Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Havelis of Jaisalmer- Glorious Architectural Wonders from India's Past

As we've previously written, the camel-train route between India and the west since the foundation of Jaisalmer in 1156 brought great wealth to the people of Jaisalmer. This resulted to the construction of magnificent homes intricately carved from golden wood and sandstones. These were called haveli. And many of these traditional Rajasthani abodes still amaze to this day. Some of them have been converted into guesthouses. Others allow tourists to peek in for a fee, of course.

In Jaisalmer, get those shades ready because when the sun fully beams its radiance, most of Jaisalmer glistens with its golden hue, thus its moniker as the Golden City

Among the most imposing of havelis is the Patwa-ki Haveli (above and below): a honey colored lacework of 5 smaller clusters of smaller havelis built between 1800 and 1860 by 5 Jain brothers in a narrow street in Jaisalmer. The siblings were merchants of brocade and jewellery. This magnificent "home" was the very first haveli constructed in the city. 

Some local literature has this to add: "The first among these havelis was commissioned and constructed in the year 1805 by Guman Chand Patwa and is the biggest and the most ostentatious. It is believed that Patwa was a merchant of considerable influence in his time. He ordered the construction of separate stories for each of his 5 sons. These were completed in the span of 50 years. All five houses were constructed in the first 60 years of the 19th century." 

There were whispers from the grapevine regarding the owner's source of wealth which involves money laundering and the opium trade. But such talks is common due to the lavish designs of each haveli. These days, the Patwa-ki is under the management of the local government. The State Art Department and the Archaeological Survey of India find their homes in some parts of the haveli. It's open to visitors for 70 rupees for foreigners, 20 rupees for Indians, and 50 rupees for still cameras. It is open daily from 8 AM to 5 PM. 

Another haveli I was able to check out was Salim Singh-ki Haveli, a 300 year old haveli once owned by a fearsome Prime Minister when Jaisalmer was still state capital. The top story is particularly imposing like a balcony decked with graceful arches and several cupolas reaching the skies. This is open from 8 AM to 6 or 7 PM, and has an entrace frr of 100 rupees. It's located near the fort entrance.

Natmal-ki Haveli (Nathmal) was closed when I dropped in, but it was enough to see it from the outside. This was a 19th century home of a former Prime Minister. The virtuoso work is the product of the competitive spirit of brothers who designed the two wings of the haveli

Patwa-ki Haveli

Walking around the city takes you to the coterie of havelis of varying sizes and designs; each one gleaming in golden hue. Some of them look abandoned, though many of these havelis look immaculately preserved. During this "tour", I dropped by the Tourist Information Center (which was closed) and the post office to send postcards to my mother. It's nothing sentimental, but this allows her to experience trips such as this one.


Later that day, I invited my rickshaw driver for late lunch at the Seema Restaurant, one of the better looking dining places in that area (we had to go up the second level to get to the restaurant). I ordered sweet lassi (yoghurt), fried chicken fried rice (70 rupees), and sweet and sour vegetable curry (60 rupees). My driver had chicken curry with 8 pieces of chapati. Eight! Imagine that. :) This took me back for 380 rupees, a considerable amount for a long-haul traveler.

Nathmal-ki Haveli

Salim Singh-ki Haveli (above and below) 

Embroideries and mirror works are the city's main industry aside from tourism.

Tourist Information Center

Post Office

My rickshaw driver

Sweet and sour chicken with vegetables and pineapple. Delicious.

Fried chicken fried rice

Chicken curry

Seema Restaurant

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Jain Temples of Jaisalmer Part 2 - Parasnath, Shitalnath & Other Temples

After visiting the first two “introductory” Jain Temples (Chandraprabhu and Rikhabdev), the next ideal stop would be the Parasnath Temple located behind the Chandraprabhu. From here, it’s a dizzying maze of nondescript doors and archways, anastomosing with the remaining temples.

Shitalnath, dedicated to the 10th tirthankar, for example, leads to the Sambhavanth, which leads to a repository of manuscripts dating back from the 1500 – the place is called Gyan Bandar. It’s imperative to be conscious of your time. These temples have limited viewing time – from 11 AM to 12 noon so if you take your sweet time to soak on the geometrical artistry of the sculptures, you will miss a few sights. This doesn’t give you enough time to document and digest what you see. 

On hindsight, it’s easy to find yourself checking your photographs and not remember the exact location of these temples. Lack of adequate signs hampers these educational proclivities, but what’s more important is that you’ve seen them and you’ve been there.

You can always come back the next day, pay the individual entrance fees, and master each nook. Otherwise, most people find other places to see - like Gadi Sagar and its rainwater lake. Or the havelis nearby.

I was personally disoriented at some point of the visit. Once I stepped out from my last temple, I was cloaked by pleasurable daze. What was all that! And I’m talking here about the Jain Temples alone. What follows are images from this rest of the Jain Temples of Jaisalmer.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Gateways like this lead to another temple..

Unusually small and black Buddha.

Exquisite torana (gateway).

There are 109 of these marble-made Buddhas.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Jain Temples of Jaisalmer Part 1 - Rikhabdev and Chandraprabhu Temples

Tucked in the westernmost Indian city of Jaisalmer, within the bastions of a “living fort” is an array of Jain Temples of exquisite beauty. Jainism, an Indian religious denomination that came into being between the 9th and 6th century BC, prescribes a path of non-violence towards living beings. As a religion, it subscribes to the practice of several vows: non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), celibacy (brahmacharya), and non-materialism (aparigraha). This has amassed a following of approximately 6 million worldwide.

Within the sturdy walls of the Jaisalmer Fort, seven Jain Temples stand amidst time-worn, narrow alleys. The temples are rather small compared to many temples we’ve seen in our travels, but they’re among the most intricately designed artworks; engaging in their soft and warm hues of yellow sandstones; lush in ambitiously calculated geometrical patterns and lavish in artistic grandeur. These temples are dedicated to the Jain hermits (tirthankar).

Most of the temples are situated beside each other, mostly without English signs. In entrances are reminders not to “tip” the Holy Men (“place them instead in donation boxes” reminded one). Leathers of any kind, except those that are part of a musical instrument, are not allowed anywhere within the temples. Main altars, found in inner sanctums, are strictly for “worshippers” only, thus there were parts of the temple I couldn’t see – but these are few. Most of these temples have limited viewing time, mostly in the morning before midday. I had to pay an entrance fee of 30 rupees and a camera fee of 70 rupees. Video cameras fetch higher rates at 120 rupees. These days, an all-in rate of 150 rupees is asked from visitors.

For completion, here are the seven temples at the fort: Chandraprabhu, Rikhabdev, Parasnath (with its beautiful “torana” or gateway), Shitalnath, Sambhavanth, Shantinath and Kunthunath.  In this post, we shall focus on two of them: the Rikhabdev and the Chandraprabhu Temples, the first two temples visitors are likely to check out first.

I proceeded to Rikhabdev Temple when I saw a big group enter Chandraprabhu. Rikhabdev boasts of beautiful sculptures framed with apsaras (celestial maidens), adorning the pillar walls. It’s easily navigated because there are only four narrow hallways in its rectangular room. I was, of course, tempted to trespass the inner sanctum. These nooks rankle with a sense of mystery for an outsider like me. 

Continued below…



Chandraprabhu Temple has affinity to the concept of the moon, the symbol associated with the eighth tirthankar – named Chandraprabhu - for whom this temple is dedicated. Reference to the moon has something to do with the holy man’s conception - or is it gestation? The story itself, fashioned like a fairy tale, is fascinating. According to legend, one day the queen was looking at the glowing full-moon all of a sudden, she had a strange desire to drink the glowing streak of moon light. The king cleverly managed to satisfy this strange desire of a pregnant mother. On the thirteenth day of the dark half of the month of Paush the queen gave birth to a healthy son who was fair and glowing like the moon. The name literally means “glow of the moon”.

The temple has an imposing exterior. Inside, you’re ushered into a two-story complex punctuated by the main altar that houses a white marble Buddha. Similar forms characterize the surroundings. The ceiling has an ornately sculpted design that reflects most of the balustrades, pillars, and arches in the circular hallway. I imagined an intimate amphitheater where performers could dance and sing at the central hall while an audience stands looking down from the upper level – but then this was designed as a temple, not a theatrical venue. The things your mind conjures when faced with boundless beauty.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The local tourists contribute to the fascination in visiting these temples. They have such colorful dresses. 

Leathers not allowed inside. Leave your foot wear outside.