The Golden City at the end of the line

Here I am in the Golden City at last and all I can say is that it is just as well these places are colour coded or I might find myself getting a bit confused. Jaisalmer is not “the end of the line” at all although it has gone through recent periods as a last outpost of Western India while borders with Pakistan have been closed. In fact its history as one of the Silk Road staging posts sends it right back into antiquity, the sparseness of information about which may be due to with the fact that apparently a lot more opium made its way along these routes than silk.

I was intending to give a resume of that history when I was distracted by an extremely rude Frenchman in this cafe disputing a R40 (£0.50) internet bill, complaining that a R25 (£0.30) bottle of coke from the display rack isn’t cold enough and claiming that a R100 (£1.20) packet of cigarettes are actually Chinese fakes. Considering the fact that we have sat here in the cool of the “German Bakery” for most of the afternoon while awaiting the evening train back to Jaipur, I find his manner pretty disgraceful.

Anyway, back to the story of the crumbling city in the desert, the one that every overseas visitor to Rajasthan is itching to visit (probably for all the wrong reasons). After partition in 1947 it faded into obscurity for a few decades until the mid 1970s when it underwent a renaissance at the hands of an invading force of backpackers and Lonely Planeteers. Of course the LP now decries the damage done to the underlying foundations of the fort by all the hostels, restaurants and flushing toilets that have been installed in recent times but the situation is serious and no one seems to be doing much proper conservation work.

The huge, ninety nine bastioned fort was inhabited by thousands of people for over eight hundred years, while the Brahman (priest) and Rajput (warrior) cast took shelter within its highly defensible interior. There is only one way in or out and it is still possible to walk through the four great gates of the city and see how each is situated around a bend in the ascending roadway, making a sustained elephant charge impossible. And, of course allowing plenty of opportunities for the dropping of massive stone balls and vats of hot oil.

The exquisite detail of the gold toned architecture is due in part to the special qualities of the local rock and partly to the long heritage of its matchless stonemasons. The fact that these masons are all from local Muslim families may account for the rather “Arabic” ambiance that I experienced in the city. Or perhaps it was the proximity to the desert, the mixture of cultures (old and new), the relaxed pace of life or simply the welcome. However it got to be the way it is, Jailsalmer is a jewel and a unique one at that but UNESCO World Heritage status will be denied unless a lot of people are prepared to take their responsibilities for its future rather more seriously.


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