Highway to Rajasthan (VI) : Jaisalmer

Thar desert
Thar desert

The ride from Bikaner to Jaisalmer was the ne plus ultra of the exhilarating 2000 kms road trip. After spending the morning driving around Bikaner city and visiting Junargarh fort for the second time, we embarked for Jaisalmer post lunch at 1330 hrs and took to NH 15. Soon after leaving Bikaner, the landscape changed to the arid and desert topography with scanty vegetation consisting of stunted scrubs which dotted the terrain. The roads stretched wide open across the barren landscape with very little traffic and the tarmac was smooth as butter. By Indian standards, it was easily one of the best roads and even at 165 kms/hr it seemed like we were merely cruising at 80 kms/hr. It was the best ride of my life.

NH 15 - Bikaner - Jaisalmer road
NH 15 – Bikaner – Jaisalmer road

THE RIDE TO JAISALMER

We started off at an easy pace from Bikaner which took us a little more than 2 hours to hit Phalodi (165 kms from Bikaner) after which we made good time and reached Pokhran (230 kms) at 1630 hrs (3 hrs). After loitering around Pokhran for about 30 minutes, we got onto NH 15 again and cruised to Jaisalmer. I had timed the ride just right to catch the setting sun as we hit Jaisalmer. It was an awesome sight to behold as the sun dipped on the tip of the road far out in the horizon, setting the sky ablaze with fiery colours as I drove straight into the arms of the setting sun. It was phenomenal ! We entered Jaisalmer at 1830 hrs as the light faded.

 

Road to Jaisalmer
Road to Jaisalmer
SONAR QILA - THE GOLDEN FORT OF JAISALMER
SONAR QILA – THE GOLDEN FORT OF JAISALMER

JAISALMER is a small city, more like a border town, populated around the old fort which is nicknamed ‘Sonar Qilla’ – the Golden Fort because of the golden hue of the fort’s sandstones against the setting sun. Back in the early days it was strategically located in the camel caravan trade routes which came from  the ports of Gujarat in the Arabian sea coasts that connects it to Persia, Arabia and Egypt in Central Asia. The city was established in the 12th century (year 1156 AD) and gets its name from its founder Maha Rawal Jaisal who founded it. According to the local legend, Rawal Jaisal, the eldest son of the Rawal of Deoraj, was passed over for the throne of Ludharva (15 kms from Jaisalmer) by his younger half-brother after which he went on a search for a safe location to establish his capital. He came across the massive rock that rose almost 250 feet from the surrounding desert sands and here he met a sage who recounted to him of a hindu mythological prophecy of lord Krishna who prophesied that a descendant of his Yaduvanshi clan would one day establish a kingdom and thus created a spring there. The Rawals belonging to the Bhati Rajput clan lay claims to the decency from the Yaduvanshi clan of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna. The encounter and the prophecy encouraged Jaisal to build a mud fort around the rock and named it Jaisalmer after himself.

Like all frontier regions where war and conflict is a way of life, the story of Jaisalmer is replete with legends of blood and glory. According to popular folklore, the Sage whom Jaisal met had also predicted that the place would be sacked two and a half times. True to the legend, the fort was run over almost three times. First by Alauddin Khilji of Delhi who, prompted by a raid on his caravan carrying his treasury, ravaged the fort in 1294 after the Bhatis defended it for nearly 8 years. Facing eminent defeat after its stockpile of food and ammunitions finally ran out, the Bhatis performed ‘Jauhar’ where 24,000 women folk committed ‘Sati’ by jumping into the funeral pyre while 3,800 surviving men threw open the gates and fought to their death.

The second raid came in the late 14th century by Sultan Ferozshah after a prince of Jaisalmer raided his camp at Anasagar Lake near Ajmer and carried away his prized steed. Here again 16,000 women and 1,700 warriors committed Jauhar. The third raid was in the 15th century from an Afghan chieftain named Amir Ali who, through deceit, hid armed warriors in a retinue of palanquins which were supposed to be carrying the Chieftain’s wives visiting the Queen of Jaisalmer. Taken by surprise and facing imminent defeat, Rawal Lunakaran slaughtered his womenfolks with his own hands in the absence of a pyre. But in a turn of events Amir Ali was defeated and killed after reinforcement arrived just in time thus saving the men from Jauhar. Thus came true the prophecy of two and half Jauhar, so it is told.

Jaisalmer 2

Jaisalmer 3

Jaisalmer 9

The city of Jaisalmer is spread in and around the old fort. An interesting fact is that the old fort itself is settled by civilian population just like any normal city. It is perhaps the only fort in the world to sustain a bursting, thriving civilian population inside its ramparts. As such it is called a ‘Living fort’ which the guides and local populace are quick to point out.  The houses are built in the same architectural style that merges with the old structure of the fort. Even the houses outside the fort are built mostly with sandstones with the same distinctive Rajasthani architecture that transports you to an altogether different period of time. It is almost surreal except for the want of better maintenance and sanitation.

Jaisalmer 4

Jaisalmer 5

Jaisalmer 6

Jaisalmer 7

Jaisalmer 8

After a day of exploring the fort, City Palace and the havellis just outside the fort and rummaging the market outside the fort’s entrance the whole evening, the following day we road down to Sam (pronounced as Sum) which is about 45 kms westward from Jaisalmer. Part of the Thar desert, the Sam sand dunes are a popular tourist destination for camel safaris. A ride on handsome Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan (names of our camel steeds 🙂 ) across the dunes, watching the sun go down in the desert and enjoying a typical Rajasthani dinner with Rajasthani folk dances and songs around a bonfire prove to be an exhilarating experience for the kids. A more adventurous fun, however, would have been  a night or two deep into the Thar desert with no tents and only a fire to keep you warm. Of course that would have to be sans kids. So we satisfied ourself with the sand dunes at Sam which is not too big as the desert is interspersed by scrubby vegetation at intervals.

Sam sand dunes of the Thar desert in Rajasthan
Sam sand dunes of the Thar desert in Rajasthan
A gypsy girl of the desert
A gypsy girl of the desert
The kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan
The kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan
The Matka - bhawai folk dance of Rajasthan
The Matka – bhawai folk dance of Rajasthan

 

Watching the sun go down in the Thar desert
Watching the sun go down in the Thar desert

 

Thus was a time well spent in Jaisalmer.

Highway to Rajasthan (V) – Bikaner

 

Bikaner 1

Rajasthan ‘The land of the Rajas’ has always held my fascination since childhood with history lessons in school abound with legends of Rajput bravery and courage, their most stubborn and heroic resistance against the Mughal conquest. Tales of Prithviraj Chauhan, Maharana Pratap, Rana Sanga and many others like them left a lasting imprint and fascination on me. Decades later  I took my first road trip to Rajputana – the land of the Rajputs (as it was earlier known) in 2005 but had to return back from Jaipur due to exigencies. It was many years later that I was finally able to plan a trip again in 2012. The 6 day sojourn was localised mainly around the east and South-Central part of Rajasthan stretching from Delhi to Amer and Jaipur in the Dhundar region and further south to Chittorgarh and Udaipur in the Mewar region of the Rajputs. Having to turn back from the Aravali ranges that separates Mewar from the Marwar and the northern Thar regions, we had to return without a glimpse of the famous stretches of sand that is so often the image that one conjures of Rajasthan.

With the dawn of  a new year (Jan 2015), we set off on a 2000 kms (from Delhi and back) 10 days ride specially delineated around the Thar desert area. The trip stretched through the Sekhawatti region in the Northeast, Bikaner in the north , Jaisalmer in the North-West, Barmer, Jodhpur and Mandore in the Marwar region in Central Rajasthan and then pushing eastwards to Ajmer, Pushkar, Jaipur in Mewar and then back to Delhi. It was one of the most mesmerizing and enjoyable ride through a varied topography and landscape that ranged from a slightly mountainous terrain of the Aravalis to the desert landscape of the great Thar. Most part of the road was the best I have ridden so far.

THE ROAD TRIP
Day 1: Delhi to Bikaner – 500 Kms  estimated time 7 1/2 hours.

We flagged off from Delhi at 0600 hrs wishing to beat the onset of traffic.  The NH 8 took us through Gurgaon, Daruhera (64 Kms), Behror (130 Kms) and Kotputli (150 Kms) from where we took a right turn (underneath the flyover) onto SH 37B. Being a State Highway the road was narrow but free of traffic and was in good condition (it has been newly constructed). We passed through Neem Ka Thana (200 Kms) taking the bypass and reached Sikar (280 Kms) at around 1300 hrs. A freaky fog with almost zero visibility lengthened out travel time from the estimated 4 hours to 7 hours, almost the time we had expected to reach Bikaner which was still a good 220 kms away. The fog also prevented us from enjoying the landscape of the Shekhawatti region which is suppose to have the most arable land as compared to the rest of the area in Rajasthan. A brief stopover of 30 minutes, lunch in a Havelli of a friend and exploring the villages of Sikar, we headed towards Fatehpur (330 kms) via Udaipurwati which took us about an hour owing to the small roads and repair on some patches. From Fatehpur onwards the road stretched out the entire 170 kms in a smooth and beautiful semi-arid landscape that took us less than 2 hours to hit Bikaner (500 kms from Delhi). We spent the entire evening and the following morning exploring Bikaner.

Sikar 1
SIKAR

 

Sikar 2
Nilgai, an antelope that resembles a bull, commonly found in the farmlands in Rajasthan.

BIKANER :

Bikaner is said to have been founded on a barren desert area called Jungaldesh by a Rajput Prince Rao Bika Ji, son of Rao Jodha Ji who founded Jodhpur. Provoked by his father, Prince Bika Ji went on a campaign with a small military contingent of 500 soldiers and 100 cavalry men to establish his own Kingdom. After subduing the Chieftains of Rajputs clans and Jats in the vicinity, Bikaji established his kingdom in the middle of the Thar desert which came to be known as Bikaner. It evolved into a beautiful city and an independent kingdom which was subsequently merged with the Indian Union after India got its independence. The present state of the city, as is the case with most old cities, is crowded and dirty, although the old world charm is still evident in the Royal Palaces and fort below. While here, enjoy the bhujiya and Jungli maas (an exotic spicy Rajasthani cuisine of tender succulent mutton/lamb).

 

 

LALGARH PALACE, BIKANER
LALGARH PALACE, BIKANER
Bikaner 3
LALGARH PALACE BIKANER
JUNAGRAH FORT, BIKANER
JUNAGRAH FORT, BIKANER

Bikaner 4

Bikaner 5

Bikaner 6
ANUP MAHAL, BIKANER

 

Bikaner 7

Bikaner 10

…..TO FOLLOW – DAY 2: BIKANER TO JAISALMER