Jaisalmer and around

Founded by Prince Jaisal in 1156, Jaisalmer grew to be a major staging post on the trade route across the forbidding Thar Desert from India to the West. The merchants prospered and invested part of their wealth in building beautiful houses and temples with the local sandstone. The growth of maritime trade between India and the West caused a decline in trade across the desert which ceased altogether in 1947. However, the wars with Pakistan (1965 and 1971) resulted in the Indian government developing the transport facilities to the border to improve troop movement. This has also helped visitors to gain access. Today, the army and tourism are mainstays of the local economy; hotel touts and pushy shopkeepers have become a problem in recent years.

The approach to Jaisalmer is magical as the city rises out of the vast barren desert like an approaching ship. With its crenellated sandstone walls and narrow streets lined with exquisitely carved buildings, through which camel carts trundle leisurely, it has an extraordinarily medieval feel and an incredible atmosphere. The fort inside, perched on its hilltop, contains some gems of Jain temple building, while beautifully decorated merchants' havelis are scattered through the town.

Once inside the fort walls looking out to the desert, it's easy to imagine caravans and camels sweeping across towards you in a dream of Arabian nights, but what you actually see are growing legions of windmills flanking the dunes in the distance. Unlike the other forts you visit in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer's is fully alive with shops, restaurants and guesthouses inside its walls and labyrinthine alleyways. It's beautiful to wander the tiny streets always finding a new nook or a great view.

All this has not failed to attract the attention of mass tourism, and at times Jaisalmer can feel overrun with package tourists, being swept from one shop to the next in a whirlwind of rapid consumption by insistent guides.
Over the years, increased development of guesthouses and businesses within the walls has put pressure on the sewage, drainage and foundations of the fort. Three of the 99 bastions crumbled a couple of years ago and several people were killed. These bastions have now been replaced, but if you look at the fort bastions from the outside you can see signs of water discolouration .

If you find Jaisalmer's magic diminished there's always the romantic desolation of the Thar Desert, easily accessible beyond the edge of the city. Many of the settlements close to the city have become well used to tourists, so it's worth venturing a little further out to get an idea of life in the desert. Highlights include the remarkable ghost city of Khuldera and, of course, the chance to take it all in from on top of a camel.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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