Sunday, June 17, 2012. Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India.
Distance driven: 1,401 KM/ 876 miles.

Today we drove from Bikaner in Northern Rajasthan to Jaisalmer in far Western Rajasthan, deep in the Thar desert. Jaisalmer was founded in the 12th century on the trade route to Afghanistan and it became wealthy from looting gems, silks, and opium from the passing caravans. By the 16th century, rich local merchants were vying to build impressive Havelis or mansions from sandstone featuring fine carving and detail work. By the 18th century the trade moved to the seaports like Bombay and after the partition with Pakistan in 1947, the old trade routes were eliminated so today the economy is based upon tourism and the military.

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Along the way we had a few stops for tea and lunch and to visit the Ram Deoras Temple about halfway between Bikaner and Jaisalmer.  In many ways the temple is a typical small Hindu temple and kind of unremarkable.  But every September there is a huge festival here – one of two large ones in Rajasthan, the other being at Pushkar.  When the Ram Deoras festival happens pilgrims walk from up to 1,000 KM away and may line up for two or more days to get into the temple.  Also there is a tradition that it is good luck to throw away your old clothes and shoes and start afresh, so we saw piles of shoes along the road – even though it has been about 9 months since the last festival.

A few times on the drive we spotted wild antelope, which reminded us of our trip to southern Africa a few years ago – the landscape is very similar.

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Once we arrived at Jaisalmer, we could not take the car into the old city where our hotel is located, so we ended up walking up the steep ramparts to get inside the fort to the Shreenath Palace Hotel.  The fort was build in 1156 and still in use today, making it India’s only living fort. as many as 5,000 people still live inside its walls. 

The hotel is an old Haveli built in the 15th Century and still occupied by the same family – the owner’s great great grandfather was the prime minister of the Maharaja. While the building is well worn, it has tons of charm and our hosts are most hospitable.  Our rooms are some of the most interesting we’ve had from any of our travels – you really feel like you could be here at almost any age (except for the electricity and modern plumbing!)  Kelly’s not 100% sure about the place yet, but the boys and I really like it.  The staff has been very nice and welcoming and I hope we have a nice stay.  Being in the old city means that this will likely be noisy, so tonight is a night for ear plugs.

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After we got settled, we went back to the car and our driver Sury took us to the Royal Catacombs at Bada Bagh about 5 miles outside town where we walked around the necropolis of the Jaisalmer Maharajas and admired their stonemasons’ craft.

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Jaisalmer is famous for the workmanship of its stonemasons and the catacombs were as good an introduction as any.

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The individual tombs/memorials date back at least as far as the 15th Century and some are at least as modern as the 20th Century.

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The styles seemed to change over the ages, but each “tomb” has superb examples of delicate and intricate designs. Since the Maharajas were Hindu, they were cremated when they died, so I think technically these are cenotaphs rather than tombs.

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Some of the memorials continue to receive veneration and the place is not just a tourist attraction.

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Each tombstone seemed to show a Maharaja mounted on a horse with one or more wives standing next to him (see the image next to the one of Sury further up the post).  Some had secondary tombstones with images of their concubines.  The structures were so richly decorated, we nearly missed that there were carvings in places on the flooring.

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Back in town we went for dinner at a nice restaurant called Saffran outside the fort.  Sitting on an air conditioned, tented rooftop terrace we enjoyed a pleasant meal, serenaded by local musicians.

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The vegetarian meal for 4 with drinks cost the equivalent of just US$12.

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