Jaisalmer is one of India's most precious jewels. Fortified in golden stone, its 99 bastions silhouetted
against the sky, it rises like a mirage from the barren Thar desert of
Rajasthan. This remote settlement was renowned for the valour of its rulers, the ferocity of its warriors -
during British rule it was the last to sign a treaty with the British - and for the aesthetic sense represented
by the architecture of the palaces and havelis of its successful merchants.
Founded in 1156 A.D. by the Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal a Bhatti Rajput, and located on the western edge of the barren Thar Desert,
Jaisalmer was India's gateway to the silk and spice routes and a flourishing trading outpost for 700 years.
Camel caravans heading towards Arabia, Persia, and Central Asia, laden with silks and spices, would have seen Jaisalmer,
shimmering in the desert haze much as it appears today.
Jaisalmer grew in strength (with territories annexed from
the bordering districts of Bikaner and Jodhpur) and riches (by levying taxes on caravans passing through Jaisalmer to Delhi).
Its location on the main trade route linking India to Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Africa and the West assured its prosperity,
reflected in the magnificent havelis the townspeople built. Wood and sandstone mansions with intricate carvings can be seen
elsewhere in Rajasthan, but nowhere are they quite as breathtaking.
With the downfall of the Mughal Empire in the mid 1700s, commerce shifted to the sea ports, and the age of camel caravans drew to a close.
Isolated, a five-day journey on camel from the nearest city, Jaisalmer, having grown wealthy on the proceeds of the trade routes,
slipped into obscurity, frozen in its medieval history.
Today, walking through the narrow cobbled streets, evidence of the city's rich trading past is everywhere.
The ancient fort, the oldest in Rajasthan, and perhaps the oldest still-inhabited citadel in the world,
soars 300 meters above a maze of streets, squares, palaces, and clusters of dwellings, all in the local golden yellow sandstone.
Atop the Trikuta (triple-peaked) hill, where, as legend has it, a Brahmin hermit related to Jaisal the prophesy that Krishna and
Arjunaruler would one day build a fort, life goes on, almost as it has for centuries.
Tragically by the late 20th Centure, Jaisalmer was on the verge of collapse.
Within the fort's monumental walls, alongside the intricately carved temples,
palaces and havelis of the former rich and powerful merchants live more than 2,000 people, descendents
of Maharawal Rawal Jaisal's entourage.
Built around courtyards, their dwellings display architectural features designed to keep out heat and dust, let in breezes,
and conserve scarce water supplies.
Paradoxically increased consumption (and therefore waste), due to growing tourism
and population, put unbearable pressure on the city's aged
infrastructurewith with water being piped in at a daily
rate of some 120 litres per head - at least 12 times the amount originally used meant that the old drainage system,
open gulleys at the sides
of streets intended for a time when waste water was minimal was no longer adequate; water become the enamy.
What resulted was similar to what happens when you tip a bucket of water
over a sandcastle? Jaisalmer, built of dry sandstone on foundations of
clay, sand and rock, began to crumble.
Water, seeping through the decaying drains and
penetrating the hillside, saturated the foundations of the fortress
city, resulting in subsidence and cracks in buildings. Palaces and
havelis came tumbling down! In places the
retaining wall at the base of the hillside burst apart, while some of the
bastions became unstable.
After the devastating monsoon of 1993, some 250
historic buildings fully or partially collapsed, including the oldest
existing Rajput palace, the Rani-ka Mahal, or Maharani's Palace - since sympathetically restored by a consortium of
funding partners, including JiJ.
Further damage resulted from the after effects of the Gujarati earthquake in 2001, when several more buildings suffered
substantial and as recently as this year's Monsoon, 25 feet of the outer wall was swept away. The loss of any part of the outer wall could
have a catastrophic effect upon the inner wall and bastions and urgent exploratory work to assess the scale of the damage needs to be carried
our without further delay.