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Architecture,  Culture & tradition,  Friendly Friday,  History,  Rajasthan

Friendly Friday: meet a young tightrope walker in Jaisalmer

Perched on the top of Trikuta Hill, Jaisalmer’s honey coloured fort rises above the city like a giant sandcastle. This is the second oldest fort in Rajasthan, one of the largest in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and almost unique in India in being still inhabited *.

Large castle on a hill above a town
View of Jaisalmer Fort from Gadisar Tank

There is only one way into the fort, through a series of gates on the eastern side. After passing through the first of these you cross a large open space; here we came across a young girl perched on a frame under the ramparts. Seeing us approach she stood up and we could see that she was a tightrope walker. Balancing traditional pots on her head she walked the rope, deliberately swaying it from side to side. She did several tricks too, all the time watched by her anxious father below.

Our guide Gaurav explained that her mother before her had done the same. She had obviously tutored her daughter well as she was very impressive. Gaurav suggested that 50 IR was an appropriate tip, but we felt she deserved more. She was very grateful for the 100 we gave her, saying that it would bring us good karma. That may or may not be true, but it certainly brought us good photos!

For this, the second of my Friendly Friday ‘Meet …’ challenges, I hope you’ll enjoy watching her in action in this short video. I apologise for the background noise – but then, this is India!

The fort

Jaisalmer Fort was built by the Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal in 1156 AD, hence its name. From the open square where we met the young tightrope walker you follow a path that twists and climbs past several more gates. The most ornate of these is the Suraj Pol or Sun Gate. Once through this the road turns back on itself as it climbs, passing beneath the Ganesh Pol and Hawa Pol (Gate of the Wind). The twists in the road enable it to climb steeply; they also made the fort easier to defend, or rather, harder to attack.

Eventually you reach the square at the heart of the fort, the Dashera Chowk. From here a maze of narrow alleys weave through the fort, lined with old havelis, many of beautifully carved stone. Many are still family homes; and only Brahmin families can live here, with the houses being passed down from father to son.

Tourism in the fort

Other houses have been turned into restaurants or hotels. This is causing some problems as the large amount of water they use drains away down through the sandstone and is causing damage to the historic structure. Most of the restaurants offer roof-top views and almost all claim to be the best. We later stopped for a cold drink at one and the view was certainly very good. Was it the best? I cannot say!

Gaurav explained that when he was growing up in Jaisalmer it was quite a poor city, with a lot of unemployment. This is a desert region where people struggle to grow many crops and there are few industries. But when tourists started to discover the city, things changed. Today they are the main source of income for most locals – working in hotels or restaurants, or as guides, or running desert tours etc. Perhaps that explains why they promote these services with such enthusiasm. Occasionally though this approach misfires. While I am sure we would all enjoy a ‘Lovely Jubble Camel Safari’, a ‘Bloody Good View’ or maybe a stay in ‘Hotel Paradise’, I am not so sure about ‘Child Beer’ or ‘Killa Corner’.

Meet the locals

Gaurav lives here in the fort (he pointed out his own house as we passed) and naturally knows it really well. We spent quite a lot of the morning here, wandering the streets and taking photos. He took us down a number of back streets less often visited by tourists where often we were the only people apart from the residents. Many of them called out a greeting to Gaurav, and to us, as we passed. But it’s highly unlikely that our young tightrope walker lives here; no one of the Brahmin caste would need to earn money in such a fashion.

I was very much struck by the number and variety of lovely old doors here; some ornately carved, others painted in bright or more subtle colours. I noticed that even newly built or restored houses followed the traditional styles and often had a particularly elaborate door even if the rest of the building was relatively plain. But it was the older ones that were the most photogenic to my eyes, having much more character.

This was a great opportunity to photograph lots of little details, which helped to paint a picture of life in this rather unusual town within a fort. Gaurav explained much of what we were seeing. The ‘seven chillies and one lemon’ are hung outside many of the houses for luck; and the Hindu swastika is also considered lucky.

I asked Gaurav about the many colourful paintings of the god Ganesh. He explained that it is the custom here to paint an announcement of a significant family event on the wall of the house; a painting of Ganesh announces a wedding. The couple’s names are given, and the date of the wedding. This is by way of open invitation; anyone can come along, regardless of if they know the families involved or not. With possibly several thousand to feed, as well as a dowry to find, marrying off your daughter can be an expensive business; and Gaurav told us that he has four!

Once the wedding is over the Ganesh painting remains until gradually with time it fades. Some may see these adornments on the walls of such historic buildings as defacing them. But houses, however old, are meant to be lived in; and these customs are part of life here: proof, if needed, that Jaisalmer Fort is not a museum but a living town.

On our way back out of the fort I saw that the young tightrope walker was still busy, putting on a great show for passing tourists. As I said when I introduced this new theme six weeks ago, it is so often the people we meet who make travel so rewarding and so memorable. Seeing this young girl so skilful and composed was a real pleasure, adding to the considerable enjoyment of visiting the fort.

Over to you

So now it’s over to you. Whom would you like us to meet? Perhaps a person or people you’ve encountered on your own travels, whether far from home or in your own country? Or maybe you’ll look closer to home to find someone we’d love to meet. Let’s celebrate the wonderful diversity of our world while also illustrating that important adage, that we have more in common than we often realise.

Please leave a comment with a link to your post; and tag it Friendly Friday (#friendlyfriday) if you want me to find it, as pingbacks tend not to work on my site. Thank you.

And meanwhile many thanks to everyone who participated in my first ‘Friendly Friday: Meet …’ challenge. If I’ve missed anyone off the list below I apologise – as I said, pingbacks aren’t currently working here.

  • Sandy introduced us to the people of Cuba, and in particular the locals in the small village of Chivirico.
  • Through Amanda we met Olav, a rather intimidating Norwegian!
  • I. J. Khanewala of Don’t Hold Your Breath told us the story of Lem the singer.
  • Sheetal introduced us to a rather special guide, Mukesh Jain, at the Golden Temple of Amritsar.
  • Manja described hooking up with some travel companions in Trieste.
  • And Sofia told us all about a memorable encounter with some high school children in Kyoto.

Thank you all!

* Most sources, and our guide, claim that Jaisalmer is unique in this respect, but Chittaurgargh, which we were to visit later in our trip, also retains its village.

I visited Jaisalmer in 2015

49 Comments

  • rkrontheroad

    So many interesting details in this post. I found myself holding my breath watching the young tightrope walker. Did you as well? I didn’t realize that they would bounce so much to do this, perhaps that helps adjust balance. It’s a shame about the water damage to the historic structures. Progress often comes with several steps backwards.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Ruth – yes, I did hold breath at first but then I realised she knew exactly what she was doing and must do it every day, so I relaxed a bit 🙂 I wasn’t sure if the bouncing was to help her or to make her feat look more impressive!

  • Fergy.

    Hi mate,

    sorry for my recent hiatus, check my blog for reasons why.

    I love Jaisalmer although it is 30 years since I was there but I loved it, “the Fort” was arguably my favourite place in India with Jodhpur and Orissa getting honourable mentions. Strangely, I was playing at Broadstairs Folk Week recently and “modelled” three jackets I had hand-made there.

    I do hope you didn’t indulge in the bhang lassis that are popular there. I used to have one with a chilli omelette for breakfast and that was the day about done!

    Brilliant writing and photography as always and a very intelligently thought out mindset towards India as evidenced by the text and your responses here.

    Keep it going mate, I love it.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Fergy, and it’s really great to hear from you! I’d been getting concerned at your long silence after our aborted attempt to meet up last month. I’ve been checking your blog from time to time, most recently earlier today, but the latest entry I could see was the one about Kandy back in June. It’s good to know you were well enough to play at Broadstairs 🙂 Please do update me about how things have been, either here or in an email!

  • margaret21

    I felt very uncomfortable watching the video – so many people warned me about child exploitation in India, but your comments are reassuring. But she’s undeniably skilful. I love your other pictures of locals too – you’re so good at this!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Margaret. Child exploitation is indeed a big concern in India and no doubt in an ideal world this girl would be at school. But she isn’t living in such a world and I feel it’s better she’s doing this, watched and supported by her father, than packed off to a factory or sweat shop. You can’t travel in India without having to accept that things are different there and you can’t change them, only contribute as best you can by supporting local initiatives and paying a fair price for what you get.

      As to photographing the locals, India is the easiest place I know to do that because on the whole they’re all happy to be photographed 😀

  • sheetalbravon

    Thanks Sarah for the shoutout. Now for Jaisalmer. I have never been there but it is on my list. The Ganesha invitations on the wall are something I have never seen before.
    Right from the view to the stunning doors and even the lemon-chillies we take for granted were photographed so well. The signs were entertaining too, Child Beer for one. The Killa corner may perhaps be a play on words (killa is Hindi for a fort). Finally a word for Ms Tightrope Walker and her amazing skill- brilliant! The video was an eye opener.
    An excellent post indeed!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much, Sheetal 🙂 It’s great to get feedback from someone who lives in and knows India so well. I’m surprised that the Ganesha invitations were new to you – it must be a local tradition in Jaisalmer? And thanks for the translation of Killa – that does indeed make sense 😀

      I hope you’ll have somebody for us to meet this time around? I really enjoyed your previous contribution!

      • sheetalbravon

        Actually Ganesha on an invitation card is very common since all our prayers begin with worshiping him first. He is the remover of obstacles and therefore we seek his blessings before we begin anything, be it a new venture or a new chapter in our lives. A wedding invite on the walls is unusual though. I must google this. Perhaps it is a local tradition.
        As for your theme , it is brilliant. Waiting for lighting to strike twice.😊

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Thanks for clarifying. Yes, I can see that a prayer for the removal of obstacles makes sense for any new venture or big event 🙂 I hope that lightening does indeed strike!

  • Forestwood

    I so enjoyed watching the young girl and her protective father ensuring he might catch her lest she fall. What physical skill and dedication and a delight to see. The old fort is so very old and looks like it has provided shelter and work opportunities (!) for many people over the centuries. I was intrigued that the outlook from the top shows a city with no trees, yet the distant view (?the other side) has shady trees beneath the fort.

  • wetanddustyroads

    What an interesting story about the people of Jaisalmer – it was great to walk with you through the streets of this old fort. Loved everything about it … that girl is really talented (and daring 😉), oh yes, and as for those doors, they’re really beautiful!

  • Marie Nicholson

    Fascinating. And as you say, these are the sort of people who deserve to be rewarded with more than the usual ‘tip’. They frequently provide the family’s only income. Colourful photographs as I would expect from you As you see I’ve found a way albeit still a slow way, around WP not allowing me just to comment. I sign in here with my email, name, and website and then they post it but without my picture. But who cares!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marie – both for your comment and for your persistence in finding a way around your problem 🙂 Now if you could only find a way around my issue of pingbacks not working even though they’re enabled, life would be sweet!

      I’m sure you’re right that this is either the family’s only source of income or, at best, a major part of it. If the father was in work he wouldn’t be here keeping an eye on his daughter – this is clearly more lucrative than finding work for himself which would no doubt be poorly paid. I suspect they’re of a low caste with very restricted opportunities in life 🙁

  • sustainabilitea

    She and the fort are both impressive. I loved the signs. I’m guessing “Child beer” is “chilled beer” but it’s rather funny. “Anguished English” by Richard Lederer has an entire section of signs in other countries that have been translated hilariously into English (more or less)! The book is a gem for anyone who enjoy language.

    janet

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mel – nice to hear from another Jaisalmer fan 😀 I agree it’s hard to pick favourites in India, but I do think this city is up there with the best!

  • Rose

    I adore these Friendly Friday posts! What a skilled young woman. I liked the video more so because of the background noise. It felt more ‘authentic’. And I really enjoy the cultural and historical lessons you present from your travels.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I think you’d like Jaisalmer – it has that edgy frontier town feel, rather different from other cities in Rajasthan that we went to like Jaipur and Udaipur.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Alison – yes, I’m sure she spend most of her days there. I suspect it’s the family’s main source of income, sadly. All the more reason to tip her well!

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