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The Sinking Sonar Quila (Golden Fort)

As I entered into the city of Jaisalmer, my eyes fell upon the magnificent and perhaps the only living fort in the whole of Asia – Sonar Quila (Golden Fort). Camouflaged in golden hue amidst the Thar desert, the yellow sandstone structure stands on the Trikuta Hills. The golden city and this fort of Rajasthan earned its name when it was built in 1156 by King Rawal Jaisal. As it was built on a hilltop, it came to be known as Jaisalmer (mer being the local colloquial term for desert). Jaisalmer fort is one of the largest fully preserved fortified forts in the world.

Jaisalmer city was the hub of international trade with Persia, Egypt, Africa during medieval times. This led to the formation of the Jaisalmer fort. At one time, the entire population of Jaisalmer used to live inside the fort. Today, with the increase in population, the people gradually relocated to the foot of Trikuta Hills. The architecture within the fort is protected by double fortification walls. The outer wall is made of solid stone blocks and it reinforces the loose rubble of Trikuta Hill. The middle wall encompasses the entire fort area and the inner wall protects the fort from any enemy attack. The passages to enter the fort are steep and narrow in order to protect from sandstorms and the hot desert air. Due to such fortification, the fort was untouched for many years till it lost to Ala-ud-din Khilji in 13th century for 9 years.

During the siege of the fort, Jauhar was committed by the Rajput women. Jauhar was a Hindu custom of mass self-immolation by women to avoid capture,enslavement and rape by foreign invaders when facing defeat in the battle. As the fort was captured and defeated three times by the Mughals, Jaisalmer fort witnessed Jauhar three times. My guide quickly corrected himself stating that for locals its considered two and half Jauhar and I get intrigued by that number. He further explained that last Jauhar was not deemed complete as they did not have adequate time to complete all the rituals before Jauhar. Jauhar is performed with elaborate rituals. The ladies take bath and apply sandalwood paste on their body to burn rapidly and ease their suffering. Also they would dress up like a bride to meet their husbands’ in heaven. The last ritual before jumping into the burning pyre is to paste their palm prints on the entrances in saffron color. These rituals in the local language is called Saka. I saw the mark of those palm prints in the Dussehra Chowk on the entrances of the King’s palace.

The ashes were cremated in front of Kali Temple beside the palace.

Merchant Havelis, Architectural Rich Gateways and Balconies are some of the things not to be missed inside the golden fort. There are two distinct lifestyles living inside the fort. One is the priestly community and other is the warrior community. My guide mockingly referred to them as vegetarian and non-vegetarian sects. The fort has a total 99 towers. There are four successive gates to enter the fort and all the gates are hidden from each other’s view to foil enemies.  The roads leading from gate to gate are uphill and overlooked by watch towers. The first gate is called Akhuiy Pol (Akhuiy resembles king and pol means gate). The second gate is called Suraj Pol as the first rays of the sun falls on that gate. The third gate is called Ganesh Pol. Ganesh Pol was the first gate built on the foundation day and it was named after the deity Lord Ganesh to bring prosperity and remove obstacles for the king. The fourth gate is called Hava Pol as one experiences much cooler wind while standing on this gate compared to other three gates. The first two gates were later built by the descendants of the royal family. The local residents enjoy fresh air from Hava Pol and often play their version of candy crush on the stones of Hava Pol.

As we reached the Dussehra Chowk, my guide redirected me towards the section where the priest / Brahmin community lived.  There are beautiful Jain temples and this part of the fort only had vegetarian hotels!

There are beautiful sculpted pillars forming a series of Toranas made of 3 stones – sandstone, marble and fossil stone. The locals believe that if milk is kept in the fossil stone, it turns into yogurt.

At the entrance of any Jain temple, one finds the dragon faced sculpture to cleanse the body and soul of devotees.  Jainism is an Indian religion that emphasis on non violence and asceticism. The followers of this religion are called Jains. The sect is further divided into two – Digambara (sky clad) and Svetambara (white clad). Digambara monks live completely naked with no worldly possessions whereas Svetambara wear white clothes and have few possessions. There are no Digambara temples in Jaisalmer.

There are 24 prophets in Jainism. The statues of these 24 prophets have very few differences in facial resemblances and they are always seen sitting in the same posture. The only way to identify the prophet is by his symbol sculpted in the middle of the platform adorned by the prophet. The temple I visited was of Parshvanatha, 23rd prophet (Tirthankara) and the symbol of cobra was emblazoned on the platform.

As part of the silk route, most of the merchants were Jains and they needed a place of stay and worship. The Jains needed protection from the Mughals and hence requested the king to protect them. The king allowed them to build Jain Temples inside the fort and gained revenue by imposing a tax on the traders. He insisted on employing local labour to build the temple, thereby generating employment for his subjects. He also asked them to include idols of Hindu gods and goddesses in their temples. Consequently, we also see  beautiful sculptures of Hindu gods, goddesses and apsaras in the temples in addition to the  idols of Tirthankaras. These prophets are repeated 6666 [4 sixes *6 =24] times in all the 7 Jain temples of Jaisalmer fort.

I come across Akichaka – a sculpture depicting bearded man with five bodies representing five elements of nature (earth, water, fire, air and heaven). A unique aspect is that the sculpture looks consistent and visually correct regardless of the viewing angle.

The beautiful and intricate Rang Mandapa on the ceilings of the Jain Temple.

As I walked towards the other side of the fort where the warrior community lived, I could notice the difference in the style of houses and more non vegetarian hotels.  There were few houses painted with wedding invitations on their walls.  From the roof top of Hotel Garh Jaisal, I enjoyed the panoramic views of the golden city.

People reside within the fort complex, giving it a distinct and unique texture to life there. The fort seems all at once a sprawling historical heritage structure and a functional one. The golden fort has started to sink gradually due to excessive discharge of water waste by the population and the rising number of tourists. Water has already started seeping into the clay rich soil destabilizing the foundation. It is a sad irony that the dry desert structure is sinking  due to excess water used within.  An earthquake in 2009 led to cracks and deflection in the King’s palace.  It was a grand sight and spectacle to see Jaisalmer Fort. I hope the residents of this fort will work to preserve and conserve this medieval and unique architecture they call home.

Copyright ©2017, Lakshmi Nair. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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