I strolled through the tawny labyrinth-like halls — past quirky cafes, curious tourists, men on motorbikes carrying groceries to their homes, and veiled women ringing temple bells.
It’s life as usual in Jaisalmer Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that 1000’s of individuals call home.
Jaisalmer Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Rajasthan, India.
Source: Chaitanya Raj Singh
The town of Jaisalmer is within the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India — near the Pakistan border. But its distant location doesn’t stop a whole bunch of 1000’s of tourists from braving the sandy emptiness to see it.
My guide, Sanjay Vasu has been showing tourists around the town for the past 25 years. He identified the Hawa Pol gate, saying its where locals congregate in the course of the hot summer months.
Jaisalmer Fort’s Hawa Pol gate.
Didier Marti | Moment | Getty Images
A tourist stops Vasu to ask, “Which option to the Jaisalmer Fort?”
“Well, my friend, you’re already inside,” said Vasu, smiling at his confusion.
King Rawal Jaisal built the fabled fort in 1156. With exterior partitions that span some 1,500 feet — the space inside is vast, with several areas once marked as living quarters for people, and their families, who served the town’s royal court.
Centuries later, the fort continues to be home to the descendants of those families.
The faces of those living in Jaisalmer Fort.
Source: Shalbha Sarda
The fort has a tumultuous history — from its glorious days as a serious city on the Silk Road to enduring plunder and conquests by foreign invaders and more moderen conflicts with Pakistan.
But today, the fort attracts other varieties of outsiders – a whole bunch of 1000’s of travelers who come to the situation, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013, together with five other forts in Rajasthan.
But unlike the others, Jaisalmer Fort boasts a royal palace in addition to public temples, shops, hotels, cafes and houses. It’s a neighborhood, a business district, and a spot of worship for a significant slice of Jaisalmer’s population, which lives inside its crumbling partitions.
But Jaisalmer Fort’s status as a “living fort” is not without consequence, said heritage specialist Kavita Jain.
“The fort’s population has increased several fold, resulting in an increased load on infrastructure,” she said. “Old sewage lines and improper drainage have caused water to seep into the inspiration, and when one stone falls, it may bring down several others.”
An alleyway inside Jaisalmer Fort.
Source: Shalbha Sarda
Architect and conservationist Asheesh Srivastava has been restoring the fort since 2001. He began the project with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage and now works with Shri Girdhar Smarak Dharmarth Nyas Trust, maintained by the town’s royal family.
Srivastava acknowledges that much stays to be completed. “It will be significant that local residents rekindle their appreciation for his or her heritage, which can have been overshadowed by routine familiarity.”
Although the federal government has allotted land to the residents within the town, they like to live throughout the fort.
Families are expanding their homes, adding latest levels and constructing higher than previous generations. But the unique foundation could also be unable to resist the load.
“I actually have seen huge voids in the inspiration during excavation because sand is washed away,” said Srivastava.
The fort has intricate hand-carved balconied windows, generally known as “jharokhas,” that contain detailed filigree work, said heritage specialist Kavita Jain.
Source: Chaitanya Raj Singh
Moreover, artisans proficient in ancient construction techniques, expert at working with lime plaster and hand-carved stone, are difficult to search out now. They learned these time- and labor-intensive skills from their predecessors, but younger tradespeople learn modern construction skills, said Srivastava.
Chaitanya Raj Singh, the present King of Jaisalmer whose family owns 60% of the fort, said more locals are needed to assist restore it, which would scale back reliance on outside help.
“It’s going to support their livelihood and help them sustain,” he said.
With the help of the state government, plans to determine regulations for the development and expansion of the fort are underway, he said.
“I sincerely hope for greater cooperation from residents and authorities,” said Singh. “This fort has remained frozen in time, and our goal is to maintain it for future generations to see because it once was.”
The challenges are manifold and would require help from the federal government, shop owners and residents. But a radical restoration of the fort can yield long-term economic advantages, like premium pricing and rents, said Srivastava.
“I actually have witnessed such successful transformations in my projects, resembling in … Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh,” he said. “I hope Jaisalmer Fort addresses the problems in time.”