Jaisalmer: A Desert Trading Route Revisited

This post is very much out of sequence (as will be my next one) because they involve places that Sam and I visited in Rajasthan about 6 weeks ago.  Somehow they just never got finished.

Jaisalmer was the place in Rajasthan that Sam was most anxious to visit. It is a small town in the far west of India, in the Great Thar Desert near Pakistan. Located on the trading route between India and Central Asia, it had grown wealthy from camel caravans until transport via ocean shipping and trains in the 19th century made it a dusty forgotten backwater town. Partition of Pakistan and India in 1947 cut the last of the town’s trading role and pushed it into further decline.

The town was “discovered” by tourists about 50 years ago. They were drawn by the massive fort built in the 12th century that still dominates the town, and also by the havelis, magnificent sandstone houses of long gone merchants that have intricately carved exteriors.Jaisalmer Fort at Night
Jaisalmer Haveli

A community of about 3,000 people still lives inside the fort and I decided to spring for a hotel that is actually part of the fort wall. It has only 6 rooms, each overlooking the outermost of four massive gates (shown below) that protect the fort’s single entryway.
Jaisalmer Fort GateThe view from our room’s terrace of the fort, the surrounding town and distant desert. Jaisalmer Hotel Patio Video

Rohet Gahr Peacock
Because Jaisalmer is close to the Pakistani border there is a substantial military presence in the area. The roads into and out of town are lined with army installations, with many clusters of tanks scattered around within sight of the roads. Fighter jets from nearby airbases fly overhead throughout the day and night.

Also, perhaps to provide the military with reliable electricity (while the rest of the country’s population suffers frequent outages) there are massive windfarms spread across the desert landscape. It’s definitely an otherworldly experience to stand in the empty desert among crumbling 500-year-old tombs with nothing else in sight except wind turbines that stretch to the horizon.

The road across the desert between Jaisalmer and Jodhpur proved to be a mini obstacle course as we encountered cows, water buffalo, camels, goats, sheep and peacocks wandering the landscape and ambling across the road with not a glance for passing vehicles. Other than the peacocks, most ignored the blaring horns of the buses and lorries, and almost all vehicles slowed or stopped while the road was blocked. We saw two incidents of why I can only say “almost all.” The first was a buffalo on the roadside that didn’t survive its encounter with a bus.  Having already lost its life on the road, it was in process of losing its hide on the roadside so a farmer could put the leather to good use. The other was a family of three camels, including a baby, lying across the road in front of a lorry whose front end and windshield were also smashed beyond resurrection. The rarity of these fatal encounters surprised us since our own car seemed at peril of colliding with crossing animals dozens of time each day.

Jaisalmer is also the site of a Brody family tradition that Max Brody started more than 20 years.  There is a restaurant called 8 July that consists of a row of tables on a narrow second story balcony overlooking the fort’s main square.  It is a great people-watching place to while away the afternoon drinking mango lassis and eating apple pie. They don’t really go with each other, and the apple pie is not particularly good. But it’s a long-standing tradition that all visiting Brodys must honor.
8 July

The Perfect Room for a Law Firm Partners’ Meeting

Jodhpur, one of Rajasthan’s larger cities, is home to the Umaid Bhawan, perhaps the largest private residence in the world.

Umaid Bhawan The Maharajah of Jodhpur started building the palace as a home for his family in 1929. He already had a nice home but he created this one to provide employment during hard times caused by a long-lasting drought and famine. It kept more than 3,000 construction workers on the payroll for 15 years. The palace is still the Maharajah’s residence today (actually the grandson of the Maharajah who built it), but portions of it now include a Taj hotel and a museum about the Maharajah and the palace. Mere mortals can gain admittance only to the museum these days.

The museum has a photograph of the Maharajah’s bathroom. The room is as large as the footprint of our Provincetown home (around 40’ x 40’), with walls, floor and tub made of polished black onyx. It’s hard to imagine using those over-the-top surroundings as a “library” for a leisurely read of a good book or magazine.

The museum also describes the construction of the palace. Apparently, some of the stone blocks used in the construction were too large to be set in place with precision using the available equipment. The solution was to place a block of ice on top of the previously set stone block and then to place the new stone block on top of the block of ice. As the ice melted, the new stone could be maneuvered into perfect position on top of the lower stone. Imagine the “eureka” moment when that idea was born.

Another remarkable structure in Jodhpur is the fort that looms more than 400 feet over the city. It was built over a 100-year period starting in 1459. The ramparts are up to 120 feet high and 70 feet wide, and enclose a vast area containing many palaces and other buildings. Here are photos of one of the ramparts and a couple of the palace rooms and galleries. When Sam saw the throne room shown in the first interior photo he suggested that my law firm get such a room for partner meetings. Jodhpur Fort Exterior
Jodhpur Fort Room
Jodhpur Fort Gallery
Jodhpur Fort Ceiing

Udaipur: City of Bond, James Bond

David: Rajasthan was on Sam’s itinerary wish list because of everything he had heard of my visit there with Max in 1994 and with Lora in 2010. To give us enough time, he and I left Lora, Jonathan and Max in Varanasi a few days early and flew to Udaipur, a city in the south of the state.

Udaipur is the city made famous by the Lake Palace Hotel, where Max and I stayed in the flush days of 1994. (A story from our 1994 stay in the Lake Palace is later in this posting.) In the not-quite-so-flush days of 2014, Sam and I had to content ourselves with a distant view of the Lake Palace from a not-quite-as-plush palace on the ghat alongside the lake.

Lake Palace

Lake Palace Hotel & David

Movie buffs among you will remember the Lake Palace as the site of many scenes in the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy. For those of you without that memory, every restaurant in town will remind you.
One of the high points for us in Udaipur was the Jagdish Temple, built in 1651 and devoted to Vishnu, the supreme Hindu god. The temple was just a couple of hundred yards from our hotel and Sam and I rushed over when we heard a ceremony in progress. A Sadhu holy man sitting at the temple’s entrance acknowledged us as we snapped his picture. The following video captures one man’s total commitment to the ceremony.
Udaipur Sadhu at Vishnu Temple

Udaipur Temple Video

One of the “medium” points in Udaipur, at least for me, was our search for a small jewel of a room that Max and I had discovered in 1994. It was in the Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel, which is part of the beautiful and vast City Palace complex. We had dinner one night alongside a reflecting pool in one of the hotel’s interior courtyards. While we ate, a sitar player performed on steps leading to the room on the opposite side of the courtyard. After dinner we explored the room, which was a beautiful two-story library room.

Sam and I found the courtyard and library. The courtyard’s reflecting pool is now a swimming pool, surrounded by chaise lounge chairs rather than by an elegant dining area. And the room is now a bar/cocktail lounge, not a library. It’s still very beautiful, but not quite what it had become in my memory.
Shiv Niwas Library
The Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel “library” (above) and the City Palace at night.
Udaipur City Palace at night
Now about Max’s and my stay at the Lake Palace in 1994. Since Max was showing me “his India” on that visit, we were staying in $1 a night hotels. On at least one occasion, the bathroom was simply a hole in the floor in a corner of the room with a dripping spigot above it. Udaipur was the exception since I had heard of the Lake Palace. I reserved a room to make sure we could get in.

For some forgotten reason, we decided to arrive in Udaipur a day early and I wanted to make sure the Lake Palace would have a room for us. We were then in Agra and, in 1994, the only practical option was a telephone booth in the street where an attendant was on duty to place calls. Try as he might, he could not make a connection. Inspired after 20 minutes of frustration watching cows, pigs, goats, monkeys, water buffalo, sheep, etc. meandering past the phone booth, I asked the attendant to call my office in Massachusetts. Thanks to its being a satellite connection, the call went through effortlessly. I asked my assistant to call Udaipur to let the hotel know I would be arriving early, and her satellite call also went through effortlessly. All the while the attendant was still not able to make a landline connection.

When we arrived in Udaipur, we found the hotel almost empty. It seemed that the day after I had flown out of Boston there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in nearby Gujarat, and the world’s elite had cancelled their travel plans in droves. It was a lesson in “You never know…”

Stairway To Heaven

David: When I invited our sons to travel with me in India, I sent each a copy of Lonely Planet. Figuring that it would help induce them to accept the invitation, I told them they could set the itinerary. There was only one exception. I insisted on visiting the Jain temple complex at Palitana, in the state of Gujarat. I had seen images of the complex, which consists of many hundreds of temples on a mountaintop, and there was no way I was going to miss seeing it in person.
Palitana Mountaintop
It turned out to be impossible to get to Palitana while the boys were still with me, but Lora and her Gujarat group were ending their tour there. So I slowly wended my way down from Rajasthan to meet them there after the last of the guys finally had to head home.

Jainism is an ancient religion that was a major faith in the Indian subcontinent until the growth of Hinduism and Islam. One of its highest precepts is to do no harm to any living thing. As a result, Jains are strict vegans. Many of them even avoid garlic, onions, potatoes and other root vegetables because small insects in the soil can be harmed when the plant is pulled out, and also because the roots continue to contain life. Many Jains even try to avoid going out at night because there is a greater risk of stepping on insects after dark. Some wear cloths over their mouths to avoid ingesting any flying insects and to keep harmful words from passing their lips.

This ingrained precept against harming living things seems (at least to me) at odds with the Jains having built the Palitana complex, one of their most important pilgrimage sites, on top of a mountain. Can you imagine the pain and suffering from climbing 3,750+ steps to the top of the mountain. By comparison, the Empire State Building has only 1,860 steps. Also, gravity is the law, not just a good idea, so whatever goes up must come down. Therefore, the 3,750+ steps must be descended later the same day because pilgrims and tourists must leave the site before dark.

As I was driving toward Palitana, I began to see many groups of women walking along the roadside in the same direction, all dressed in white. I assumed they were pilgrims, and they came in all ages, sizes, conditions and shapes. How, I wondered, could the elderly, infirm and crippled possibly make a climb to the top?

Two ways, it turns out. For the infirm and crippled pilgrims there were sedan chairs, flimsy plastic lawns chairs lashed to a couple of large bamboo poles shouldered by four strong men. The other way was for daughters and other young women to push their elders up the mountainside from behind.

Lora and I elected to climb, not ride, even knowing that we’d have to do it without the aid of a son (all of whom had already flown home) pushing us up the steps from behind. I began to worry about half way up when four young men carrying an empty sedan chair started walking alongside me. The closest one kept whispering in my ear: “Grandpa, you need to ride.” My concern was that these guys are probably better than me at predicting who won’t be able to make it to the top, and they were circling me like vultures. To convince them that I didn’t need their services, I took over one of the porter positions on a passing sedan chair that was carrying a woman in Lora’s group. “Grandpa” and Lora made to the top.

Our calves screamed for days, but it was worth it. Photos of the climb, the temples and the descent are in Lora’s next posting.

One suggestion for any of you who might visit Palitana – carry some food or high-energy snacks. After climbing 3,750 steps, it’s easy to get templed-out on an empty stomach and your temple/step ratio will drop precipitously.

There are two other Jain temples I need to mention, both Rajasthan. One is in the village of Dilwara. The other is in Ranakpur.

Ranakpur is on the road from Udaipur to Jodhpur. (More on our experiences in those cities in future postings.) The temple must cover at least 3-4 acres. It is a massive open interior structure varying from one to three levels in which more than 1,400 columns support the roof. The columns are intricately carved, and each is in some detail unique from all the others. Intricate carvings also cover other surfaces, including the interior surfaces of many domes high overhead. The effect was as overwhelming on my third visit, with Sam, as it was with Max in 1994 and Lora in 2010.
Ranakpur Exterior copy
Ranakpur 3-level interior
Ranakpur Interior columns
Dilwara interior dome
Ranakpur interior carving

Ranakpur dome carving
The Dilwara temples are at the Rajasthan hill station Mt. Abu, where I did an overnight on my way to meet up with Lora at Palitana. They are less than a tenth the size of Ranakpur. The carvings are comparable (as shown above), but because of Dilwara’s much smaller size, they feel breathtaking in their intimacy rather than overwhelming as at Ranakpur.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

We told Max that we were calling from the tiger preserve. He wanted to know how they get the tigers in the little glass bottles. We told him that there were very few tigers left to preserve because most of them had been poached. He said, “I guess that’s how they get them in the little glass bottles.”

We had high hopes of spotting one of the remaining 15 tigers left in Rhanthambhore National Park, located about 3 hours east of Jaipur in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Every day jeeploads of expectant tourists are bounced up and down over sandy paths and rock strewn roads that are river beds when the monsoons come. Many spines are realigned and many fillings shaken lose from teeth.


Many tourists did, in fact, see tigers. We could hear them comparing sightings over the buffet table at the fancy hotel where we stayed.


We did, in fact, spot some wildlife:


And remained hopeful through the very last minutes of our third and final outing while we waited for an hour at the spot on the trail were just minutes before a tiger had crossed the road right in front of the jeep traveling in front of us. The final blow came when our trusty driver Laxman arrived and told us that the day before he had gone to the temple just outside the park and there was a tiger sleeping off his last meal in full view of dozens of spectators. He (Laxman, not the tiger) didn’t even have to pay to get into the park or sign up for a rather expensive jeep safari.

This was about as close as we got to seeing a tiger: