India day seven
23.10.2015 - 23.10.2015
A morning in (and around) Jaisalmer Fort
Jaisalmer Fort from Gadisar Lake
Deep in the Thar Desert in the far west of Rajasthan is a golden city. A fairy tale fort sits on a ridge overlooking the town, still home to many families whose houses cluster within its sheltering walls.
This was possibly my favourite of the larger cities we visited in Rajasthan. I loved its remoteness, its border-town mentality, and the beauty of its golden architecture. And I enjoyed the personal stories of life (and death) here shared with us by our guide Gaurav, who lives in the fort.
We saw so much here, and I took so many photos, that I am splitting our day, focusing here on Jaisalmer Fort itself, and in my next entry on the city that has grown up around it.
View from the fort
This is the second oldest fort in Rajasthan, one of the largest in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and almost unique in India in being still inhabited (most sources, and our guide, claim that it is unique in this respect, but Chittaurgargh, which we were to visit later in our trip, also retains its village).
The fort was built by the Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal in 1156 AD, hence its name. It sits on the top of Trikuta Hill, dominating the city and the surrounding area. Built in the local honey-coloured sandstone it resembles a giant sandcastle!
There is only one way into the fort, through a series of gates on the eastern side. After passing through the first of these you cross a large open space, where we saw a young girl perched on a frame under the ramparts. Seeing us approach she stood up and we could see that she was a tightrope walker. Balancing traditional pots on her head she walked the rope, deliberately swaying it from side to side. She did several tricks too, all the time watched by her anxious father below. Our guide explained that her mother before her had done the same. She had obviously taught her daughter well as she was very impressive. We were told 50 IR was an appropriate tip but felt she deserved more, and she was very grateful for the 100 we gave her, saying that it would bring us good karma. That may or may not be true, but it certainly brought us good photos! I also made a little video of her in action. I understand that she is here most days so you should have a good chance of seeing her.
From here you follow a path that twists and climbs past several more gates, of which the most ornate is the Suraj Pol or Sun Gate (look for the bats roosting in its shade). Once through the Suraj Pol the road turns back on itself as it climbs, passing beneath the Ganesh Pol and Hawa Pol (Gate of the Wind). The twists in the road enable it to climb steeply and also made the fort easier to defend – or rather, harder to attack.
At Suraj Pol
Eventually you reach the square at the heart of the fort, the Dashera Chowk. From here a maze of narrow alleys weave through the fort, lined with old houses, many of them in beautifully carved stone. Many are still family homes, and only Brahmin families can live here, with the houses being passed down from father to son.
Details of fort buildings
Other houses have been turned into restaurants or hotels and this is causing some problems as the large amount of water they use drains away down through the sandstone and is causing damage to the historic structure. Most of the restaurants offer roof-top views and almost all claim to be the best. We later stopped for a cold drink at one and the view was certainly very good. Was it the best? I cannot say!
Gaurav explained that when he was growing up in Jaisalmer it was quite a poor city, with a lot of unemployment. This is a desert region where people struggle to grow many crops and there are few industries. But when tourists started to discover the city, things changed, and today they are the main source of income for most locals – working in hotels or restaurants, or as guides, or running desert tours etc. Perhaps that explains why they promote these services with such enthusiasm. Occasionally though this approach misfires. While I am sure we would all enjoy a “Lovely Jubble Camel Safari”, a “Bloody Good View” or maybe a stay in “Hotel Paradise”, I am not so sure about “Child Beer” or “Killa Corner”.
Our guide Gaurav lives here in the fort (he pointed out his own house as we passed) and naturally knows it really well. We spent quite a lot of the morning here, wandering the streets and taking photos. He took us down a number of back streets less often visited by tourists where often we were the only people apart from the residents – many of whom called out a greeting to Gaurav, and to us, as we passed.
I was very much struck by the number and variety of lovely old doors here – some ornately carved, others painted in bright or more subtle colours. In the fort especially we saw that even newly built or restored houses followed the traditional styles and often had a particularly elaborate door even if the rest of the building was relatively plain. But it was the older ones that were the most photogenic to my eyes, having much more character. Here are a few of my favourite door photos, including one example of a more modern door so you can see the efforts people go to in order to keep up the levels of ornamentation – the residents here clearly take a lot of pride in the history and traditions of their city.
This was a great opportunity to take loads of photos of all the little details that I love so much and which help to paint a picture of life in this rather unusual town within the fort. Gaurav explained much of what we were seeing – the “seven chillies and one lemon” hung outside many of the houses for luck, the Hindu swastika (also lucky), the paintings of Ganesh.
On many of the old houses in Jaisalmer, both inside the fort and in the lower town, I noticed these colourful paintings of the god Ganesh, and asked Gaurav about them. He explained that it is the custom here to paint an announcement of a significant family event on the wall of the house, and a painting of Ganesh announces a wedding. The couple's names are given, and the date of the wedding. This is by way of open invitation – anyone can come along, regardless of if they know the families involved or not. With possibly several thousand to feed, as well as a dowry to find, marrying off your daughter can be an expensive business - and Gaurav told us that he has four!
Once the wedding is over the Ganesh painting remains until gradually with time it fades. Some may see these adornments on the walls of such historic buildings as defacing them, but houses, however old, are meant to be lived in and these customs are part of life here – proof, if needed, that Jaisalmer Fort is not a museum but a living town.
There are seven Jain temples within the small area of the fort, of which we visited two – Chandraprabhu (dating from 1452) and Rishabanatha (1479). These sit side by side on a small square in the south west part of the fort. You pay a small fee (in 2015 this was 200 IR plus an additional 50 IR for photography) which covers entry to both, and must leave your shoes, leather belts and bags, water bottles and any other food or drink outside. A man outside has the job of keeping an eye on your things. Note that a sign outside asks women not to enter at certain times of the month.
Inside the first, Chandraprabhu, Gaurav led us up to the balcony level and told us something about Jainism and its belief system. At its heart is respect for the welfare of every being in the universe and for the health of the universe itself. Jains believe that animals and plants, as much as human beings, contain living souls that should be equally valued and treated with respect and compassion. Unsurprisingly, Jains are strict vegetarians and live in a way that minimises their use of the world's resources – they were “green” long before most of the rest of the world realised the necessity of conservation. They believe in reincarnation and that the final reward for those who follow the religion’s tenets is an eventual escape from the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth to live for ever in a state of eternal bliss.
In Chandraprabhu temple
In Rishabanatha temple
There are no gods in Jainism – the faithful pray to 24 idols who represent the Tirthankaras – people who have achieved that liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and now show the path to others. The idols look to the uninitiated a little like Buddha, but you can recognise a Jain idol as it always sits with legs crossed and hands folded while the Buddha may be seen in a wide variety of poses. Jains follow three guiding principles, known as the “three jewels”: right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. The latter means following the five mahavratas or vows, of which the most important is non-violence and the others non-attachment to possessions, not lying, not stealing, and sexual restraint. There are two major sects: the Digambara (meaning "sky clad" – i.e. naked) sect and the Svetambara (meaning "white clad") sect.
Photography is permitted, even encouraged. We were to find when we visited the great Jain temple at Ranakpur later in our trip that there, photos of the idol are strictly prohibited, but that certainly isn’t the case here in Jaisalmer – in fact, a monk (or so I assumed he was) in the first temple suggested we took a photo (and of course make a donation in return). Of the two temples you can go into, the right hand one Rishabanatha, which was the second we visited, is better lit and therefore easier to photograph.
In Rishabanatha temple
Idol in Chandraprabhu temple
Laxmi Narayan Temple
We also saw a couple of Hindu temples in the fort and went into one, the Laxmi Narayan Temple, dedicated to Vishnu. Unlike the Jain temples, here there is no fee, but photography inside the building is strictly forbidden although you can take pictures in the courtyard outside.
Outside Laxmi Narayan Temple
As the name suggests this temple is dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, but also to her husband Lord Vishnu – known as the preserver in the holy trinity of Hindu gods. It was built in 1494 but apart from that fact I have not been able to find out much about it.
Inside the temple people were bringing offerings of food to the priest or Brahmin. This food is later distributed to the poor. They ring a bell on entering, which shuts off the outside noise. Most of those we saw, including our guide, touched certain points on the different shrines inside, and a few were chanting. We felt somewhat privileged to have been invited inside but also slightly awkward, as this was no tourist sight but a genuine place of worship.
View of the city from fort restaurant
From here we made our way to one of the restaurants at the edge of the fort (one of so many offering us "the best view") where we relaxed for a while over a cold drink, chatting more to Gaurav and planning the afternoon's activities.
But these are for another entry ...