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A UNESCO World Heritage Site with thousands of people living inside

I wandered through the tawny, maze-like corridors, past quirky cafes, curious tourists, men on motorbikes carrying groceries home and veiled women ringing temple bells.

It’s life as usual at Jaisalmer Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where thousands call home.

Jaisalmer Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Rajasthan, India.

Source: Chaitanya Raj Singh

The city of Jaisalmer is located in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India, near the Pakistan border. But its remoteness does not prevent hundreds of thousands of tourists from braving the sandy void to see it.

My guide, Sanjay Vasu, has been showing tourists around the city for 25 years. He pointed out the Hawa Pol Gate, saying it’s where locals gather during the hot summer months.

Hawa Pol Gate of Jaisalmer Fort.

Didier Marti | Instant | Getty Images

A tourist stops Vasu to ask: “Which way to get to Jaisalmer Fort?”

“Well, my friend, you are already inside,” Vasu said, smiling at his confusion.

Centuries of life

King Rawal Jaisal built the legendary fort in 1156. With exterior walls spanning approximately 1,500 feet, the interior space is vast, with several areas once marked as living quarters for people and their families, who served the city’s royal court.

Centuries later, the fort still houses the descendants of these families.

The faces of the inhabitants of Jaisalmer Fort.

Source: Shalbha Sarda

The fort has a tumultuous history – from its glory days as a major city on the Silk Road to the lasting plunders and conquests of foreign invaders and the more recent conflicts with Pakistan.

But today, the fort attracts other types of foreigners: hundreds of thousands of travelers who come to this place, which has been named Unesco World Heritage in 2013, along with five other forts in Rajasthan.

But unlike the others, Jaisalmer Fort has a royal palace as well as public temples, shops, hotels, cafes and houses. It is a neighborhood, a business district and a place of worship for a significant part of Jaisalmer’s population, who live within its ruined walls.

The struggles of a “living strong”

But Jaisalmer Fort’s status as a “living fort” is not without consequences, said heritage specialist Kavita Jain.

“The population of the fort has increased several times, leading to increased load on infrastructure,” she said. “Old sewer lines and improper drainage have caused water to seep into the foundation, and when one stone falls, it can cause several others to fall.”

An alley inside Jaisalmer Fort.

Source: Shalbha Sarda

Architect and conservationist Asheesh Srivastava has been restoring the fort since 2001. He started the project with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage and now works with Shri Girdhar Smarak Dharmarth Nyas Trust, maintained by the family royal of the city.

Srivastava acknowledges that much remains to be done. “It is important that local residents rekindle their appreciation for their heritage, which may have been overshadowed by routine familiarity.”

The houses go higher

Although the government has allocated land to the people of the city, they prefer to live in the fort.

Families are expanding their homes, adding new levels and building taller than previous generations. But the original foundation may not be able to support this weight.

“I saw huge voids in the foundations during excavation because the sand was being washed away,” Srivastava said.

The fort has intricate hand-carved balcony windows, known as ‘jharokhas’, which contain detailed filigree work, said heritage specialist Kavita Jain.

Source: Chaitanya Raj Singh

In addition, today it is difficult to find craftsmen who have mastered ancient construction techniques, skilled in working with lime plaster and hand-carved stone. They learned these time- and labor-intensive skills from their predecessors, but young artisans are learning modern construction skills, Srivastava said.

Need help

Chaitanya Raj Singh, the current king of Jaisalmer whose family owns 60% of the fort, said more premises were needed to help restore it, which would reduce the need for outside help.

“This will support their livelihoods and help them survive,” he said.

With the help of the state government, plans to establish regulations for the construction and expansion of the fort are underway, he said.

“I sincerely hope for greater cooperation from residents and authorities,” Singh said. “This fort has remained frozen in time and our goal is to preserve it so future generations can see it as it once was.”

The challenges are multiple and will require help from the government, businesses and residents. But a complete restoration of the fort can generate long-term economic benefits, such as higher prices and rents, Srivastava said.

“I have witnessed such successful transformations in my projects, like in… Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh,” he said. “I hope Jaisalmer Fort resolves the issues in time.”

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