‘Beyond the rainbow is a pot of gold.’
Ah, that elusive pot of gold. I never actually believed the tale, even at a young age. Because, I knew that nothing comes easy and nothing is free. And I wouldn’t want it to be. But here in Jaisalmer, the fabled gold is apparent for all to see, taking centre-stage in the city. Worth more than gold, it is priceless. Dominating the skyline, the indomitable queen, known as India’s only living fort, is a towering walled city of food, shelter, livelihoods and worship to thousands who call it home. And it’s a hub of tourism, bringing in considerable revenue as the highlight attraction for visitors to the district.
MOLTEN MEDIEVAL FORTRESS OF JAISALMER
Though just a (relatively) short drive through Rajasthan from Bikaner, Jaisalmer is dominated by this yellow sandstone Medieval fortress. ‘Sonar Kella‘ or ‘Golden fort’ has been aptly titled from the hue is acquires at dusk; shimmering above the city like molten honey.
Dating back to the 12th century, it’s original purpose used to be military. Now, it’s an eclectic and vibrant heady melange of stalls, eateries, homes, shops, intricately carved havelis and ancient historic temples. Spindly alleyways, labyrinthe side-streets and weaving ways make it a dizzying maze of local life. But existence beneath the hectic surface, both structurally and culturally, is crumbling.
A CRUMBLING CONTROVERSY
The ancient foundations, jutting this monumental icon high above the desert city, are on the verge of collapse. Within the fortress walls, reside more than 2000 people; generations inherited. Living conditions have deteriorated, I’m told, due to larger amounts of waste from increased population and a surge in tourism footfall. Both are to blame. The Fort’s elderly infrastructure is battling the demands of modern-age society; the ancient drainage system struggling under the pressures of increased water consumption and waste. Tragically, the fort is not winning the war. Ramparts are crumbling and walls are dilapidated. But the real concern is for the safety of those for whom this is home.
The problem lies in the Government’s hands. Talk of forced eviction has fuelled the passionate flames of resistance. As I explore, I speak to a shopkeeper inside who explains why eviction is not an option. His family has lived within the fort for 6 generations; the average story here. Facing eviction, he breaks down, struggling to speak. Tears fill his eyes with genuine fear,
‘Where would I live? I have no money to build a house. How will I feed my children? This is my shop. Tourism to the fort helps me survive. Outside no-one will buy. My temple is here, our neighbours and community. Without this, we will die in the desert.’
Right or wrong, I empathise with this man’s emotion. Humanity makes it nigh on impossible not to.
A tour guide takes a more cynical stance on the raging debate, ‘Why has the Government only realised now that the fort needs protecting? Because without it, tourists may bypass Jaisalmer altogether. Tourism is our biggest economy and Jaisalmer Golden Fort is the main attraction. They’ve seen the money so now they realise they need to protect our greatest asset and biggest income-provider. Otherwise, why nothing all these hundreds of years?’
That’s one theory. And as a Journalist, I think it only right that people ask the difficult questions and demand answers. The powers looking to preserve the fort naturally want to do their job. If people’s lives are endangered under the threat of collapse, they surely would want to get people out. But I’d hope there would be some incentive. Help to re-build their lives, as they’ve known nothing else. If not financial, perhaps education to help them gain work and prepare the next generation. But being a philanthropist, I find the prospect of eviction; turfing families out on their ear, a bitter pill to swallow. That’s not the humanity I have come to discover in India, which is otherwise the land of love for fellow beings and compassion for all living creatures.
PICK THE RIGHT HOTEL FOR YOU
The day I land in Jaisalmer is unfortunately a bit of a waste. This Rajasthan section of my India trip is supposed to be in Luxury, that’s what I paid for and that’s what I expected. So as I arrive at Fort Rajwada hotel, I wonder where the luxury is. Nothing wrong with it as such, it’s simply not what I’ve been promised. Sorely disappointed, I look into the sister hotel of my former Bikaner residence. ‘Surygarh’ has a promising website and rave reviews. So, without further ado, I dump the strangely designed old-looking but actually very new Fort Rajwada (who refuse to refund any of my money), with it’s package-holiday feel and check myself into Suryagarh. The difference is remarkable and I feel it the moment I arrive. Though only a recent development, it’s stunning, designed as a heritage palace hotel and with every luxury and amenity I could ask for in the midst of arid desert.
DAWN OVER GADISAR LAKE AT AMAR SAGAR
The next morning, my sightseeing and cultural awakening begins, at 7am. I’m taken first to Gadisar Lake which is picturesque at dawn. The lake shimmers and sparkles a silvery blue shade at dawn. The lake provided Jaisalmer’s water from 1156 until the mid-nineteenth century. The area ‘Amar Sagar’, houses stunning architecture in the form of the lake, step-wells and a Jain temple. Upon the step-wells, migrating birds feed and rest a while. As they take flight, the sight is spectacular.
MAJESTIC GATE OF A BEAUTIFUL COURTISAN
Guarding the entrance to Gadisar Lake is a majestic gate, ‘Teelon Ki Pol’. The story is that it was built by a courtesan and singer named Teelon, who was a hit with the Bhati prince. The other women of the palace resented the fact that a lady ‘of easy virtue’ had built the entrance to their city lake. They demanded the prince order it’s removal. But intelligent and resourceful Teelon joined forces with local priests to integrate a Lord Krishna statue into the rooftop of the gateway, making it a divine temple. As such, it was not allowed not to be removed or disfigured. So it still stands proud, guarding the entrance to the placid lake.
INTO THE FORTRESS
As I navigate intimate alleyways, I have to pinch my nose at times, as it is littered in sewage and filth, both human and animal. The grand old lady is in a withered state. Wandering through, I can’t help but feel the urgency of change. Whether it’s renovation whilst people are moved temporarily or a big clean up with renewed infrastructure, it needs to be done fast.
HEART AND SOUL OF THE FORT
But here, at the peak of the fort, looking down over it’s frenzy, I realise that the heart of the fort is not the temples and palace nor the dirt and delapidation. The heart lies within it’s vibrant people; the hustle and bustle, the maze of colour, lines of bric-a-brac stalls, rows of makeshift huts, grazing animals, roaming children, backstreet eateries…these all heighten the uniqueness of this miraculous living fort. Somehow, the madness comes together and works. Irrespective of the it’s monetary value, losing the people would kill the soul of this fort, making it just another in Rajasthan. Ask anyone who’s visited, they’ll tell you they fell madly in love with it’s quirky craziness, colour and people. Without the people, tourism would be lost. So perhaps more should be done to protect the people, who would in turn learn to protect their fort and home.
I’m lost in thoughts as I gaze out from the the rooftop of the palace, admiring far-reaching views across Jaisalmer.
SANDSTONE CARVINGS, A DYING ART, INSIDE JAIN TEMPLES
Sandstone carvings are an ancient dying art of India. But the Jain temples inside the fort are perhaps the best examples I’ve seen to date of just how intricate and detailed these carvings could be.
The temple is guarded by a keeper and is a place of worship for Jains both within the fort and from outside.
THE ROYAL PALACE is equally impressive. With bay windows carved out of a fantasy and standing tall and proud inside Jaisalmer’s fort, it’s easy to imagine the palace ladies looking down over the township.
Lastly, I take a gander at some of the region’s famous Havelis. Jaisalmer is dotted in them. I visit Patwon-ki-Haveli which belongs to a wealthy merchant and is an ornate 5 storey building of rich luxurious embellishments, furnishings and frescoes.
Nathmalji-ki-Haveli is built by a Prime Minister. And although it is beautiful to see, my advice would be not to get tricked into entering the property. Having seen numerous havelis already, I’m disappointed as I’m shown a little bit of artwork but mostly forced to browse the shop of artefacts that it has become. From the outside though, it is striking…
REST AND RECUPERATE
Back to the hotel, where I’d absolutely reccommend arranging half a day to just relax, rest and recuperate.
- Impressions of India; Portraits of a People (ani-shah.com)
- Pride of the Punjab; Golden Temple (ani-shah.com)
- Mandawa, Home of the Historic Havelis (ani-shah.com)
- Living at the Royal Palace in Bikaner (ani-shah.com)
- Jaisalmer – the Golden city (janeseestheworld.wordpress.com)
- Rajasthan: 4 newborn girls starved to death (ibnlive.in.com)
- Just desert (thehindu.com)
- Vibrant Rajasthan: Jaisalmer Fort (tralect.wordpress.com)