“The Sun traveling through the sky asks his charioteer, what on earth is shining like this matching my glow? The charioteer replies, ‘It's the Jaisalmer Fort’!”
-A folk song of Jaisalmer
Located within the sandy expanse of the Thar desert or the Great Indian desert on the Trikuta hill in Rajasthan, is the Jaisalmer fort. Its golden-coloured sandstone has earned it the name of “Sonar Qila” or the Golden Fort. Surrounded by a thriving city, the fort is a veritable labyrinth of palaces, residences, shops and temples. The Jaisalmer fort is well known as one of the few living forts, not only in India, but in the entire world.
The Jaisalmer fort is believed to have been built by a Bhatti Rajput called Rawal Jaisal in 1156 CE. Legends recount that the King constructed this fort on the advice of a local mystic who revealed that the site was blessed by Lord Krishna himself, making it invisible to all enemies. On completion, the structure was christened Jaisalmer- derived from the words “jaisal” (its founder) and “meru” (a mythical mountain found in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology). Jaisalmer is believed to have been made the new capital in place of Lodhurva, which lay about 15 kms away. The latter stood on a wealthy trade route but was frequently looted by invaders. The Trikuta hill and the vast expanse of desert surrounding it was considered to be a well-protected site for building the new fort. After the shift, a mud fort was constructed initially which was later replaced by the imposing fortress in stone.
The Jaisalmer fort stood on the crossroads of important trading routes of the time which included the Silk route. These routes connected India and Central Asia to the Middle East and North Africa. Traders would carry Indian and Chinese spices, tea, and tapestries across the desert to Turkey and Europe in caravans that were hundreds of camels strong. In this large integrated land mass connected by trade, the Thar desert acted as the entry to the plains of North India.
The barren Thar region supported meagre cultivation that was limited to coarse grains. Thus, a major source of income for the Bhatti rulers were the levies imposed on the caravans that crossed its trade routes. In the late 13th century CE, the fort witnessed an 8-9 years long siege by the Delhi Sultan Allauddin Khilji, prompted by a raid on one of his valuable caravans. Rawal Jethsi, the then ruler of Jaisalmer, strengthened the fort and built large stores of food in preparation for the attack. After a prolonged siege, Allauddin Khilji managed to choke the fort of food and ammunition. In the face of certain defeat, several Rajput women in the fort committed jauhar, or self-immolation. The fort was abandoned after the siege and recaptured by the Bhattis several years later.
Following this, the Bhattis ruled in relative peace until the 16th century CE, when the Mughals laid their eyes on the fort. This prompted the then king of Jaisalmer, Rawal Har Rai, to sign a treaty with the reigning Emperor of Delhi, Akbar, in 1570 CE. Under the terms of this treaty, Har Rai accepted Mughal suzerainty and gave his daughter in marriage to Akbar. This initiated an era of peaceful coexistence between the Bhattis and the Mughals that resulted in the flourishing of art and architecture during the 17th and the 18th centuries. The Mughal political domination lasted for about 200 years till the British took over. Jaisalmer was one of the last Rajput states to sign a treaty with the British in 1819 CE and continued as a princely state thereafter. This historic military stronghold and trading city fell into gradual decline as the British established their control in India. The setting up of the maritime port of Bombay stole the economic focus away from Jaisalmer. The ancient trading routes which lent the city an international commercial appeal fell into disuse. After Independence Jaisalmer joined the Union of India as a part of the state of Rajasthan.
The Jaisalmer fort is a typical example of a desert fort, with tall and thick walls punctuated by projecting bastions and defensive gateways. It has been considered as a role model for the later forts that subsequently came up in the region of Rajputana. Additions and constructions followed for several centuries after the initial foundation of the fort. The cultural exchange with the Mughals and the flourishing of a composite architectural tradition is very much visible in its architecture. For several centuries, the Jaisalmer city and its population were confined within the perimeters of the fort and it was only in the 17th century CE that the settlements spilled over outside the fort’s outer walls. A majority of the presently standing structures were constructed during the reign of Maharawal Mulraj II (1762–1820 CE) and Maharawal Gaj Singh (1820-1846 CE). Today, the city of Jaisalmer can be viewed as divided into the upper town- located inside the ramparts of the fort, and the lower town- clustered around the citadel.
The Jaisalmer fort is located on the Trikuta hill at an elevation of 250 feet above the surrounding countryside. The area of the Jaisalmer Fort is about 460 meters by 230 meters. It has a triple-ring defense architecture in place with three concentric fortification walls. The outermost wall has 99 circular bastions and corner towers that surround the fort. The uppermost fortification walls have kanguras or gun holes and jharokhas or protruding windows which provided a view of the outer walls. Unique additions were made to the fort to align the construction to the surrounding terrain. A pitching wall was built which held the clayey soil of the hill in place. A mori or a pathway was built between the inner and outer walls which allowed soldiers and horses easy access throughout the fort in times of war.
The fort includes four massive towering gateways - Ganesh Pol, Akshya Pol, Suraj Pol and Hawa Pol, which were successive entry points leading to the core citadel area. Each of these gateways were topped with heavy iron spikes preventing the enemy from scaling them down easily. The entrances lead to the upper citadel area where a centrally located royal courtyard is girdled by a network of beautiful palaces. This royal square, also known as Dussehra Chowk, formed the nucleus of the city and was the public space where the traders and visitors met the King and the community. The King’s throne occupies one corner of the square. The royal palaces surrounding the square are the Rang Mahal, Gaj Vilas, Bada Vilas, Moti Mahal, Sarvottam Vilas and Zenana Mahal etc. A grand building here is the Raj Mahal or the Royal Palace, a seven storied building with ornate balconies and pagoda shaped cupolas. Some of the royal chambers of this palace can be visited today and offer a glimpse into the life of the royalty of Jaisalmer in the past. The Rang Mahal is famous for its murals which are a treasure in the legacy of Rajasthani paintings. The Sarvottam Vilas is covered in intricately decorated inlay work in blue tiles and glass mosaics. The Moti Mahal was built by Maharawal Mulraj II ((1762–1820 CE) in 19th century CE. This haveli is festooned with the colorful depiction of the worldly love of Radha and Krishna drawn on the ceilings. The doors of this mahal are beautifully carved and the mirror work is captivating. The Gaj Vilas is a 19th century construction initiated by Maharawal Gaj Singh (1820–1846 CE).
The Jaisalmer fort is also home to several Jain temples. The Bhatti rulers of Jaisalmer patronised wealthy Jain traders who lived here for centuries and commissioned some exquisite temples. These temples, apart from their splendid architecture are also known for storing one of the largest collections of sacred Jain literature. Some of the temples present here are dedicated to deities such as Parsvanath, Adinath, Sambhavnath, Shital Nath and Shanti Nath. The architecture and ornamentation of these temples bear marked similarities to the Jain temples of Dilwara. Almost every single surface of these structures, such as the pillars, facades, walls and ceilings, are profusely decorated with delicate and minute carvings of demigods like Yakshas and Yakshis, animals, and floral patterns.
The Laxminath temple, dedicated to Goddess Laxmi and God Vishnu, is also a striking structure. It is believed that this temple was built by Rawal Lunkaran Singh (1530–1551 CE). The temple is adorned by eye catching shikharas and the entire structure is embellished with intricate carvings.
One of the most impressive features in the fort is, however, its water drainage system called ghut nali. This unique arrangement enabled the rainwater to easily drain out of this hill-top fort in four different directions thereby preventing clogging. The introduction of the modern drainage and sewerage system in the living city of Jaisalmer has, however, threatened to destabilize this centuries-old structure and measures are being undertaken for its conservation. The Gadisar Lake, located around 2 kms away from the fort was built by Rawal Gharsi Singh (1306–1335 CE) in the 14th century CE and constituted one of the main sources of water for the city of Jaisalmer up until the early 20th century.
Additionally, large havelis were built by merchants to reside in. They were constructed in yellow sandstone and had ornate window designs, archways, rooms and floors. Many of these still exist in Jaisalmer, and despite being hundreds of years old, are still inhabited by their builders’ descendants. Among them the most impressive is the Patwaon ki Haveli, known for its minutely crafted facades and beautiful balconies. This work was commissioned by Ghummand Chand, a wealthy merchant in the 18th century CE. Other such prominent mansions are Nathmal ki Haveli and Salam Singh ki Haveli.
The Jaisalmer fort also showcases a battle gun, now situated on the top of the fort overlooking the vast city of Jaisalmer. It is believed to have once guarded one of the entrances to the fort.
The Jaisalmer Fort stands out as one of the few living forts in India. Unlike most forts of the bygone era, its precincts are still abuzz with life, markets and eateries. Its narrow lanes (built to impede the smooth passage of enemies) reveal a colourful world where the old and the new co-exist and thrive. It is claimed that the fort still houses around 5000 residents, who in myriad ways form a part of the life at the Jaisalmer fort. Many traditions of the bygone era are still observed here marking a continuity with its regal past. A huge fair is observed here on the day of Dussehra which is graced, even today, by the presence of the king. While some of the havelis or residences have been conserved and turned into museums, other are still occupied by the descendants of families residing here for centuries.
Apart from its historic appeal, the Jaisalmer fort has also inspired literature and art. The famous author and film director Satyajit Ray wrote his novel Sonar Kella based on this fort and later also adapted it into a movie.
Dr. R.A. Agarawala, in his well-known work on the city of Jaisalmer titled, History, Art and Architecture of Jaisalmer, has called the fort "a golden tiara in the morning sun”. Truly enough, the fort of Jaisalmer is a shining example of the prowess, opulence and finesse of the Rawals of Jaisalmer. Its splendid architecture, mystic charm and liveliness, draws tourist and visitors all year round both from within the country and beyond.