Jaislamer's 'living' fort crumbling

Unauthorised buildings endanger historic monument

A file picture of  Jaisalmer Fort. A portion of the fort caved in during the recent rains

The historic “Golden Fort” of Jaisalmer is in danger. The 855-year-old fort is crumbling and may not hold out for much longer against man-made and natural disasters. Heavy incessant rain in the last monsoon has damaged the fort, bringing down a 40-foot-long and 20-foot-wide portion of the retaining wall near the main entrance.

Another part, a 100-foot-long wall, is on the verge of collapse, making it unsafe for the fort’s residents and thousands of tourists who visit it every day and raising questions over the conservation efforts.

Over the years, 87 of the 469 structures within the fort have collapsed. In 1993, a portion of Rani Ka Mahal, one of its most significant buildings, caved in under the heavy load of its saturated sandstone walls.

Seventeen of the 99 bastions of the fort have already crumbled. People have occupied the remaining bastions and many have built four-storey houses on their edges, making both the fort and their lives unsafe. A faulty sewage, unchecked encroachment and illegal construction, including 35 unlicensed hotels and guest houses, have exacerbated the plight of the world’s only “living fort”, which houses over 4,000 people, descendants of Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal. Experts fear the bastions may not be able to withstand the added weight of these illegal constructions and eventually give way.

As the fort area is on weak sedimentary rock units, another danger is from tremors.

According to a Geological Survey of India report, the fort is in a
seismic zone and that three fault lines pass under it. The 2001 Gujarat quake had caused extensive damage to several buildings in the fort.

A report prepared by consultancy firm Bombay Collaborative Urban Designing and Conservation also confirmed tectonic movement beneath the fort.

“The main cause of damage to the fort walls and bastions are erosion activity around the hill slopes, drainage congestion, unauthorised activities and absence of a proper sewerage system,” ASI superintendent archaeologist, Jaipur circle, Syed Jamal Hasan said. “Also sand-bearing winds hitting the fort and fluctuations in night and day temperatures cause damage.”

“Another basic problem is the sewage system in the fort,” says Luca Borella, who moved to Jaisalmer from France in 1994 and now owns a nine-room heritage hotel here. Borella says the sewage system is leaking and the water percolates to the fort’s foundation. As early as 2001, environment experts had observed that the seeping water would be harmful for the stability of the fort. Amita Beg, the India representative of World Monuments Fund, voiced fears about water seepage underneath the fort and the dangers it posed.

Conservation architects also argue that global climate change is also partly responsible. In an arid region that was not designed to face rainfall are now receiving heavy rainfall. 

When Jaisalmer was built, the Thar Desert received on average six to nine inches of rain a year. In the summer of 2007, 22 inches of rain fell in just three days. When Raja Jaisal’s workers built Jaisalmer in the 12th century, they topped many of the buildings with three feet mud as insulation to keep interiors cool. Now the rains turn the roofs to sludge, which causes buildings to collapse, they opine.

A WMF report points out that until about 20 years ago, the fort remained relatively untouched by tourism. But in the past few years, Jaisalmer faces serious pressure from its population and from tourists. Increased water usage has not been matched with drainage facilities. Sewage dumped on the streets is seeping below the buildings and affecting the foundations.

Jaisalmer was once home to the Bhatti Rajputs—a tribe of warriors and traders who, for centuries, prospered by levying taxes on the merchants who wound between Egypt, Persia and India. Prone to warring not only against outsiders but also among themselves, the Rajputs built a network of intricate fortresses to defend themselves and their accumulated wealth.

Built by Rawal Jaisal in 1156 on Trikuta Hill, the fort rises like a mirage from the barren Thar Desert with its 99 bastions silhouetted against the sky. It soars 30 metres above a maze of streets, squares, places and a cluster of dwellings, all in golden yellow sandstone.

Its massive yellow sandstone walls are a tawny lion colour during the day, fading to honey-gold as the sun sets, thereby camouflaging the fort in the yellow desert. For this reason, it is also known as the “Golden Fort”. This fort formed the backdrop of Satyajit Ray’s 1974 movie, Sonar Kella.

The Lonely Planet travel guidebook advises tourists not to stay in the fort as it is weak and unsafe.

Rules say the permission of the ASI superintending archaeologist, Jaipur circle, is needed for any construction within 100 metres of the fort. In 2004, following a PIL, the Rajasthan High Court issued a directive to remove all unauthorised constructions. But nobody is listening Since 2004, at least 168 new unauthorised const­r­uctions have come up inside and outside the fort. Conservationists say it would be very difficult to remove the unauthorised residents as they account for quite a few votes during an election season.

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