A UNESCO World Heritage site with thousands of people living within it

I wandered through the labyrinthine halls—passing quaint cafes, tourists, men on motorcycles carrying groceries to their homes, and veiled women ringing temple bells.

This is life as usual at Jaisalmer Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that thousands of people call home.

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

Source: Chaitanya Raj Singh

The city of Jaisalmer is in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India — near the border with Pakistan. But its remote location does not prevent hundreds of thousands of tourists from fearing the sandy emptiness to see it.

My guide, Sanjay Vasu has been showing tourists around the city for the past 25 years. He pointed to the Hawa Pol gate, said to be where the locals gather during the hot summer months.

The Hawa Pol gate of Jaisalmer Fort.

Didier Marti | A moment | Getty Images

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

“Well, my friend, you’re in,” said Vasu, smiling at his confusion.

King Rawal Jaisal built the mythical fort in 1156. With outer walls about 1,500 feet high — the interior space is vast, with many areas marked as human settlements. , and their families, who served in the royal court of the city.

Centuries later, the fort is still home to the descendants of those families.

The faces of the inhabitants of Jaisalmer Fort.

Source: Salva Sarda

The fort has a tumultuous history – from its glory days as a major city on the Silk Road to enduring looting and conquest by foreign invaders and more recent conflicts with Pakistan.

But now, the fort attracts other types of outsiders – hundreds of thousands of travelers who come to the location, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013, along with five other forts in Rajasthan.

But unlike 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 portion of Jaisalmer’s population, who live within its ruined walls.

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 manifold, which has led to an increased load on the infrastructure,” he said. “Old sewer lines and improper drainage cause water to seep into the foundation, and if one rock falls, it can bring down many others.”

An alley inside Jaisalmer Fort.

Source: Salva 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 the Shri Girdhar Smarak Dharmarth Nyas Trust, which is maintained by the royal family of the city.

Srivastava acknowledged that more needs to be done. “It is important that local residents restore their appreciation for their heritage, which may have been overshadowed by the usual familiarity.”

Although the government has allotted land to the town’s residents, they prefer to live inside 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 withstand the weight.

“I saw many voids in the foundation during the excavation because the sand was washed away,” Srivastava said.

The fort has intricately carved balcony windows, known as “jharokhas,” with elaborate filigree work, said heritage specialist Kavita Jain.

Source: Chaitanya Raj Singh

In addition, artisans skilled in ancient building techniques, skilled in lime plaster work and hand-carved stone, are hard to find today. They learned these time and labor-intensive skills from their predecessors, but the young entrepreneurs learned modern construction skills, Srivastava said.

Chaitanya Raj Singh, the current King of Jaisalmer whose family owns 60% of the fort, says more locals are needed to help restore it, reducing reliance on outside aid.

“This will support their livelihood and help them move forward,” 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 remains frozen in time, and our goal is to preserve it for future generations to see as it was.”

The challenges are many and will require help from the government, shop owners and residents. But a full restoration of the fort can bring long-term economic benefits, such as premium prices and rents, Srivastava said.

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

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