We got off from our cab at Gandhi Chowk, one of the main squares bordering the walled city of Jaisalmer. Bright sun rays bounced off yellow hued buildings made of sandstone. It was a square crowded with pedestrians, street-side vendors and camel carts almost like a scene from a bygone era. In front of us was an ancient gate of the walled city through which we walked in.
It was late afternoon and getting through with our lunch was our first priority. We found Trio, a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet, right at the entrance of the walled city. A short flight of stairs took us to a small decorated roof top, chock a block full with people. It was obvious that it is one of the more popular spots among the tourists as even after a wait we could not get a table. Just few meters further we spotted a board of a rooftop restaurant called Saffron, a part of Nachna Haveli .It was an erstwhile ‘haveli’ converted into a heritage hotel. There are many such ‘havelis’ which dot the landscape of the city of Jaisalmer. They are an evidence of grandeur of merchants who used to thrive in the old kingdom of Jaisalmer, when prominent trading routes to Central Asia existed through this city. Imperial influence routed a large chunk of the trade through sea. Whatever importance this town had as a trading center was further diminished after the partition when all the avenues of trade across the border were sealed. Today tourism is the only mainstay of economy here forcing these wealthy merchants to let out a large portion of their ‘havelis’ as hotels and rooftop restaurants.
Despite its history the grandeur of Nachna Haveli is still in tact and worth mentioning. The entry leads you into a courtyard decorated with beautiful bougainvillea flanked on one side by a long arched verandah. It was beautifully done up with period furniture including large easy chairs, a large wooden swing, brass pots, old photographs and artefacts. A small stairway took us to Saffron. The magnificent Jaisalmer fort was standing in all its glory providing a stunning backdrop. Luckily we were there minutes before 4’o clock after which the kitchen closed down. The ‘thalis’ we had ordered were standard but the curry was full of robust flavours. Once done with our lunch we spent some time on the roof which gave us a 360 degree view of the desert town. I do not know why but I was reminded of Aladdin when I looked at the city with an amazingly yellow skyline, kites fluttering and a huge sandcastle overlooking it
A walk through narrow and intricate alleys of Jaisalmer is enthralling. They have retained their soul even though decades have passed by since the princely state existed here. Whatever evolution did take place is only elementary.
We were awed by beauteous ‘Jaalis’ and ‘Jharokhas’ in the buildings which flanked these lanes. They were a mesmerizing mix of art, precision and unbelievable skill.
Down below a normal bazaar functioned and locals carried on with their usual routine. Sweet shops displayed their assortment of ‘laddus’ and ‘barfis’ while spice merchants laid out samples of a variety of local spices. Every now and then the sidewalk became colourful with display of Rajasthani clothes with typical ‘Bandhini’ print. Beautifully crafted leather accessories tempted you to splurge. Photo studios displayed lively portraits of locals and monuments and travel operators keenly offered you a desert safari. We kept walking in these narrow lanes with one eye at the stunning architecture above and other at what this busy bazaar had to offer below. Along the way we sought directions from shopkeepers to reach Salem Singh ki Haveli. Once a grand home of the erstwhile prime minister of kingdom of Jaisalmer, it is now one of the popular tourist sites.
We had reached Salem Singh’s haveli just in time to take a guided tour. The architecture of this building is unique (as is the case most of the havelis here). It has been built without using water. Blocks of sandstones have been slotted into each other and further reinforced by iron clips. If needed this ‘Haveli’ could yet be dismantled and assembled somewhere else, such was the ingenuity of construction. Water being a scarce commodity was recycled and used for as many as six routine activities in this Haveli. Due to the prevelance of purdah system the Haveli was divided into two sections, one only for Salem Singh’s wives and mistresses. Faded remnants of golden paint and ornate paintings are still visible in the room where Salem Singh’s wives would get dressed. Up at the top, Moti Mahal was prime minister’s private room of entertainment decorated with Belgian glasses, diamond reflectors and a colourful floor which would give any of our night clubs a run for their money. It epitomizes the opulent life which king and his ministers led. While on one hand a commoner had to do community service for an extra bucket of water the minister had an ornamental fountain in Moti Mahal where water was pumped up manually. This haveli for all its art and beauty did leave us wondering about social disparity which existed here. By the time our tour ended the sun had set and the lit up fort was glowing like gold. The bazaar had a touristy feel now. We found a German bakery and soaked up the atmosphere while waiting for our pastries.
The day had been exhilarating with our walk giving us a peep into the routine life of Jaisalmer. For our dinner we ventured out to roof top restaurant of our hotel. Only people we found there when we reached were a Spanish couple who were quietly enjoying their meal. We sat on one of the Zharokhas on the far side of the roof, from where we got a clear view of the Jaisalmer. It was dark and quiet. The streets below had gone to sleep. The huge fort glowing in the still of the night appeared surreal.
Wonderful rajasthani flavours of Gatte Ki Sabji and Daal Tadka which we ordered brought an end to a perfect day !