I remember my first view of Jaisal’s Fort — it literally took my breath away, even though I had seen umpteen photographs knowing what it would look like. When one is about 12 km away from Jaisalmer, the ‘Fort’ comes into view, perched on a table mountain and rising up in the desert sands like a mirage. A vision out of a fairy story, built out of the rare golden sandstone, peculiar to the region….. like Ray’s Sonar Kella.
Jaisalmer’s Fort is the second oldest fort in Rajasthan and is believed to be one of the very few living forts—or perhaps the only living fort in the world, having been built in 1156 AD by Jaisal, the ruler of the desert citadel of Lodruva, which lay 16 km westward. Conscious that his fortress was susceptible to invasion, Jaisal had looked around to find a more secure vantage point. Local legend says that a Brahmin hermit living by a spring, overlooked by the triple-peaked hill, Trikuta, had foretold, that a town would be built by the spring, and a citadel on top of the hill.
True to prophecy, Jaisal built Jaisalmer in 1156 and the unprotected inhabitants of Lodruva also decided to move to Jaisal's new town - beginning the turbulent history of what came to be called ‘Jaisalmer’ — ‘The Hill of Jaisal’. It took seven years to build the Fort, the bastions of which rise thirty feet above the rock. The rock itself rises 250 feet above the plain. Later in 1633, a further ninety-two bastions were added, each with a sentry's window and a platform from which cannons could be fired at approaching enemies — the stone cannon balls can still be seen lying on the walls of the bastion.
The Fort now stands amidst the sands of the Thar Desert on Trikuta Hill and is part of the southern edge of the city. Even today, nearly one fourth of the old city's population, continue to reside within the fort. In its 800-year history, the city of Jaisalmer was the fort! Realising that they needed more space to accommodate the growing population, the first settlements decided to venture beyond the fort walls in the 17th century
Built to withstand the heat and sand of the desert, the Fort now has to also survive heavy rain — a quirk of weather that was totally unheard of, in Jaisal’s time. The fort has an ingenious drainage system for easy drainage of rainwater away from the fort in all four directions, called ‘Ghut Nali’. Haphazard construction activities and building of new roads appears to have reduced its effectiveness over the years. A portion of the fort's wall is known to have given way, due to heavy rain and conservation efforts are in place—but perhaps things are not moving fast enough and in the meanwhile one of India's most important heritage sights, is slowly crumbling. These are warnings, that need to be listened to, and for all those who have not visited Jaisalmer .... there is no time to be lost.
At the end of the 13th century, Ala-ud-Din Khilji of Delhi seized Jaisalmer from Jait Singh, but decided that Jaisalmer lay too far away from Delhi to benefit from his control. Instead, he appointed a local ‘Rawal’ (the traditional name for a rajah in the region), as his deputy to rule Jaisalmer. Succeeding rulers in Delhi, continued this tradition set by Khilji. Perhaps the most momentous incident was perpetuated by the 15th century ruler Rawal Chachakdeo, who captured the senior members of hundreds of Jain families, and agreed to their release only after their families agreed to settle in Jaisalmer.
During the days of the British Raj, Jaisalmer was the least known among the Rajputana principalities. The royal family had lacked the funds to modernize, thus helping Jaisalmer to remain frozen in time—continuing to retain its attraction for visitors.
The architecture of Jaisalmer is unlike any other in the whole of Rajasthan. The yellow sandstone—with which the entire Fort and the palaces and havelis within it have been built – does indeed gleam in the sun, and the intricate carved friezes and jalis glint like golden lace.
One enters through the ‘Ganesh Pol’, or the Elephant Gate, from the main market, then up a steep incline paved with large flagstones past ‘Sural Pol’, the Sun Gate. The beautiful old Maharwal Palace is now a museum, opened only by prior appointment.
‘Bhointa Pol’, the Turn Gate stands at a sharp curve in the path, and has been the scene of many a bloody fight. Nearby is a temple to the warlike ‘Goddess Bhawani’, protectress of the warrier Bhattis who prayed to her before going into battle, with their chilling battle-cry, “Jai Bhawani”.
The ‘Hawa Pol'’, the Wind Gate, stands as a sentinel to the royal palaces and leads to the main enclosure, the ‘Court of Public Audience’. This is a spacious square, where the Rawal would hear petitions, review troops or entertain guests during weddings and festivals. As one faces the Palace, on the left is a white marble throne for the monarch, reached by a flight of carved steps. ‘Jawahar Palace’', the Jewelled Palace, has only one wing open to the public, and there are some fine painted murals worth seeing at the ‘Rang Mahal’. The Patwon-ki-Haveli, or the House of the Brocade Merchants, is the largest and most elaborate of the famous havelis of Jaisalmer.
It stands in a cul-de-sac with an imposing gate spanning the entrance to the lane. ‘Nathmalji-ki-Haveli’, the last of the great havelis was built in the late 19th century. Nathmalji was the Prime Minister of the state at the time. The facade of the haveli is a true work of art, carved by two master craftsmen—the two brothers Hathu and Lallu. ‘Salim Singh’s Haveli’ is the residence of another Prime Minister dating back to the 18th Century and is considered among the most spectacular buildings in the Fort. The upper storey, has an intricately carved balcony running round the entire building —created in cantilever style, and supported by carved brackets and arches.
Badal Mahal’, the Cloud Palace—the present home of the erstwhile rulers of Jaisalmer—is among the more simple structures in Jaisalmer. Its main claim to fame is the pagoda-like ‘Tazia Tower’ made by the ‘Silawats’ (stone carvers) of Jaisalmer. These Shia Muslims who migrated to Pakistan in 1947, expressed their love for their ruler, by building this tower in the shape of a Tazia.
An extensive group of Jain temples dating back to 12th century, stand within the Fort complex, built by donations from wealthy families. In the group, the finest temples are Rishabdevji, Sambhavnath and Ashrtapadi Mandir. Entrance to the Rishabdevji Temple is through intricately carved ‘Torans’, or scrolled archways. The 'Panchdhatu' or five metal images of the Jain Tirthankars, may be seen within the cloistered interior chambers—where only worshippers are allowed to enter. However, there are no restrictions on seeing the magnificent carvings spread all over the complex.
Enroute to Jaisalmer, stands the Royal Cenotaphs of the Rawals, at ‘Burra Bagh’. This place also deserves a visit, not only because of the Chattris, but also because it is the best location for photographing the Fort. As the sun sets and the fort gradually becomes a silhouette, the lights come on at the Fort — turning it into a gleaming ‘Citadel of Gold’, against the desert sky.