Jaisalmer Fort, also known as Sonar Kilar, or the Golden Fort, looks like a child’s giant sandcastle. But this is in fact the ultimate in desert forts, dominating the landscape for miles around from its spot at the top of Trikuta Hill. One of the fascinating things about the fort is its color: its massive sandstone walls are a tawny lion color during the day, turning to a magical honey-gold as the sun sets. Jaisalmer Fort stands on a triangular hill 250 feet high, enclosed by a thick, crenellated wall over 30 feet high and reinforced with 99 bastions, most of which were built in the mid-17th century. Remarkably, these walls used no mortar at all. They were made entirely from huge, intricately interlocking blocks of stone. At one time the town of Jaisalmer lay entirely within the fort walls but sometimes in the 17th century, part of the town moved outside, on the leeward side, protected by the hill and the fort itself. However, much of the town still lives within the fort, making it a kind of living museum. Walking through it at night, especially, is like stepping into a time machine and going straight back to the 14th century.
You enter the fort up a steep incline paved with enormous flagstones, through a series of four huge gates, passing along the way a second fort wall running parallel to the outer one, and rising to half its height. Reaching the innermost gate, Hawa Pol (Gate of the Winds), you enter the spacious Chauhata Square. This is the heart of the fort complex. In front are the palaces of the maharajas. Toward the left is a flight of marble steps topped by a white marble throne, where the maharaja used to sit, listening to petitions or reviewing his troops. To the side of the square is Rao Jaisal’s well where the sage Eesul is supposed to have shown Rao Jaisal the prophecy of Lord Krishna carved on a rock.
As you enter the fort’s palace, you find it is actually a maze of interconnecting palaces, the oldest of which is Juna Mahal dating back to the early 16th century. Rang Mahal, built in the 18th century, is especially interesting with its richly frescoed walls (look for the scenes of old Jaisalmer, Jaipur and Udaipur). Equally interesting is the slightly older Sarvottam Vilas, with its blue tiles and glass mosaics. Also within the fort are some old Jain temples dating back to the 12th century. The most interesting are the temples of Rishabhdev and Chandraprabhu. Rishabhdev Temple has a splendidly carved torana archway over its entrance, and a striking group of tirhankara images, with jeweled eyes that sparkle in the dark. Next door is Sambhavnatha Temple. It has a fabulous library in the basement, reputed to contain some of India’s oldest and rarest palm-leaf manuscripts, dating back to the 11th century.
One of the remarkable things about Jaisalmer is the havelis, or mansions, built by its wealthy merchants and nobles in the 19th century. They are famed for their exquisitely carved sandstone facades-a feat of stone-carving not matched anywhere else in India. The largest and most elaborate of these havelis is Patwon ki Haveli (Mansion of the Brocade Merchants), built in 1805 by Guman Chand Patwa, a merchant and banker, who is said to have had three hundred trading centers between Afghanistan and China. Built for his five sons, this ornate five-storied complex took fifty years to complete. It stands in the privacy of a little cul-de-sac, behind a lofty arched gateway. Its entire frontage is beautifully carved, with its 60 latticed balconies looking as if they have been carved from sandlewood rather than from stone. Inside are the remnants of some fine old murals.
This tank, south of the city walls, once held the town water supply, and befitting its importance in providing precious water to the inhabitants of this arid city, it is surrounded by small temples and shrines. The beautiful yellow sandstone gateway arching across the road down to the tank is the Tilon-ki-Pol, built by a famous courtesan, Telia. When she offered to pay to have this gateway constructed, the Maharaja refused to walk under it as he felt that this would be beneath his dignity. While he was away, she built the gate, shrewdly adding a Krishna temple on top so that king could not tear it down.
Gyan Bhandar is situated in the center of the city; it was originally established as an adjunct to the famous Jain temples. But over the years it has accumulated a wealth of historical treasures. Some of the oldest manuscripts in the country are preserved here. Founded in 1500 by Acharya Maharaj Jin Bhadra Suri, this small underground vault houses priceless ancient illustrated manuscripts, some dating from the 11th century. Other exhibits include astrological charts and the Jain version of the Shroud of Turin: the Shroud of Gindhasuri, a Jain hermit and holy man who died in Ajmer. In a small locked cabinet are the images of Parasnath made of ivory and various precious stones, including emerald and crystal.
The third of the great havelis is the one built by the scheming Prime Minister, Salim Sigh, in 1815. What makes it unique is the way it is narrow at the base, but suddenly flares out its cantilevered upper story. The haveli has a beautiful arched roof, capped with blue cupolas and superbly carved details. Do not miss its elegant peacock brackets.
The ancient Bhatti capital of Lodhruva lies just 16 miles from Jaisalmer. You can still see traces of the ruins of the city in the desert, but the one monument that is intact is the Jain Temple of Parshvanatha. Rebuilt in the 17th century, its ornate torana archway is perhaps the finest example of its kind in Rajasthan. Inside the temple is a Kalpavriksha, a representation of the Celestial Tree, with its carved copper leaves, believed to have the power to bestow any favor asked of it by a devotee. Nearby is the bed of the River Kak that has now run dry. Legend associates it with the star-crossed lovers, Prince Mahendru of Amarkot and the beautiful Princess Moomal who lives on the banks of the River Kak. Separated by a tragic misunderstanding they were reunited too late; weakened by their travails they died in each other’s arms. That day the River Kak, they say, dried up in sadness and has not flowed since.
Maharawal Moolraj II built the Moolsagar complex in 1815 AD. You will find numerous wells, the Moolsagar Garden and a splendid Raj Mahal built on its premises. Maharaja Moolsagar was known for his patronage to art and artisans and that becomes pretty evident when you come across some great murals on the palace walls. He definitely had a considerable influence on the wazirs and land-lords. Therefore his patronage to the art and architecture was resonated among his nobles and subjects. It was mainly due to his efforts that so many lovely palaces and structures were built in that period which was influenced by both the Mughal and Rajput schools of art.
Even more beautifully carved is Nathmal ki Haveli, built by a Prime Minister of Jaisalmer as late as 1885. Its facade is a riot of ornamentation: flowers, birds, elephants, soldiers, as well as a bicycle and even a steam engine! It was carved by two brothers, Hathu and Lallu, each of whom completed one side of haveli. You can see how the whole looks perfectly harmonious but the right and left side differ in their details. Also, extraordinarily, the building was carved out of boulders-not dressed stone-and you can see the raw boulder faces in the fascinating rooms inside. Paintings in miniature style monopolize the walls in the interior, while mighty tuskers carved out of yellow sandstone stand guard to the Nathmal Ki Haveli.
An architectural tribute to the history of Jaisalmer is Badal Vilas, also known as Mandir Palace, the current residence of the Royal Family. This multi-storied structure, also referred to as the Cloud Palace, is located near Amar Sagar Gate and consists of a complex of buildings with elaborately carved facades. Rising out of the Cloud Palace is the Tazia Tower, a multi-tiered tower built by Muslim stone-carvers. Tazia Tower was built in the 20th century as a gift to the people and rulers of Jaisalmer. Presently, part of the palace is used as a hotel and restaurant, though it still retains many of the galleries and paintings of the bygone era.