Outpost of Glory

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At first the Hindu Rajput clans in Rajasthan fought mainly among themselves. But from about the ninth century onward a more ominous threat loomed from the west: Islam. When the Rajput defenders could no longer hold out, they enacted a grisly ceremony - the Johar - which has become hallowed in Rajput tradition: The women put on their bridal dresses, and along with their children, mounted funeral pyres.

According to Rajput legend, 24, females immolated themselves. The next morning, after performing religious rites, the Rajput warriors donned saffroncolored robes over their armor and, throwing open the gates of the fort, fought to the death. Evidence of the Johar can still be seen on the walls of the fort in the form of raised handprints of the self-martyred women, a symbolic sign that is found in other Rajasthani forts in which similar ceremonies were performed.

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Johar later degenerated into sati, whereby wives and concubines burned themselves - some were forced to do so - on their master's death. The practice was widespread in northern India until it was finally ended by the British in the 19th century. After the disaster, Jaisalmer Fort was abandoned. It returned to prominence about half a century later under Gadsi Rawal, a ruler who built a massive reservoir, just outside the fort, that supplied drinking water for the town the year round.

Even now, one of Jaisalmer's most picturesque sights is of the colorfully-dressed Rajasthani village women, with water pots balanced on their heads, walking down the steps leading to the Gadsisar Reservoir. But it is the piquant history behind the gateway to the reservoir that is recounted with most relish by local people. The gateway, with its two stone cupolas supported by sculptured columns on either side and a facade of stone balconies and porticoes carved in a profusion of geometic and floral patterns, was built by a concubine of one of Jaislamer's rulers.

The scandalized populace, who had to pass under it to collect their daily water, protested to him at this indignity.


Instructions were given to knock it down, but before they could be carried out, the wily courtesan installed an image of the Hindu god Vishnu on top of the gateway it is still there , thus converting it to a religious place that could not be dismantled. Soon afterward, however, another gateway, farther away, was built to placate the population. Yet, ironically, once the furor had died down, the townsfolk began to use the concubine's entrance and the royal family the alternate one - a practice that still continues.

Understandably, the fuss was over something extremely precious in a region that gets an average of six inches of rain annually and occasionaly none at all for several years.

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Many of the old utensils for carrying and storing water in Jaisalmer have unusually long snouts to lessen evaporation. In the old days, even the water used for bathing was also used for washing clothes and then mixed with dried cow dung to make a crude cement for plastering walls and floors.

W ith a regular supply of piped water in most of the town, those parched days are clearly over, but an unforeseen threat to the fort has now arisen. Water from the faucets and from the open drains has begun seeping into and weakening the fort's foundations.

"outpost" in Portuguese

A small section of the outer wall has already collapsed and cracks have begun appearing on the walls of several houses, and the vibrations from the jets flying low overhead - there is a large air base just outside the town - have made matters worse. Like water, another valued commodity has had mixed blessings for Jaisalmer: opium.

The British found that southern Rajasthan, with its dry climate and black loamy soil, was ideal for the cultivation of the opium poppy. The poppy was grown extensively during much of the 18th and 19th century and exported to the lucrative Far East market. Many Indian fortunes were made on the China opium trade and it was from this period onward that the leading merchants of Jaisalmer started building the ornately-carved stone houses that are now the town's pride. The most famous of them is the Patwa-ki-Haveli the mansion of the Patwa family , five floors high, a masterpiece of stone craftsmanship and reminiscent of the delicate stone screens in the Taj Mahal.

With space inside the fort severely limited and the threat of invasion long past, building activity began to be concentrated outside the fort. Results Sponsors. Volunteer Photos.

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