I received an early morning call from Nitish (instagram-nitishwaila) when he randomly remarked that he and his friends were headed to Sambhar Lake and I was welcome to join them. It was 31 January and Nitish & Co. were keen on clicking images of the supermoon lunar eclipse from the zero light pollution of Sambhar Lake. I invited him home for lunch and in the meanwhile connected with my friend Jai (instagram-jai.pandya) to head to Sambhar Lake, a drive of around 100 kms (2 hours) from Jaipur.
We left from Jaipur late in the afternoon after a heavy lunch. The drive was smooth on the NH-8 in the beginning as the road to Sambhar diverts from the Delhi-Ajmer highway near Bichoon. The road condition was bad hereafter and there were a lot of potholes on the road. The landscape was rustic though and we could spot colourful turbans every few kilometres. We reached Sambhar town soon after and quickly made our way to Devyani Temple.
Sambhar town appeared to be steeped in antiquity and some of the buildings looked fairly old. Nitish had already made arrangements with the Pujari family for our stay in the premises of Shakambari Devi Temple that was at a distance of 20 kms from Sambhar Town. So, we had decided to check out Sambhar town and find the flamingoes near the water sources or salt pans.
I have made another trip to Sambhar (during the Covid times) recently and that has prompted me to write this post. It was a family trip and our first long drive in over 4 months! We left during the day and came back to Jaipur after watching a serene sunset over Sambhar Lake.
A Travel Guide to Sambhar Lake
Devyani Temple & Kund
Devyani Temple is one of the many temples in Sambhar Town and the entire lane boasted of other temples as well. The doors leading to the temples were very pretty as well. As we entered the temple, it led to a water pond (Devyani Kund) on which ghats were built and the entire pond (kund) was surrounded by temples dedicated to different deities. The main temple is dedicated to Ganga. The Kund and temples were also referred to as Chota Pushkar and is a revered site for locals from near and far.
Sambhar was the residing place of Saint Shukracharya. The marriage of Devyani, daughter of Saint Shukracharya and King Yayati was held here and Devyani temple was established.
Jageshwar Temple, Sambhar
On the sides of Devyani Kund, four ancient Shiva temples are established and one of them is Baba Jageshwar temple. According to local folklore the lingam at this temple is very ancient and no one has been able to know its actual depth. One local with us remarked that it was dug 80 feet but the Shivling remained without a crack. I was lucky to attend the evening aarti at this temple and was mesmerised with the sounds and chanting.
We also spotted an old tomb and Mosque while driving to Devyani temple. I couldn’t find any information about the same though. Internet research reveals that Muslim salt traders from Sambhar were active in salt trade and may have built the mosque.
Introduction of Sambhar Lake
Sambhar Lake lies at a distance of 80 km from Jaipur and 320 kms from Delhi. Sambhar Lake is India’s largest inland salt lake and is spread over 90 Sq Kms. The lake touches three districts of Rajasthan – Jaipur, Ajmer and Nagaur. Sambhar is a part of 200 square kilometers area that is a mix of desert soil and salt giving it an exotic white look. Contrary to the name, Sambhar Lake is not a lake but has little water, and is actually a saline wetland.
Sambhar Lake produces 196,000 tonnes of salt annually, which is around 9% of India’s salt production. The infrastructure at Sambhar Lake includes heritage buildings; cenotaphs and temples, and colonial establishments like the old salt museum, salt train and the Circuit House.
The circumference of Sambhar lake is 95 km, and it is surrounded by Aravali Hills on all sides. Sambhar lake basin is divided by a 5-6 km long dam. After the saltwater reaches a certain concentration, it is released by lifting the dam gates and salt is derived from the salt evaporation ponds after the water dries up.
Sambhar Lake’s beauty and vastness is best explored on a full moon night when a walk on it feels like a never ending land of silver. The night sky from the chhatri (cenotaph) near Maa Shakambari Devi Temple is incredible. In the recent past, Sambhar Lake has been the setting for the shooting of many Bollywood movies; like PK, Super 30, Delhi-6, Highway.
Road to Shakambari Temple passes through Jhapok and Pipla ki Dhani and Korsina Villages.
Sambhar Lake was in the news for the wrong reasons in November 2019 as approx. 20000 migratory birds were found dead in the lake. The water was subsequently cleaned and the issue of botulism was solved.
History and Legend of Sambhar Lake
Sambhar Lake is steeped in antiquity and even finds a mention in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. History states that the lake was part of the kingdom ruled by the demon king ‘Brishparva’. According to a Hindu legend and local beliefs, the protector goddess of the Chauhan Rajputs (Of Prithviraj Chauhan fame) – Maa Shakambari Devi, converted the forested region into a vast plain of precious jewels. People around the area got worried that this will result in permanent strife in the region and prayed to the Goddess to withdraw the boon.
Shakambari Devi relented and converted the area of jewels into a jewel of different kind, ‘salt lake’. Thus, Sambhar Salt Lake is said to have come into existence. A temple devoted to Maa Shakambari Devi is located on a rocky outcrop near Sambhar Lake. From the higher elevation on which it is situated, it appears as if the Goddess is guarding the lake. Shakambari Mata Temple is the venue for a popular religious fair in the month of August when people from the surrounding villages come to attend it.
Sambhar is the setting for an important event in Indian Mughal history – the wedding of Akbar and Jodha Bai took place at Sambhar Lake in 1562. Over a period of time, Sambhar Lake was controlled by the Scindhias, Marathas and Mughals. In 1709, the Rajput Kingdoms of Jaipur & Marwar regained control over it. The rulers of Jaipur and Jodhpur jointly owned the lake, and in the year 1870 Sambhar Lake was leased to the British.
According to some historical records, Sambhar town was founded in the 6th Century AD by Raja Vasudev of the Chauhan Kings.
Sunset and sunrise in Sambhar Lake are surreal and must be experienced for the feeling of calmness that they bring. There is also a Bhairav Temple in front of Shakambari Mata Temple. Locals worship the deity and make small homes with rocks in the open space, I couldn’t understand the reason for the same though.
Why is the water of Sambhar Lake salty?
Sambhar lake is part of an endorheic basin i.e. a closed drainage basin that has no outflow of water. When there is no outflow of water in a water body, all the salts that are received in the water body get accumulated and the water becomes more salty. Also, Sambhar is located in a dry region of Rajasthan in which summer temperatures get very high. Unlike water, salts don’t get evaporated and remain on the surface itself. All these reasons lead to increase in salt content of the lake and thats why the water of Sambhar Lake is salty.
History of Salt Ownership & Production of Sambhar Lake
The Mughals had appointed a governor who was in charge of the salt production at Sambhar Lake. However, things changed in 1709 when the joint armies of Jaipur & Marwar (Jodhpur) defeated the Nawab and took control of Sambhar Lake. Till 1949, Sambhar Lake remained in joint ownership of the Kingdoms of Jaipur and Jodhpur and they divided the revenue between them. The Government of Rajasthan took over the production of salt in Sambhar Lake in 1949.
The production of salt in Sambhar Lake is managed by the government-owned Sambhar Salts Ltd. (SSL) although a few private players are involved as well.
Sambhar Lake is Ecologically Important
Sambhar Lake has been designated as a Ramsar Site (recognized wetland of international importance) and is therefore ecologically important. The wetland is a breeding area for thousands of flamingoes and other migratory birds who come from as far as Siberia during the winters.
On a trip in late July, I was pleasantly surprised to spot a variety of birds in the waters of Sambhar Lake. Ducks were floating along-with few pink flamingoes. On two separate trips, I have spotted foxes, deer and nilgai roaming freely on the deserted stretch between Sambhar and Shakambari Devi Temple.
Bird lovers are also in for a treat here as Sambhar is a recommended place for bird watching. Flamingoes, storks, pelicans, sandpipers and ducks can be commonly seen. Sambhar Lake is the second largest breeding ground for flamingoes in India, after the Rann of Kutch. Dadu Dayal ki Chattri (Cenotaph) lies in the middle of Sambhar Lake where lots of pink flamingoes can be seen in the winter.
Banjaron ki Chhatriyan
Near Sambhar Lake Railway Station – Banjaron ki Chhatriyan looks like a grand monument especially in the evening light with the sun setting on the other side. I could not get much information about it although one local remarked that Emperor Akbar built the Banjaron ki Chhatriyan.
According to other locals, the Banjara tribe traded in salt procured from Sambhar lake and they exchanged it with carpets and dry fruits with traders from far off foreign countries. I am guessing it was also a part of the Old Silk Route Trade as Sambhar geographically lies on the route from Jaisalmer to Jaipur.
Development of Sambhar Lake by Rajasthan Tourism
The Rajasthan Tourism Department has put Sambhar Lake high on its list of development projects and plans to construct a Festival Ground, Cultural Centre, RTDC Hotel, Shopping Area in the region. There are also plans to lay down a separate line for a tourists in the form of a 4 bogey railway from Sambhar to Jhapok.
Cenotaph (Chhatri) near Shakambari Devi Temple
A Cenotaph accessed by a set of winding stairs built at a higher elevation than Shakambari Devi Temple is said to have been built by Mughal Emperor Jahangir in the 16th Century. It affords a 360 degree view of the entire surrounding landscape. It is a surreal sight to see the nothingness of the vast desert-like scenery; with water, salt and sand as far as the eyes can see.
Circuit House at Sambhar
Among the must visit attractions in Sambhar is the Circuit House standing witness to the town’s British history. It is the first Circuit House that the British built, in the year 1880 and is located in a peaceful, tranquil area of the town. It still has a lift operating through a pulley system to haul food and other items to the first floor (called-dumb waiter). There are 4 rooms in the original structure and its balcony offers a nice view of the town.
The Circuit House in Sambhar has recently taken over by a private firm. Many well known film personalities have stayed at Sambhar Circuit House after Bollywood found a liking to shooting in Sambhar. Amir Khan has stayed here as also has Hritik Roshan.
Salt Processing Plant & Salt Museum
The Salt Processing plant is a must visit to get acquainted with the process of salt extraction. Witnessing the salt carrying wagons and the narrow-gauge train is a memorable experience!
The Salt Museum is located near the Circuit House and it displays salt samples from all over India. It is housed in an old colonial building constructed by the British. Sambhar Salt Museum was closed when I visited. According to a local who showed me around, the structure in which the museum is located is more than 100 years old. There is also a map denoting ‘Sambhar Lake Water Sources’ built in front of the museum; albeit in a damaged condition.
While driving from Sambhar Town to Shakambari Devi Temple, we were lucky to spot the tiny narrow-gauge goods train passing on the banks of the lake carrying salt in its bogies. The engine was painted in a colourful blue and it felt like a toy train!
Naliasar is the site of archaeological excavations and is located at a distance of 4 kms from Sambhar. In an excavation conducted in Sambhar in 1934, a large number of terracotta figurines and stoneware were found. Most of these sculptures excavated from Sambhar are presently housed in the Albert Hall Museum at Jaipur.
Mini Rann of Kutch?
Although I’ve never been to the Rann of Kutch; Sambhar’s landscape resembles the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. The night sky in Sambhar is apt for astro photography and gazing at the stars is an enthralling experience. If one if able to procure the required permission for camping on the lake, then it is possible to explore the vast lake by taking a walk on the salt bed.
Also, Sambhar is famous for a sweet delicacy – ‘feeni’. It is so popular that there is a well known Sambhar Feeni Wala in Johari Bazaar, Jaipur! One can savour the delicacy in Sambhar at one of the many sweet shops in town.
Where to stay in Sambhar?
Basic rooms are available for INR 500-600 at Krishna Guest House near Sambhar Town Bus Stand. Better options may be available at Phulera, 6 kms away from Sambhar.
The Pujari family who live in the same premises as the Shakambari Devi Temple have also constructed 2-3 rooms and are happy to let travellers stay there with prior notice for a nominal fee.
How to reach Sambhar?
Jaipur and Kishangarh are the nearest airports to Sambhar, both are less than 100 kms away. The railway station at Sambhar has trains from Jaipur, Jodhpur and Nagaur. It is possible to see the salt mounds when one travels by train to Sambhar.
Sambhar is well connected by road and the roads are fairly ok. Rajasthan State Transport buses ply regularly to Sambhar and tourist cabs can be hired for a day trip to Sambhar from Jaipur.
Cabs can be hired for local transportation and autos can be availed in Sambhar.
Distance between Sambhar and Shakambari Mata Temple is around 20 kms.
Also check : Samode Village : A Day Trip from Jaipur