Jaisalmer Fort: The Imposing Desert Fort With a Bone-Chilling Custom
Sitting in the desert with its towering golden-hued walls and imposing bastions, the 12th century Jaisalmer Fort certainly makes an impact. This fort has two important titles - the oldest desert fort in the world and the second oldest of all of Rajasthan’s forts. Its historical value is also recognized, with one particularly chilling custom having taken place within its walls at least three times.
The Jaisalmer Fort is a large hill or desert fort located in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. It was built during the 12th century AD and is still inhabited by people today. In 2013, the Jaisalmer Fort and five other Rajasthan forts were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under the title of Hill Forts of Rajasthan.
Jaisalmer Fort. (Koshy Koshy/ CC BY 2.0 )
The Distinctive Appearance of Jaisalmer Fort
The Jaisalmer Fort is located on the Trikuta Hill in the heart of the Thar Desert in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Today, the city of Jaisalmer surrounds the fort. The fort was built in 1156 AD, and the man behind its construction was a Rajput ruler by the name of Rawal Jaisal. It is from this ruler that both the fort and the present city derived their names. The massive walls of the Jaisalmer Fort are made of yellow sandstone. During the day, the stone are of a ‘tawny lion color’, whilst at sunset, they take on a ‘honey-gold’ hue. It is due to the color of these walls that the Jaisalmer Fort is also referred to by the locals as ‘Sonar Quila’, which means ‘Golden Fort’.
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Jaisalmer Fort at sunset. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Apart from the gold color of the walls, the other aspect of the Jaisalmer Fort that is clearly noticeable by those approaching it is its bastions. There are 82 of these in total, each of which measures 10 meters (32.81 ft.) in height. The imposing bastions, however, were not built during the time of Rawal Jaisal, but during a much later period, i.e. between 1633 and 1647 AD. A subtle fusion between Rajput and Islamic architecture can be seen in these bastions.
Jaisalmer Fort. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
One enters the Jaisalmer Fort from the northeastern corner via a series of four massive gateways – the Akhai pol, Ganesh pol, Suraj pol and Hawa pol. The outermost of these gates, the Akhai pol, is believed to have been a later addition, built during the reign of Maharawal Akshai Singh, who lived during the 18th century AD. The Akhai pol was added to the fort when the base wall was further extended into the desert.
Key Points of Interest Inside the Fort
After passing through the four gates, a visitor would enter the Dashera Chowk, which is the square that forms the center of the Jaisalmer Fort. According to one source, during the 14th and 15th centuries, the Dashera Chowk was the site where Jauhar were performed. This is a custom in which women would throw themselves into a fire to avoid being captured, enslaved or raped by an invading army. Although the fort was mighty, it was not impenetrable and three acts of mass suicide are reported to have taken place. The pyre would be kept burning for months whilst thousands of Rajput women would sacrifice themselves in this way, while the men were expected to meet their end in battle. On the third occasion of Jauhar at Jaisalmer Fort, the men did not have time to build a pyre and instead slit the throats of the women.
The Rajput ceremony of Jauhar. ( Public Domain )
One of the most prominent structures located here is the Palace of the Maharawal. The marble throne of the Maharawal is a must-see for anyone visiting this palace. In days gone-by, the ruler of Jaisalmer would sit on this throne when he held his court. Today, however, the palace has been converted into the Fort Palace Museum, and is opened to the public.
Terrace with marble throne in Jaisalmer Fort. (Daniel Villafruela/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Jaisalmer Fort is placed in a geographically strategic location. As trade caravans had to pass through this area during their journeys, the rulers of Jaisalmer could gain great wealth by imposing taxes on the merchants. Merchants also served in the courts of these rulers and grew rich and powerful. This affluence allowed them to construct huge mansions (havelis) in the fort, some of which can still be seen today. Moreover, the craftsmen who decorated these mansions were Muslims hired by the merchants during their trade expeditions. Thus, the trade route passing through Jaisalmer not only facilitated the flow of goods, but also of people and culture. The importance of this fort can be seen in the fact that it was besieged by several Muslim rulers, though it managed to survive these assaults.
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Building inside Jaisalmer Fort. (Anagoria/ CC BY 3.0 )
Jaisalmer Fort’s Modern Threats
Today, however, the Jaisalmer Fort is facing a different kind of threat. Over the centuries, the fort has deteriorated, and in recent times this problem has been exacerbated by the introduction of modern plumbing. The increase in tourism means that more water has to be brought into this desert fort. The water is then disposed of through a sewage system. Unfortunately, this system leaks water into the fort’s foundation, thus weakening it and causing several structures to collapse. At present, conservators are working hard to slow down this deterioration process.
Old town / Fort of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India. (Adrian Sulc/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top image: Jaisalmer Fort. Source: History of India
By Wu Mingren
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