Building castles in the sand

We entered Jaisalmer fort yesterday, one of only two living forts in India and described to me as the oldest continually inhabited fort in the world, although there may be some other contenders for that award.

It’s truly a golden sand castle perched on a hill in the desert scrub. We toured the palace restoration work with the architect/constructor, which began around 10 years ago to repair damage done since the royals moved out 80 years ago and locals robbed the site of its jewelled ornaments and carved doors.

Patching the pretty palace is a mere fraction of the restoration task needed in the fort, which is literally crumbling away because of poor water management. Hotels and restaurants catering to the tourist trade are using unsustainable volumes of water – well beyond the capabilities of the drainage system. The result: raw sewage spilling out of the walls. And everyone knows what happens when you pour water on a sand castle – the walls come tumbling down. We opted to stay outside the fort so as not to be contributing to the damage, but it’s clearly visible from our guesthouse roof terrace.

We went to talk to the Maharaja of Jaisalmer about the problem. He is a very personable, kind man – still clearly the King in this country that celebrates Republic Day next week; everybody in his presence bowed low and touched His lower leg or knee in respect. We waited for him to finish his game of cricket (Nick was invited to join in, but his knee was hurting too much – or maybe he was scared of beating the king and having his head chopped off…). Anyway, afterwards, we had a lovely chat by the fire in the grounds of one of the palaces and the Maharaja told me how his best efforts to safeguard the monument were being let down by impotent government officials. The whole fort it drowning in garbage including toilet paper and other items of god-knows what origin, ugly shop hoardings and billboards, insensitively built and rendered structures in grey or painted concrete.

We sighed, drank beside the fire and talked of the good old days of the Raj (hmmm…) – it was a surreal end to the night.

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