Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fort full of life



Jaisalmer Fort’s uniqueness – it supports a huge resident population – may also be the greatest threat to its existence.

A view of the fort, which has inside it residential quarters, temples, hotels and markets.

MENTION the word fort and the images that come to mind are all too common – elaborate histories; kings, queens and palace intrigues; battle-worn warriors; huge stone ramparts with intricate carvings; crumbling walls of empty palaces; and large desolate spaces, peopled these days by a large number of tourists. All forts are about history, of accounts of the past and of stories of the dead. All forts, except one!

In the far western corner of India is an exceptional fort that rises like a golden miracle from the flat, unforgiving sands of the Thar desert. Constructed atop the Trikuta Hill in Jaisalmer, it is the second oldest fort in Rajasthan and one of the largest in the world.

The thoroughfare leading to the fort. The spherical stone balls on the wall were used against intruders.

Three layers of walls constitute this magnificent structure. The outer, or lower, layer is made of solid stone blocks that also help reinforce the rubble of the hill. The middle wall, or second layer, snakes around the fort. The third and innermost wall was the vantage from where Rajput warriors hurled boiling oil and water and massive round rocks at intruders. The fort also has 99 bastions, 92 of which were built between 1633 and 1647.

The palace complex inside the fort. It is a museum now.

What is perhaps most fascinating, however, is that for the better part of its 800-year history, the fort was the city of Jaisalmer and the city the fort. Like all forts, Jaisalmer has its own history – a fascinating blend of fact, myth and legend.

In 1156 A.D., Rawal Jaisal, a descendant of the Yadav clan and a Bhatti Rajput, is said to have abandoned his fort at Lodurva, about 18 kilometres away, and, on the advice of a local hermit, founded the new fort and capital of Jaisalmer.

A fresco on a wall of the palace.

The fort stood at the crossroads of important trade routes that camel caravans used to carry silk, spices and dry fruits to Central Asia. In the 13th century, Alauddin Khilji famously attacked and conquered the fort and held on to it for nearly nine years. His attack, it is believed, was provoked by a Bhatti raid on a caravan. The next important war occurred nearly three centuries later when the Mughal emperor Humayun attacked the fort in 1541. Many more raids followed as the fortunes of the owners fluctuated, as happens in the course of history.

The first settlements outside the fort walls, to accommodate the growing population of Jaisalmer, are said to have come up in the 17th century. Today these settlements have spread out in all directions around the fort.

Colourful turbans for sale inside the fort complex.

However fascinating the history of Jaisalmer may be, there is one dimension of the fort that makes it unique: it is believed to be one of the very few (perhaps the only) “living forts”. An entire community lives within its walls – residential quarters, temples, hotels, restaurants and markets exist cheek by jowl in an unlikely mosaic. An estimated 5,000 people reside inside the fort. Thousands of others visit the fort annually as tourists. Chaiwallas ply their trade under ancient arches, modern restaurants operate under open skies, traders run curio shops in the narrow winding streets. Not surprisingly, the fort is popular in the world of cinema. The most well known perhaps is Satyajit Ray’s 1974 production, Sonar Kella (Golden Fort). It is said to have provided the first big boost to tourism in the region. A more recent production that featured the fort is the Bollywood film Nanhe Jaisalmer featuring Bobby Deol.

A folk musician at the entrance to the fort.

A striking aspect of the fort is the group of Jain temples constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries. They were built, it is believed, to protect some 11th century palm manuscripts. They are popular pilgrimage sites and are also of considerable archaeological importance. Dedicated to the various Jain tirthankaras, these are built in the famous Dilwara style, which takes its name from the temple complex located on the hill station of Mount Abu, also in Rajasthan.

The fort museum is very popular with tourists for its collection of royal items and a depiction of the life of the Bhatti rajas and other people who lived here. In addition, Jaisalmer is famous for its intricately carved havelis, many of which are inhabited by descendants of the original owners. Some are located within the fort, while others, like the Patwon ki Haveli, are outside it.

Foreign tourists getting a feel of fort life. Tourism is a great revenue earner for Jaisalmer.

The Jaisalmer Fort is by no means the only attraction of this desert region. The sandy, barren and seemingly lifeless landscape is home to a dazzling array of wildlife that is rare and threatened. Not far from the fort, straddling the districts of Jaisalmer and Barmer, is the Desert National Park that sprawls over nearly 3,100 sq. km. It is as unique an ecosystem as it is fragile. It is a little-known system that plays host to a wide variety of life – mammals such as the cinkara, the Indian wolf and the desert fox; reptiles such as the monitor lizard, the spiny tailed lizard and the saw-scaled viper; and birds such as the imperial sand grouse, the common sand grouse, the crane (common and demoiselle), the partridge, the vulture, the pea fowl and the great Indian bustard.

A pair of great Indian bustards. Only about 500 of these birds remain on the planet, and the Desert National Park offers the best chance to see them.

The Desert National Park offers the best chance to see the great Indian bustard. Only about 500 of these birds, known as the Gondavan in local language, remain on the planet. Some reports say it has been wiped out over 90 per cent of its former range and survives only in a few places in the country – parts of Rajasthan; Kutch in Gujarat; the Solapur, Vidarbha and Marathwada regions of Maharashtra; and some parts of Andhra Pradesh.

The 2,000-acre Sudasri enclosure in the national park is located 50 km from Jaisalmer and is popular among those wanting a glimpse of desert wildlife. And the surprises continue; wildlife ‘safaris’ can be done on camel carts organised by the Forest Department.


Not all those who visit Jaisalmer are interested in or make the effort to step out to look at the wild wealth of the region. The fort remains the star attraction, and no visitor to Jaisalmer comes away without being impressed by it. Not everyone, however, is aware of the serious challenges faced by this priceless heritage. The Jaisalmer Fort finds mention in two negative lists, if one can call them that. The Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC) has, for instance, listed it among the 15 most significant but endangered cultural sites of the world. “The world’s most precious historic and artistic sites can be visited today – but might be gone tomorrow,” it says. The fort is also on the list of eight “threatened wonders” put out by Wanderlust, the United Kingdom-based travel magazine.

Surprising though it may sound, it is water that is at the heart of the fort’s miseries. When it was built, the fort had no provision for flowing water or sewage disposal. Until recently, residents sourced water from wells located within the fort. Piped water supply is available now and a sewage system has also been put in place. These changes, experts argue, are proving disastrous. Water that flows in and leaks from the system is seeping into and impacting the foundations of the fort.

A desert fox at the park.

The heavy monsoon of 1993 is said to have permanently or partially damaged nearly 250 historical buildings. Recent earthquakes have made things worse. In 2001, an earthquake that measured 7 on the Richter scale caused unprecedented damage. More recently, additional faultlines have been discovered in the region, raising concern about the impact another earthquake will have on the fort.

Efforts are being made to deal with the situation, and a number of international and national agencies, such as the Jaisalmer in Jeopardy Trust, the Jaisalmer Heritage Trust, the World Monuments Fund (U.S.), and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), are at work in Jaisalmer. The biggest challenge would be to resolve the issues around water usage.

There is some apprehension in the people living in the fort that steps taken to save it will impact the tourism industry that they depend on for their livelihood.

That this is a “living fort” makes the challenge of restoration and conservation much more difficult. The challenge has to be met successfully if this 800-year-old fort is to continue living far into the future.

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