An hour across Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, lurching on camels through sand the color of dirty gold, we reach an elaborate temple and 10 large square recesses built from sandstone. These are the step wells, used for centuries by the people here in the world’s most populated desert. The annual monsoon lasts just three days on average, supplying less than 12 centimeters of water. A child can reach his seventh birthday, locals tell me, before seeing rain.
“As a boy, I would go with my father every three days from the village to our well here,” our guide Manjit Singh says, pointing to his Rajput (warrior caste) well. “We would carry back 400 liters of water on our camel, and that had to last us, so every drop was precious. We reused all our cooking, washing and drinking water.” Grabbing a handful of sand in one hand and a cup with dregs of tea from our picnic lunch in the other, Singh demonstrates washing up, desert-style.
“Now people don’t use the wells, so they’ve become blocked and dry,” Singh says, showing me a stagnant pit at the bottom of the most impressive step well — the one reserved for Brahmans, the highest caste. “Water is plentiful in our village. We were connected to electricity last year, so we shower every day and wash the dishes with water,” he says.
The Indira Gandhi Canal, a hydro-engineering feat that began soon after the partition of India and Pakistan, has helped to check the desert’s spread into fertile zones and to irrigate crops. Running parallel to the Pakistan border, the canal has also acted as a strategic barrier against potential incursions. The state of Rajasthan has been transformed from a desert of cattle-herding nomads to a producer of cotton, wheat, and mustard (for mustard-seed oil), and the canal is currently undergoing a 150-kilometer extension southward.
The neighboring states of Punjab, upstream, and Gujarat, downstream, are taking issue with Rajasthan’s water use. The Beas River in Punjab has been largely diverted for the canal, a deal originally brokered to provide irrigation, though now people use canal water for drinking, washing, and other purposes.
Back aboard the camels, we pass large, neat fields of green and yellow crops, an incongruous sight among the cacti and scrub patches that are penned by upright sandstone slabs. In this desert, wood is far too valuable a commodity to waste on fencing.
Jaisalmer Fort in Rajasthan, India.
Before sunset, we reach the extraordinary Jaisalmer Fort, a sand castle finer than anything Disney could conceive, perched high atop Trikuta Hill. The golden sandstone fort was built in 1156 on the lucrative camel-train spice route linking India to Central Asia, and it’s still home to 5,000 people, making it one of only two living forts in India. Jaisalmer is also believed to be the oldest continuously lived-in fort in the world. And yet the structure is sodden and crumbling. Three of its 99 bastions have collapsed since the 1990s, earning it the dubious distinction of being one of the 100 most endangered sites on the World Monuments Watch list.
While the relatively new water infrastructure has allowed both crops and tourism to flourish, more than 120 liters of water per person pass through the fort’s decrepit sewer system on a weekly basis, 12 times its intended capacity. The result? Sewage courses down the honey-colored walls, creating huge cracks in the sandstone.
Inside, we encounter Riyaz Malik, the architectural engineer in charge of restoration works. He’s in a palace courtyard, helping to guide a camel around a mortar-grinding circuit. “We don’t have the money for diesel-powered grinders,” he explains, as the docile animal turns the stone wheel. Malik, whose ancestry goes back 96 generations to the Afghan stonemason who helped build the Maharajah’s palace 850 years ago, has received a UNESCO world heritage award for his conservation work, which included installing more than 200 toilets at the fort. “But people don’t use them,” he says.
Some climate models suggest that this area will become wetter in coming decades — locals attest that the monsoon has grown heavier. If so, it will likely hasten the demise of Jaisalmer and the tourist industry that depends on the fort. Malik picks up a block of sandstone and drops it into a bowl of water: Seconds later the stone has dissolved into sand.
Insensitive hotel-building practices in the fort are also contributing to its demise, Malik says, showing me examples of double- and triple-story concrete constructions whose weight is causing them to sink into Trikuta Hill. “I am unpopular here,” he admits, “because I tell people things they don’t want to hear: Use the toilet; don’t use so much water; throw the trash in a bin; build with the original sandstone materials.”
Some hoteliers took advantage of a 1996 government initiative to help them move out of the fort, but others have taken their place, to the tune of 10 more each year. Government officials declined to comment on the situation for this article. “The only way that the fort will still be here in 10 years, is if the government forces the hotels out,” Jaisalmer’s Maharajah, Brij Raj Singh, tells me on the lawn outside his new palace, as we sit looking up at the fort. “But that won’t happen,” he sighs. “And even if it did, what would happen to my people in the fort who rely on the hotels for their livelihoods?”
Originally published March 13, 2009