- The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. Marcel Proust
Sometime in the 12th century, Rawal Jaisal of the Bhati clan was passed up for the throne of Laudrava in favor of his younger half-brother Vijayraj Lanjha. One of the first acts of the newly-appointed heir was to exile Jaisal from his kingdom. Young Jaisal began looking for a suitable place to establish his new capital and came across a huge triangular rock that rose some 250 feet above the desert sands around it. The rock provided a good vantage point to survey the lands below. On the rock was a sage called Eesul who informed Jaisal that Krishna had prophesized the arrival of his descendant who would establish a kingdom at the very spot. Jaisal, who hailed from the Yaduvanshi clan to which Krishna belonged, took this as a sign and stopped looking for newer spots. In 1156, Jaisal built a small mud fort and named it after himself. It was thus that Jaisalmer was born.
But the sage Eesul had reminded Jaisal of the second part of Krishna’s prediction — that the city would be sacked two-and-a-half times — to which Jaisal paid no heed and went ahead with establishing the city anyway.
It wouldn’t be long before the prediction came true. In 1294 Jaisalmer saw the first jauhar or the act of mass suicide by women when the armies of Alauddin Khilji descended upon the city after the Bhatis raided one of his treasure caravans. By some estimates, the siege lasted some eight years but the Bhatis eventually lost and Jaisalmer fell after some 3800 warriors threw open the gates of the fort and faced certain death at the hands of Khilji’s armies. Following this Jaisalmer remained abandoned for some years before the Bhatis returned to their city.
About two centuries later, yet another Turkic ruler of Delhi, Firuz Shah Tughluq laid siege to Jaisalmer after a Jaisalmer prince stole his prize steed. This led to the death of 16,000 women and the death of 1700 soldiers including the ruler, Rawal Dudu and his son Tilaski. And Jaisalmer was more or less abandoned again.
The sturdy Bhatis returned to the site one more time, almost as if to fulfill the prophesy. And while they ruled from here with considerable independence, Jaisalmer came on the radar of Amir Ali, an Afghan chieftain. The crafty warrior sought the permission of the ruler, Rawal Lunakaran, to let his wives visit the queens of Jaisalmer but sent his soldiers instead in the covered palanquins. In what may well have been a scene from an earlier day Troy, the soldiers emerged out of hiding and took the Jaisalmer guards by surprise. The hassled king ordered the killing of the women because there was no time to light a funeral pyre. In a cruel twist of fate, though, the Jaisalmer guards overpowered the invaders and Amir Ali was blown up by a cannonball. The prophesy was thus fulfilled since the third time the city wasn’t lost but lives were.
In any case, the early centuries since the foundation of Jaisalmer were troublesome in part because the rulers primarily depended on looting. As you may have surmised, the rulers themselves were the reason for the fall of Jaisalmer the first two times! In any case, as centuries passed, Jaisalmer began to prosper in part because of its very strategic position along the trade route. The prosperity continued right up until the time of the British when sea routes opened up. This led to the population of Jaisalmer moving out of the city towards (literally) greener pastures. After Partition, the land routes to Pakistan were cut off and it seemed (albeit for a short time) that the prophesy may not have factored a fourth silent invasion — that of the changing economy. But the wars of 1965 and 1971 reminded the folks in New Delhi that Jaisalmer’s strategic position could be used to the country’s advantage. Military installations came up and tourism began to boom all over again. Jaisalmer seemed to have almost returned from the dead!