Forts of Rajasthan – 2: The golden fort of Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer Fort, Sonar Killa, Rajasthan, Travel
Model of the Jaisalmer Fort

“I don’t think it looks like an arrow-head,” said the man.

“Well, the audio guide says that it is in the shape of an arrow-head. The guide-book also says so. Maybe we are missing something, “said the woman.

I came upon this couple and their discussion at a courtyard in the palace of Jaisalmer Fort.

As we nodded and smiled at each other, the woman asked me: “So do you think THIS is shaped like an arrow-head?” “THIS” was a model of the Jaisalmer Fort (see the photograph above left).

“I think it looks more like the map of India from where I stand,” I said.

“Ah ! That’s why it looked so familiar,” exclaimed the man. “Well, arrow-head, or map of India, or some other shape, it’s a beautiful fort, isn’t it?”

Now beautiful is not a word I would normally use to describe a fort. But, somehow, this word is very apt for describing Jaisalmer Fort. Built entirely of golden-yellow Jaisalmer stone, the fort is at its beautiful best during sunrise and sunset and can be seen for miles around. It rises like a golden mirage when one is approaching Jaisalmer by road, and at the same time also appears to blend into the desert surrounding it. In other words, it is rather hard to ignore Jaisalmer Fort.

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonal Killa, Jaisalmer
The Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonar Killa
View of the Jaisalmer Fort from my hotel terrace

Jaisalmer was founded in the 12th century by Maharawal Jaisal of the Bhatti dynasty, which traces its lineage to Lord Krishna. The rulers of the Bhatti dynasty had earlier ruled from Lodrava, which they had been forced to leave due to repeated invasions.

A search for a safer and defensible location for a new capital led the Bhatti rulers to Trikuta Hill about 30 km away and construction of the Jaisalmer Fort began in 1196. The Fort took 7 years to complete, and subsequent rulers kept making additions and alterations to it. With a length of over a kilometre, a circumference wall of 5 km, a 2–3 m thick fortification wall, 99 bastions, a retaining wall at the base of the Trikuta Hill, and a stone barricade ringing the hilltop, the Jaisalmer Fort has a good defense system in place. The information board at the entrance to the Fort says that “the main fort has two walls running parallel with a gap of 3–4 m to enable movement of troops”.

I visited Jaisalmer Fort on a cold and windy February morning. It had rained the previous night with the result that everything looked freshly washed and the golden-yellow stone of the Fort was practically glowing in the light of a mellow winter sun. My visit also coincided with the first day of the Jaisalmer Desert Festival and I entered the first of the many gates that lead into the Fort to see an explosion of colour. The Gopa Chowk, which is just beyond the first gate, was full of tourists and locals, folk musicians, shopkeepers setting up their wares, photographers jostling for space and that perfect frame to capture… And in the midst of all this buzz waited the colourfully decked-up camels and their riders for the festivities to begin.

Jaisalmer Fort, Sonal Killa, Forts of Rajasthan, Jaisalmer
Getting ready for the inauguration of the Jaisalmer Desert Festival

Jaisalmer Fort, Sonal Killa, Forts of Rajasthan, JaisalmerGolden-yellow stone towers provided the perfect backdrop to showcase the reds, yellows, oranges, and pinks surrounding me, and were enticing enough for me to miss the inauguration ceremony and get a move on exploring the Fort. So, after some time at the Gopa Chowk, I continued forth on the paved passages that led into the Fort through massive gates with intricately carved entrances, past internet cafes, more shopkeepers, cows and dogs to arrive at the Dussera Chowk or the Central Square. This square is probably the most important public space in the Fort and narrow lanes lead from here to various parts of the Fort.

Jaisalmer Fort, Sonal Killa, Forts of Rajasthan, Jaisalmer
The Dussera Chowk as viewed from the Rajmahal

I get my first glimpse of the Rajmahal or the erstwhile royal residence and am surprised to see how simple a structure it is. It is neither as grand as the havelis of Jaisalmer nor is it particularly distinguishable from the other buildings surrounding it. If it were not for a sign stating “Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum & Heritage Centre”, I would probably have missed it altogether. But then, it is also equally possible that the saffron handprints of the royal women who had committed sati would have eventually drawn me to the palace entrance.

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonal Killa, Jaisalmer
Sati handprints at the entrance to the Rajmahal

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonal Killa, JaisalmerThe former royal residence is a 7-storey structure built over many generations. It is actually a complex of many buildings, which are connected by low and narrow passages.

A tour of the Rajmahal reveals that though its interiors are not as grand as the palace in Bikaner’s Junagarh Fort, it is still pretty impressive. Among the many exhibits there, I particularly liked the silver coronation throne, the room with European wall tiles, and some breathtaking views of Jaisalmer from the highest point in the Rajmahal.

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonal Killa, Jaisalmer
The silver coronation throne
Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonal Killa, Jaisalmer
Blue wall tiles in a room in the Rajmahal
Jaisalmer Fort, Sonal Killa, Forts of Rajasthan, Jaisalmer
View of the Dussera Chowk from the Rajmahal. The ‘caged’ marble throne is where the Maharawal or the King would give public audiences with the people and also watch festivities. Note the sati handprints on the bottom right.
Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonal Killa, Jaisalmer
Part of the Jaisalmer Fort can be seen from one of the windows at the Rajmahal
Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonal Killa, Jaisalmer
View of Jaisalmer from the highest point in the Fort

Jaisalmer Fort is actually a fort city with people still living within its walls. Though it is not the only fort-city in the country or the world, it is definitely among the most beautiful. I had a great time exploring the lanes and by-lanes of the Fort after the visit to the Rajmahal. The Jain temples whose spires I had seen from the Rajmahal was where I went to next.

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonar Killa, Jaisalmer
Jain Temple spires as seen from the Rajmahal

There are 7 Jain temples within the walls of Jaisalmer Fort and like every other structure in the city is built from the same golden-yellow Jaisalmeri stone. All these temples were built in the 15th–16th centuries and are dedicated to different Tirthankaras: Parsvanath, Sambhavanath, Chandrapraphu, Rishabhadeva, Shitalnath, Shantinath and Kunthanath.  Though all the temples are beautifully carved, the stunningly impressive entrance toran to the Parsvanath temple deserves a special mention here.

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonar Killa, Jaisalmer
Detail from the entrance to the Parsvanath Temple

Traditional architecture, roadside shrines, veiled women, absence of a sense of urgency, cows and dogs, bird calls, people sitting and chatting in squares, the silence that comes from absence of motorised vehicles — all contributed to the feeling of time travel to a couple of centuries ago. It was only the presence of hotels and guest houses advertising free WiFi, stunning views, apple pies, roof-top views and what not, and the occasional presence of two wheelers, that stopped me from actually doing so !

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonar Killa, Jaisalmer

BJaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonal Killa, Jaisalmerut all the beauty, charm and period atmosphere of the golden fort of Jaisalmer cannot hide an important truth — Jaisalmer Fort is falling to pieces due to natural and human-made causes.

Though major restoration work and repairs have been and are being carried out, it is not enough to deal with the damage from water seepage and inadequate civic amenities. Portions of the retaining wall are simply giving away and I saw what looked like large cracks running along the length of the Fort as well. Though seismic activity in the region has weakened the foundations of the Fort, the demands made by the growing population and high tourist footfall is equally if not more responsible.

Jaisalmer survives on its tourist-based economy and every local is connected in some way or the other with tourism. For most people living within the Fort walls, it has meant opening up their houses or portions of their houses during the tourist season or even converting their houses into hotels. Then there are eating places that have opened all over the Fort to cater to the tourists. This has led to a Fort meant for 1,000-odd residents housing 3000 residents at any given point. These numbers increase by the hundreds during peak tourist season putting pressure on the existing amenities in the Fort.

For some years now, there have been talks of shifting the residents from the Fort or at least not allowing tourists to stay within the Fort premises. Both options have been met with stiff opposition by the residents as it would mean loss of home and for some loss of income as well. It is really a Catch-22 situation at the moment.

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonar KillaInitially, I was disappointed when I found that my hotel was located outside the Fort premises. I had read about and heard of accounts from friends who had stayed in a hotel within the Fort complex.

I was really looking forward to spending a night or two in a hotel in the Fort and have my morning cuppa at a jharokha, look out into a view like the photo on the left, see the sun rise (or set), see the city bathed in moonlight …

But now, I am very happy and relieved that my romantic vision did not happen and I did not contribute towards the decay that is slowly destroying the Jaisalmer Fort. You may ask, what difference would my not having stayed inside the Fort have made? Maybe not much in immediate sense. But I believe that everybody contributes in some way or other little by little. And this was mine 🙂

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Forts of Rajasthan Series

62 thoughts on “Forts of Rajasthan – 2: The golden fort of Jaisalmer

  1. lovely post once again, Sudha!! i had practically the same thoughts about the fort… and thought it was among the most beautiful… even though this was actually the first fort I visited in Rajasthan! and now, even after visiting so many others, this one remains vivid in my memory… though i would love to visit again for a more leisurely look….. and see all that i missed the last time… and incidentally, i didnt even go into the rajmahal, since it was closed for some reason.. dont remember whether it was that particular day or something else. i only saw it from outside… and guess i missed quite a bit. however, what i loved was walking along the tiny lanes within the fort… and trying to imagine it as it must have been in its heyday…
    and talking about the tourist situation, what i remember most is one of the chaps inside telling us that kids in jaisalmer learnt english and foreign languages before they learnt hindi!!! and in fact, many of those we spoke to, seemed more comfortable speaking in english than in hindi… and we heard one chap speaking better french than i did (and at the time, i spoke quite well, even if i say so myself) and the chap had no formal training in the language at all… he had dropped out of school, and had learnt the language by listening and speaking to foreginers… and he told me he spoke italian and german very well too 😀 that was in the early days of the blog… and i didnt even think of writing about it…. now, i guess, thats what my post on jaisalmer would have been about!

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    1. Thank you, Anu. The Rajmahal is beautiful but the Mandir Palace, which is outside the Fort and is where the Jaisalmer Royal Family currently reside is even more beautiful. My guide was saying that not many people really visit the Mandir Palace.

      The people in Jaisalmer are totally tuned in to international tourists. And as you said they speak many European languages, but not a single Indian one apart from Hindi. Eager questions of “which country you are from” would turn to disappointment when they heard the answer and that too in Hindi. It was almost comical the way people would melt away at the answer.

      And yes, time to visit Jaisalmer again, Anu 🙂

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      1. and to think i didnt even go to the mandir palace outside!!!! really, another trip is called for! now all i have to do is convince Shankar 😦 as to the hindi thing, well, that seems to be the situation at most of the tourist places these days. its sad, but i guess thats the way it is…

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        1. The Mandir Palace is part hotel, part museum, part residence and has some of the best carvings I saw outside of the havelis in Jaisalmer. It does not appear to be of much interest as again, I was the only tourist wandering around 🙂

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    1. Thank you, TGND. I have run out of the usual adjectives for describing the Jain temples of Rajasthan. They are that good. There is a post that I will be putting up in a week or two on the temples I visited so watch out for that one. 🙂

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  2. The fort indeed looks like an arrow head if you look from the other side or the map ( that is the broad side )… One can spend a lifelime and still not cover the Royal Rajasthan. Beautiful pictures that take you to Rang Rangeelo Rajasthan . 🙂

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    1. Welcome here, Desi Traveler. 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      And yes, the fort does nook like an arrowhead from the other side, but I found this side more interesting. Travel experiences only reiterate how little a single lifetime is.

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  3. I love reds and oranges and any earth tone for that matter. However, after having read your Rajasthan series, I have a hankering for blue… i want blue walls, blue tiles and blue murals too.

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    1. Your wish is command, Meera. But you’ll have to wait for a week or so before the blues make their appearance in the forthcoming Jodhpur and Udaipur posts. Methinks you will love them 😀

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  4. The sight of the fort walls is appalling and makes one feel terrible to be part of the destruction. As you had rightly felt, aren’t we all partly responsible for the condition of such heritage structures? I am glad you stayed out and thus contributed your mite to reducing the destruction, however miniscule.

    The golden fort is definitely worth a visit but I wonder if I will ever get a chance to see it. The L&M is not your average curious tourist who has the patience to seek out the kind of stuff you describe 😦

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    1. Thanks, Zephyr.

      I’m glad that I got this jolt to my romantic vision. It has also And henceforth, every place that I will travel to and stay in will be carefully researched and thought out so that I contribute to the local economy and minimise the pressure that an additional tourist like me brings on local resources. 🙂

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  5. Once again, lovely post, beautiful pictures and helpful information. In the photo of ‘View of the Dussehra Chowk from the Rajmahal’ is that you sitting on the steps down there? The mention about the Sati handprints saddens me, yet again – even though I read it in your earlier post. I love the deep blue wall prints and the mural! Wow. That is one royal colour! Waiting for your Udaipur post. The view of the Jaisalmer fort from one of the windows of Rajmahal looks so beautiful. I would love to go to Rajasthan someday but honestly, both me and my husband are not the ‘lap up history’ kinds 😦 We would still visit am guessing, but I probably wouldn’t be able soak it in the way you did, which makes reading this post and watching the pictures all the more nice! Interesting to hear about the folks within the fort knowing international languages – that’s the first time I am hearing about it! Good to know you did your best to preserve heritage structures 🙂 Kudos to you!

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    1. Thanks, Deepa. No that’s not me in the picture. I’m the photographer, remember? 🙂

      Jaisalmer is a beautiful place, a tourist trap, a culture junkie’s heaven, a history buff’s delight, etc. We all have our own way of looking at things and I’m sure if and when you do visit Jaisalmer, you’ll be writing from a perspective that will have me saying, “Now how come I didn’t see it?” Rajasthan has a lot to offer and for those who are interested in the outdoors there are desert safaris and ballooning and what not. It is just such a different place that it deserves a visit. 🙂

      Local people knowing international languages is a byproduct of tourism. Did you know that the sellers at fish markets in Goa are supposed to speak fluent Russian? 🙂

      Conserving and preserving our surroundings is something that should come naturally to us. I take every place that I am able to travel to and visit as a blessing and I will never abuse that blessing in any way.

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      1. The first three reasons are enough to tempt me Sudhagee! True, that. About perspectives. 🙂 Now, I can’t wait to visit, sigh! And yeah I knew about Goa and international languages (not Russian specifically), but Rajasthan, I never expected 😀

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  6. You have narrated the history of the fort city so well. The pictures tell us so much, don’t they?
    The blue floor tiles in the royal bedroom are so lovely – an unusual shade of blue. I can’t help wondering: how did the royal family manage to get sleep surrounded by a riot of colours?
    I also feel I am travelling through time when I read your posts.
    The entrance toran of the Jain temple is truly impressive and stunning in its details.
    I too feel saddened at the neglect of our beautiful monuments and am glad you got to stay outside the fort. How else would you have captured that lovely picture of the fort?
    By the way, are those goats in the first picture?

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    1. Thank you, Neena.

      Pictures do indeed say a thousand words. I found the blue wall times beautiful, but a little overwhelming. And I forgot to mention, the bed was made of silver and the red cover was velvet. 🙂

      After my visit to Rajasthan, I’m totally in awe of the Jain temples. By the time I returned, I wasn’t sure which one was more beautiful—the carvings, the layout, the open plan of the temples, the location, the views from the temple or the paintings. Wait for my post on the Jain temples that I saw.

      And yes those are goats. Some very naughty, frisky goats that tried to eat my shoes !

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    1. Thank you, Vishal. Rajasthan is different from other states, and its appeal lies in that. But that does not make other Indian states less charming or its art less appealing. Each one is different and their appeal lies in that.

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      1. indeed it very much does 🙂 they are an absolute beauty all the more when decorated in Rajasthani style !!! colourful bright and somehow I feel camels have a smiling face by default !! 🙂

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  7. Lovely place, lovely pics, lovely write-up. The only disquieting thought is of how much of our cultural heritage is lost because of this lackadaisical attitude. True that the residents have genuine concern but if there is a will to safeguard these treasures there will be the money to ensure the residents’ well-being while doing the necessary to safeguard the fort.

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    1. Thank you, Suresh. We lose something of our cultural heritage every minute and frankly, very few people care. If we are really serious about preserving and conserving our heritage then some very serious steps have to be taken beginning with restricting tourists to a certain number every year. Considering the volumes that visit popular destinations and the harm they cause, this is the only solution.

      But this is something that nobody will want to do. Who will bell the cat or in this case take the step towards this unpopular move?,

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  8. What else I can say about this post. All I wanted to has already spoken. Still I’d say all “that and this about Jaisalmer” you briefed thoroughly is a halfway trip to that place. who else will not be interested to take a tour to this place after seeing this exotic post??
    Thanks indeed!!

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