The beautiful Gadisar Lake can be seen from the open balustrade to the left of the Shiv Mandir in Jaisalmer, the desert town in Rajasthan where every building is a work of art.
Sandstone matches the colour of the desert and lends itself to the carving that looks like embroidery. Is it a stone or a fabric? It can look sharp and craggy too.
Finding a temple in Jaisalmer is somewhat of a surprise, and is incidental to the necessary visit to the lake and to the shopping centre selling incredibly low-priced handlooms and handicrafts. Not to mention the camel ride in the desert to drink in of the setting sun.
In fact, there is another mantap in the centre of the lake and another on the ghat on the right.
At the foot of the steps leading up to the Shiv Temple play traditional musicians called the Manganiyars. The pillared archway leads to an outer mantap decorated with toranas (garlands) of flower motifs and geometric patterns. At the centre is a flower embellished by a row of gopura-like carvings.
The patterns become clearer as one goes closer, following the sound of the temple priest chanting along with another voice, which we later learn, belongs to an elderly man of the town who comes to the temple everyday to say his prayers.
This leads on to another mantap which has 12 pillars and is surrounded by a passageway. The ceiling is decorated by an inverted lotus.
The chanters wave us silent and we sit down and gaze into the sanctum sanctorum. It has a black stone door with flowers cut into it, and pillars. The garba griha itself is a niche with glass on the rear. There is a strange idol of Shiv as though asleep, with his head bent to the left. There is an idol of Devi or Parvathi too. The ling is made of stone and set in a marble yoni. Facing the ling is Shiv’s vehicle, the nandi also made of marble.
The temple was built in Vikram Samwat 1905 (now 2067) by the King of Jaisalmer Gadsinghji’s wife Roop Kanwar.
Rare in these parts, there is a tulsi plant covered on three sides by carved walls. This enclosure also houses a Nataraja idol. Nataraja is the dancing form of Lord Shiv.
Jaisalmer is India’s prettiest place. It was founded by Rajput ryler Rawal Jaisal, after whom it is named, in 1156 AD. Havelis translate to houses, but nowhere else in India but in Rajasthan can a visitor find such beautiful houses where every room, every wall, every entrance, is a delight to the eye. Like the Hoysala temples of Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur, the choice for building is not the hard granite but the much softer sandstone. The havelis, that are sand in colour, blend seamlessly
with the desert that Jaisalmer is located in. Sandstone lends itself to intricate carving, rich in detail. Go inside and you will marvel at the painted walls, ornate furniture and brightly coloured carpets. These havelis were built by wealthy traders for their own homes. Notable among them are Patwon Ki Haveli, Salim Singh Ki Haveli and Nathmal Ki Haveli. The first is the biggest. It is in reality a group of five havelis, built early in the nineteenth century.
After a day wandering round the havelis and gazing at the fort, the evening’s excitement is the camel ride in the desert. Getting up on the camel is no mean feat, but the real test comes when the camel sits down for one to get off! For a few moments one is gazing upward at the sky and clutching on as hard as one can, while the camel arches its back with neck upwards to sit down on the sand.
But no one should miss it, for where else can one see the red ball of the setting sun as it glides down the sand dunes.
There is still time left for shopping after returning from the desert. The tie and dye dotted bandini in all its colours is famous (just like the bandini of the neighbouring state Gujarat), but lesser known and a must buy is the striped lehria. Bedspreads, carpets, sarees, all woven by the women in their own homes, printed t-shirts for the men, the list is endless. The shop owners quote the same prices to foreigners and Indians, at least in our hearing!
Train: Trains are available to different parts of Rajasthan and onwards to Delhi.
Road: The most convenient road route is from Jodhpur. If one wants to see the Kiradu Temples, the route is Jodhpur-Barmer-Jaisalmer, which is a rough ride.
Air: Air services operate during the tourist season, which is usually September to February. The winter is very cold but hotels provide heaters on request.
Hotel Mahadev Palace is difficult to spot as its exterior is brown like the rest of Jaisalmer. But go in and one is stunned by the beauteous painting on the walls. In the winter, it is not crowded, and they make a delicious dinner on request. Even more tasty is the batata poha served for breakfast – a dish unique to Rajasthan and Gujarat. It is made of pounded rice and potato, flavoured with turmeric, green chillies and salt, only the Gujarathis add the inevitable sprinkling of sugar.
Prices from about Rs 2200 per night onwards. Phone number 1800-208-1060
On the outskirts of Jaisalmer, en route to the sunset viewing point in the desert, are several resorts. Tents reminiscent of the accommodation of the itinerant travelers of the past, mud and thatch houses, you name it, they have it. These resorts offer a total cultural experience, with musicians and dancers livening up the night. Apart from Rajasthani favourites like dal-bati-churma (a pancake with two side dishes, one salt and one sweet), other delicious food is also on offer.
These resorts are popular with foreigners. Rates are available on request.
By Ambujam Anantharaman