Jul '12 - Jan '13
If Rajasthan were as flat as a lakebed the aeries of stone and lace would loose half their height and matching palatial guise. They occupy only the rocky protuberances of her greatest cities, their thrilling palaces hailing precedent to strategic military propriety. I would like to meet a man whose eyes fall upon such a sight as he exclaims, "I shall conquer this mighty obstruction!" for it would take the courage of ten thousand men, or the inflated ego of one, to take such a fort.
The most foreboding fort by far is Mehrangarh in Jodhpur. She stands erect upon a hill of red sandstone some 250 ft from her base and possesses only a single gate. An army of any size must run an unforgiving pitched and winded gauntlet of at least a half-mile in length before learning of its overbearing presence. Any surrogate venture to invade requires an army of Chris Sharmas, as these clever engineers excavated the hill into a sheer cliff, then stacked its blocky excrement atop, adding to its height twofold! Some lofty ramparts and strategic cannon placement later, one has a fort to be reckoned with.
Then what is a fort without a palace? It would be treachery, I think, to squander such bulwark on an abode of unequal pageantry. It was a godsend to learn that Mehrangarh lacks not in its flagrant display of wealth and ascendancy. She is a well-stocked museum of royal trinkets, heavy rugs, and intricate stonework; a testimony to India's not so distant feudalist past. Though heavy in demeanor, her interiors are airy and well lit, provided by the multitude of courtyards in her bosom; the windowsills and railings throughout are no more than 18 inches from the ground, giving precedent to the notorious floor seating.
Quite a bit more modest in scale than Mehrangarh, but out dating her by 300 years, Jaisalmer Fort was the Bakersfield of the medieval era. She remained a pivotal city along the trade route through the desert to the Middle East and Europe. Then, when the British established a reputable shipping industry to the south, Jaisalmer was left to dwindle. It was only and remains today, tourism, which keeps her afloat in the desert sands.
The fort it once housed the entire population of Jaisalmer, and to this day is the only living fort in India. The shopkeepers acquaint themselves with the posterity of the men who once made business with the great camel trains of the East. And so, in Jitu's textile shop, or Kuku's Cafe, one may find the remnants of generations scratched on the walls and worn into the stone for over 800 years!
Her romantic and nostalgic allure, her golden stone edifices and quaint fluttering moments of awe are her only sustenance, and means of survival. She protects herself by the rule of law: a design review board, essentially, and strict aesthetic ordnance ensure coherence within the fort. I am not one for aesthetic uniformity within an urban fabric, but if ever there was a city on this earth, or an economic justification stark enough to sway my predilection, it is Jaisalmer.
While soliciting design ideas for his cafe retrofit, my Indian barista friend elucidated me on the sparse and desultory placement of trees within the confines of these golden walls. It would seem that trees within the fort might only be found near temples. A sapling that finds himself a resident of any other street in Jaisalmer would be condemned to death, save the seed that finds root outside the temple. Its livelihood, made possible only by the offerings of water to the effigy within the temple, which trickle out and down to the roots of a great tree; a remarkable occurrence that elicits texture and correlation to a chaotic urban plan.
Just seven miles north of Jaipur, amidst the arduous hills crested with the remnants of ramparts, and the placid spirit of Maota Lake, lays Amber Fort. She has neither the stately elegance of Mehrangarh nor the quaint peculiarities of Jaisalmer. She is not in shambles, nor is she in pristine order. She is what one would come to expect after seeing such multitudes of exquisite masterpieces. Her moments are pleasant to the eye no doubt, as one may find splendor in Kesar Kyari Bargh, the island garden, or Jas Mandir, the mirrored hall, but a preponderance of her mass allots to a maze of bare apartments, equipped with little splendor. Her floor plan is obtuse in composition as corridors stretch a hundred feet with no interstice save a few tiny square windows, while chains of apartments possess no corridors, but are merely linked together like the galleries of Versailles.
Her protector and guardian, Jaigarh Fort, which lies two hundred feet above her, is no more grandiose. No, this fort has no real palatial edifice, and there’s no need for it either. She is a fort for business, as her claim to fame is her wonderfully intact cannon foundry, and Jai Van, the world’s largest cannon on wheels.
And so if you wish to see a grand palace with all its intricacies, go to Jodhpur. If you wish to see a living city within the walls of a fort, go to Jaisalmer, and if you wish to see monotony with just a dash of curiosity, go to Jaipur.
Mehrangarh Fort, the Aerie
Mehrangarh's cannon- topped ramparts and the adjacent palace
Moti Mahal, the Hall of Private Audience
The interior streets of Jaisalmer Fort
Masons rebuild Jaisalmer Fort wall using the traditional method of no mortar
The Royal Complex of Jaisalmer atop her battlements
Amber Fort from her guardian, Jaigarh Fort
An array of apartments in Amber fort
The subdivided courtyard of Man Singh's Palace in Amber Fort
An Indo Inquisition is a thirteen-week train expedition across India. The journey will document the influences of international modernism and British occupation, as well as compare the effects of wealth accumulation, culture, religion, and poverty with economic growth and their effect on the built environment.