Endangered Site: Jaisalmer Fort, India

The famed fort has withstood earthquakes and sandstorms for a millenia, but now shifts and crumbles

View of Jaisalmer Fort, built in 1156 by Rawal Jaisal, which has 99 bastions around its circumference. (John Henry Claude Wilson / Robert Harding World)
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Asheesh Srivastava, a conservation architect with the Lucknow, India-based firm ANB Consultants, has surveyed Jaisalmer and agrees the sewage system needs to be redesigned. But he argues that global climate change is the primary culprit. "In an arid region that was not designed to face rainfall, we are now facing rainfall," says Srivastava. When Jaisalmer was built, the Thar Desert received six to nine inches of rain per year. In the summer of 2007, 22 inches of rain fell in just three days. Although some would consider increased rainfall a blessing for such an arid region, it can be a headache for preservationists. When Raja Jaisal's workers built Jaisalmer in the 12th century, they topped many of the buildings with three feet of mud as insulation to keep interiors cool. Now the rains turn the roofs to sludge, which causes buildings to collapse.

Jaisalmer's slow decline became a matter of urgency on January 26, 2001, when a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck near Jamnagar, a town in the coastal state of Gujarat, about 200 miles away. The tremors shook the foundations of the fort. "The buildings transfer load vertically," says Srivastava. "Every lateral movement damages the fortress."

After the quake, Srivastava and a team of engineers and surveyors from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage went to the fort to assess the damage. The engineers rebuilt damaged outer walls with golden sandstone dug from nearby quarries and even employed the services of a camel to grind lime plaster with its hooves, according to the traditional method. To guard against damage from future tremors, they shored up weakened roof beams and inserted copper pins in the walls to protect against lateral thrust.

Srivastava and his group kept residents apprised of the restoration work through town meetings, but many Jaisalmer inhabitants remain dubious. Some fear the Indian National Trust will be satisfied only once all commercial activity at the fort has ceased. Others worry that the government might force them to relocate.

At the moment, Srivastava is working with another team to renovate the fort's largest structure, the granary. Built from four different types of stone, it once held enough grain to feed the fort's residents for 12 years. Once renovations are complete, local authorities hope to turn the granary into a spice museum where visitors can see samples of the pungent fenugreek, cumin and asafetida—still common in Indian cooking—that Rajputs added to food to preserve it. Other cultural projects, such as an amphitheater to showcase Rajput music, are also under consideration.

These initiatives will take time, but time is something this fort understands. For generations, it provided Rajput kings with a haven from their enemies and the harsh desert climate. Now it is up to residents, architects and heritage groups to protect it.

About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she served as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine. Currently, she is a Master's student at MIT, where she studies user-generated content and mainstream media culture. She's also a science writer, media blogger, and essayist.

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