the fortress is out of danger, but it remains a fragile structure. Thoughtless, often illegal construction work continues to threaten her. Visitors should be aware of the fragility of the fortress and conserve resources as much as possible, especially water.
What to buy
Jaisalmer is famous for its stunning embroidery, bedspreads, mirror appliqué, tapestries, oil lamps, stonework and antiques. When buying silver products, you need to be careful: it is sometimes mixed with bronze.
Camel Safari in Jaisalmer
Camel riding is the most memorable and interesting way to learn more about life in the Thar Desert. Don’t expect a sea of dunes though – Thar is basically an arid, bushy area with many villages and wind turbines; but sometimes there are dunes here and there. You will often come across fields of millet and children herding flocks of sheep or goats. The ringing of neck bells in the stillness of the desert is a welcome change from the sounds of burping camels.
Now most tours include jeep rides to show tourists less visited areas. An alternative to Jaisalmer would be to stop at Khuri , 48 km to the southwest: there are good safaris there and you will be directly in the desert by the time you start your trip.
Before you go
Competition among safari organizers is fierce. The standards are different. Most hotels and guesthouses will be happy to organize camel safaris for you. Many have good service, but there are also hacks who will give you a completely different trip than you imagined. Some hotels almost force customers to take “their” safaris. Others, for example, state that they “do not organize safaris.”
You can use the services of one of several reputable agencies in Jaisalmer. Since safari is their only activity, they are especially interested in satisfying their customers. It would be nice to chat with other tourists and ask them for the coordinates of several operators and find out their offers.
An overnight safari leaving Jaisalmer in the afternoon and returning the next morning (overnight somewhere in the dunes) is the bare minimum to understand what it is like. Most likely, you will drive one and a half to two hours a day. Of course, if desired, the trip can last from several days to several weeks. The longer the journey is, the better you will get to know the villages, oases, wildlife and people of the desert.
The most famous dunes, Sam (40 km west of Jaisalmer) and Khuri, are always crowded in the evenings and feel more like a carnival than a return to mother nature. Trips “to places where there are no tourists” and “on untraveled paths” will show you other areas – usually lying southwest of Jaisalmer, in the area between Sam and Khuri or beyond Khuri.
Usually the price fluctuates between 550 rupees and 750 rupees per person per day, and the jeep transfer is already included in this price. The price should also include three meals a day, a large supply of mineral water and a sufficient number of blankets. Still often take thin mattresses. Make sure there is one camel for each rider. You can pay for more comfortable conditions (for example, tents, better food) , but you always need to stipulate the conditions in writing.
You do not have to pay for the whole day if you return right after breakfast on the last day. A one-night desert safari that starts at noon and ends the next morning is usually billed as a day and a half.
There are several Internet cafes in the fortress, but there are few outside of it. The regular price is 40 rupees per hour.
SOCH it (Dhibba; Internet access 40 rupees per hour; 7.30-22.00)
State Bank and SBBJ ATMs are near Hanuman Circle , SBBJ and ICICI Bank ATMs are on Shiv Rd , and State Bank is outside the train station.
Thomas Cook (Gandhi Chowk; 9.30-19.00 Mon-Sat, 10.00-17.00 Sun) Reliable currency exchange office, exchanges travelers checks and cash; Credit and debit cards are accepted here.
Jaisalmer Main Post Office (Hanuman Circle Rd; 10am-5pm Mon-Sat)
Tourist Reception Office (Tourist Reception Office; 252406; Gadi Sagar Rd; 9.30-18.00) This is a cozy office where you can get a free map of the city and various brochures (albeit quite old) . The staff will gladly answer all questions.
Transport in Jaisalmer
Official rates (first kilometer Rs 11, each following Rs 46, idle minute Rs 0.20) are posted at some auto rickshaw stands. It adds up to about 25 rupees from the train station to Gandhi Chowk for example, but you might have to haggle.
Good way to get around Jaisalmer. There are a number of rental companies, including Narayan Cycles (next to Gandhi Chowk; Rs 10/40 hour/day) .
Cars and motorcycles
You can hire a taxi or a jeep at the parking lot on Hanuman Circle Road (Hanuman Circle Rd) . The fare to Khuri, Sam Sand Dunes or Lodhruwa is 500 rupees including the return journey and an hour of waiting. A full day of sightseeing around Jaisalmer will cost around Rs 1,000.
Shiva Bikes (Dhibba; scooter/motorcycle per day 300/400 rupees) – licensed rental with good motorcycles and scooters to explore the city and nearby attractions (helmets and maps of the area are included) .
Road to Jaisalmer and back
The airport, 5 km south of the city, is operating intermittently due to the tense situation on the border with Pakistan. At the beginning of 2011 it was closed. The latest flights were operated by Kingfisher Airlines (www.flykingfisher.com) to Jodhpur.
RSRTC buses leave from the station at Shiv Road on the southern edge of the city. There are buses to Jodhpur (Regular/Express Rs 125/155, 5.5 hours, 15 per day) , Bikaner (Rs 130/162, seven hours, four per day) and Jaipur (Junior Suite Rs 375, 12 hours, at 17.30 ) .
Private buses mostly depart from the courtyard near Desert Boy’s Dhani, south of the fort.
The ticket can be bought at your hotel (plus Rs 30 to the cost) or directly at the box office of bus companies, most of which are located on Hanuman Circle – including Swagat Travels, who have buses to Jodhpur (seated/sleeping Rs 150/250, 16 per day) , Bikaner Rs 150/250, three per day), Ahmedabad (Rs 350/450, 12 noon, 5.30 pm) and Udaipur (Rs 350/450, 12 noon, 3.30 pm) , and Hanuman Travels with flights to Jaipur (280/380 rupees, at 16.30) and Bhuj (400/800 rupees, 15 hours, at 14.30).
These are prices for direct flights; some agencies also sell tickets with transfers in Jodhpur, and sometimes tourists end up in Jodhpur with useless tickets further away, so check what you are paying for.
A one way taxi should cost around Rs 1800 to Jodhpur, Rs 2500 to Bikaner and Rs 4500 to Udaipur. Parking is available on Hanuman Circle Road .
The railway station (ticket office 8.00-20.00 Mon-Sat, 8.00-13.45 Sun) is located on the eastern outskirts of the city, not far from the road to Jodhpur.
Two daily express trains leave for Jodhpur. 14809 Jaisalmer-Jodhpur Express (Sleeping Car/3rd Class A/C Rs 165/419) departs at 2315 and arrives in Jodhpur at 520. 14060 Jaisalmer-Deli Express departs at 16.30, arrives in Jodhpur (sleeping car / 3rd class with air conditioning / 2nd class with air conditioning Rs 165/419/566) at 21.50, then it goes to Jaipur (262/693/945 rupees, 10.5 hours from Jaisalmer) and Delhi (331/888/1215 rupees, 18.5 hours) .
Trains 14703 and 14701 depart from Jaisalmer at 10.40 and 22.45, respectively, to Bikaner (sleeping car Rs 168, 5.5 hours) .
Neighborhood of Jaisalmer
Sand Dunes Sam
Sam Sand Dunes (vehicle/camel fee 50/80) Rs, located 41 km south of Jaisalmer on a good road (maintained by the Indian Army) is one of the most popular destinations for excursions from the city. The dune strip is about 2 km long and, no doubt, very picturesque. Some camel drivers stop here, but most come here at sunset to be rushed across the sands by dressed up dancing children and intrusive camel owners offering short rides.
Many stay overnight in one of the hundreds of tents near the dunes. In general, from noon until the next morning, the place takes on a carnival atmosphere, so you should stay away from it if you want to watch the sunset in peace and solitude.
If you arrange your own camel ride on site, you will have to pay between 200 and 300 rupees for an hour sunset ride, but beware: many camel drivers require more money on the way.
The village of Khuri, 48 km southwest of Jaisalmer, has a fairly extensive area of dunes that attract tourists to watch the sunset, and a large number of small “hotels” that offer the same conditions for an overnight stay as in Sam. There are also inexpensive guesthouses where you can stay in a calm traditional house with mud and dung walls and a thatched roof, or go on interesting camel rides to relatively remote and deserted places.
Khuri is located in the Desert National Park , which covers an area of 3162 km southwest of Jaisalmer. It was created to protect part of the Thar Desert ecosystem, including desert foxes, desert cats, Bennett’s gazelle, nilgai (large antelope)and some unusual birds, including the endangered beautiful Indian bustard.