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Jaisalmer India

Ride a Camel into the Desert in Rajasthan, India.

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Jaisalmer Fort Rajasthan India

The famous Jaisalmer Fort is the oldest in Rajasthan, India.

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Separated from Pakistan by the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer is the last stop for many travelers picking their way across Rajasthan. The smaller town atmosphere is a pleasant change from busy Jaipur or Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer is a good base for desert excursions.

A Short History of Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer and its famous fort were founded by a warrior family of Bhati Rajputs in 1156. While Jaisalmer's isolation in the desert offered some protection, the town was eventually forced to trade autonomy in 1818 for protection from raiders and even other states in Rajasthan.

Long before seaports and railways were used by the British to move goods, Jaisalmer was an important trade center and popular stop for desert caravans. Strings of camels arrived daily with opium, ivory, silk, and fruit. Taxation on trade made Jaisalmer a booming economic outpost until the late 1800s.

Jaisalmer fell along with the Mughal Empire; violence and looting caused trade merchants to move on to more stable places such as Calcutta. The core population of Jaisalmer City dwindled from 35,000 to 4,000; Jaisalmer floundered until after the Indo-Pakistan wars in 1965 and 1971. The extension of rail service to Jaisalmer in 1968, a military presence, and relatively new tourism are helping Jaisalmer bounce back at a growing rate.

A lot of Jaisalmer's traditions and culture are portrayed during their colorful Jaisalmer Desert Festival held each January or February.

The Desert Cultural Centre

Founded by the affable N.K. Sharma, the Desert Cultural Centre and Folklore Museum should be a first stop in Jaisalmer to learn a little before you walk into town or ride a camel into the desert. Unlike other private museums, Mr. Sharma is extremely interested in preserving local history and culture rather than creating another tourist attraction.

Two nightly puppet shows held at the museum (6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.) are small-but-enjoyable displays of folk music and regional culture. Mr. Sharma's small book 'Way of Life in the Desert' is well worth the Rs. 150 to learn more about the people you'll be seeing around Jaisalmer.

Plan to spend around an hour or so to absorb everything in the simple museum, preferably before it gets busy with puppet shows. If he is available, Mr. Sharma will gladly show you around, further explaining the artifacts. Entrance to both the puppet show and museum is only Rs. 50 (cameras Rs. 20 extra). Find the cultural center on the main road near the turnoff to Gadi Sagar Lake (phone: +91 2992-253723).

The Jaisalmer Fort

Standing 250 feet off the ground on a sandy hill, the long fort at Jaisalmer perhaps isn't as imposing as the forts in Jaipur or Jodhpur, however, it is older and has a rich history.

Unlike the forts in other parts of Rajasthan, Jaisalmer Fort is a functioning part of the town rather than a paid attraction. You'll find residences, guesthouses, restaurants, and plenty of shops in the maze of busy streets winding throughout the fort complex. Large, round stones once hurled down narrow paths at invaders from Jodhpur can still be seen littered around the streets.

Jaisalmer Fort was in danger of collapse for decades as leaking plumbing degraded the sandstone foundation. While the situation has been stabilized, evidence of the damage is still apparent with wide gaps found between foundation stones, many of which have been marked for monitoring.

Entry into Jaisalmer Fort is free, however, the seven-story Fort Palace is partitioned off as an attraction. Foreigners pay an entrance fee of Rs. 250 which includes a camera pass and a 90-minute audio tour. You'll need to bring a passport, credit card, or enough cash to cover the deposit for the audio tour. Taking video inside costs an additional Rs. 150. The Fort Palace is open to visitors daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Gadi Sagar

Once Jaisalmer's primary source of water until the Indira Gandhi Canal was constructed in the 1960s, Gadi Sagar is a peaceful attraction in town. Despite being encircled by small temples and shrines, the lake area is strewn with rubbish. Paddle boats are available for rent, but the biggest attraction are the catfish that surface in a churning mass to feed on bread from tourists.

Camel Safaris in Jaisalmer

A bulk of tourists arrive in Jaisalmer with the intent of taking a camel safari into the desert. Pressure to book one of the numerous safaris will start as far away as Jodphur and will continue on your transportation -- it doesn't let up once you arrive!

Needless to say, enjoying a great experience in the desert as opposed to an uncomfortable day in the saddle all boils down to the company you choose. Do your best to ask around, take recent recommendations, and ask as many questions at the office as you like; don't cave into pressure to book something that you'll regret.

Where to Stay

You'll find plenty of accommodation in Jaisalmer spanning from cheap-and-dirty guesthouses to luxurious mid-range hotels. Competition for tourist dollars is stiff when no festivals are in progress; expect plenty of touts and drivers trying to pluck your business upon arrival.

If the rate for a room seems too good to be true -- it is! Some places advertise ridiculously cheap rooms while hoping to pressure you into camel safaris. If you refuse, you may even be asked to leave the hotel.

Decent guesthouses can be found tucked inside the maze of streets inside the fort, or you can opt to stay just outside of the fort within walking distance. The Hotel Tokyo Palace is a good mid-range choice just outside of the fort walls.

For something completely different, consider a tent hotel or desert camp in Jaisalmer!

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