The sight of glowing Jaisalmer fort in a dark and silent surrounding was still fresh in our mind when we stepped out on our second morning in the city. The Fort Road which leads to the only entrance of Jaisalmer Fort is a typical touristy thoroughfare. A horde of more than eager “guides” swarm over you as soon as you reach there. Tourists from different walks of life in groups, as couples or as a happy loner busy with his camera, blended with the locals. A slew of road side vendors were selling snacks like Dal Pakwaan, a savory combination of dal and papad. Overlooking these busy surroundings was the huge fort looking splendid in bright sun shine.
Jaisalmer fort was built by Rao Jaisal (from whom Jaisalmer gets its name) in 1156 AD. The king made it a secured bastion by constructing four massive gates, each at a different elevation. No gate is visible from the other, designed in such a way so as to slow down the charging troops of an enemy. The main entrance is Akshay Pol (“pol” means gate in the local language). It opens into a big area which is now used as a parking lot for tourist buses and houses a bazaar where locals, most of whom depend on the tourist season for their livelihood, sell different kinds of artifacts, jewelries and souvenirs.
Like most of the Rajputana forts Jaisalmer fort is also built on a small hill, hence the walk further is a climb on to the hill. The ascent begins as you approach the next gate called the Suraj Pol. The sun plays hide and seek as you walk up the slope to the third gate called Ganesh Pol. Sellers reappear on the sides as you walk further. Colorful tapestries (for sale) hanging on the yellow sandstone looked beautiful.Very soon you find yourself in a mini market with a bakery, souvenir shop and even a travel agent in front of Hawa Pol, last of the four gates. Hawa Pol leads you into the heart of this giant fort, Dusshera Chowk, named because of vibrant celebrations (as told by our guide) which take place here during Dusshera. On one side of this square Maharaja Mahal stands tall with its beautiful ‘Jaalis’ and ‘Jharokhas’.
The entrance to the Mahal has hand imprints of widows who had jumped into the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands, a reminder of Sati which was rampant in this region. A tour of this Mahal, now converted into a museum, gives a peep into the opulent lifestyle of Jaisalmer’s kings. From the king’s meeting room to his personal quarters, everything is on display. From the roof of this Mahal you get a panoramic view of Jaisalmer. It is a landscape of a yellow monochrome which gradually merges into dry and arid land surrounding this town.
As was prevalent in those times the queen and women of the royal family occupied a separate ladies quarter which only the king could access freely. A passage within the Maharaja Mahal takes you to Rani’s Mahal where the women lived in lavishly decorated rooms. Apart from the two palaces the fort also has few Jain temples, built by affluent traders of Jaisalmer. These are peculiar as they also house Hindu idols (as told by our guide), a condition on which the king allowed these temples to be built. This is probably the only “living fort” in India. A walk around the narrow and congested alleys of the fort gives you an inkling of what this city would have been in its prime. The king might have moved out of his Mahal but his subjects continue to live in this fort, around 4000 of them. These people continue to thrive within the confines of this 12h century fort bridging past and the present of this majestic monument.
A trip to Jaisalmer cannot be complete without a visit to the resplendent ‘Patwaon Ki Haveli’. Patwas were affluent merchants of Jaisalmer who had made a fortune from trading items like jewelry and opium. When Jaisalmer was going through a difficult time due to droughts and famines, Raja had requested the Patwas to generate some employment for people. They obliged by building five magnificent havelis each of which took around 12 years to complete and generated livelihood for hundreds of labors and artisans. The work on Jaalis here is so intricate that it leaves you awestruck .They give you an impression of carved sandalwood instead of sandstone. A tour through one of the havelis showcases the life of these rich traders from the way they cooked to how they spent their free time. Their extravagant lifestyle was however more than evident in expensive Belgian glasses, paints with gold pigments and overtly ornamental rooms. Under the circumstances in which these Havelis were built, the flashy interiors is an irony but the façade outside is a true legacy of the exquisite craftsmanship which has left this land with breathtaking architecture.
Our day out in Jaisalmer ended with another walk through narrow lanes of Jaisalmer where the postman still calls out people by name while delivering his post.