Jaisalmer – Exploring the City Outside the Fort

The land of sand dunes, havelis and golden-hued landscape, Jaisalmer is an enchanting beauty with fairy tale architecture and regal charm! It was after my brother & sis-in-law visited the dreamy desert town and shared their experience, that I grew inquisitive about this place. “Jaisalmer”, the name itself was so intriguing, exotic and mysterious that in no time my imagination led me to visualize myself in this westernmost frontier of India, experiencing Sridevi’s “Morni baga Ma Bole Aadhi Raat Ma..lalala 😀 ” sequence from the movie Lamhe; rejoicing the vibrant folk music in the middle of bon-fire lit barren desert. 

A beautifully carved sandstone structure enroute, caught my attention

The city’s major attractions, the living fort, the havelis, palaces and museums, the Ornate Jain temples, gadisar lake and of course, the shopping markets formed my itinerary.

Although it was afternoon by the time we reached Jaisalmer, being winter, the air was brisk and fresh.  Our hotel was located in the vicinity of the fort, and on our way, I could easily spot the spectacular sandstone structure looming over the city, as we drove through the roads to reach our adobe. Our pad for the first day was the Shahi Palace Hotel, located near the walls of Jaisalmer’s living fort. Redolent of ancient havelis, the hotel is adorned with fine wood work furniture, windows and doorways, that give a rustic feel to this rather modern & comfortable space. We dropped off our bags and headed straight to the roof-top cafe as I’d read so much about the view from there.

Climbing the fleet of stairs to reach the rooftop, I could see the fort shining like a burnished beacon, perched atop the Trikuta hill, emerging in front of me, the sight I’d never forget.

Rest of our day was spent just chilling at the cafe, talking our hearts out, and enjoying the wondrous sight of the Sonar Quila. Behind me, was the sun setting, and in front of me, was this majestic fort camouflaged by the natural sunlight, transforming in to a honey-gold fortress lit up from within and outside, embodying vibrancy, colors, and splendor! The magical bliss of nature’s beauty consumed me with a feeling of inexplicable stillness. I witnessed the panoramic fortress in all its shades – at the dawn, at the crack of the twilight, illuminated in the evening; and each sight was a beauty to behold!

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Chilling at the Roof-top Cafe

Maneuvering the narrow city lanes later that evening, we took a pitstop at Mandir Palace, an erstwhile palace that now serves as luxury hotel; sections of which have been converted into a museum and are available to the tourists for a fee. We set out exploring the palace complex from a Giridhari temple in the compound, where a few old ladies were enjoying the simple pleasures of life, engaged in daily chores and bonding over conversations about their day. Whizzing around the museum in the palace for some more time, discovering the glorious historical trivias while marveling at the relics kept in there, we made our way towards The Thar Heritage Museum. This small but fascinating museum houses ancient artifacts, reminiscent of the evolution of Jaisalmer’s culture. Instead of the Royals, the curios here depict the tales of history and culture of local people and their daily lives in their day and age.

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Exhibits at Mandir Palace
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Posing at Mandir Palace
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Exhibits at Thar Desert Museum

Wandering around Gandhi Chowk, to catch a glimpse of the rustic lifestyle we breezed through several colossal sandcastles, old havelis and vibrant shops selling everything from Rajasthani artifacts, leather accessories, hand-looms and jewellery. The area was buzzing with vibrancy, hustle-bustle, and colors; symbolizing the festive and colorful spirit of Rajasthan. Amidst all the market chaos, the aroma of the street-food tempted our taste buds to indulge in some local savories and I relished on some mirchi bhajiyas (local savoury) with spicy and lip-smacking chutney that made up for our snack accompanied with Bhaang (a local brew).

Back in our pad, unwinding in the café over a candle light meal, under the open sky, with its borderless flow of clarity, I cherished the feeling of soft breeze inlaying the cafe with an aura of tranquility, witnessing the moon-lit sky and yellow-lit fort. The peaceful ambience made us feel so much at home, that we were there long enough for the hotel staff to assume that we were planning to spend the night there and as a gesture to delight us they gave us blankets, maybe as a signal to either pass out, or crash in our room 😀

The Day of our Desert Experience

Reveling in the early morning breeze at the roof-top café the next morning, I could feel my veins being filled with adrenaline rush, thinking of the “Night Under the Stars” Desert Safari experience that I was to live later that day. We set out at 2.00 pm in a jeep that had only the 2 of us (me and my friend) along with the driver of course. Whizzing through the desert landscape, we took a brief stop on our way to enjoy the beauty of being surrounded by the magical vibes of an Oasis, before heading to the Amar Sagar Jain Temple, a picturesque temple located right next to the famous Amar Sagar lake. Any photographer’s delight, this temple usually serves as a beautiful backdrop for those mesmerizing photographs, that you would want to share on your Instagram! And just before our Desert Safari experience, we took a tour of Kuldhara, the abandoned village in Jaisalmer. Over the years this place has earned a reputation of being haunted and as we were entering the area, a feeling of errie took over us too; the spooky vibes did make us feel the uncomfortable coldness of this place!

Mandatory posing at the beautiful Patwa Haveli

Moving inside the fort, yet exploring outside 😀

The morning after our Desert Safari experience, we were taken back to the city in the same Jeep, this time shared by a few others. It’s not always that you stick by your itinerary and the same was the case with us. We were yet to explore a few places outside the fort this day. Out of the four days that we had our stay booked in Jaisalmer, one was right outside the fort, other was the Desert Safari, one being inside the fort in the vicinity of the Jain temples and the last one was a little further inside the fort, overlooking the city outside.

For this day, we picked Hotel Suraj, located in the close proximity of the Jain temples, by virtue of which, I would literally wake to the sight of these majestic heritage temples, standing tall whenever I peeked out of my window. These Jain temples were the first exploration I did that day and I had the privilege to meet a Jain sage who familiarized me with the history of this ancient religion and shared the significance of several idols and symbols adoring the complex.

Just out from the surreal environment in the temple complex, we made our way outside the fort. Tip-toeing our way through the lively local lanes, we reached Pansari bazaar, Jaisalmer’s oldest market and is also known as Villager’s market. The vibrant street had an array of offerings on display from Rajasthani ethnic ghagra-cholis, beaded jewelry, brightly colored dupattas, handcrafted items, to leather bags, there was something for everyone’s or let’s say a woman’s taste 😀 . It’s like being in the middle of a mosaic neighborhood filled with colors, beauty and festivity! Goes with out saying that it was an exotic escape for me.

Rooving through the narrow lanes after our retail therapy indulgence, we landed at the Main Entrance of the “Patwon ki Haveli”, one of the most popular and also the first ever haveli to be erected in the city. This cluster of five havelis, standing proudly in a narrow lane, is the largest in the city, and also houses the office of Archaeological Survey of India. The lane outside the haveli itself is a riot of colors and craft with outlets selling wooden handicrafts, toys, Rajasthani souvenirs and the colorful puppets.

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We visited the one that had an entry fees. Besides splendid archs and gateways, what caught our attention were the beautiful paintings and stunning mirror work adorning the walls of the haveli. The museum inside, showcased the lifestyle of the erstwhile business family that constructed it. From ornaments, to furniture, to utensils, to clothes, the museum preserves and displays authentically, the merchant family life in those days! Fascinated by the intricate architecture and engraves on the ceilings, Colorful frescos and murals on the walls, we lingered around the architectural marvel for a while more, to just soak in all the beauty, splendidness and history around us!

With time for the twilight to take over the sky, we set off to Gadisar lake, to experience the onset of sunset while boating in the serene calmness of this huge lake, surrounded by artistically carved temples and shrines. Gazing at the sun, sinking below the horizon, with the sky turning to a purple-tinged grey and the breeze fingering my hair, whilst experiencing every bit of tranquility of this lake was nothing but spellbinding.

Shrines at the Gadisar Lake
NK Sharma at the desert culture & folklore museum

A few rounds of photo sessions around the lake and we made our way to visit the Desert Culture & Folklore Museum, placed on the banks of the lake. Just in time for the Puppet Show & Live Folk Singing to begin, we grabbed our seats in the middle and gradually made our way to the first row to get the best view :D. The commentary by NK Sharma (the founder) the intriguing puppet show and amazingly choreographed live folk performances had us glued to our seats. It was quite amazing to witness this ancient art thanks to N.K Sharma, a retired teacher, who is striving to preserve this dying culture. We toured the museum after the show and also exchanged a dialogue with the local musician “”. The museum was indeed a treasure house with unique exhibits of souvenirs and artefacts of bygone years ranging from old to present folk art including hairstyle presentations, costumes, photographs, paintings, manuscripts, coins and rare ornaments. We closed the day on a high note, enjoying the raw Rajasthani music and countryside experiences.

Hacra –  At the Back of Beyond

In pursuit of an “Off the beaten path” experience in the desert state I started digging on the Trip Advisor forums, is when I stumbled up on a post recommending HACRA Dhani in the Osian region to explore the essence of Rural Rajasthan.

The Family

With all guns blazing, in the wee hours of Dec 10th, we hit the road, with our eyes glued on the route surrounded by the desert land. A few hours on the road and Phew.., finally the sight of some biological beings, at a tea stall, somewhere between Pushkar and Jodhpur, was like seeing a flash of light at the end of the tunnel. A quick halt for tea and we yawned into slumber for the rest of the journey.

Enroute to HACRA, we stopped by to visit the ancient Sachiya Mata Temple. A flight of steps led us to the main sanctum of this majestic temple. The captivating sight of the temple complex and the view of the Thar desert and the Sand Dunes from the top was rewarding. We spent some time admiring its grand architecture, enamored by the intricate cravings and sculptures. The monument was an architectural splendor indeed.

A short drive further, Gemar Singh, our host, arrived in his jeep and we exchanged our customary hello, how are you and then a get set go… Eager to arrive to catch a glimpse of where we were heading, curiosity took the better of me.

Enroute to HACRA in Gemar’s Jeep

We drove through narrow countryside unpaved roads surrounded by weeds and bushes that blossom in the desert, with one or two vehicles pass through, the houses which were far from one to another for as far as we could see. Occasionally to be greeted by a small hill of sand in the middle of the road was not a surprise. This minimalistic lifestyle is where a tiny civilization exists, I thought to myself. While the older village folks who crossed our path did not bother about us, the eyes of kids playing in the area lit up at the sight of a jeep carrying women who were visibly not locals. The kids would run behind the jeep and wave their hands, shouting “bye-bye”, making me feel as if am the Deepika Padukone of the Desert! 😀

Having interacted with Gemar on a call while planning this detour, I learnt that he was very well spoken. Rest of our conversations were over the email, and oh boy, he was prompt! In my head, I was puzzled at first, trying to put together an image of this man from a village, promising an authentic rural experience, speaks good English and uses tech for communication. Upon our usual chit-chat in his jeep I found out that he is in fact, a university graduate.

HACRA was set up by Gemar promoting a sustainable tourism model that is in interest of the tourist and benefits the community. The locals act as guides for village walks, those who own a camel, contribute by providing a sunset safari experience to the guests. The revenue that is generated is reinvested into village community.

Soon enough we arrived at Gemar’s Dhani to be greeted by his wife adorning a vibrant pink saree with her face half covered in a Ghonghat and all I could see was her appealing smile.

The Dhani (hamlet) is where he hosts visitors in the small yet beautiful cottages, a round thatched hut made with mud, straw and cow dung, locally called Jhumpa.

Our abode had two country made cots with mattresses and blankets, a metal pot for trash, sandstone slabs gutted in the wall and a side table. With no electricity and running water this was sure an adventurous stay that I was eagerly looking forward to.

Gemar showed us around the courtyard and also shared his plans of building more cottages to accommodate the soaring number of curious travelers. We also learnt about the flora and fauna of the area, and how it plays a major role in livelihood of the villagers.

So here we were, on a village excursion with no plans and no itinerary, making ourselves comfortable into the country made cane chairs (locally called Muda), sipping a cup of chai(tea) under the open sky, rejuvenating in the warmth of the soft winter sun, with the wind blowing gently and the leaves rustling as if whispering and inviting us to feel the beautiful nature. The goats and deers strolled around us not bothered, as if, we were folks of their breed.

Although a welcome change from our fast-paced and thinly scheduled city lives, the feeling of not knowing what to do next was unsettling at first. It is not very often that you get an opportunity to sit in a serene environment, without any worry about having to rush somewhere.

With nothing else to do, we chatted at leisure, catching up on life, discussing everything from soups to nuts. This was the first holiday ever, where I was aware of each passing moment, living it with every breath. With this awareness, also came a sense of gratitude, gratitude for all that we have, but in our fast-paced city life, we take for granted, because that is the normal. What is normal to us, is a luxury to many, and this realization was humbling.

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Chilling under the open sky

After our delicious supper carefully cooked by Gemar’s wife, we set out for an hour-long walking expedition. I was heading to one of the most authentic and unforgettable experience for sure. We joined our host for the community walk (a relative of Gemar Singh) on a stroll through the village, learnt more about their way of life, the crops, their season and local farming practices. Words may not do enough justice, so here are some pictures of our experience:

What followed, was a ride on the Ship of the Desert. The Sunset Camel Safari!

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Geared up for the Camel Ride

My camel was a notorious fellow. I clumsily got onto the saddle, chanting “Ram Ram Ram” with the cameleer constantly petting the grumpy beast and Phew… there I was about 10 feet above the ground geared up for the bumpy ride. As the camels leisurely wandered around the pristine landscape, my soul basked in the desolate silence of these winding dunes. With the sapphire blue sky above, the shrubs, goats and antelopes in sight and the breeze brushing my face, it was like I had the world to myself.

Come sunset, I found myself gazing at the lustrous view of a fiery red orb of light slowly sinking beneath the horizon, and the threads of light lingering in the sky, mingling with the rolling clouds. The pure beauty beholded here overwhelmed me. There was a chill in the air now and we made our way back to Gemar’s Dhani.

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Gemar Singh and his beautiful wife

Later that evening, we invited ourselves to help Gemar’s wife in the kitchen and also learn some ways of the Rajasthani Cooking. Our feast, was the local farm produce “Ker Sangri” which was appetizing and flavorsome. Moving out of our dinner hall, we gathered around the campfire to enjoy the winter chill while talking to Gemar and other guests at Hacra, but alas! It started drizzling and instead of lighting the campfire, we had to light the lamp in our jhumpa, and retire for the day.

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Morning Bliss

The Morning Scene was breath-taking with grey fluffy clouds gliding across the pale blue sky. The sun awakened, promptly emerging through the hazy sky signaling the end of rain. The cloudy layer creates a pleasant blanket from the sun. The ground was damp and mossy like, watered by the rain and dew. The fresh air filled my lungs and I felt refreshed and exhilarated as I moved out of the Jhumpa.

Strolling outside, admiring the captivating view of the landscape, I see Gemar approaching our Jhumpa. He invited me to get some lessons from his wife in milking the goat. Excited, i leaped at the chance and headed straight to the hut. At first, his wife demonstrated the procedure and then I followed.

A while later, we were sipping a cup of tea made out of fresh milk with our yummy breakfast of porridge and fruits watching Gemar’s son and other kids play in the courtyard.

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Let’s Play

It was now time to sign-off from the place and proceed for our onward journey to Jaisalmer, with an ambition to return soon.

Beautiful scenes of nature, fresh air, hospitable people, and quiet life is the souvenir I was taking along with me as I bid adieu to this beautiful hamlet.

The Farm at HACRAThe Farm at HACRAWater StorageShepherds still tend SheepsShepherds still tend SheepsAnd CowsA Village HomeA Village HomeThe Chakki (Millet Grinder)The Chulla (Stove for Cooking)Millet(Bajra)Millet storage, made of cow dung & mud. Villagers store to feed animals or for the next yearA Farmer loading MilletKids still play OUTSIDE instead of gluing to smartphones or in front of the TVA Village local and also our guide for the community walkThe friendly localsThe LandscapeAnd the beautiful sunset

Pushkar Day 2 – The Expedition Continues

We plucked up courage to slide out of our beds, and set off at 6.30 am looking for some piping hot chai (tea), before our trek to Savitri Mata temple, and spent the next few minutes, soaking in the soft winter vibe before the sunrise. We walked down a few kilometers, to take the ropeway (cable car) to reach the temple.

View of Savitri Mata Temple from the road

Savitri Mata temple is located on the top of Ratnagiri Hill, behind the Brahma Temple. The temple has 2 idols. One of Savitri Mata and the other of Goddess Saraswati, her daughter (I was told). We offered our prayers at the temple, and spent some time in the vicinity, enjoying the picturesque view of Pushkar. Since the temple is at an elevation of 750 feet, it offers a mesmerizing view of the ancient city, Pushkar lake, and its surrounding villages.

On our way back, we hopped on to a Tuk Tuk for Rs. 40/- to drop us around the Brahma Temple road. We were hungry as a hippo by now, and walked towards the Choti Basti to begin our food indulgence. Spoiled for choice, we eventually settled for a combination of savory and sweet starting with Pizza Pakwan to Curry Pakodi and the Rabdi Malpua. Pushkar is indeed a food connoisseur delight.

The distinguished flavors of Rajasthani cuisine comes from a culture that has churned the best from its neighboring states of Sindh, Gujrat, Haryana and Punjab and so, you may find lots of Rajasthani delicacies influenced by the cuisines of these states.

This day also offered me a glimpse of simpler life, as I spent time getting lost in the alleys and the lanes, admiring the art wall murals, interacting with the locals and discovering the magic of this tranquil town.

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Wandering in the lanes of this city

Walking through these lanes, I landed up in a residential courtyard with several women clad in colorful sarees, celebrating the pre-wedding festivities of an impending wedding. I spent some time chatting up with the ladies, and the groom who had his hands colored with Mehendi(a traditional Indian practice applied in beautiful intricate designs, similar to a temporary tattoo).

Well I also received an invite for an evening function, but I had a lot to cover on my agenda and couldn’t make it there ☹

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It was past noon by now, and most temples in Pushkar are shut between 1.00 pm to 4.00 pm and so, we started our temple hopping tour visiting the Gurudwara Singh Sabha. The magnificent complex of the gurudwara, made up of white marble, had an air of divinity surrounding it. Walking through the gurudwara premises, the calm and serene energy of the place grounded us and made us feel at peace. We paid our homage, received the customary blessings in the form of khara-prasad from a sevadar (voluntary helpers), who also led us to the langar (free kitchen) hall, where we had a humble yet delicious meal, that also doubled up as our lunch for the day.

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The humble langar meal

We spent the next few hours admiring the Rangji temples, adobe of Lord Vishnu. A rather rare appearance, the New Rangji and the Old Rangji temple display a unique confluence of Tamil, Rajput and Mughal style of architecture.

Offering our prayers to the deities, we made our way to visit the Varaha temple, after. This temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu’s third incarnation i.e Varaha or boar. It is a very old temple and must have been a big and important temple in ancient age. It seems to have lost its importance and popularity since we were the only folks hanging around in the premises. Since it was a part of my to-do, we went searching for it.

It was time for some quick snack and refreshments before starting for the evening aarti at the Brahma Ghat this day. Aarti around the Pushkar lake takes place at Varaha, Gau and Brahma Ghat (at the Savitri Ghat that is next to the Brahma Ghat).

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Walking down the vivid ghats soaking in the sound of temple bells and hymns alongside the ghats, greeted by Pandas (Priest) clad in dhoti’s and tikka on their forehead, witnessing the aarti, watching the evening filled with the gold of setting sun and the lake looking gorgeous with numerous floating diyas was blissful.

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We proceeded to visit the Brahma Temple from here. The last and the most important of our temple hopping expedition. The temple is built on a high plinth, so we had to climb a flight of marble stairs to enter the temple. This entrance opened into a huge outdoor hall, built up of blue-colored pillars. As we walked through this hall, towards the sanctum, we were in awe of the ancient architecture and the surreal vibe of the place. The sanctum housed the image of four headed Brahma, along with his consort, Gayatri. Although crowded, the temple complex had an aura of peace, as devotees from several parts of the world offered their prayers and basked in the tranquility of the place. We paid obeisance to Lord Brahma and it was time to do our favorite thing, Shopping and make use of our “Art of Haggling”

We shopped for everything we could lay our hands on, from apparels to rose products, leather goods, handicrafts, silver jewelry, shawls and returned to our hotel with a sense of accomplishment.

Our late evening craving for chai after relishing on some yummy Italian food at the hotel’s roof top restaurant led us to a chai wala at the Main Square. To our surprise, the stall was packed with tourist, some holding chai and some holding a chillum. With the beats of loud music from nearby cafes we wondered if we are sitting under an open sky or a disco.

The chai scene brought me back to a brief interaction I had with a guest in our hotel who asked me out for a beer the previous night. That’s when It was revealed to me that it was “Party Time” in Pushkar.

Although the town shuts by 11.00 p.m, as the sun sets, the city transforms into a Party place with numerous tourists flocking to the hostels and cafes that are open until late in the night. Several of these hostels and cafes have live music or karaoke to keep the night alive, along with some lip-smacking food, where people can spend the night smoking and enjoying themselves in the company of fellow trippers.

Well, for us poor souls, it was time to hit the sack and take an early morning ride to Osian with a promise to this magnificent city that we shall return. Very Soon!

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C you Soon