I have been meaning to go to Jaisalmer for two decades now. Oddly enough, my fascination with Jaisalmer began in Kolkata. Bengalis regard it as the ultimate destination ever since Satyajit Ray filmed Sonar Kella (the Golden Fort) in 1974. Ray’s Jaisalmer was a wonderland of golden historical buildings, far away from the grime of Kolkata. It left a deep impression on Bengalis (many of whom still go there) and every time I mentioned Rajasthan to them, it was not Jaipur or Udaipur they cared about, but Jaisalmer.
As determined as I was to go to Jaisalmer, there were practical problems. There was no civilian airport and there were no fast trains. If you booked a flight to Jodhpur and then drove there, the drive would take five or six hours on what were then, not very good roads. Later, civilian flights were allowed to land at the defence airport. But routings were not terribly convenient either. For some months of the year Indian Airlines ran a service that stopped first at Jodhpur before flying on to Jaisalmer and then discontinued it.
Around five or six years ago, all of that changed. The roads improved, new hotels opened and suddenly Jaisalmer did not seem so distant. But all the people I spoke to (except the Bengalis) talked about it only as a desert destination. They talked about miles and miles of sand, stretching as far as the eye could see; of driving over the dunes in the Thar desert. And so on.
I am all for the romance of the desert but this did not accord with my vision of Jaisalmer. I wanted golden forts, crumbling havelis, abandoned villages and centuries of history. If I wanted to do dune buggy riding, Dubai was more accessible than Jaisalmer.
Last week, I finally went to check Jaisalmer out for myself. Some things had not changed that much: it was still hard to access. There is a Spice Jet service from Delhi which I swore never to take again and many people still prefer to drive from Jodhpur or Bikaner.
What has changed is the nature of tourism. Right near the desert, there are scores of tented camps, catering to mid-market tourists (lots and lots of Gujaratis) who come mainly for the desert and the daaru, by bus or cars. The camps encourage you to eat at nearby restaurants and there are many liquor shops nearby in case the evenings get too dull.
So, whatever else Jaisalmer may be, it is certainly not a lost destination: it is now jampacked.
But there are surprises. I stayed at Suryagarh, a luxury property that is part of a small chain of Rajasthan hotels and was astonished by how well-run it was. The group’s head of operations is Karan Singh who Khan Market-types will remember from his days at Chocolat. There is also Laurent Guiraud from the late lamented Rara Avis in Greater Kailash. But the spirit of the hotel is best embodied by Nakul Hada, who used to be General Manager of Suryagarh but now has larger group responsibilities. I thought he was one of the best young hoteliers I have come across recently.
Staying at Suryagarh meant that I got a luxury version of the Jaisalmer experience. I discovered that there were many Jaisalmers. We spent an evening watching the sun set over the Thar desert and then enjoyed a dinner mostly cooked between the sand dunes by Suryagarh’s chefs while a troupe of Sufi singers performed.
But I also found the Jaisalmer of abandoned villages that I had heard of. Jaisalmer was on one of the Silk Routes, the paths taken by merchants and traders. This made the old kingdom famous but it also meant that it was regularly attacked and plundered by brigands and rulers of hostile neighbouring kingdoms. In the 12th century, Luderwa, the old capital, was abandoned because it was too vulnerable to attack. You can still see the crumbling houses and deserted villages where centuries ago, a prosperous kingdom flourished.
Around 1156, the rulers moved to a hill around ten miles from Luderwa and built a new fort which, they believed, would be harder to conquer. That fort still stands and is the inspiration for the Sonar Kella and all the golden fort legends.
It is, however, not a normal fort, because it contains a flourishing small town within its walls. Thousands of people live there, run shops, do business and treat it like any other township in Rajasthan. It is so large that it covers two whole municipal wards. It is now considered one of the wonders of Jaisalmer and called a living fort: glorious golden walls on the outside, and teeming masses inside.
Nobody would give me a straight answer when I asked whether the early rulers of Jaisalmer were Jains. What is clear however is that there is an ancient Jain tradition in the city. In much of Rajasthan, the Jains are Digambars. But in Jaisalmer, there is a strong Shwetambar tradition (Gujarati Jains, such as myself tend to be Shwetambar) that goes back centuries.
In the ruins of Luderwa I found a Jain temple that must be over a thousand years old. I visited another temple dedicated to Parvasnath (the 23rd Tirthankara; he preceded Mahavir by a generation) which has been restored and refurbished by prosperous Shwetambar Jain worshipers (i.e. Gujaratis).
If the temples, the desert, the fort, the history and the beauty don’t get you, Jaisalmer still has lots to offer. Suryagarh specialises in experiences. We went on a picnic to an oasis where a flautist played. There was a dinner in the hotel’s extensive gardens that used local ingredients in a slightly tweaked version of local cuisine.
The grounds were full of birds (some migratory) and a pair of peacocks roamed the lobby, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the guests. A family of ducks reside in a pond in the hotel’s central courtyard and each morning at breakfast, we were joined by peahens and bulbuls.
So yes, I did see the Sonar Kella. But no, I didn’t stop there. Jaisalmer had much more to offer.