India day seven continued
23.10.2015 - 23.10.2015
Before and after our visit to the fort we wandered the streets of the old city of Jaisalmer, with its honey-coloured havelis with ornately carved sandstone windows. Beyond we found eerily atmospheric cenotaphs, and beyond that the desert …
Our first stop on our day’s sightseeing tour here was at this very photogenic spot on the edge of the old town. The lake is also often referred to locally as Gadisar Tank, as it is manmade – built as a reservoir for the city of Jaisalmer by Rawal Jaisal, the first maharaja of Jaisalmer, and later restored and improved by Maharaja Maharwal Gadsi Singh in about 1400 AD. There are a number of temples and shrines not only around the lake but also out in the middle, and several ghats once (but no longer) used for cremations.
On Gadisar Lake
A large number of catfish live in the lake. Our guide Gaurav had bought some slices of bread from a local lad as we walked along the road and we were soon to find out why. He tossed a few pieces into the water and it immediately began to churn as the fish jostled to grab a bite. I don’t think I have ever seen so many fish so close together in a body of water at one time!
It is possible to hire boats here, and it’s also a good place for birdwatching, as well as for photography as I hope you can see.
The main path down to Gadisar Lake leads beneath a lovely sandstone gate, the Tilon-ki-Pol (meaning Gate of Tilon), which dates back to the 14th century.
The story goes that Tilon was a famous dancer (some people say prostitute) in the court of the maharaja. She wanted to pay for a gate to be built here, so that she would be remembered after her death. But the maharaja refused permission because he would have to pass under it to go down to the lake, and this he felt would be beneath his dignity as a great ruler (another version of the tale puts the maharaja in a better light by suggesting that he felt it would detract from the importance of the lake as it would become the main feature here). Whatever the truth of his displeasure, while he was away on court business she had it built anyway, and when he returned and threatened to pull it down, she added a temple to Krishna on the top so that it would become sacred and therefore not to be destroyed even by a king.
To get a good view of the gate don’t walk through it to the lake but instead follow the road a short way past it and head down to the water further to the east.
Some of the structures around Gadisar Lake have small memorial stones, beautifully carved, which Gaurav told us commemorated women who had immolated themselves.
In fact, I have since learned, they commemorate first and foremost the men who died and were cremated at these ghats, but also their wives who practised what is known as sati – self-immolation on the funeral pyre of their husband. The stone with the carving of a man on horseback is a memorial to the man, while that with the figures with their hands folded is for the wives, with the number of figures showing how many wives performed sati.
This seems a horrific idea to Westerners, and probably these days to most Indians too, but Gaurav told us that it was not so long ago that sati was still practised here. His own great grandmother had immolated herself on the death of her husband (I didn’t think to ask about the date, being quite shocked at the revelation, but I would guess that it must have been in the first part of the twentieth century, long after the practice was officially banned in India). Later that day we were to visit the Brahmin cenotaph of Vyas Chhatri where he told us that this (to me) gruesome sacrifice had taken place.
Meanwhile though we spent the rest of the morning exploring the fort (as described in my previous entry), and the afternoon in the old town that surrounds it …
Old town architecture
After spending much of the morning in the fort and taking a short break for a cold drink in one of its many rooftop restaurants, we made our way down into the streets of the old town below. These are not dissimilar in many ways to those inside the fort, but perhaps a little wider and with more traffic in places.
As in the fort, there was so much here to photograph – more Ganesh paintings (see my previous entry for an explanation of these), more beautiful buildings, more colourful details and local dress.
Jaisalmer grew up as an oasis town on the camel caravan routes between East and West, trading silk, spices, indigo and precious and semi-precious stones. The caravans would stay here to rest and resupply, and the high tolls they paid enriched the city and the Court. Its merchants became wealthy, as did its bankers (both, by the way, professions favoured by the large number of Jains who lived here, who shun agriculture because it conflicts with their belief regarding the sanctity of every living thing). These rich merchants and bankers naturally liked to show off their wealth in the grandeur and beauty of their homes. Furthermore, the relative liberalism of this western border town when much of northern India was under Mughal rule, attracted artists and craftsmen, whose skills flourished here. Thus many of the city’s houses, all built in that lovely golden sandstone, are further embellished by carvings, and of these the most gorgeously elaborate are the mansions or havelis of the rich. You can find havelis in many places in India, but Jaisalmer is particularly noted both for the large concentration of them in a relatively small city, and for the delicacy of the carvings in the sandstone.
You will see such beautiful stonework in both the fort itself and in the lower town streets, but the best examples of havelis are probably those in the latter which is where these photos were taken. Here you will find the one considered the most beautiful of all, the Patwa Haveli. This was built over a period of about 50 years from 1805 onwards by a Jain merchant, Guman Chand Patwa, as a home for his five sons consisting of five adjoining houses. The many oriel windows projecting out over the street maximise the use of space in the small town plot, while the carved sandstone lattice screens let in cool air in the desert heat. This building is open to the public but I have to say that by the time we reached this point in our hot day’s sightseeing we were running out of energy so we contented ourselves with views from outside. Although the streets here are narrow there is a small open square opposite making photography a little easier than it might otherwise be (Gaurav told us that the city government had cleared this space deliberately, which made me wonder what had been destroyed in the process).
Haveli architecture in the old town
Other havelis of note are Nathmal and Salim, but really you will find this wonderfully detailed stonework on so many houses here that you will be spoiled for choice! Whichever you visit, there are three distinctive features to look out for. Firstly, the carved sandstone screen known as a jaali, which you find on many old buildings in Mughal India. Secondly, the decorative stone oriel window called a jharokha as seen in such profusion on the Patwa Haveli. Both of these elements could be partly prefabricated and installed in even quite modest houses which explains perhaps why so many houses in Jaisalmer look so fabulous. The third element, again easily seen on the Patwa Haveli, is the deep downward curve of the small roofs that shelter the windows – a style brought by the Mughals from Bengal.
Shopping for silver
Mehar had told us on the drive to Jaisalmer that one of the things it was famous for was its silver-work and silver jewellery, and I love silver jewellery! So I determined that a bangle bought here would make a nice souvenir of my trip. I asked Gaurav for advice (yes, knowing that his chosen shop would be one that paid him to bring us there, but also knowing that TransIndus guides are under strict instructions not to rip tourists off and only to recommend good places). He suggested that he could take us to a family business, run from their home in the old town.
We arrived at the house, slipped off our shoes, and descended to the basement which serves as the shop. There were two other customers seated on the low cushions – one another tourist, an American woman and her daughter picking out presents for friends back home; the other a local woman choosing with great care the jewellery she would wear at her wedding. I asked the man serving us if I could see some bangles and he emptied a large bag on the floor at my feet! He demonstrated the clever design, a speciality here – the bangles are hollow and can be twisted to put on and take off, clicking into place to hold them. I rummaged for a short while until I found a design I liked, and he then helped me unearth it in the correct size.
I was pleased that there was no “hard sell” here – OK, it was suggested I might like to wear more than one bangle, or buy another for a friend, but neither of these points were pressed when I said no thank you. The service was pleasant and the buying experience more relaxed than in a shop, so I was happy with Gaurav’s recommendation, and with my purchase, which I wore almost daily for more than a year following this trip. Sadly though, it was one of very many holiday-bought pieces of jewellery that were stolen when we were burgled in spring 2016, and this photo of the pile of bangles on the carpet is my only record of it – that, and the memories, which no burglar can take away.
After a break at our hotel, the Fort Rajwada, and a swim in its lovely pool, Gaurav picked us up again to go to see the sunset, a popular outing in Jaisalmer. From what I have read it seems that many people visit Bada Bagh, the cenotaphs of the Jaisalmer Royal Family, but our Brahmin guide brought us to these instead. The place had a particular meaning for him, as he explained that it was here that his great grandmother had performed immolation on the death of her husband, according to the then-tradition, as he had told us that morning by Gadisar Lake.
The name of Vyas Chhatri refers to the structure of the tombs – these small domed pavilions seen in so much of Mughal architecture. It is not usual in Hinduism to erect such tombs for the dead, as Hindus believe that their souls will be reborn through reincarnation, but when the Mughals brought Islam to India they brought with it the custom of erecting tombs which gradually become popular among Hindus too in some regions, especially in these western desert parts. Kings and important people would be honoured and remembered in these “tomb gardens” which were established in prominent spots such as this hillside and were open to the public.
This is still an active cremation site so be prepared to see the remains of fires and wood stacked for future use. I have seen some visitors suggest that this makes it inappropriate to visit as a tourist attraction, but I felt it was no more so than visiting a graveyard, for instance, and the fact that it was suggested by a local with a direct connection to the place reassured me further on that count. Be prepared for this though, and for the fact that if a cremation has recently taken place you may even, as one shocked tourist whose account I read (The creepy beautiful cenotaphs of Rajasthan), come across smouldering ashes.
The same writer also notes with some revulsion that funerals in this part of India at least are still caste-based, so only Brahmins will be cremated here while other castes each have their own site. I find the whole caste system bewildering and somewhat anachronistic, but by this point in our trip had learned to accept that to many of the locals we spoke with it was an unquestioned way of life – although perhaps even more so to a Brahmin like Gaurav.
The latter had suggested that we head for a spot about five minutes’ walk away to watch the sunset, and most visitors there at the time did this, presumably because it offers a view of the town and fort beyond. But after checking it out quickly we decided to stay by the cenotaphs themselves and were rewarded with much better photos as a result, as you can frame the setting sun with the structures, which really glow in this light.
Entry to this spot is free but there’s a small charge of 50 IR for camera use – do pay this as you will want to take photos!
Once the sun had set it was back to our hotel for dinner in the same Sonal restaurant where we had eaten the previous evening. We enjoyed our meal of a minced lamb kebab, potatoes stuffed with nuts and dry fruit, and dal, washed down with a couple of beers, while reflecting on a busy and fascinating day in the city that has probably stayed with me more than most others visited on that trip.
Hotel view, the following morning