Seen through the windows of an a/c compartment, the fortress of Jaisalmer appears to be another unidentifiable stain on marginally darker than the beige-brown tint of the glass, like a crenellated coffee cup mark on a veneer desk.
“Is that…?” I questioned a fellow traveller.
“Yup, I guess it is.”
After 18 hours in the train across the dusty desert plains, it seemed like a chimera, a trick played on the eye. And if it seemed like that for us twenty-first century train travellers how much more stupendous it must have been for those earlier travellers and their caravans, plodding across the dunes with their cargos of silks and spices along the trade routes to Persia, Egypt, Arabia and Africa. My mobile phone buzzed briefly to let me know that the network connection here was supplied by Oasis.
Jaisalmer Fort was founded in 1156 by the Bhati Rajput King, Rawal Jesal. Having slain his rival – his nephew Bijairaj – and captured the then capital city of Lodurva, Rawal Jesal cast about for a place to build his new fortification. He discovered the perfect place, 20kms away, a ‘mer’, or rocky oasis in the heart of a sandy desert. According to legend, he discovered a Brahmin at the summit. This solitary hermit advised the king to build his fortress on top of the triple peaked hill, and so the king set about building one of the most impregnable, and one of the most extraordinarily beautiful fortifications in the world. Jesalmer.
My fellow traveller and I gazed astonished as the tracing-paper stain grew more and more solid and more and more imposing the closer our train inched forward. It was former US Marine Dwayne’s first visit to India, and he was a little hazy about … well, everything actually. As we gathered together our things, he turned to me and made a flutey gesture with his hands. “Do they still do that cobra thang?” he wondered, eyes wide.
I assured him that they did.
And though, I have to confess, I didn’t actually see any snake charmers during my stay, they still do the puppet thang and the silver bangle thang, the camel thang and the retina-stunning fabric thang too. After all, this is Rajasthan, and the over four lakhs tourists that flock to Jaisalmer each year, from around the country and abroad, want the whole hog. Rajasthan without the village belles, with their colourful attire and their multiple armbangles, without the ‘proud’ moustaches and the twisted turbans of the men, would be like Kerala without the coconut trees.
Guarded by 99 rounded bastions, three tiers of inward sloping sandstone walls, and accessible by only four gateways – each invisible from the other – Jaisalmer Fort provided its inhabitants the perfect haven from which to repel invaders. If the enemy made it past the first and second defences, they would be greeted with a shower of massive stone balls (which you can still see today), and boiling oil rained down on them from atop the third ramparts. The main gate, is approached around a steep curve – designed specifically to thwart battering rams and charging elephants. But despite all these deterrents, the fort was attacked in the 13th century by Ala-ud-din Khilji, who laid siege to Jaisalmer for nine long years. When it became clear that they were doomed, the inhabitants committed ‘jauhar’ (or ‘johar’) – a Rajput tradition in which the womenfolk throwing themselves upon a pyre, and the men charge out like Kamakaze pilots to embrace certain death. The bloody history of the fortress seems long past, as one wanders through its peaceful and colourful by-lanes, but with the Pakistan border just 150kms away, and the constant presence of uniformed jawans, perhaps it’s not so difficult to imagine.
Jaisalmer is unique in its being a ‘living fort’. It’s probably the one thing that everybody knows about: yet, one can have no real conception of what it means until you are there. About a quarter of the city’s inhabitants live, play, work, wash, cook, and go about their daily business inside the bastions of the fort. This has both positive and negative aspects. On the plus side, wandering about the narrow lanes, you get a sense of people’s everyday lives and domestic routines in a most delightfully intimate way. Beneath an intricately carved stone archway, the likes of which you might see displayed in a dusty museum behind glass, a woman is beating to death a pile of wet clothes. Across a beautiful tiny courtyard, another is clapping rotis onto a tava for her family’s lunch, and children are dodging in and out at play. Foreigners are so familiar here that you’re scarcely afforded a second glance, yet the natural ease and friendliness of the inhabitants has not – yet – been eroded by sheer weight of numbers. A friendly greeting, a smile and a wave, is more likely to be just that; and not a prelude to some murkier transaction.
On the downside, however, the ever-increasing footfalls to this magnificent place have taken their toll. The city-fort was never constructed to deal with the effluent of so many, and the footfalls translate easily into waterfalls – a real danger to this drystone edifice, whose foundations are being eroded slowly and surely, day by day. It is not, as one might suspect, a lack of water that threatens this desert city, but its superabundance. In the town that surrounds the fort, the narrow lanes are lined with culverts – each doorstep a small stepped bridge over a runnel – and the sound of Jaisalmer, eerily and unexpectedly here in one of the driest places on earth, is one of running water.
Until it was connected to the Indira Ghandi Canal, the town’s water supply used to come from the artificial lake – Gadisar Lake – that lies to the south of the town. This was created in the 14th century and is replenished with rainwater. It is a beautiful, peaceful experience to take a pedalo or rowing boat out onto the lake, dotted as it is with islands filled with cormorants and coots, and trees with their roots underwater. But, as local resident and playwright Vijay Ballani laments, the water which in his childhood used to be crystal clear is now murky and polluted. In his mission to bring a greater awareness of the perils of over-development, he has even written a play, performed at the gateway to the fort, in which the Fort itself is the main character, and pleads with the townsfolk to please, not do too much with it.
To add to the man-made hazards, is the perilous affects of climate change. In 2006, 165cm of rain fell in a region that usually has under 10cm, causing houses to collapse and the already over-burdened drainage system to overflow. “What happens when you pour a bucket of water over a sandcastle?” asks Sue Carpenter, the founder and leading light of the ‘Jaisalmer in Jeopardy’ foundation. As a result of her efforts, Jaisalmer is now listed as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World and has, in partnership with INTACH, helped to restore the Maharaja’s Palace to something of its former glory.
Jaisalmer is a maze: the town itself no less than the fort. The maps are sketchy and impressionistic, the streets have no discernable names, and in most places are barely wide enough for an auto and a bicycle to pass by. They twist and turn, and double back on themselves. Each lane is lined with shops and houses, from little hole-in-the-wall tailoring outfits, barber shops, and electrical repair shops, sweet-makers and leather shoe-sellers, and of course the endless floaty, hippy, cheesecloth-and-ashes garments favoured by Lonely Planet-toting backpackers (my favourite had a hand-written sign pinned to one of its t-shirts on the tailor’s dummy outside, which read: “Make your boyfriend less ugly”). But even the best map in the world would fail to unravel the mysteries of the fort, for this three-dimensional maze, a multi-storied, many-layered labyrinth, would have given Escher a headache. The only way to explore is on foot – autos can only reach as far as the main courtyard in front of the King’s and Queen’s palaces – but pedestrian life is not without its hazards. You’ll spend much of the leaping out of the way of locals as they zoom around on motorcycles. And the cows, of which there are plenty, leave their mark all over the place.
Staying in one of the many hotels and guesthouses within the fort is the best option, but since the winter months are peak season for travellers, all the available places were booked up and we ended up staying at a beautiful little hotel next to one of Jaisalmer’s most beautiful haveli’s in the main town. Having said that, the town is so small, that staying in town is no impediment to enjoying the fort, and even has its compensations. From inside the fort, you get magnificent views of the town, and the surrounding desert – but from the delightful roof-terrace café on top of our hotel (the Killa Bhawan Lodge), we had a view, just as stupendous of the fort itself, in all its golden glory.
The architecture of the fort, the havelis, the houses themselves, is hymn sung by man and his environment. The haveli – with its central courtyard, its latticed windows, its terraces and turrets – is an elaborate cooling chamber, designed to capture and intensify the slightest cooling breeze, to protect from the harsh desert sun, and to keep the ever-shifting sands at bay. I had never quite realised the ‘hawa’ root of the word until I walked around the havelis of Jaisalmer.
Patwa Haveli is actually a row of five, interlocking havelis, all built in the early 19th century. Walk through the narrow archway into the central street and you are inside an intricately carved jewel box. The tradition of purdah – keeping the women hidden – gave rise to the complex and stupendously beautiful jaalis, each wall and window is pierced with geometrical designs, with stars, and flowers, and radiant suns, interlocking shapes that cast a lattice of sunshine and shade on the floors and walls. The perfect roost for the flocks of pigeons that wheel across the skies each evening, settling in amongst the crevices and cornices, and cooing mellifluously as the light fades, like dark notes on the staves of a complex musical score.
Visitors are allowed into two of the havelis – the first, purchased by a local man, Jeevan Lal Kothari in 1915 for just Rs 65,000 is laid out like a museum, each room with its collection of antique furniture and accoutrements. A hookah in the drawing room – “Old timer smoke system”, explained my guide; an array of hand-pulled punkhas – “Old timer air conditioning”. By the time we’d had “old timer geyser”, “old timer fridge” and “old timer ice-cream making machine”, I’d kind of got the point. For all its faded glory however, at least it was in better repair than the fifth haveli, which was a potent reminder that there is no surer way of making a ruin of a monument than consigning it to the Government of India’s tender mercies. Fragrant as a bat-cave with pigeon guano, ancient frescoes peeling worse than a Norwegian’s sunburn, it was heartbreaking.
In sharp contrast, the Jain temples inside the Fort are beautifully cared for. This interlinked complex of seven temples stand like secret boxes within boxes within the carved casket of the fort itself. Non-Jain visitors are allowed before noon, so we deposited our sandals at the entrance and let the cool marble floors caress our hot feet. Flanking each doorstep are a pair of grimacing stone dragons. “Their breath is supposed to cleanse the mind and the soul,” my guide explained. “Had a nice bath?” he joked as we stepped inside. The carvings that adorn every surface are as sensual and rich as anything found at Kajuraho. The temples house 6,666 statues of the 24 Jain prophets. One, a 2,000 year old carving in the main temple, is made of mud and glazed with pearl, a fresh coat of which is applied every five years. It was transported to its current site in the 16th century, along an underground tunnel 17 kilometers in length, to keep it safe from marauding enemies. Another, smaller idol is made from black ‘touchstone’ and flanked by two lamps, akhandjyoti, which have been kept alight continually for 400 years.
An extraordinary sense of time is brought home to you in these temples: an eerie sense that we are dealing not in years, or even centuries, but in Yugs, Mahayugs (4,320,000 years), or even Kalpas (4.32 billion years). The temples are constructed from three different types of stone: sandstone, marble, and a kind of mottled, caramelized rock called ‘sea-fossil stone’. Look closely at this and you can discern creeping fronds and wriggling creatures that populated the prehistoric seabed, when this entire region was covered with salt water. It was suddenly brought home to me that each grain of sand in the vast Thar Desert that stretched out on all sides was pounded into fineness by waves – not just wind. Suddenly it seemed as though this entire edifice – the Fort, the town, the havelis, the winding lanes, the courtyards and houses – were far beneath the ocean: a sunken treasure ship, with swimming birds and flying fish, coral reefs and sandy floor. More than ever, it felt like a dream-palace, a staggering edifice, a castle-in-the-air, that would exist and cease to be in the blink of a deity’s eye.
My most treasured souvenir of this extraordinary place is not the embroidered sunhat, nor the twinkling jootis, nor the leather camel, nor the bronze incense holder, nor the boyfriend-ugliness-dispelling t-shirt, but a fossilized sea-shell sold on the banks of the Gadisar Lake for ten rupees.