The Fort at Jaisalmer | India | Living in Mexico

The Fort at Jaisalmer

You come with your army from the east, from what today is Pakistan. You march across the Great Thar Desert, following the ancient caravan routes, bent on advancing your Islamic empire into the Indian Subcontinent. Eventually, you come upon a formidable obstacle, one you expected. You know it is one of the largest forts in the world. You know it has never been conquered by direct assault. You prepare for years of siege, knowing that is the only way to reduce Jaisalmer Fort.


The fort eventually did fall to siege twice and to a Trojan horse maneuver once. During the sieges, when the food ran out, women sequestered behind the walls committed jauhar—mass suicide—and defenders marched out of the gates to their deaths at the hands of superior invading forces. We think life is tough today...

The fort contains three concentric walls; the second and third are visible here. The first lies below the rubble glacis at the bottom of the image. Two of the fort's 99 bastions shown here underscore the obstacles facing attackers.


Walkways between the second and third walls provided a platform for defenders to fire down on the enemy. Or throw rocks at them. Or pour boiling oil on them. Invaders opted to wait the defenders out.


A view through a crenellation shows how the fort dominates the surrounding countryside. That's the modern city of Jaisalmer in the foreground, with the Great Thar Desert stretching away into the distance.


In peacetime, havelis were built inside the fort. This one has windows piercing the inner wall. Note the maharaja blue trim. Many havelis have been converted into hotels.


Jaisalmer Fort is billed as the world's only living fort, meaning that people reside within its walls and conduct businesses there. The place is a warren of narrow, twisting alleys. Cars are prohibited, but motorcycles keep pedestrians hopping.


Shopkeepers lure potential customers into stores. Most sell goods aimed at tourists, because basically, the locals don't have any money. Block printed cotton fabric is tempting. We bought some.


Like many males, I'm less interested in cloth than in the tools used to make it. Here is an offering of used woodblocks.


For sale here: wooden carvings of dancing maharajas. They've been carefully battered to look antique. Someone should tell the shopkeeper not to line them up like that. They look like they came off an assembly line.


Importuning shopkeepers quickly became tedious. Someone was always plucking my sleeve, promising I'd only need five minutes to look at their stuff, offering me glasses of chai. When I would walk away, they'd hit me with a last come-on: Cheap!

I always told them I was looking for: Expensive!

The place is lively. As a center of commerce, it avoids that drab museum-like quality I find in so many monumental buildings. But every vista was marred by banners strung across streets advertising camel tours into the desert. I suspected these would be ghastly: visits to desert settlements that exist only for tourists. Virtually every man I met offered me a tour.


A few restrictions on signage wouldn't hurt, if you ask me.

A spigot with a defective valve betrays a mortal problem in the fort. The plumbing doesn't have the capacity to handle all the water consumed and spilled by thousands of residents.


The result is that the fort is crumbling. Water erodes sandstone. Walls and floors collapse into piles of rubble.


Citizens of Jaisalmer have a challenge. Travelers' interest in the fort is destroying the place, yet tourism is probably the largest source of the city's income. Looks like some tough decisions ahead.