March 8th 2020
To wake up and see the sun rise over Jaisalmer from my bed, was such a treat that I was hesitant to open the i-Pad and risk spoiling the dream. However there was an irresistible compulsion to find out what was happening ‘out in the world’.
Greek Cypriot police had fired pepper spray on Turkish Cypriots protesting with olive branches. The protestors had wanted the checkpoint in Nicosia re-opened. It was one of four on Cyprus that been closed as a precaution against the spread of Coronavirus. A second case had been confirmed in Cornwall and a third English person had died. The Pope had announced he would make Sunday blessings via a streaming service instead of appearing in person in St Peter’s Square. There were now nearly 6,000 confirmed cases in Italy – an increase of 1200 in 24 hours.
Jaisalmer seemed a wonderful, other world away. The perfect place to be.
From whichever direction your camel train came out of the desert and approached it, Jaisalmer must have looked unbreachable and fantastic. It still does. The old town sits over 260 feet up on Trikuta Hill surrounded by its wall with 99 bastions. It was founded in 1156 and has been much fought over as its Bhatti Rajput rulers relied on looting anything that they fancied as the caravans passed by. Particularly popular were the goods bound for Imperial Delhi. Those looted wanted their stuff back. In the 14thC it was besieged for 9 years by the Emperor of Delhi, Ala-ud-din Khilji. When the end became obvious the women committed jauhar (mass suicide) and the men put on orange robes and went out to meet the imperial soldiers and their deaths.
Like all the towns on the trade route it suffered with the opening of the Suez canal but after Partition, its proximity to Pakistan with the ensuing wars and constant ire caused the creation of a large military base and allied income. Tourists who venture that far from the Golden Triangle chip in their considerable bit. There were still quite a few there, besides us. Rather mischievously, I suggested that if we found ourselves in a queue we might cough and speak Italian to help clear the decks. Mine being limited to a few first lines of Donizetti or Verdi and menu Italian it would have to be “Ah cedi….cedi….” or “ravi-oh-li” or something equally silly.
We spent the warm, sunny morning visiting the fort, now a museum and some of the temples. After lunch we walked round the lower town. For me the two most unforgettable things about Jaisalmer are the sheer beauty of its scalloped walls and the sandstone buildings. The walls’ symmetry is almost melodic, peaceful, calming. The irony that it was built, doubtless at great cost to lives, to protect against the onslaughts, was not lost.
Walking round the town I was open-jawed at the craftsmanship involved in the extraordinary carving of the sandstone buildings and often so preoccupied looking up that I nearly bumped into passers by or tripped on kerbs.
A haveli that stands out when one looks down from the old town is the Salim Singh ki Haveli, sometimes know as The Ship (Jahaz Mahal), because of its shape – it is wider on the top floor than at ground level – and the way it seems to sail above the town. It was constructed without mortar, using only metal ties.
As a child Salim Singh had watched his father, the then prime minister, murdered – which I suppose goes some way to explain his vindictive character. In 1815 he too became prime minister, had his father’s murderers despatched and spent the rest of his life being particularly unpleasant to anyone he could.
The Brahmin Paliwals had discovered how to trace underground water sources in the Thar Desert. This enabled them to grow crops where others had not and they were affluent so offered rich pickings for taxation. Salim Singh had them in his sights and came down on them particularly hard. One night in 1825 the entire population of Paliwals, from 83 villages, upped sticks and disappeared. They had been living in Kuldhara, about 11 miles from Jaisalmer, for nearly 550 years. Nobody knows where they went.
It is said that Salim Singh had his haveli built to be higher than the maharaja’s palace, which wasn’t very clever, and the maharaja made him remove the top two floors. It is difficult to imagine how they sat. He must have overstepped the mark once too boldly because for whatever reason the maharaja became fed up and had him killed too.
We walked up the steps from the street, passed the welcoming stone elephants, and found ourselves in a dingy, windowless room with plastic Bistro chairs ranged round the walls. Most of them were occupied by family members, the grandfather sat nearest the door and extended his hand to relieve us of the fee to see round the haveli and the “museum”. Beyond the hall laundry was pegged on a line across a courtyard and children’s plastic toys lay abandoned. We climbed the steep, stone stairs in semi darkness while our guide, the old man’s middle aged son, explained that they were of uneven depth to wrong-foot intruders – a sensible precaution if you were as disliked as Salim Singh.
On each floor there was another room, a rooftop terrace, a view across the roofs to the walled city and always more incredible carving. The dancing room was covered in mirror lozenges with a balcony beyond the little marble pool set into the floor. It overlooked the courtyard to the women’s tower whence the fancy of the evening could be whistled up. It once must have been wonderful to walk round the top floor by its balconies but we were advised not to venture on to them. We had seen them from below and they looked as though they would collapse under more weight than that of a resting pigeon.
The beauty of it all overwhelmed the general sense of decay. We gingerly beat a retreat down the unlit stairs. We thanked the son of the haveli who opened the big door, letting sunlight in and us out. The family watched us go without comment. I didn’t resent the grandfather recounting his cash. What 9 of us had contributed wouldn’t have paid for the restoration of 6 cubic inches, and there was no one queueing to go in.
Bada Bagh is the must-place to be at sunset and Narenndra made sure that we were there. In the 16thC Maharaja Jai Singh II built a dam and created an oasis and gardens about 4 miles from Jaisalmer. Above the verdure – I’m not sure that ‘gardens’ remain – ranged along the west shoulder of the hill that runs north-south, are an extensive collection of royal chhatris (mausoleums).
The princes are commemorated by carvings of a warrior on horseback. Their wives – as many as worth commemorating – stand beside them. Apparently one of the maharajas is commemorated with an inscription that his wife and 10 concubines committed sati when he died. Despite looking I couldn’t find the memorial, or didn’t understand it if I came across it.
While we waited for the sun to set we were diverted by a recently married couple having their wedding photographs taken by a handful of professional photographers. The groom wore a snappily cut tweed suit and could have passed for an on-course book-maker if he hadn’t been wearing a turban with a feather and a long green and pink tail. His mobile, that he checked whenever not actually posing, remained clasped in his left hand. The bride wore a stunning, beautifully embroidered dress and as much gold as could be fitted to her person including a chain linking her nose to her earlobe via her lip. She didn’t appear to be overly thrilled.
Unfortunately, for purist tourists, the hill is almost completely surrounded by wind turbines. They, and another army base on the horizon. made it challenging to catch the beauty of a setting sun, but the light and the shadows between the chhatris more than made up for the dozens of whirling spikes.
That evening we supped on the roof of the haveli and looked down over this ancient desert citadel, as the lights started to twinkle and the dogs to stir for their evening patrols.