The living fort as it is called by many is a destination of a life time. That is not to say that one cannot or would not like to revisit this one of a kind place. One of the oldest forts in India it is a place where history lives. I have been there twice. Long back as a pure tourist with my parents and recently to feel the history. Living within the fortified walls of the fort is distinctly different from visiting it for a day or half a day tour.
Ludavra, 16kms north west of Jaisalmer, was the stronghold of the Bhati Rajputs who had captured it from the Ludarva Rajputs. This ancient city (Ludavra) was on the connector route to the maritime international trade route popularly known as the Silk Route, in the 1st to around 6th century and then other important trade routes till the time of the British raj, when the ports of Mumbai and Kolkata took over and these parts of the Thar desert lost its sheen. In its days of glory Ludavra was rampaged by foreign invaders many a times but later the Marathas didn’t even take the trouble to trouble the Bhati Rajputs.
Maharawal Jaisal Singh was banished from Ludavra (Lodhruva) by his younger brother who ascended the throne. He chose to built this unique fort resembling the giant ark of Noah in 1156 AD on a hillock called Trikuta Hill. Thus Jaisalmer became the new abode of the Rawal, named after him. It was a mud fort then.
Caravans passing by on the trade route found this new hill fort safer for stopover and warehousing. The prosperity of Jaisalmer Fort was phenomenal over the years. It was strengthened with Yellow Sandstone which is quarried in the neighbouring areas. At a time the whole population used to live inside the fort, now only 25% remain. It seems like 4000 people are living on a giant ship and few hundreds more boarding and de-boarding all through the day.
We too boarded this ship through a winding pathway one fine october morning. We chose to venture out early so as to avoid the onboarding tourist rush, at least for a while. The narrow lanes with ornate balconies hanging over them branch out in several directions and it is easy to lose one’s way, but then there is only one entrance gate to this fortified city and the royal quarters spill over it so one could always find the way back to this gate.
We went up and down the streets and met some residents who were gearing up for the day to showcase their ware. Amidst colourful garments mostly for the foreigners but made of very comfortable glass cotton fabric and junk jewellery and travel bags and bowls, cups, plates, etc made of yellow sandstone, there was a very interesting collection of paintings. The paintings were done on wall hangings, t-shirts, cloth and paper. The subjects were varied with vivid colours depicting scenes of the desert life, portraits of beautiful girls in traditional rajasthani attire, men with various musical instruments with their gigantic pagdi (head gear).
We met Kamal who was painting on a t-shirt in the front part of his shop. It is an amazing experience to see a live painting getting created. Leaving it to dry he showed us a few of his creations including miniature paintings on cloth and paper, depicting hunting scenes, the royal procession and a row of musicians. Photography is strictly prohibited in these shops even from outside and for good reason.
There is a little treat for Sonar Kella enthusiasts (the famous movie by Satyajit Ray) – Mukul’s shop.
The Jain temples were closed for public at the time and we went past it. At the end of the road is the sunset point. A lone tree stands there the wall is broken and a little deity awaits flowers and kumkum (a red pigment made from turmeric) from the residents. The vast stretch of land comprising of the expanded city of Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert beyond is a site to behold from this vantage point.
The houses on either sides of the lanes are made of the same yellow sandstone which changes colour from a tawny lion in the morning to a honey lemon at dusk as that of the fort walls.By character they are narrow and multi-storied and have common walls with the adjoining house. A lot of them have been converted to hotels and eateries. Some of the houses are being demolished and rebuilt to suit the needs of the tourists.
A major portion of the tourist crowd is from West Bengal and thus alongside European, Italian and Chinese, Bengali food is also available. We found a lovely rooftop joint where we had lunch later in the day with a view to kill for. Sitting atop a hill almost 100mts above the flat ground below and eyeing a boundless expanse with nothing to hinder the vision is one of a kind experience, add to it gulping down food from your own province. The usual homely daal (lentils) rice n finger chips felt like Turkish delight.
A walk around the second layer of the fort where the walls coils around it felt like one of those 3700 soldiers guarding the fort against the Sultan’s Army, who laid a siege for 8 years before he could finally breach its walls. The canons are still placed on the bastions and count as a place to see alongside the royal quarters, museums and temples.
Day inside the fort is all hustle bustles with tourists and hawkers and guides and ruminants. Night is hauntingly quite but all the stones seem to come alive as the bats commence their hunt. I closed my eyes and suddenly something trotted by, seemed like a horse with his rider, followed by a couple of foot-steps, these were chirpy men talking of money and goods and the refreshment they had in Patwon Ji ki Haveli. One fellow was quite close and his cloak brushed against my hand, it was smooth muslin.
Night at the rooftop restaurant at our temporary abode in the fort was nothing short of a scene from Arabian nights. The lights from the city glittered like jewels and looked like a choker around the neck of the fort, and then there was darkness all around of the cold Thar Desert. I have vertigo so I could not stand on the edge and feel the nothingness. My son was crawling on four and hubby was comfortable sitting at the table in the middle of the bastion that housed the restaurant. A more adventurous soul could have felt the air of triumph one feels standing on a high ground with an glittering city beneath.