Located within the sandy expanse of the Thar desert or the Great Indian desert on the Trikuta hill in Rajasthan, is the Jaisalmer fort. Its golden-coloured sandstone has earned it the name of “Sonar Qila” or the Golden Fort. Surrounded by a thriving city, the fort is a veritable labyrinth of palaces, residences, shops and temples. The Jaisalmer fort is well known as one of the few living forts, not only in India, but in the entire world.
The Jaisalmer fort is believed to have been built by a Bhatti Rajput called Rawal Jaisal in 1156 CE. Legends recount that the King constructed this fort on the advice of a local mystic who revealed that the site was blessed by Lord Krishna himself, making it invisible to all enemies. On completion, the structure was christened Jaisalmer- derived from the words “jaisal” (its founder) and “meru” (a mythical mountain found in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology). Jaisalmer is believed to have been made the new capital in place of Lodhurva, which lay about 15 kms away. The latter stood on a wealthy trade route but was frequently looted by invaders. The Trikuta hill and the vast expanse of desert surrounding it was considered to be a well-protected site for building the new fort. After the shift, a mud fort was constructed initially which was later replaced by the imposing fortress in stone.
The Jaisalmer fort stood on the crossroads of important trading routes of the time which included the Silk route. These routes connected India and Central Asia to the Middle East and North Africa. Traders would carry Indian and Chinese spices, tea, and tapestries across the desert to Turkey and Europe in caravans that were hundreds of camels strong. In this large integrated land mass connected by trade, the Thar desert acted as the entry to the plains of North India.
The barren Thar region supported meagre cultivation that was limited to coarse grains. Thus, a major source of income for the Bhatti rulers were the levies imposed on the caravans that crossed its trade routes. In the late 13th century CE, the fort witnessed an 8-9 years long siege by the Delhi Sultan Allauddin Khilji, prompted by a raid on one of his valuable caravans. Rawal Jethsi, the then ruler of Jaisalmer, strengthened the fort and built large stores of food in preparation for the attack. After a prolonged siege, Allauddin Khilji managed to choke the fort of food and ammunition. In the face of certain defeat, several Rajput women in the fort committed jauhar, or self-immolation. The fort was abandoned after the siege and recaptured by the Bhattis several years later.
Following this, the Bhattis ruled in relative peace until the 16th century CE, when the Mughals laid their eyes on the fort. This prompted the then king of Jaisalmer, Rawal Har Rai, to sign a treaty with the reigning Emperor of Delhi, Akbar, in 1570 CE. Under the terms of this treaty, Har Rai accepted Mughal suzerainty and gave his daughter in marriage to Akbar. This initiated an era of peaceful coexistence between the Bhattis and the Mughals that resulted in the flourishing of art and architecture during the 17th and the 18th centuries. The Mughal political domination lasted for about 200 years till the British took over. Jaisalmer was one of the last Rajput states to sign a treaty with the British in 1819 CE and continued as a princely state thereafter. This historic military stronghold and trading city fell into gradual decline as the British established their control in India. The setting up of the maritime port of Bombay stole the economic focus away from Jaisalmer. The ancient trading routes which lent the city an international commercial appeal fell into disuse. After Independence Jaisalmer joined the Union of India as a part of the state of Rajasthan.