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Jaisalmer’s Golden Fort: In Conversations with History

The Serai, Jaisalmer sits on desert scrubland with a rolling as-far-as-the-eye-can-see-view of the horizon, where pink skies bid farewell to blazing, fiery sunsets and cranes flying overhead to their nesting grounds signal the end of the day in wintertime. This is a timeless landscape, a roundabout of history that has witnessed the arrival (and departure) of armies and caravans, of princes, priests and mendicants each of whom settled down or passed through in the rise and ebb of medieval dynamics. Not far from The Serai, in about as much time as it would take you to enjoy the on-board picnic, you can drive to the centre of this historic landscape, Jaisalmer Fort.

 

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The 12th century Fort of Jaisalmer rises above the town of Jaisalmer and overlooks its outlying expanse from a great vantage. The royal standard still flies over a section of the Palace, inside the fort. Photograph by Anjali Singh.

 

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The Fortress is particularly famous for its elaborately constructed Jain temples and is home to at least eight prominent ones inside the citadel. The Chintamani-Parshwanath mandir and the Shambhavnath mandir are among the most famous Jain holy sites here. Photograph by SUJÁN Archives.
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The remarkable lattice work, intricate and sublime and everywhere, draws influence from Mughal, Jain and Rajput art-forms. Many of the 15th and 16th century homes inside the fort are still inhabited by the descendants of their original residents. Photograph by SUJÁN Archives.

Jaisalmer Fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site but the earliest known reference to this incredible construct is found in the little known 12th century document, the Kharataragachchha Pattavali from 1187 AD, although the origins of the fort are generally believed to date to 1156 AD. For over five decades the fort of Jaisalmer, originally built by Maharawal Jaisal of the Bhati Rajputs expanded and grew, wall by wall and a perimeter at a time, until it came to occupy the entire hillock – historically known as Trikuta – upon which the original foundations were laid. With the decline of the Chauhan dynasty in the early 12th century, Jaisalmer witnessed an influx of internal migrations; traders, priests, artisans and others who sought employment, wealth and security flooded towards the relative security of Jaisalmer and its bastion, while medieval mayhem carried on elsewhere.

 

By the 16th century, new walls, gates, palaces and a remarkable number of temples, beautifully carved and rendered in the famously golden-hued Jaisalmer stone of the region, continued to come up throughout the fortress. In turn, the fort transformed into a city in itself, gathering in surrounding populations in times of conflict. The descendants of its original medieval inhabitants continue to live inside the fort, and is the reason the fort is known as a “living fortress”.

 

 

 

 

 

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Deft use of lights and shadows highlights a perspective of black and gold, peering into one of the compounds of the ‘Living Fortress’. Photograph by Anjali Singh.
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A family of locals – baby in tow – continues to make a living in the fort bazaars selling handmade jewellery and other crafts to visitors. Photograph by SUJÁN Archives.

It was also the 16th and 17th centuries that saw Jaisalmer’s rise as a prosperous and important centre in imperial Mughal India. Ram Vallabh Somani, a historian and famous epigraphist from Rajasthan writes, “After the settlement with Akbar the rulers of Jaisalmer came in close contact with the Mughals. Due to regular trade with Afghanistan, Persian art had its influence in this area…the State witnessed prosperity.” Despite sitting on the frontiers of the desert, its borders as indiscernible at times as the sands that defined them, Jaisalmer has always had a profound tradition of cultural harmony. Jain and Hindu residences as well as temples sit side by side, often having been constructed or carved by Muslim ‘sutradhars’ or masons. This continued into the 20th century. Somani records, “a beautiful temple of Kushal Rajeshwari was built in 1913 AD by Sutradhar Amala Gula Muhammed. His father also worked in Jaisalmer and completed the Haveli of Nathmala good number of Sutradhars, who can be classified as Shilawats, Gajadhar masons, sculptors, stone cutters and others have been known from various inscriptions. They belong both to Hindu and Muslim communities.”

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The Fort, its streets and by-lanes, display a thriving exhibition of local crafts and culture. Hand-made puppets as colourful and dazzling as the costumes of its inhabitants adorn the walls along a sidewalk inside Jaisalmer Fort. Photograph by SUJÁN Archives.

Today the empires have gone, each in their turn, but the walls of Jaisalmer continue to stand and in their imposing solitude – as a monument to a continuing history – when everything else has disappeared, they make for one of the most wonderful and rewarding journeys, in the world.

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