It's the fort that counts
An Indian man unwinds in front of a haveli. Photo: Getty
From her lodgings in a new desert fortress, Amrit Dhillon ventures into the heart of Jaisalmer's mediaeval city.
On my first trip to Jaisalmer, in the far west of Rajasthan, I stayed, on a friend's advice, at a spooky haveli, an old mansion that appeared to be deserted. When summoned, the staff would shuffle up like ghosts from some distant, dusty chamber and silently produce a masala omelet for breakfast, then vanish down an echoing corridor. Its vestigial architectural grandeur notwithstanding, it really should have been called Miss Havisham's Haveli.
This time I take random advice from friends and instead choose the newest and best hotel in the desert city, a fort hotel named Suryagarh. But first I have to get there.
Beyond the walls... the Suryagarh fort hotel.
I travel by train from Delhi to Jodhpur, which takes 11 hours, but I'd recommend a one-hour flight instead. In Jodhpur I hire a car and head into the Thar Desert on the remarkably uncrowded road to Jaisalmer. It's a lovely route through a vast, empty landscape dotted with thorny trees, shaggy goats, stray camels and, just occasionally, the brilliant crimson, fuchsia or lime-green flash of a sari. It's a drive of about five hours, with a stop at a delightful halfway resort called Manvar.
The approach to Jaisalmer, well named as the Golden City, is unforgettable. Rising above the desert, its famous mediaeval fort, vast and magnificent, dominates the view for kilometres. It evokes visions of the old Silk Route and the relief of tired traders on seeing the fort in the distance, like a mirage.
Centuries later, Jaisalmer remains a draw for travellers, one of Rajasthan's most popular and colourful destinations. Yet lodgings here are limited largely to comfortable though characterless hotels and cheap guesthouses. Suryagarh, which opened two years ago, is a welcome luxury option, built in the style of a fort from the honey-coloured stone that Jaisalmer is famous for. It stands alone in the desert, about 10 minutes' drive beyond the city's ancient fortress.
I wondered if a "new" fort might be kitschy. Instead, I find it captures the best of traditional Rajasthani fort architecture and Indian craftsmanship. The characteristic ramparts are topped by turrets surrounding a courtyard. Here, in a space that manages to be both majestic and intimate, you can sit for hours, flanked by colonnaded corridors, archways and stone-lattice screens, listening to birdsong. While forts often have poky interiors, Suryagarh has wide corridors and airy spaces.
On our first evening, my 15-year-old son and I head off on camels to see the sand dunes at Sam, beyond the fort. Camel rides are popular with tourists, but last time I was surrounded by importuning dancers and performers. The Suryagarh staff take us to a private area, where this time I enjoy the sand dunes and sunset in solitary splendour, with high tea served as we recline, like effete royalty, on bolsters.
I find the desert magical: the ridges on the dunes, the silence, the vastness of it. As the sun sets, a solitary musician plays haunting folk tunes on a stringed instrument. Then the stars come out and we sit beside a fire, in congruity with the setting.
The owner of Suryagarh, Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, says he plans to offer guests romantic dinners at the same spot, as well as desert safaris and home visits to craftsmen, including Jaisalmer's stonemasons.
The 900-year-old fort inside the walled city houses more than 4000 people in a warren of alleys, the only "living" fort in India. Our guide, Raju, tells us only two castes - Brahmins and Rajputs - were once allowed to live inside the fort and they occupied different sections; the strictly vegetarian Brahmins did not want the aroma of meat being cooked in Rajput kitchens wafting over.
The life of the fort can be glimpsed in its alleys: women washing clothes and sweeping courtyards; spices drying; children returning from school, shopkeepers soliciting custom. There is no denying the fort is touristy; there are cheap knick-knacks everywhere at inflated prices. But the experience of being inside an occupied mediaeval fort is very special. And from rooftop cafes and restaurants, the view of the city below is memorable.
There is a museum inside the fort, intricately carved Jain and Hindu temples, and three havelis to see, the former homes of merchants who grew rich on Silk Route trade. They are covered in intricate stone carvings and filled with silver beds, ivory chess sets and other Raj-era paraphernalia.
The more ordinary homes in the walled city display a tradition unique to Jaisalmer. A brightly painted image of the elephant god, Ganesh, is visible on the outside walls, along with the date on which the occupants were married. In a common Indian tradition, green chillies and limes hang over doors to ward off the evil eye. But what evil eye could there be in such a magical place, you wonder?
Amrit Dhillon stayed courtesy of Suryagarh.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Delhi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1165 low-season return including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Delhi (5hr 45min). See singaporeair.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to six months. Jaisalmer is 770 kilometres from Delhi. Jet Airways flies from Delhi to Jodhpur (1hr) for about $160 return. Then drive to Jaisalmer (about 5hrs).
Suryagarh has 62 rooms and five suites, a restaurant, gym, billiard room and an unheated indoor pool. There is a music, dance and martial arts show in the courtyard every evening. Double rooms cost from 7000 rupees ($126). Packages include car transfers from Jodhpur airport, sand dune visits, camel safaris, private dinners and spa treatment. See suryagarh.com.