Every day, the mail express train Ranikhet Express covers 1,263km from Jaisalmer in the Thar Desert to Kathgodam in the foothills of the Himalayas. The express train was also our most convenient way to go from the Golden City of Jaisalmer to Ajmer, where we would transfer to the sacred city of Pushkar. Worrying that sleeper seats would sold out days before we arrived in India, we purchased our train tickets and seat reservations days before we departed for our journey. Like many fellow travelers, we had a hard time trying to register at the official Indian Railways website. We had no choice but to buy the tickets through an online agent. We chose 12go.asia after some online research. The ride on Ranikhet Express was our first train experience in India. We weren’t sure about the validity of our reservations until half an hour before the train departed, when our seat assignments finally appeared on the official website.
The 12-hour train journey was rather smooth. We met a local couple from Bangalore. They had just finished touring Rajasthan and were heading to Jaipur for their return flight down south. We four shared a First Class compartment for 12 hours until we got off at Ajmer. In the compartment, we locked the door, took off the lights, and wrapped ourselves in our own cocoon liners beneath sheets provided by the train. Not sure if it was the rumbling noise or the steady movement of the train, we felt a little sleepy and soon fell asleep.
The manager 1st Gate Home Fusion Hotel arranged us free transport to the railway station. We arrived at the station about half an hour before departure.
Our online seat numbers finally came out when we arrived at the station. We were a little excited as it was our first time to take the train in India.
The train seemed infinite at both ends. But first we had to find our 1A car. We met a young local couple who were looking for the same car as ours (it turned out that they were sharing the same compartment with us). It took us a while to find the right car.
At about 12:30am, we finally settled at our compartment. It was a First Class 1A car, with four beds in each compartment. We took up the beds at one side, and the young local couple took up the opposite side.
The train car was neat and quiet. We were ready to get some rest during the 12-hour train ride.
The Ranikhet Express ran at an average speed of 42km/h. The journey was rather smooth and we arrived at our destination Ajmer Junction in approximately 12 hours since we left Jaisalmer.
We had some sleep during the night. In the morning, a young hawker came to our compartment to offer breakfast. We asked for two cups of chai tea to start our day.
We arrived at Ajmer Junction 15 minutes later than scheduled. Our “12-hour roommate” bid us farewell before heading back into the train, while we looked for the station exit.
Outside of Ajmer Station, we met the driver from our hotel in Pushkar. Soon we embarked on our half hour journey from Ajmer to Pushkar, the thousand-year-old sacred city for Hindu pilgrims.
13km separated Ajmer with the peaceful sacred city of Pushkar.
We left Ajmer and entered Pushkar Valley in the Aravalli Mountains. Before leaving Ajmer, our eyes were caught by a group of people carried religious or ceremonial tools heading uphill.
In early afternoon, we finally arrived at Inn Seventh Heaven.
Inn Seventh Heaven centers around a refreshing courtyard.
Our spacious room at Inn Seventh Heaven turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
Outside the window, a festive ceremony was taking place across the street.
After settling in, we walked up to the rooftop terrace of Inn Seventh Heaven.
Relaxing seating were provided all over the common areas of the hotel.
On the top floor, a spiral staircase led us to the rooftop restaurant.
A rooftop restaurant in the midst of the sacred Pushkar was the perfect place to chill out and do nothing.
As no meat was allowed in Pushkar, we had a hearty vegetarian lunch before heading out to the sacred lake.
Before returning to 1st Gate Home Fusion Hotel, we dropped by Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli, another famous haveli in Jaisalmer. The haveli was built for Diwan Mohata Nathmal, the chief minister of Jaisalmer who served between 1885 – 1891. The haveli was supposedly built by two architects, Hathi and Lulu, who happened to be brothers. Each brother started building the mansion’s from a different facade, and thus the two sides are said to carry subtle differences if looked closely. Unlike Patwon Ki Haveli, Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli is not a museum, nor is it open to the public. Visitors like us can only reach as far as the entrance courtyard that was flanked by a few souvenir shops selling miniature paintings. After a brief stay, we took a leisure stroll back to the hotel. Wandering in the busy market streets of old Jaisalmer and seeing all the vibrant interactions of the locals was a delight. Such delight would left us pleasant memories of the Golden City before we moved on to our next destination by night train.
Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli is considered to be one of the grandest haveli in Jaisalmer.
The two yellow sandstone elephants of Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli are iconic representations of Jaisalmer’s splendid architectural carvings.
Visitors can only go as far as the entrance courtyard of Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli.
After stopping by at Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli, we wandered a bit in old Jaisalmer to find our way back to 1st Gate Home Fusion Hotel.
In the maze like network of small streets, we passed by two stone workers who were preparing stone blocks from a pile of local yellow sandstone.
At a street intersection, a group of men gathered for some sort of discussion at a beautiful veranda.
Shops lined on both sides of small market streets. Cows were free to roam around on the streets (and shops).
It was strange to see cows roaming freely on the streets while some ended up becoming leather goods in shops.
Despite the remote desert location, fresh vegetables were sold in abundance.
It was late in the afternoon and there were only two vendors left at this market square.
Most shops were completely open to the streets, including these tailor shops.
Just like other places in Rajasthan, garments of vivid colours were always the most popular among locals.
For snacks, sweet pastries seemed to be the way to go.
Cakes with sharp colours and sweet flavour: Indian style.
We passed by the popular Bhatia Sweets near the first gate of the fort. Both locals and foreign visitors gathered here for their regional sweets ghotua laddu, kalakand, etc.
We returned to 1st Gate Home Fusion Hotel near the fort, where we had dinner at the rooftop restaurant again. Despite we had already check out of our room, the manager let us stay at the massage room until it was time for us to leave for our midnight train.
DAY 4 (3/5): ARCHITECTURAL JEWEL OF RAJASTHAN, Patwon Ki Haveli Part 2, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India, 2018.11.27
Over to the left below the archway, we paid the admission and stepped into the other haveli that was open to public. Known as Kothari’s Patwa Haveli, this beautiful mansion was restored and converted into a museum by the government. Despite all five havelis look similar, distinctive arches, gateways, mirror works, wall paintings, and architectural carvings differentiate each haveli from one another. To our surprise and slight disappointment, the restored interiors of Kothari’s Patwa Haveli actually looked quite new and polished. Much of the haveli had became a museum with artefact and antique furniture displays.
Kothari’s Patwa Haveli is located at the beginning of the lane where the building bridges across to form an archway.
Admission tickets were sold by a staff sitting across the lane from the entrance of Kothari’s Patwa Haveli.
After a flight of stair, we reached the level right above the lane archway. From there, we came close to see the ornate carvings of the balcony.
From the window above the archway, we gained a unique view of all five mansions of the Patwon Ki Haveli.
No matter how many times we had seen the splendid craftsmanship of sandstone carvings in Rajasthan, we were still overwhelmed by the sandstone carvings of Kothari’s Patwa Haveli.
The multi-level Kothari’s Patwa Haveli centers around a internal courtyard.
Today, the internal courtyard is occupied by a textile and embroidery shop.
The staff carefully laid out the blankets and textiles for their customers.
The museum displays occupy the upper levels of the haveli. We basically circled around the internal courtyard through a series of interconnected rooms.
One of the first room that we encountered was set up as a dining room.
The living room was one of the best restored spaces at Kothari’s Patwa Haveli, with colourful murals and fine pieces of furniture.
Antique furniture, music instruments, and clocks were on displayed in the living room.
Each important room in the haveli has a unique ceiling design.
The colourful and gold murals of Jivan Vilas was one of the highlights of the haveli. Again the restorations looked fresh and vivid that the sense of history was completely gone.
An antique Chaupar/ Chopat game was on display on a vintage rug. This game had been played in India since the 4th century.
From the roof terrace, we had some good views of the surrounding neighborhood.
As well as the lane that lined in front of the mansions of Patwon Ki Haveli.
After touring Patwon Ki Haveli, we exited the lane through the archway and found our way to the Saffron Restaurant for lunch.
DAY 4 (2/5): ARCHITECTURAL JEWEL OF RAJASTHAN, Patwon Ki Haveli Part 1, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India, 2018.11.27
Below the Golden Fort of Jaisalmer, the town flourished in the Medieval times as merchants and desert caravans brought considerable amount of activities and wealth into this remote city at the heart of the Thar Desert. Nowhere else is more convincing than Patwon Ki Haveli to see the legacy of these wealthy merchants. Built in the first half of the 19th century, Patwon Ki Haveli was the oldest and largest haveli (grand mansion) in Jaisalmer. Guman Chand Patwa, a renowned trader of his time, commissioned the construction of five multi-storey townhouses for his five sons. Splendid wall paintings, mirror mosaic, and most ostentatious of all, the amazing sandstone carving on the building facade, have made the haveli an icon for the city comparable to the Golden Fort. One operated by the government and the other privately owned, two out of five havelis are open for the public today. The first haveli we visited was the privately owned mansion located at the right side of the row.
The Patwon Ki Haveli occupies a narrow lane which can be entered at either end. We entered the lane through a beautiful archway.
Upon entering the archway, we were in awe of the intriguing stone carving on the haveli facade over our heads.
Above the archway, the Patwon Ki Haveli extends over to the opposite side of the pedestrian lane.
Along the lane, there were two open spaces across from the Patwon Ki Haveli for us to stand back and admire the beautiful sandstone facade.
Moving closer to the haveli, the balconies and facade details looked stunning.
If we looked closer, we could see the slight differences between each house.
We walked by a house with its doors opened for visitors. It turned out that this was the privately owned haveli opened to the public.
Once stepped into the entrance vestibule, we were immediately overwhelmed by the richly decorated interiors.
At the core, we could look up the lightwell to appreciate the height of the building.
Walking up the haveli, one of the first rooms we encountered was the fascinating private Hindu temple. Though small, the intriguing details of the temple interiors revealed the beautiful craftsmanship of the old Rajasthan.
Across from the small temple facing the street, another small chamber was ornately decorated with paintings and carvings.
Singing from a child musician mingled with laughter from tourists could be heard through the balcony windows.
Another level up were a series of vacant rooms. Small windows for communication and tiny wall niches for candles allowed us to imagine what the space would be like a century ago. Despite there were no furniture and paint restoration, we highly appreciated the vintage and authentic feel of the interiors.
Occasional wall paintings gave a touch of vivid colours to the generally yellowish sandstone building.
At the top level we reached what looked like to be the master bedroom with large windows facing the Jaisalmer Fort on one side.
And balconies looking down to the lightwell on the other side.
A door from the master bedroom led us to a small chamber with an attic and another small room.
We reached the roof terrace near the end of the visit. The view of Jaisalmer Fort was quite amazing.
After a fruitful tour of the old mansion, we walked downstairs and returned to the entrance vestibule, where a beautiful peacock feature guarded the house for decades, welcoming and bidding farewell to visitors.
Our second day in Jaisalmer began with flagging down a tuk tuk in front of First Gate Home Fusion Hotel to Gadsisar Sagar or Gadsisar Lake, an artificial lake that supplied water to Jaisalmer for centuries. Just like many places in the desert state of Rajasthan, maintaining water supply has been an essential aspect for the city’s survival. The peaceful artificial lake was constructed at around 1400 by the Maharaja of Jaisalmer Maharwal Gadsi Singh. As the years progressed, the lake had also become a place of pilgrimage, and venue for religious festivals and leisure boating. Temples and shrines mushroomed around the lake, and so as religious statues and the beautiful Tilon Ki Pol (Gate of Tilon) for ceremonial purposes. Today the lake has become a popular destination for anyone who wants to get away from the noisy streets inside the city walls of Jaisalmer. In winter, visitors may find themselves with surprise sighting of migratory birds (along with the lake’s more permanent residents: pigeons, dogs, and the large catfish).
A passageway connects Gadsisar Sagar with the main road. We arrived early in the morning when souvenir stall owners were busy setting up their stalls along the passageway.
Built by Tilon, a famous courtesan, the grand gate Tilon-Ki-Pol is the main gate of Gadsisar Sagar. The maharaja refused Tilon’s proposal of the construction, but Tilon built the gate while the maharaja was away. She put a Krishna temple atop the gate so that the maharaja could not tear it down.
The sky was a little grey despite it was out of the monsoon season. We were delighted with the overcast weather as there was hardly any shading trees along the waterfront.
A group of locals were taking professional photos by the waterfront.
Boating is possible at Gadsisar Sagar. During our visit, we saw one boat occupied by a group of local visitors in the lake.
The chattris (and their reflections) by the shore provided a photogenic setting to the lake.
We decided to walk along the shore for a bit.
We assed by some ghats and decks in front of temples.
No matter how far we went, the chattris near the entrance were often the focal point.
The scenery was peaceful and poetic if we could ignore the trash along the bank.
Apart from pigeons, we also saw a few other kinds of birds at the waterfront.
Just like anywhere else, the dominant type of birds that can live along with humans is always the pigeons.
As time went by, more visitors arrived at the Tilon-Ki-Pol, but hardly any would venture far beyond the entrance area.
Dogs are not uncommon in India, and some of them tend to follow people for a bit.
There are a number of Hindu temples along the shore. They are frequented by local pilgrims.
Where there is Hindu temples there would be “holy men” around.
Upon leaving Gadsisar Sagar and Tilon-Ki-Pol, a street musician caught our attention. He asked us our name and used one of our names in his singing performance.
While surveying the area near Trikuta Hill, outcast prince of the Bhati kingdom Rawal Jaisal met a sage named Eesul, who mentioned a prophesy of Jaisal’s Yaduvanshi clan would one day establish a kingdom here. Inspired by the encounter, Rawal Jaisal established his kingdom and capital city at the Trikuta Hill and called it Jaisalmer based on his own name. Built by Rawal Jaisal in 1156, the 7-storey Fort Palace was the former royal residence of the rulers. We got an official audio guide for our visit. Though there were a number of rooms under renovations when we were there. Perhaps the time was a little late, not too many tourists were around in the palace. Not as monumental as its counterpart in Jodhpur, the Palace was nonetheless a unique element of Jaisalmer Fort that no tourist coming this far into the Thar Desert should miss.
The sati handprints mark the entrance of Jaisalmer Fort Palace. Sati handprints were made by widows of the king who committed self-immolation when their husband passed away in ancient times.
The ornate balcony was the focus of the first courtyard we entered in the palace complex.
From a window on the upper level, we could have a close look at the exquisite detail of the balcony and palace facade.
The Rajasthani heritage of elaborated carvings can be seen all over the palace.
Some of these amazing stone carvings were gifts to the maharaja. This one is placed in the king’s bedroom as an interior decoration.
Stained glass is commonly used in Rajasthani palaces.
From a roof terrace, we enjoyed a “maharaja”‘s view of the fort’s bastions and the yellow sandstone city of Jaisalmer below Trikuta Hill.
The yellow tone of the city presents the perfect scenery of what a picturesque desert oasis.
Not all rooms were completely restored, but even without the original furniture, the wall tiles and wooden carvings were delights for the eye.
Some original furniture were on display behind protective glass.
The king’s bedroom opens to a beautiful courtyard where musicians and dancers would provide pleasant entertainment.
The king’s entertainment courtyard was intimate in scale and finished in beautiful floor and wall tiles.
Some palace balconies offer magnificent views of the city below.
Towards the end of our tour, we passed by a physical model of Jaisalmer Fort, offering us a good opportunity to have a better understanding of the fort layout and places that we had visited throughout the day.
It was late in the afternoon and there were hardly any tourists left in the fort.
Without audio guide and map handout, touring the Jaisalmer Fort Palace would be like walking in a maze.
Near the end of the walk, we passed by quite a few empty chambers.
The detailed ornaments of the palace offered us a glimpse of the beautiful sandstone carving of Jaisalmer. In the following day, we would continue to explore the ancient city for other amazing works of local stone craftsmen.
We returned to the Jain temples at around 11:30. We took off our shoes and placed them near the entrance before entering the temple forecourt. Just like our earlier visit of Chandraprabhu and Rikhabdev Temple (and possibly the other smaller temples interconnected in the maze-like network), we soon lose track of where we had been or which parts we had yet seen during our visit of Shantinath and Kunthunath Temple. Again temple buildings were interconnected at more than one level. For outsiders like us, it was impossible to differentiate the statues and temple chambers from one another. Except the marble statues of tirthankaras, almost everything were carved in the local yellow sandstone. Temple interiors were filled with grotto like shrines, narrow passageways, exquisite statues, and wonderful dome ceilings of sculpted apsaras (celestial nymphs). On the outside, toranas (ceremonial gateways) and shikharas (towers) packed the forecourt. The rich visual experience was coherent throughout the entire visit as we meandered through the temple complex. Given their compact sizes, it was surprising that we had spent the entire morning just to linger around the seven interconnected Jain temples until lunchtime.
Opening time varies for non-worshipers. We had to wait till 11:30 to enter the Shantinath and Kunthunath temple.
Built in 1536, the Shantinath and Kunthunath were equally impressive to the ones we saw earlier in the morning.
We didn’t come to worship so we stayed outside of the temple altar.
From the torana gate to the inner shrine, everywhere in the temple complex was full of details.
From up close, we could admire the sculpted base of the shikharas (towers).
At one end of the temple, we entered a shrine hall where locals were assisted by a holy man to perform certain worshiping rituals.
The outer facade of the hall was beautifully sculpted with what looked like to be symbols depicting religious stories.
The locals left the hall after they finished their worshiping rituals.
Soon we were all by ourselves to admire the dome ceiling of sculpted apsaras (celestial nymphs) and the other statues in the shrine hall.
Some shrines and their sculpted ceilings were not as well restored.
On the upper level, we came to a quiet area. We had the upper level pretty much all by ourselves.
We took our time to check out the different statues on the upper level.
There were a wide range of statues from human sized figures to the very small ones.
Before we left, fellow visitors finally found their way up to the upper level.
At the upper level, we also encountered a interesting footprint carving on a stone counter.
At the lower level, we spent some time examining the statues of dancing girls with large hoop earrings.
Back out to the temple forecourt, we passed by the exquisite torana one last time. Toranas are sacred gateways common in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples.
Back out at the street, we had one final look at the screened balcony connecting the upper level of the two temples. Near the end of our temple visit, we spent quite some time resting on the balcony seat.