Jaisalmer is an 800 year old mercantile town in the Thar desert that stood strategically on the trade route from central Asia and beyond. The affluent city exploded with creativity. From the smallest residences to the sprawling havelis of merchant-princes, all were patrons of the decorative and performing arts. Jaisalmer was an amalgam prosperity, creativity and sensitivity to nature. The 700 years life of Jaisalmer was an exciting and seemingly eternal joy. But in the last century, as Bombay opened up as a port, traders found the sea routes more convenient. Jaisalmer’s economy began to flounder and in the 1900s, businessmen began to leave in search of new opportunities, elsewhere in India.
In 1994, Sue Carpenter a free-lance journalist from England, was on a visit to India. She looked around at the once lovingly created dwellings and streets and saw how the new economy was taking it’s toll. Jaisalmer’s new economy is tourism. Legends of her old-world charms attract hordes of foreign tourists, whose custom is of course, very important to it’s citizens. But in a period when greed has blinded sense and self-interest, mindless development for tourists has begun to threaten Jaisalmer’s post-mercantile of relevance.
But, she braved the early set-backs and fixed her aim on what seemed clear to her: promote Jaisalmer as a heritage site and highlight the perils that face her, along the lines of the campaign to save Venice, a city with which Jaisalmer’s past and present have much in common. A lecture at Nehru Centre in London drew two of companions who would stay with her to fight. And the campaign rolled on.
As often happens with such committed endeavours, a chance connection opened the right doors: an aide of the Prince of Wales helped her establish contact with the World Monuments Fund [WMF] of USA. Jaisalmer Fort was placed on the Fund’s ‘Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World’ and prompted WMF to channel $100,000 to Jaisalmer, the largest single grant that the fund gives to a single subject. With local support from India’s INTACH, the 16th century Maharani’s Palace has now been restored; it now houses the Jaisalmer Heritage Centre.
Now she is focusing on bite-sized projects like recreating an ambience that engenders a sense of care among the visitors and residents of Jaisalmer. It’s Streetscape Revitalisation programme has taken two streets to restore them to their old world lineage. Sewerages are to be repaired, houses stabilised and lavatories constructed. The idea is to establish Jaisalmer as a continuing, sustainable, living city and not just a collection of empty restored monuments.
And thanks to Sue Carpenter’s efforts, Jaisalmer in Jeopardy (JiJ) was born.
Restoration of heritage monuments, forts and palaces
Since its inception in 1996, Jaisalmer in Jeopardy (JiJ) has
- Raised over £170,000 from grants, events, sponsorship, Friends of Jaisalmer, donations and sales of Christmas and Diwali cards, postcards and JiJ merchandise.
- Helped finance the first project in the city, the Restoration of the Maharani’s Palace, or Rani-ka Mahal.
- Completed the final phase of its flagship The Streetscape Revitalisation Project in partnership with Giridhar Samarak Trust of Jaisalmer, World Monuments Fund USA, and implemented by INTACH.
- Completed all four Phases of the restoration of Har Raj Ji Ka Mahal.
- Been awarded two major international heritage conservation award.
Jaisalmer Heritage Centre
JiJ brought Jaisalmer to the attention of the World Monuments Fund USA resulting in their World Monuments Watch programme listing Jaisalmer among its 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World, and awarding it their maximum grant of US $100,000. This grant helped finance the first project in the city, the Restoration of the Maharani’s Palace, or Rani-ka Mahal, which houses the new Jaisalmer Heritage Centre – an exciting project in itself, marrying contemporary museum design with traditional craftsmanship. JiJ funds have gone towards creating two galleries within the Centre, on art and cultural heritage. As well as an exhibition and museum space for visitors, the Centre is also designed as a community space for Fort residents and houses a new *Crafts Centre for Woman and a Children’s Library. This magnificent building, the oldest Rajput palace in existence, opened to the public as the Jaisalmer Heritage Centre in 2001.
Restoration of Har Raj Ji Ka Mahal
The £30,000 raised by the 2000 Rajasthani Tented Mela was channelled towards an emergency project. Work was urgently needed on part of the Maharaja’s Palace in the Fort – one of the oldest and most significant buildings in Jaisalmer The complex had collapsed internally, and fallen debris had pushed the external wall three feet out of plumb, (left) so that it bulged precariously over the street. Immediate stabilisation was necessary, involving extensive and careful dismantling of the bulging wall (right), along with connecting structures.
Reconstruction of the dismantled wall is now complete, resulting in the restoration of this most historic section of the Maharaja’s Palace complex in the fort, and making the adjacent street safe for pedestrians once more.
The restoration/excavation of this section of the Maharaja’s Palace surprisingly revealed columns dating back to the 13th century and historic vats of ghee (used by soldiers as an antiseptic) and has allowed the setting up of such traditional practices as camel-powered lime-grinding etc.