Seated on an unstable tectonic plate and weak sedimentary rock, Jaisalmer’s Sonar Fort is gradually sinking with water seepage accentuating the situation

“Waxed sailors curse the rain, for which poor shepherds have prayed in vain” goes the famous quote by Edmund Waller. While people of Rajasthan’s desert districts desperately pray and wait for rains, the blessed showers from sky do not seem to bring happy tidings to the residents of the historic Sonar Fort in Jaisalmer. 

Standing proudly amidst the golden stretches of the vast desert, the fort with its yellow sandstone walls looks beautiful when the sun sets, giving it a lovely honey gold hue. That’s why, perhaps, the locals call it sonar quila. Though enjoying an exquisite place in the architectural grandeur of Rajasthan, it had not carved out a niche in the tourist map until the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray immortalised it in his classic movie Sonar Kella.

Built in 1156 A.D., this is perhaps the only fort in India which can appropriately be called a living fort. But sadly, today it is struggling with the problem of water seepage and inadequate civic facilities, not to speak of the neglected and crumbling old houses. Even, Ray’s child hero Mukul’s house is in shambles now.  

The threat to Sonar Fort situated on Trikuta hills, built by Bhati ruler Rao Jaisal, is manifold. It is not seepage alone but safety concerns of the people living inside the fort are equally grave. Seismic studies have also indicated tectonic instability in a section of the fort’s foothill. Vijay Balani, a poet and resident of the fort, says, “The fort foothill is sinking. It is not solid rock like other forts of Rajasthan but weak sedimentary rock; so seepage is affecting its foundation.”

The woes, however, are not new, Mr. Balani says with a sigh. In 1995, one of the most significant parts of the fort — the Queen’s Palace known as Rani Ka Mahal —had collapsed. Sections of the lower pitching walls and some other parts also collapsed in 1999. Last year, a part of the boundary wall had collapsed due to heavy rains and the fort suffered damages. 

Tourism activities started in Jaisalmer fort in around 1980s, recalls Chandra Prakash Vyas, secretary, Jaisalmer Vikas Samiti (JVS). Today, the town is one of the most popular tourist destinations of the desert State and approximately five to six lakh tourists throng the Sonar Fort annually. The fort is abuzz with commercial activities as many shops, restaurants and hotels have come up leading to heavy vehicular and human traffic. Sensing its huge potential, locals quickly set up shops diplaying handicrafts, hand-embroidered materials, paintings and what not to attract both domestic and foreign tourists. Residents converted their houses into guest houses, curio shops or coffee shops to accommodate tourists and earn money.

Mr. Vyas says in olden times there was scarcity of water; so there was no question of misuse. The old-style toilets did not require gallons of water like the present day ones. Rainwater used to get cleared in no time through the excellent drainage system, called ghut nali situated in all the four directions of the fort. Construction of roads and development of other civic amenities has disturbed the slope. The level of lanes and basement in houses has come to almost same level. And due to the defective drainage system, water can flow only in one direction so the drains often get chocked.

A population of about 4,000 people is living inside the fort for almost 856 years now, a large section belonging to Brahmin and Daroga communities. Most of them had their ancestors engaged in the workforce of the Bhati rulers of Jaisalmer. And perhaps, were given permission to reside within the walled premises of the fort. Now since it is a famous world monument, no one can buy, renovate or construct a new house without prior permission from the State government and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Lots of agencies are engaged in conservation and maintenance of the fort. The ASI looks after the restoration and conservation of the outer walls, INTACH has been working on restoring palaces and municipality and district administration is responsible for upkeep and maintenance of civic amenities.

JVS feels the local municipality, the Public Health Engineering Works and Electricity departments need to work in harmony and with a time bound schedule.  Hinting at the slow restoration work of the fort boundary, Mr. Vyas says, “Nau din chale adhai kos,” (you take considerable time but cover only a very short distance). He is also upset with the changing mindset of locals. “Ab sampannta me swacchandta aa gayi hai,” (Prosperity has given way to unruliness).

There are almost 40 houses in dilapidated condition, he says. Their owners have moved to other cities. The Rajasthan High Court, in an order nearly eight years ago, had ordered to demolish old crumbling houses that pose a threat to the fort. But there remains a lot undone due to reported lack of coordination between local administration and the guidelines of the ASI.

ASI director Hradyesh Kumar Sharma on his visit to Jaisalmer recently, however, clarified that the district administration did not need to wait for clearance from ASI to demolish dilapidated structures.

At a recent meeting held at the district headquarter, Principal Secretary, Art and Culture, Gurujot Kaur also asked the ASI to publicise norms and regulations for conservation of Sonar Fort at prominent places to generate awareness among residents and tourists. The JVS and all well meaning citizens just hope that there will be sincere efforts to keep the grandeur and beauty of the golden fort intact. And it will continue to draw tourists, not just from West Bengal who wish to have a peep at Mukul’s bari but from world over for a virtual charismatic experience!