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Jaisalmer Fort, India

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Jaisalmer Fort sits in the Thar Desert in the westernmost part of Rajasthan. Located on a former trade route used to transport spices and silks between Arabia and India, Jaisalmer, more than anywhere else in India, appears to have stepped out of the Tales of the Arabian Nights - a collection of ancient folk tales. This is partly due to its location in a remote and inhospitable desert. and partly because of its appearance. Made rich from trade, its merchants built havelis, or merchants houses, with finely detailed windows and balconies that owe more to Arab style than Indian.

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There are bigger and more impressive forts in Rajasthan - such as that at Jodhpur - but few have such an isolated and atmospheric location. Jaisalmer is also reputed to be the only inhabited fort in the world. The maze of tiny streets still rings with daily life, and visitors will often have to push past sacred cows which, unsurprisingly after generations of veneration, act as if they own the place.

The fort, built when the city was founded in 1156, is made up of 99 bastions (projections) linked by battlements that are two walls thick in places. It has seen action a number of times in its history and stone missiles - intended to be hurled down on besieging armies - still sit on top of the battlements. Various city states seemed always to be at war, but the fort was first sacked by Muslim invaders in 1294.

Rajput warriors would never surrender, preferring to ride out to their inevitable death in battle - an act of mass suicide known as johar - while their women and children threw themselves on to fires to preserve their honour. Although the main attraction of Jaisalmer is the fort itself, there are several things you should aim to see before leaving. Taking up two sides of the main square of the fort, the Rajmahal (city palace) of the former maharaja is seven storeys high and from the top you can look out over the town below and far out into the desert.

There is also a group of exquisitely carved Jain temples, some dating back to the 12th century when the fort was built. Within those it is possible to enter there is a subtle play of light and shade on the carvings, making them even more impressive than those on the outside. Built almost 100 years ago, the Gadi Sagar tank used to be the sole source of water for the town. Now often completely dry, it sometimes fills during the monsoon season (around September), and you might be rewarded with the rare sight of the fort seemingly perched above a vast lake.

Although it has endured for nearly 900 years Jaisalmer Fort is currently in danger of collapse. The city authorities blame this on soil shrinkage arising from the excessive use of water by the guest houses in the fort. Hoteliers deny this claim and blame the city authorities for using drainage pipes that are too small for the job. Whatever the cause, there are moves afoot to ban all business from the fort, which will mean that tourists must stay in the town outside and pay to visit the fort for sightseeing. vyhether or not you agree with this strategy, it will certainly change t,he atmosphere of the place for ever.

Although the, camel trains have long gone Jaisalmer remains a trading town, and people come to its market from the villages nearby. Camels, however, still contribute to the town's prosperity as a number of tourist operators offer camel safaris into the surrounding desert.

On the outskirts of the town are the Barra Bagh chatris (royal cenotaphs). These have commanding views over to the fort and offer good vantage points from which to watch the sun set, its last rays turning the town and the fort from the uniform yellow of daytime to a glowing golden hue.

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INFO

During the peak tourist season (November to January) you can fly to Jaisalmer direct from New Delhi. Outside of these times the airport is closed and you will have to take a night train or a bus from Jodhpur. (There are at least three flights a day from Delhi to Jodhpur.) There are two Heritage hotels in Jaisalmer, the Jawahar Niwas and the Naryan Niwas Palace. The latter has phenomenal views of the fort from its roof.

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