“Sonar Killa” is a Hindi word for the golden fort, describes the beauty of this majestic site in the northwestern part of India. Jaisalmer meaning ‘the hill fort of Jaisal’ was once home to the Rajputs – a tribe of traders and warriors.
Located amidst the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer fort was built in 1156 AD by the King Rawal Jaisal.
While France awed the world with Romanesque, Gothic architecture and had begun the construction of the renowned Notre Dame cathedral; the Rajputs created this extraordinary fort with high tower, elaborate turrets, temples and palace filled with Hindu and Jain sculptures, a cultural localization. Rising close to twenty-five floors from the desert floor, the tall fort walls built with yellow sand-stone shimmer a lovely honey gold at sundown.
Apart from the golden fort, the city is famous for its mesmerizing “haveli” or mansions that once housed the royal families in town. The beauty of this place is its ancient yet culturally outstanding architecture. The gates carved from rosewood, pillars containing beautiful dance poses, arches and gazebos bear elaborate sculpted details of flowers, chariot wheels and other rich Indian designs, which shows a significant part of history in itself. This place narrates the remains of its royal past and a glimpse of life in an unspoken medieval era. After all, ‘banjaras’ – the gypsy tribe originated here, later migrated Europe and suffered genocide.
Legends state that this site was chosen on the advice of a Hindu sage, for its golden glow of the desert, forming a perfect camouflage to protect the city’s accumulated wealth against the invaders. Situated on crossroads of business and trade routes, the kingdom flourished by levying taxes on the merchants, travelling between Persia, Egypt and India. The Rajputs stayed independent for centuries, until Mughals invaded the city, yet maintained a good relationship. The kingdom, later faced a major recession, during the British rule due to upcoming coastal regions in south India, that were the East India Company’s vantage points.
Jaisalmer is the last of living forts in India, inhabited by more than 2000 families and thriving even today. The city had its first boost of tourist back in 70’s, after being featured in an Indian cinema. Despite the extreme climatic and peculiar travel conditions, this place remains one of the most visited tourist destination and famous showplace for celebrity weddings and events.
My trip to Jaisalmer with my family was one of the most memorable and exotic vacations. We flew into Ahmedabad and planned a road trip for the rest of our way into Rajasthan. We were welcomed by a few drought struck villages with endless barren landscape of cracked clay beds and vast emptiness; the essence of this place sure comes in small and surprising doses. One after the other, the emotions evoked by this landscape was out of the world for someone from the tropical southern India. Late afternoon, the day was blazing hot, when the dunes appeared at a distance, the air-filled with excitement, for it was my first trip to a desert. Longing to feel the warmth of the sand against our feet while we watch the sunset, we took the camel safari (A must-do in Jaisalmer). After a short, bumpy, and thrilling camel ride deep into the desert, here we were at the desert national forest.
Wind blowing over the ocean of sand hills reshaped the dunes constantly. Walking on the sand was an exciting challenge; we played and rolled down the steeps of a nature-made playground in fairy-tale proportions. Tired and exhausted, we gazed the never-ending desert while the colors of earth and sky changed during Sunset in the horizon.
The sound of melodious chiraka’s music in the air, with a view of local folk artists dancing and entertaining at a distance made it a fabulous evening.
A silhouette of camel ridden by men wearing turbans, walking on the sand dunes and against the crimson red-blue twilight at the background was a treat to our eyes.
Our evening ended with a grand dance show by the local woman wearing “ghagras”- colorful swirling skirts, luscious local cuisine as we sat around the warmth of a bon fire while the desert temperature dropped drastically. A camp out on the dunes on that cold December night watching the sky lit by arrays of sparkling stars seemed dreamy. With a genie and flying carpet, the whole experience was almost like a sleepover at the Agrabah, a Disney creation.
Next morning, we unveiled the beauty of golden fort, walked around the oldest inhabited citadel, took a boat ride in Gadisar Lake to better reach the pavilions in the water-body and visited two famous ‘havelis’. While we explore the labyrinth of narrow streets, I realized a striking aspect of this fort city. The place is frozen in time, soaked in art and culture that has been the very definition of this place. The walls were filled with hand crafted cloth dolls, carved wall hangings, silk patchwork quilt bejeweled with stones and mirror work, vibrant rugs and unique home décor items. Not just the streets, the local vendors too staged themselves as actors that lived in the past, dressed in turbans made of tie-dye and yellow scarf and ancient attires.
Several photo worthy moments admiring the brilliant life-style and I walk past the four corners in the bazaar, when a young girl approached asking, “Would you buy some bangles?” Her kohl-lined eyes sparkled in eagerness, when she handed over a dozen mirrored red bangles from her tray. Too hard to resist this wearable souvenir, I purchased it to make both of us happy.
Are the ancient forts and palaces just a mere remain of the flourished past? Or may be a lesson from ancestors, a window into the primitive art, life and culture? Don’t you wonder?
Originally written for Featuring Magazine and published in issue 2.