Travel: India's dream castle in the sands

The walls of the Golden Fortress are besieged, but Andrew Robinson finds Jaisalmer, with its intricate carvings and cruel history, as entrancing as ever

THERE IS an old rhyme about Jaisalmer, the remote, medieval fortress city that rises like a child's sandcastle from the dunes of the Thar Desert in the far west of Rajasthan, less than a day's camel journey from India's border with Pakistan. Translated, it goes: A horse of wood, / Legs of stone, / A frame of iron, / Alone will get you / To Jaisalmer.

When I first went there in the summer of 1980, with daytime temperatures at around 100F, Jaisalmer's rugged reputation was still very much a fact of life for the few intrepid visitors. You arrived by slow, baking, overnight train from Jodhpur (the tracks laid only in 1968 by the Indian army following the 1965 war with Pakistan); you made do with a handful of small hotels; you wandered everywhere on foot in the narrow, paved streets, among the golden sandstone buildings with their unbelievable lace-like carvings and the sun-dried male inhabitants flourishing their equally unbelievable moustaches and magnificently coiled multi-coloured turbans; and you hardly saw a hawker or another foreigner. I was entranced - and vowed to return.

Today, you can fly to Jaisalmer; there are numerous hotels; hawkers and handicrafts are common (if not intrusive), and tourists (many of them Indian) run into the hundreds of thousands annually. Local people kept telling me that things had changed. But I found the old magic still worked. Other cities in Rajasthan - Jodhpur, Jaipur, Bikaner, for example - have fantastic fortresses. But only in Jaisalmer will you find a fortress still lived in more or less as it has always been.

I climbed to the roof of the palace and stood on one of the 99 bastions, overlooking ramparts on which were balanced rows of innocuous-looking stone balls actually designed to topple off with a good shove on to the heads of invaders. Beneath lay the city, its tawny chequerboard of open rooftops looking ancient and of a piece with the endless expanse of desert beyond. It was easy to imagine how Jaisalmer, founded in 1156 by Rawal Jaisal, a Bhati Rajput chieftain, had once depended entirely on the caravan trade between Europe and Africa, India and Central Asia.

"Either the caravans paid our tax - or we looted them," said my companion, Raghuveer Singh Bhati, private secretary to the current maharawal (a title incorporating the name of the founder, Rawal) of Jaisalmer. He chuckled, but there was a glint in his eye. Well over 6ft in height, with a military bearing, he looked the part of a Rajput warrior. Seven centuries ago, a foolhardy raid by the Bhati Rajputs on a royal baggage train heading for Delhi led to the first sack of Jaisalmer by Alauddin Khilji, sultan of Delhi, including the johar (self-immolation by fire) of all its women.

I thought of the passion for Jaisalmer of another, very different Indian: Satyajit Ray, the film director. Ray fell in love with Rajasthan as a child, through reading stirring Bengali tales of Rajput heroism in the security of a middle-class Calcutta home. In 1968, he made a famous children's adventure film in Jaisalmer, a musical fantasy about a near-war between a Bad King and Good King. In 1974, he came back and made a stylish children's thriller, Shonar Kella. Although few people in Jaisalmer have been able to see this film, many know about it; and the movie's English title, The Golden Fortress, has now been borrowed by the tourist industry. I saw the film after my first visit to Jaisalmer; its gorgeous colours and haunting folk music reinforced my desire to return.

Ray got the idea for the second film

while making the first. In 1968, the then-maharawal showed his visitors some exquisitely delicate stone objects - a tumbler, a spoon, a necklace, some cuff links - all made out of the polished local sandstone, with its honey-coloured, topaz, tiger's-eye hue. "The gleaming purity of the saffron [stone] made us hold our breath," wrote Ray. "It was [as] if gold had renounced its lustre and turned ascetic." In The Golden Fortress, the detective's first sight of such objects in the bazaar in Jodhpur is the clue that triggers his decision to journey to the fabled fortress.

Jaisalmer contains perhaps the finest collection of architectural carving of any Indian city. Not only is its colour warmer than the white marble in the great Rajput and Mughal palaces and tombs, it is both soft and resistant to weathering, permitting an even finer tracery that does not discolour with age. In the streets of the fortress, it is impossible to walk more than a few yards without your eye catching some breathtaking carving on a balcony or around the window of some haveli (courtyard house). The fact that, as you admire it, the stink of open drains also takes your breath away somehow increases the enchantment.

And this is equally true, if not more so, of the great havelis in Jaisalmer city. Finest of all, the Patwon-ki Haveli was built by the five Patwa brothers over 50 years from about 1805, with the proceeds of banking and trading in gold and silver thread and opium. Now largely unoccupied, it has the grandeur of a Venetian palazzo. My favourite, though, is the Salim Singh-ki Haveli, with its tower that shoots up eight storeys and bursts out, like some exotic bird's ruff, in elaborately carved, cantilevered balconies offering an unrivalled view of the fortress. Indeed, its founder, a tyrannical prime minister of Jaisalmer in the early 19th century, built it even higher, and wanted a walkway from the top into the fort! He was eventually poisoned, and the next maharawal ordered the demolition of the two top storeys as punishment for hubris.

In 1993, a decade after I first saw it, nine of Salim Singh's balconies collapsed during severe monsoon rain. It was not the first building in Jaisalmer to suffer this fate, and in recent years, the fortress and parts of the city have been gradually falling apart. The main culprit appears to be the poor drainage system. As tourism has increased, hotels have sprung up and water use has increased. Jaisalmer's traditionally poor drainage combined with a badly laid new system in the fort just cannot cope: leaks are destabilising the centuries-dry foundations. In 1997, six people died when a wall collapsed.

But rescue is now under way. "Jaisalmer in Jeopardy" is a project started by Sue Carpenter, a travel writer who was alarmed by her first visit in 1994. She contacted organisations in Britain, the US and India. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund designated Jaisalmer one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world, and gave $100,000 to begin restoration, under the direction of Intach, India's National Trust; other plans, including the revitalisation of two streets in the fort, are afoot. A long, laborious way lies ahead, but as my companion showed me the first stages of restoration, I felt sure the Golden Fortress had "legs of stone and a frame of iron": it would not succumb to sand and wind after eight centuries of proud isolation.

Andrew Robinson is the author of `Maharaja and Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye'.

FACT FILE

jaisalmer

Getting there

Flights to Delhi cost from pounds 369 including tax on Kuwait Air through Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939). Alliance Air flies from Delhi to Jaisalmer three times a week via Jaipur. Greaves Travel (tel: 0171-487 5687) can book this internal flight for about pounds 150 return. (NB: this flight doesn't run from May to October.)

There is a good daily overnight train from Jodhpur. Bus services run to Jodhpur, Bikaner and other cities in Rajasthan. By car, take the highway to Bikaner via Pokhran. It is four to five hours non-stop and there's little traffic.

Where to stay

An excellent list of hotels is provided in the Footprint India Handbook, pounds 16.99.

Further information

Jaisalmer can be visited at any time of year. (It is usually only lightly touched by the monsoon.) Winter is cooler and more pleasant than the very hot summers, but the dry climate makes high temperatures more bearable.

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