Jaisalmer Fort maintains a silent vigil in the far northwestern corner of Rajasthan, India's desert state. Although the local airport is closed to commercial traffic, nearly half a million visitors somehow make their way to the fortress each year, even though it sits uncomfortably close to a contested border with India's longtime adversary Pakistan.
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The pilgrims follow a 400-mile-long road from Jaipur. They drive through fierce desert winds that blow all the way to Delhi. In summer, they endure 105-degree heat. They come to an area where, for the past 2,000 years, water has been in short supply.
They come because there is no other place on earth like Jaisalmer.
Built in 1156 by the Indian King Rawal Jaisal, the fort is on a site that legend says he chose on the advice of a wise local hermit. In the Indian epic poem the Mahabharata, the mystic tells Jaisal that the Hindu deity Lord Krishna had praised the spot—and therefore, a fort built there would be almost invisible to the king's enemies. Indeed, from 30 miles away, visitors see only a sheer golden cliff, rising nearly 25 stories from the desert floor. The walls, of rich yellow sandstone unique to Rajasthan's quarries, shimmer like a mirage.
Jaisalmer was once home to the 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 among themselves, the Rajputs built a network of intricate fortresses to defend themselves and their accumulated wealth.
The fort's main gate, 60 feet tall and carved from Indian rosewood, has a crack that, according to legend, appeared when a Hindu saint crossed the threshold. Three concentric rings of sandstone walls open onto homes, stables and palaces that once housed Rajput kings. In contrast to the plain walls, these bear elaborate designs. Carvings of chariot wheels, fruit and flowers emerge from soft marble. Scalloped archways guard the walkways between buildings. Ornamented screens shade royal apartments.
"Rajput forts were not easy to build," says Vikramaditya Prakash, an architecture professor at the University of Washington. "The palaces and temples are filigreed in unbelievable detail." Although it has been generations since any Rajput kings ruled here, Jaisalmer Fort still houses some 2,000 residents, which makes it India's last "living fort." (India's other famous forts are abandoned, except for tourist guides.) This, too, draws visitors to Jaisalmer.
But as the visitors arrive at the ancient wonder, they encounter a modern controversy. During the past 20 years, the sandstone blocks of Jaisalmer Fort, immune to the elements for nearly a millennia, have begun to shift and crumble. And no one can agree why it's happening or who is to blame.
"The 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. "The government built it quickly and without study." Borella says the sewage system leaks water directly into the fort's foundations. He and other residents have called upon the Indian government to repair it.
Jaisalmer's tourist boom has only made matters worse. According to local government estimates, the hotels, restaurants and shops that dot the historic ridges import nearly 50,000 gallons of water daily. This water then flows into the sewage system's already-overstressed open drains. Some international heritage foundations, such as the World Monuments Fund, are urging both tourists and residents to scale back their water use—especially public taps that dispense running water—if they want the fort to survive the next 1,000 years.