After passing through some lush-green and fertile areas of Rajasthan, it was a shock to enter the Thar Desert west of Jodhpur. An endless plain of dust, dotted with small trees and bushes, and random greenish fields scattered through parts of this desert. None of the romantic images one might have of mighty, windswept sand dunes, but a lonely, dry, dusty, sun-torched landscape that merges somewhere with the horizon.
I focused on Jaisalmer und Bikaner, two places fast and easy to reach by train. From Jodhpur, I rode the train to Jaisalmer and its mighty fortress, and from there I chartered a car to Bikaner. Jaisalmer certainly deserves a couple of days, whereas Bikaner can be discovered “en route”. Accommodation in Jaisalmer is surprisingly expensive, while Bikaner on the other hand is extremely good value…
- Junagarh Fort – Bikaner
This Fort was built by the ruler of Bikaner, Raja Rai Singh at the end of the 16th Century, a general in the Mughal Army of Akbar. Best visit the complex with the excellent audio guide that also explains the intricate relations between the Maharajas from Rajasthan and the Mughal Empire. Inside you find one of the most refined palaces that exist within a fortress.
- Jaisalmer Fort
This sandstone fortress that rises from the flat and desolated Thar Desert is a breathtaking sight… The Fortress is actually a small city and offers great views of the Old City at its feet and of the surrounding Thar Desert. Unfortunately, Jaisalmer Fort is on many Guided Tour Routes, and is hence completely over-crowed…
- Patwa Ki Haveli & Salim Singh Ki Haveli – Jaisalmer
Those Havelis, built by rich Jain merchants for their families, are the two most beautiful ones of Jaisalmer and a must-see. While Patwa Ki Haveli is very delicate and beautifully decorated, the tour of Singh Ki Haveli, made by a descendant of the family, gives an incredible insight in how the buildings were constructed (and why it was that way) and how the life in the Haveli was organized.
- Thar Heritage Museum – Jaisalmer
Life in the Thar Desert is changing rapidly. To keep the memory of the region’s traditions alive, Mr. Kathri, a retired teacher, created his own museum. For a small donation he takes visitors through the collection of artifacts used in the everyday life.
He takes great pride and joy in this and makes the visit an unforgettable experience. We had only planed to drop by, but ended up spending quite a bit of time with him, learning a great deal about the area and the Thar culture.
Unfortunately this museum doesn’t get the attention it would deserve… We were the only visitors that day – A shame!
- Old Town – Jaisalmer
The ochre-colored houses with carved sandstone facades line the maze of narrow streets in the Old City, an irresistible invitation to slowly stroll around and breeze in the unique atmosphere of a desert town. These small alleys and the sandstone provide a very pleasant ambience even during the hottest times of the day. Do not bother with a map, you will get lost! Simply ask for the way, then…
- Karni Mata Temple or Rat Temple – Bikaner
There is absolutely nothing special about this temple, if it weren’t for the “Holy Rodents” that inhibit this place about 30 kilometers from Bikaner. Just weird and filthy!
The legend states that Karni Mata’s youngest son was brought back to life here and thus she decreed all her descendants to be reincarnated as… “Kabas”, or Rats!
- Bada Bagh – Jaisalmer
Bada Bagh was built at the end of the 17th Century and is the place where all rulers and important people of Jaisalmer had their Cenotaph erected. As Hindus are cremated and their ashes scattered in the Ganges River, these Cenotaphs here in Bada Bagh are only reminders of the deceased, not marking the actually tomb.
The carved stones in the Cenotaphs tell a disturbing and brutal tradition, the Sati: after the death of a Maharaja (or any important man), all his wives, even the youngest ones, mistresses and female servants would be burned alive with the body of their deceased husband… One remembers 1 man and… 12 women!
- Khuldara, the Ghost Villge – Jaisalmer
This village in the middle of the Thar Desert was abandoned about 300 years ago… What remains are ruins of what must have been a prosperous settlement.
Legends why the local people abandoned their homes and let the desert take over. Was it because of the beautiful daughter of the village chief who vanished after she refused to marry the evil Maharaja? More likely, it was a sharp raise of taxes that made people look for a better living elsewhere…
- A Special Lassi Shop – Jaisalmer
This small Lassi Shop sits right next to the entrance of Jaisalmer Fort and prides itself to be in the Lonely Planet.
I chose the “house specialty” from the more conservative menu, made of spices, like Saffron and Cardamom. Delicious! More daring travelers might want to try a Lassi with Marijuana, which is obviously legal in the Thar Desert…
No matter which one you try, this is a pleasant stop, after visiting the Fort!
Things I could have skipped:
- Old City – Bikaner
The few interesting Havelis cannot be visited. Else, the Old City of Bikaner is void of interest, and the traffic is maddening, with motorbikes and rickshaws ignoring pedestrians even more than in other Indian cities, if that is possible… We had never experienced such aggressive traffic in India!
- Camel Ride – Jaisalmer
Maybe a long safari in the Thar Desert is a rewarding experience, but the short rides on offer there are definitely nothing special.