Silence. The predominant aura around any fort is the quietude. Save the flutter of pigeons, the only sound is the echo of your own voice. But the magnificent Jaisalmer Fort in Rajasthan is nothing like that. A row of tiny shops selling trinkets near the main gate does give you that regular fort feeling, but once you pass the boundary walls, there is the buzz of a lively market, the familiar sights and sounds of home — clothes being put out to dry, children running around, the occasional whistle of a pressure cooker. The Jaisalmer Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is India’s only ‘living’ fort. Built in 1156 by the king Rawal Jaisal, the fort has a population of around 5,000 people — mostly descendants of Brahmin and Rajput families who once lived here.
As we navigate the narrow lanes, a bustling city comes alive. Shops lure you with fossil stone cups that promise to set curd without culture, camel leather bags, miniature paintings (with live demonstrations), lahariya saris, patchwork bedspreads with traditional motifs of elephants. The quadrangle at the fort’s centre could be any market square in any Indian town. Signboards point to hotels, cafes selling fresh juice.
You remember you are in an 800-year-old fortress only when you see the exquisite Rani Ka Mahal with its ornate jharokhas and jaalis . On one side of the central square, called Dussehra Chowk, is the ‘throne of the king’ on a raised concrete platform.
Princely states may have ceased to exist, but in Rajasthan, some royal traditions continue. “During Dussehra there is a big fair organised here and the king comes to grace the occasion. Earlier, animal sacrifice used to take place here during the festival,” says tour guide Rajesh Bharadwaj. Dushyant Singh is the present ‘king’ of Jaisalmer.
A winding lane, lined with musicians playing the flute, takes you to the exquisite Jain temples. But what truly delights are the unexpected discoveries: like the old house that springs up through the Hawa Pol — one of the four gates of the fort — with the most intricate jaali I have seen. Or a haveli, with all the kitchenware and clothes of its former occupants, which has been turned into a museum.
Walking up the stairs of these havelis or down the lanes that meander through the fort walls is a tricky thing — they are very narrow. “They were constructed this way so the enemy could not enter the lanes with their elephants,” says Bharadwaj. The houses, similarly, have narrow staircases and low doors “so that if soldiers attacked the homes they would have to lower their heads to enter.”
For a small entry fee, you take home many more stories. About how the shops, eateries, hotels, homestays, and ‘museums’ are run by the people living inside the fort. Bharadwaj’s family has lived here for eight generations.
The eateries here serve a whole gamut of cuisines, Italian and Israeli being favourites, catering to the large number of foreign tourists. Jaisalmer was a popular pit stop for merchants travelling on the Silk Road connecting China, Turkey and Italy via India and Central Asia, says Bharadwaj.
But much has changed within the fort. Households now have piped water and modern toilets, but sewage generated by a growing tourism industry has created a sanitation problem that threatens the fort. Water now seeps into its walls. These issues have been flagged by many, including the royal family, according to local people. But if one thing remains the same it is the bonhomie within the community. “Sure there are differences when it comes to business, but we stand together in joy and in grief,” Bharadwaj tells me.
The writer is a Gujarat-based freelance journalist.