Apr 03, 2018
It rises like a mirage in the vast thar desert. Kendall Hill finds beauty and wonder in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer Fort. Photography by Russell Shakespeare.
In the evenings, when the tourist crowds have thinned and the traders have packed away their stores of patchwork bedspreads and bright cotton pants, Jaisalmer Fort returns to its residents.
Groups of children play chor-police (cops and robbers) among the ramparts. Women gather on stoops to share the news of the day, forming sari rainbows on yellow stone. Men greet each other with lighthearted cries of “goonda!” (“thug!”) and “burnt chapatti face!” as the spices of impending dinners scent the night air.
From a cushioned corner of a roof terrace at Killa Bhawan, a charming guesthouse tucked within the fort’s bastions, I watch a gibbous moon trace a gentle arc across the sky. Lying there, cradled in stone, it’s easy to believe that this remarkable place is the anchor in time around which the stars revolve.
Located about 800 kilometres west of India’s capital, Delhi, Jaisalmer’s position – just shy of the troubled Pakistan border – means it has never enjoyed the type of attention lavished on Rajasthan’s pin-up palaces in Jaipur and Udaipur or Jodhpur’s imposing Mehrangarh Fort. Thanks to this isolation, it feels timeless and exceptional.
Sonar Qila, the Golden Fort, was built by the Great King Jaisal Singh in 1156 CE. It became a key trading post between Asia and Europe, was besieged and abandoned, contested by sultans and emperors, and embodied all the romance and drama of Rajasthan, India’s land of kings. Today, it endures as one of India’s most evocative citadels, luring visitors deep into the Thar Desert to indulge fantasies of Rajput warriors and the riches of the Silk Route.
Jaisalmer outgrew its defensive walls in the 17th century and most of its estimated 80,000 inhabitants live in low-rise buildings clustered around Trikuta Hill, the butte supporting the 80-metre-high fort. When the hill turns hazy and liquid in the late afternoon light, the golden fortress seems to float in the air. It’s a magnificent vision, shimmering between the material and the make-believe. “Wherever your imagination goes, that’s where they started from when they built this fort,” says my new friend and ace guide, Lalit “Lalu” Kumar Purohit (+91 96600 62384), as he leads me through the narrow streets and lofty ramparts, past temples and homes of elaborately carved stone, the sacred and secular side by side.
There is still only one route into and out of the fort. Visitors must pass beneath four imposing gateways and climb a steep sandstone-paved path that twists and turns so invading elephant cavalries couldn’t muster enough speed to ram the heavy wooden gates. Look up and you can still see rows of cannonball-sized stones, once used to crush the enemy, crowning the three-tiered ramparts.
Trade defines Jaisalmer and in the 21st century all the fort’s families live off tourism. The walls are lined with local handicrafts, from patchwork embroidery to silver gypsy jewellery and brightly clad puppets. Some bastions have been converted into rooftop restaurants and cafés. In Dussehra Chowk, the small main square, stalls hawk popular Indian street foods such as bhel puri, the spicy puffed-rice salad. Nearby, a wizened musician plays soulful tunes on a fiddle made from mango wood and goat leather, singing ancient tales of love and derring-do.
Most visitors tour the royal palace to see a pair of silver thrones and the panorama from the rooftop terrace. Others explore the complex of Jain temples beyond the square or, in the 17th-century “old city” outside the fort, the masterpiece façades of the Patwa Haveli, five conjoined mansions crafted over a 40-year period for the king’s banker. The intricate hanging balconies, perforated sandstone screens and sculpted columns are found throughout Rajasthan but nowhere are they more breathtaking than in Jaisalmer.
But, for me, the true wonder of this ancient land lies in the rituals and customs of the desert people. The flower-patterned gheriya doors strapped with brass; the planter boxes of basil and garlands of mango leaves strung across doors for good luck. The shopkeeper who, returning from the temple after giving thanks for a good day’s trade, hands pieces of barfi (fudge) to friends so they can share his fortune. And those vibrant images of the elephant god Ganesh found all over the city? They’re open wedding invitations, painted on house fronts so everyone knows they’re welcome at the happy occasion.
Some families within the fort claim up to 20 generations of unbroken occupation. The streets of the fort and those of the old city below are still named and inhabited according to caste. Wealthy traders are found in Kothari Para (Merchants’ Street), while some 200 jewellers live and work in Soni (gold) and Chandi (silver) streets.
One of the most celebrated is Bhagwan Das Soni (Jewels Haveli, Chandi Para; +91 94141 49352), a ninth-generation goldsmith whose exquisite haveli contains a basement glittering with gypsy art and the sublime kundan meena gold and enamel work typical of Jaisalmer and favoured by royalty. His family has been jeweller to the royals of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Bikaner for four generations but Mr Soni’s fame extends far beyond Rajasthan. His creations have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC – his jewellery is sold at the museum shop – and, two weeks before I visit, Mick Jagger called in to pore over jewellery for two hours before buying some of the handcrafted silver pieces.
Lalu says to truly understand Jaisalmer, I must spend a night in the dunes. I don’t have time this trip but, fortunately, the desert comes to me. Three days before the February full moon, Jaisalmer’s annual festival fills the city streets and the dunes beyond with three days of folk music and dance, snake charmers, acrobats and puppeteers.
The event commences with the Shobha Yatra ceremonial procession, where crowds line the narrow streets to cheer on the dandiya dancers, transgender performers and the extravagantly moustachioed and bejewelled entrants in the Mr Desert contest. There are awards for best-dressed camel and a turban-tying event but the star turn is the Indian Border Security Force band, with its caparisoned mounts and musicians, billed as the world’s only camel-mounted band.
After they are gone and the music is a memory, Jaisalmer returns to its inhabitants. Lalu knows just how to describe its spirit. “The beauty of my town isn’t inside,” he says. “It’s outside with the filigree façades.” ￼
A small hotel nestled within three of the fort’s 99 bastions, Killa Bhawan has eight rooms with original ceiling beams of acacia, scalloped windows and hanging balconies framing picturesque views. Each is furnished with rich fabrics, sculptures and carvings that transform the space into a miniature gallery. There are cushioned niches, sitting rooms and three roof terraces with day beds built into the battlements – the perfect setting for breakfast (the omelettes are excellent), sundowners or just daydreaming in the winter sun.