Friday 28 February 2020

Travels in India, 2020 - The Golden City of Jaisalmer

Six hours after leaving Jodhpur a giant sandcastle appeared on the horizon, we'd reached Jaisalmer (pronounced Jay-sal-meer), the Golden City of Rajasthan, situated in the heart of the Thar Desert.

Although the journey took two hours longer than anticipated, long-distance Indian bus travel isn't bad at all. While there's precious little room for your luggage - we squeezed our bags into the footwell and wedged our feet on top - there's plenty of stops for chai and snacks. As seats only need to be booked 24 hours in advance, it's a great option if, like us, you don't like to plan too far in advance and, at less than £3 each, it's excellent value for money. 

Of course, we were the only foreigners aboard the bus and a cause of great interest to our fellow passengers, in equal parts both fascinated & horrified by our pale faces. One child even burst into tears when Jon waved at him. The female passengers completely covered their faces with their pallus (the loose side of the sari) whilst the men wore turbans tied in a variety of ways, denoting both their tribe and their rank. At one point we were joined by a group of bare-chested, lungi-clad pilgrims, carrying tridents with their faces painted with tiger stripes - but everyone found us far more interesting.

Jaisalmer was founded in 1156 by the Rajput leader, Jaisal, and the clan continued to rule the city until independence in 1947. The early years were tempestuous as the city leaders relied on looting as a source of income but by the 16th century, Jaisalmer was prospering from its strategic position on the camel-train routes between India and Central Asia. During British rule, the rise of the sea trade and railways saw Jaisalmer's importance and population decline. Happily, the city's fortunes have revived in recent years with the advent of tourism and Jaisalmer is now one of Rajasthan's biggest tourist destinations.

Jaisalmer's fort is a living urban centre, with around three thousand people residing within its walls.

We'd been advised not to stay in the fort as habitation, driven in no small part by tourism, is known to be causing irreparable damage to the monument. Instead, our base was the Toyko Palace, a modern, traveller-friendly hotel carved from the local sandstone and less than a ten-minute walk away. 

The Toyko Palace

Our deluxe room (£20 a night) had a lovely window seat, ideal for watching life unfold on the streets below. But there was no time for lounging around. As soon as we'd unpacked we headed off to explore.

Jaisalmer's narrow lanes are lined with houses and temples, handicraft shops, guesthouses, and restaurants. After the relative quiet of Jodhpur, the busy city was a shock to the system, with large Western tour groups, touts, hawkers, and shopkeepers plying their wares.

Within the honey-coloured city walls lie some of the grandest havelis ever built in India, the former residences of Jaisalmer's merchant barons.

Patwa-ki-haveli is the biggest in Jaisalmer. It towers over a narrow lane, with intricate stonework carved so finely that it resembles golden lace. Divided into five sections, it was built between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who made their fortune in brocade and jewellery.  

How beautiful are these handpainted walls?

Although there are several different entrances to the house, the privately-owned Kothari's Patwa-ki-Haveli Museum is the only one worth the 200 rupee admission fee (approx. £2).

Nathmai-ki-haveli was built by two architect brothers, who each worked independently on his own half. Although the interior is gorgeous, if you look closely you can see slight differences in the carving. The haveli served as the prime minister's residence in the late 19th Century.

The paintings on the first floor were created using 1.5kg of gold leaf.

Still inhabited, the lower floor of the haveli has been turned into a shop by the ancestors of the family and although entrance was free, a donation (or a purchase) is appreciated.

Curiosity sated, for the time being, we returned to the Toyko Palace for dinner. When we'd popped up to the rooftop restaurant earlier for a drink, we were disappointed that the only beer available was an extra-strong imported lager and commented to the manager that as we were in India we wanted to drink Indian beer. He promised he'd get some especially and, true to his word, there was an ice-cold Kingfisher (or three) waiting for us. We were going to enjoy our stay!

For more photos, see HERE.

Next stop, the Thar Desert.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Travels in India, 2020 - Culture and Couture

Perched on a hilltop three miles southwest from the city centre lies Umaid Bhawan Palace, the last great palace built in India and the largest in the world. Designed in 1929 by the British architect, Henry Lancaster for Maharajah Umaid Singh who commissioned the Umaid Bhawan as a food-for-work programme to avert starvation after years of famine. At a cost of around £11 million (in today's money) it took more than 3000 workers fifteen years to complete. No expense was spared, it has vast gardens, 347 rooms, an indoor swimming pool, marble squash courts & sumptuous Art Deco suites.

Part of Umaid Bhawan Palace is home to the current Maharajah of Jodhpur, Gaj Singh II, whilst the rest has been turned into a very swanky hotel. Although casual visitors aren't allowed inside the palace, the museum at the side of the building is open to the public.

It's worth a tuk-tuk ride out of town if only to swoon over these glamorous Art Deco interiors.

As luck would have it, Indian Interiors, a book I've had on my bookshelf for over a decade, has a few photos of the areas we peasants aren't allowed access to - the two collages below are courtesy of Taschen.

The rooms cost from £550 to £2500 a night. How the other half live!

The day we visited was overcast and very cold, so cold that we had to get Khan to drive us to the palace via FabIndia so Jon could buy a wool muffler to replace the scarf he'd mislaid somewhere on our flight between Istanbul and Mumbai. Obviously, as Anokhi was next door, it would have been rude not to have paid them a visit too and the lady in charge was thrilled to see me dressed head-to-toe in their clothes.

With Jon wrapped up, we continued on our way. Sitting 1km northwest of Mehrangarh and nicknamed Jodhpur's Taj Mahal is Jaswant Thada, a milky-white marble memorial dedicated to Maharajah Jaswant Singh II. It's a calm and peaceful spot away from the hubbub of the city and normally has great views over Jodhpur, sadly not on the day on which we visited.

Built in 1899, the cenotaph has gorgeous jalis (carved marble lattice screens) hung with the portraits of Rathore rulers going back to the 13th Century. There's even a memorial to a peacock who perished after accidentally flying into a funeral pyre.

After lunch at the stepwell and an hour basking in the sunshine, which had finally broken through the clouds, we headed home via the tailor's shop. The previous evening I'd asked the lads at the Gouri if they could recommend a local seamstress and before we'd embarked on our day's adventures Bablu took us to a tiny hole in the wall and, acting as translator, was able to explain that I'd like a dress I'd brought with me copied using the vintage sari Jon had bought me for Xmas.

Six hours later and this was the result. Not bad for £5, was it? That's me barefoot and barefaced on the beach in Goa four weeks later.

After dinner that evening we heard a commotion in the street below and decided to go and investigate. It turned out to be an impromptu party and naturally, we ended up joining in.

The following day, Khan suggested we went to the monkey garden. If you remember last year's experience in Jaipur (HERE), Jon wasn't overly enthusiastic but as there was no mention of the place in our trusty Lonely Planet guide we were intrigued to discover more.

The Mandore Gardens was the resting place of the ancient rulers of Jodhpur. Over the years the gardens had become neglected but, like much of Jodhpur, the park has recently undergone regeneration and it was a gorgeous place for a stroll.

Although we were the only people visiting that day, there were monkeys galore, but of the gentle black-faced langur variety as opposed to the more aggressive macaques.

 Of course, Jon managed to piss one of them off by daring to film it.

The cenotaphs were so large you'd be forgiven for mistaking them for temples.

These ornately carved buildings are Jain, as opposed to Hindu. Aren't they incredible?

The lovely Khan and Jon's new scarf!

And that was our last day in Jodhpur as we'd booked seats on a long-distance bus scheduled to leave at 6am the following morning but, an early night was out of the question, the marching band was at it again in the street below the Gouri Haveli.

This is the rather easy-on-the-eye groom leaving his family home on horseback to collect his new bride. Just watch his mum applying his eyeliner and that secret look they exchange.

Jodhpur stole our hearts, we could have stayed for much longer but further adventures in Rajasthan beckoned.

See you soon!