We had been to Jaisalmer for the first time, in the distant year of 1999. Almost twenty years later, returning to the city and the fort of Jaisalmer aroused in us an enthusiasm that we did not endeavor to contain, a desire to arrive that was confused with the curiosity about what we still remembered and what would come to mind, what time held and what would have changed without return.
We wanted to feel again how special this fortress city was, projected from the yellow sands and soils of the Thar Desert. And we wanted to feel her, just like the first time, right next to her heart.
We were reminded of the abundance of inns and inns that, between walls, supported dozens of owners of traditional houses. some were true havelis, majestic gilded mansions with exuberant facades from which stood sets of verandas worked and lace to exhaustion.
Others, minimal homes, yet charming in their elegant simplicity. Almost all of them were crowned by terraces that revealed the labyrinth formed by the yellow houses around them and part of the 99 bastions that enclose its walled domain, almost 500 meters long and 230 meters wide, placed 76 meters above the desert on which it stands.
In 1999, we had stayed in one of these enchanting houses. August 11 was the author's birthday. Not only. A rare and whimsical adjustment of the stars trapped it with a total eclipse of the sun.
We appreciated the phenomenon of the terrace of the milk-cream building where we had been installed. All around, many other Indians linked by an almost millenary consanguinity held X-rays of the bones of the families in front of their faces and did the same.
Around four in the afternoon, as the moon came between the Earth and the Sun, the day darkened well before its time and left the animals stunned.
Flocks of crows flitted senselessly across the gray sky. Below, intrigued by the sudden setting of that apocalyptic atmosphere and what the unexpected darkness had in store for them, sacred cows mooed and dogs barked and howled without appeal. But just as it had forced the darkness, the moon wasted no time in fleeing from that inconvenient astronomical position.
We still had two hours of sunny afternoon until the normal sunset unfolded. In that time, the eclipse remained, of course, the main theme of countless conversations. From balcony to balcony. From terrace to terrace. Or from terrace to balcony. By then, as on our last visit, there were no shortage of chatty neighbors to Jaisalmer's lofty historic heart.
Direct Arrival at Jaisalmer Fort
Nearly nineteen years later, at around six in the afternoon, the bus we had been following from Jodhpur entered the makeshift terminal on Gadisar Rd. We already had Jaisalmer's host waiting. The three of us got into one of the motorized rickshaws that were also prolific in those parts of Rajasthan.
A few minutes later, the driver was driving the noisy vehicle along Fort Rd, along the foot of the northeast wall. Soon, he crossed the Akhrey Prol portico, the only one that remains open to traffic and pedestrians. And what makes the border between the walled city and the outside, the one spread by the smoothness of the Thar.
The driver punishes the rickshaw to overcome the winding ramp that leads to the top. Enter Dushera Chowk Square. We find it just like what we remembered from the last year of the 450th century: overwhelmed by the majesty of Baa Ri Haveli, a gleaming XNUMX-year-old mansion recently transformed into a Fort museum.
Aimless herds of cows barred the way for motorcycles and rickshaws. They forced the one in which we were following into a tight passage that skimmed the base of the building and the clotheslines for saris, blankets, turban cloth and other textile crafts displayed in a makeshift window clothesline.
The Fascination of the Golden Summit
The rickshaw drops us off at the door of the Maharani Guest House. Hanif, the young owner with the ragged Rajasthani face and the little mustache just to say he's there, welcomes us and helps us carry our bags up the stairs. We were housed in an interior room served by a terraced patio and short stairs leading to the last level of the terrace.
The place was as modest as it was cheap. Still, it was imbued with that hiding place of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves that we already knew from Jaisalmer, that fascinated us and yearned to relive. We had arrived sagging from more than six hours of travel, barely sitting up and in the heat.
Even so, we refreshed ourselves, adjusted our luggage to the new space and set out to rediscover, caressed by the afternoon and winter breeze that ventilated the Thar.
Life and Spirituality, Spirituality and Life
As soon as we descend into the alley in front of the small inn, a hypnotic ceremonial music comes to our ears spread by the Hindu temple Shri Laxminathji, a mere ten meters away.
But residents continued to prohibit non-practicing outsiders from visiting their temple. As such, we proceed in the opposite direction. We noticed a curious alternation between old family inns havelis recovered and transformed into sophisticated hotels.
And through secular houses with patios and rooms open to the street where the families gathered, they celebrated the almost religious routine of their communion, or rested for the work that the coming dawn would impose on them.
Ganesh and the Presupposed Invitations to the Hindu Wedding
At intervals, our wanderings received the blessing of Ganesh, the elephant god of Principles, of wisdom and intellect, of success and prosperity, revered in folk paintings on walls of pink, aniseed or in different bright tones.
Some of these exterior paintings served as divine announcements of the wedding to take place among the fort's residents and residents. They informed the names of the bride and groom and the dates of the ceremonies. They also served as invitations to the vast Hindu community of the fortress, with no need for letters, envelopes, or other formalities.
Among the businesses at the top of the fort were boutiques, bookstores and gift shops that now target the outsiders who wander around there, the occasional old grocery store and, dotting the houses, several restaurants with menus that, at a given time, they looked photocopied from each other. Somewhat cloned establishments that only the decorations, the views of the buildings and the prices they charged made it possible to distinguish.
Business for Tourists and even Business for Tourists
Several restaurants – like other businesses – were already managed by foreigners who had surrendered to Jaisalmer's magical exoticism and had settled there until fate took them to new places.
Some bore names that claimed political causes complicated to resolve. One night, we had dinner late and late at the “Free Tibet”. In the next one, without even realizing how, we sat next door "Little Tibet” which gave us the idea of belonging to one of several Spaniards who were expatriates in the fort or in the surrounding city, far from rivaling the large Hindu community that has inhabited the fortress's interior for over eight centuries.
The fort was at the genesis of the city that continues to praise leader Bhati Rawal Jaisal. After a period of slow development, reaching the XNUMXth century, Jaisalmer (translatable as Jaisal Hill Fort) was promoted to the main scale of the Silk Road that linked Europe to China, via Turkey, Egypt e India.
Wealth brought about by Silk Road
By that time, caravans of merchants laden with cloth, gems, teas, spices, opium, and other commodities were stopping one after another in Jaisalmer. Fortified, Jaisalmer could guarantee them protection from attacks from the rogues and pirates who patrolled the Thar.
But not only. It provided them with food, water, and rooms. Over the years and the caravans, host clan leaders prospered. In such a way that they built sumptuous mansions and inns and temples as or more sumptuous, both inside and outside the walls.
The more these leaders sought to show off their pomp to rivals, the more their havelis – like temples – grew in size and refinement. Simultaneously, the number of employees and servants that each one employed also increased in number. As a reward for their service and loyalty, many of the subjects were given homes within the walls.
Gopas, Purohit, Vyas etc. The Secular Families of Fort Jaisalmer
One family in particular, that of Vimal Kumar Gopa, has lived in the fort for over 700 years. Vimal Kumar now owns a textile shop he runs from his Kundpada home. This hamlet at the top of the fort has long been home to only members of the Brahmin priestly caste, descendants of councilors, teachers and others on the basis of decisions taken by the rulers of Jaisalmer, from the XNUMXth century to almost the present day.
Only the turmoil caused by Indian independence from the British colonial Raj has shaken the local political scene. Around 1947, refined negotiations that tended to satisfy almost all the wishes of the Maharajas guaranteed official passage to the Indian Republic, from these and other lands for so long in their possession.
The removal of the Maharaja from Jaisalmer Maharajadhiraj Maharawal Ragunath Singh proved particularly late. Their functions were abolished from the constitution only in 1971. During our visit, we felt the sovereignty of their heirs very much in force.
We arrived at the entrance to the Raja Ka Mahal – the splendid royal palace – armed with a letter from the Indian government that was supposed to help open the doors of the nation's monuments for us. The officials read it and answer us: “Yes, but this document is from the Indian government and the palace is not from the government, it belongs to the maharajah.
It is only possible with his permission.” They did not refer, of course, to the last Maharajadhiraj Maharawal Ragunath Singh but to his heir. This bureaucratic rebellion would be repeated in several other buildings and monuments.
On a noble level below, the retinue of successive maharajas seems to have gone on forever inside the Jaisalmer fortress. Seven centuries and more than twenty generations after Rawal Jaisal's pioneering rule, Gopa's Brahmin sub-clan occupies over forty homes, almost all situated side by side in the sector of Kundpada.
It is not the only extended family within the walls, far from it. On the walled top of the fort, residents who bear a nickname almost always belong to the same family. The brahmins – the Gopas, like the Purohit, the Vyas and others – gained a prominent position. But they share the fortress with communities descended from other agents who, throughout history, sustained the suzerainty of the Maharajas: the Rajputs.
Brahmins, Rajputs and Maharajas
During our stay in Jaisalmer, we were privileged to accompany the Desert City Festival. And to see the protagonists of the Rajputs of our time. We admired them on camels and dromedaries, sporting uniforms, long, full mustaches trimmed and stretched without blemish, and poses proud of the warlike and glorious past of these Hindu warriors of northern India, charged with protecting Jaisalmer from attempts at conquest and plunder.
They too and their families occupy a prominent place on the golden top of the city. They are easy to identify by nicknames Bhatti (the ancestral clan of Rawal Jaisal), Rathore, and Chauhan.
Each of these clans is as or more numerous than the next. It forms a smaller but central part of the incredible social structure of the Jaisalmer Fort. And of the nearly four thousand souls, by the whim of Rajasthani and Indian history, that its walls continue to defend against time.
The authors would like to thank the following entities for supporting this article: Embassy of India in Lisbon; Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.