The Golden City in the Desert

Anisha Rachel Oommen

With a single day to soak in all the sights of Jaisalmer, I wanted to go where we could experience the food, beauty and culture of the city. On a friend’s recommendation, we hopped into a rickshaw and got off at the Jaisalmer fort, where he promised we would find all this and more.

Jaisalmer fort is one of the largest forts in the world, with stone walls that tower over the city at 250 feet. Built in 1156 AD by the Rajput ruler, Rawal Jaisal, it has been the scene of many a battle, its famous advantage coming to effect at sunset when the yellow sandstone melts into the colour of golden honey, camouflaging the fort in the sands of the Thar desert. Legend has it that site was blessed by Lord Krishna. On this knowledge, a holy man advices King Jaiswal to build his fort here, where it will remain invisible to his enemies. Named for its golden hue, it is known as Jaisalmer's Sonar Quila or Golden Fort.

What makes Sonar Quila unlike other forts in India is that it is a living structure, housing close to 3,000 residents within its walls. Stepping through its magnificent gates, 60 feet tall and carved entirely of rosewood, the cobbled pathways twist and turn into a hundred different alleys. Narrows lanes are lined with curio shops and antique stores, where shopkeepers are charming as their products are beautiful; it was impossible not to stop and browse, or resist being drawn into engaging conversation.

Migrant tribal women greet us as we near the gates, their necks and arms decked in beautifully crafted silver jewelry. They invite us closer, alternately laughing and cooing over us. I fall in love with a pair of anklets and she insists I wear them right away. I thank her and they ring softly by my feet as I walk into the fort. 

Quilted patchwork bed linen lines the tall walls; a man sells colourful turbans, leather-bound notebooks, owl-shaped wind chimes and restored woodwork that make for dreamy, distressed picture frames. We stop at a pavement cafe selling cinnamon rolls and makhaniya lassi. He serves us a glass of lassi so thick we need a spoon to scoop up each mouthful; a generous dollop of white butter on top makes it a rich and heavy meal in itself.

Further down the lane a man sells masks and bells. A beautiful bust of the Buddhist goddess Sitara, carved of camel-bone, hangs on his wall. He reassures us that the animals are not killed in the making of these handicrafts, unlike in ivory trade. Another piece catches our eye, a delicately carved head of Shiva, bathed in a golden halo.

A few steps ahead, we unbuckle our sandals to step into the famous Jain temples of Jaisalmer. Built of yellow sandstone, these temples are revered pilgrimage destinations. They date back to the 12th and 15th century AD, and the stunning architectural styles are evidence of the rich cultural mingling between Islamic and Rajput communities. The walls of the temple are carved with figures of dancing women. The sunlight that finds its way through the rooftop casts enchanting shadows on the corridors, bringing to life the stories inscribed on the walls.

Something about the cold winter sun gets us hungry all over again, and we peek through imposing doorways, into royal courtyards that have been converted into restaurants. Up a twisting stairway, we make our way to a rooftop restaurant where we are promised a meal worthy of kings.  Under the gentle protection of a tented roof, we sit on low diwans and order another round of lassi to accompany the traditional Rajasthani thali of roti and rice, beans sabji, daal, and channa. A homemade mango pickle is tangy and spicy, and pairs perfectly with rice. We ask for a portion of kair sangri, a traditional Rajasthani preparation of desert berries valued for its hardiness through famine, high nutritional content and spartan cooking style.

On happy bellies, we leave the restaurant in search of a cup of tea. The ubiquitous chaiwallah makes a brew that is thick, creamy and sweet, with the refreshing flavour of ginger. Served in tiny portions, it is potent and reviving.  We have one more stop before calling it a day – the bewitching Gadisar lake.

Gadisar lake is a manmade reservoir built by King Jaiswal, in whose time this remained the only source of water in the city. The entrance to the lake is an intricately carved stone archway, Tilon-ki-Pol, named after Tilon, the royal courtesan who is believed to have built it. The first sight of the lake and its carved Chattri catches our breath. The temple is surrounded by chattris, temples, shrines and ghats, all decorated with extensive carving. We find a spot along the ghats, and sit in silence, watching the birds, letting the incredible calm of the lake wash over us. The dreamlike aura that envelops the lake weaves its way around us, slowly seeping into our vision; it is hard to shake the feeling of being transported back to a time of Kings and princesses, where such beauty was just an ordinary part of everyday life.

Reluctant to break the spell, we quietly make our way back to the hotel, still lost in the magic of Rajasthan’s Golden City.

Anisha Rachel Oommen travelled through Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and the sand dunes of Khuri, to cover the desert music festival, Ragasthan. Follow her on Twitter (@anishaoommen) for more desert adventures.