Artists Books
Penny Nii, The Golden City
Penny Nii, The Golden City

Jaisalmer is an medieval trading center on the edge of Thar Desert in Rajasthan close to Pakistan. It is a magical city with an exotic history. I took many slides, which I scanned and manipulated in Photoshop. The book is a combination of a tourist photo book and a platform for a short story I wrote.

The Golden City

I try to send an e-mail from the internet cafe in the Square, but there are too many distractions. Beyond the golden lattice an emerald sari floats by; against the blue sky a nutmeg face in red turban smiles and coaxes a haughty camel; fellow tourists bargain feverishly over an intricately patterned carpet. The fragrant delicacy of mysterious origin sits untouched next to the dark coffee as I try to describe this isolated fortress that is Jaisalmer. Half a millennium ago the fortress was not only a welcoming sight, it was life. Not simply life, but a life of great riches.


The trader had left Pashawar on the northern side of the desert months before. With one hundred fifty camels laden with goods from as far away as X’ian and Venezia, he and his men are crossing the Great Thar Desert in northeastern India. In Jaisalmer he will trade for other goods and travel on to imperial Delhi, and perhaps on to the port of Barbericon along the Arabian Sea. He will then be rich beyond imagining. But for now the yellow sand continues past the horizon, and the white sun throws down merciless heat. The storm season is nearing, but nothing can be done — only god can keep at bay the sand storms that bury camels and men. There is water enough for only a few more days. Unless he reaches Jaisalmer soon all will be lost, but it is hard to hurry so many camels and so many men.

The next day brings no relief — endless sand dunes, relentless sun and scorching heat. Then, two days of anxiety as he spies dust clouds gliding along the horizon. Finally, on the fourth day a ghostly, small mound shimmers low in the sky. Amidst cheers from his men the trader’s steps pick up speed; they are almost out of water. Over the next two days the mound slowly begins to take shape — a jagged hill, a fort, then suddenly, a giant fortress. And, life.

The morning sun washes the 250-feet high walls and ninety-nine bastions in soft orange against the golden sand and the blue, blue sky. The men and animals of the parched caravan are but a small army of ants against a massive hill. Beyond the impenetrable walls lies a city of emerald waters and lacy abodes. Jaisalmer is a princely city of narrow streets lined with havelimansions decorated with intricately carved wood and sandstone, and trellised balconies. It is a city of golden sandstone lace sitting on a large natural oasis, the Oasis of Jessel. From behind the lacy walls elegant women in colorful saris look down on busy streets they will never walk. Their eyes are felt in the large Square full of Jain merchants in silken robes and desert travelers in drab dhotispulled up between the legs. Camels and men carrying exotic goods from far-flung lands mingle among white cows, nutmeg faces, and bright turbans. The smell of incense and spice waft through the sound of voices and music.

The three elaborately decorated Jain temples are the symbol of the success of Jain merchants. In the corridors, the intertwined, stone figures of Hindu deities and 6666 reincarnations of the Jain god stare at each other tirelessly for centuries while the faithful offer transient but heartfelt prayers. The two religions and their devotees live in harmony, and life is good and thankful.

His majesty, the Rajput, lives in five interconnected palaces. He, who occasionally comes to sit on a peacock throne of white marble in the Square to be adored by his subjects, gets his wealth from forced levies on the great caravans. His women, living in great luxury, are doomed never to set foot outside the palace, and doomed to die by self-immolation when he dies.

Like the women, the Golden City lives in physical isolation. It is worldly and wealthy only by an accident of being situated along a great camel trade route. In the Age of Discovery to come, when trading switches from the ships of the desert to the ships of the seas, Jaisalmer will become truly isolated and be forgotten. But that is more than a century away.

As foretold by Lord Krishna, the head of the Yadav Clan, Rawal Jaisal, a Bhatti Rajput and a remote descendent of the Yadav Clan, abandoned his capital in Lodurva to the east and founded the Golden City of Jaisalmer in 1156 on the Trikutal Hill in the middle of nowhere. Ferociously independent, inordinately proud of a tenuous “divine” lineage, and brave, even foolhardy in battle, the Bhatti Rajputs were the most feared and dreaded of all desert marauders. Endless battles were waged for possession of petty forts or meager water holes with the clans of Jodphur to the east and Bikaner to the north.

The four miles of Jaisalmer ramparts repelled many invaders, including the Moghuls. As trade prospered the Bhattis grew wealthy. The rulers, however, could not always control their unruly vassal chiefs. In the dawn of the 14th century, during the reign of Allaud-din Khilji, a certain chieftain made a foolhardy raid on a royal caravan. The incident caused to come true the prophesy made by Eesul that the fort would be sacked. For seven long years, the army of the Muslin emperor of Delhi tried to starve out the defenders. When the ramparts were finally breached, the Bhattis, facing certain defeat, declared the terrible rite of johar. Women and children marched one by one into a bonfire in the middle of the Square. Clad in ceremonial saffron and intoxicated by opium, the men opened the gates and rushed out to their death.

Jaisalmer was to be overrun and to have joharrepeated only one more time. Each time the fortress city was rebuilt and continued to prosper. But, the glory days of Jaisalmer were over, as was the Mongol Empire under which the Silk Route had thrived. After Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route from Europe to India in 1497 and the port of Bombay was opened, fewer and fewer caravans traveled by way of Jaisalmer. Although no longer an important trading city, it had enough commerce to sustain the twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants. Just as the people of once glorious X’ian, Dunhuang, and Kashgar survived, Jaisalmer, though faded, managed. Until 1947.

In 1947 India was partitioned and Pakistan created. So great was the enmity between India and Pakistan all trades between the two countries were abruptly terminated. The caravans from the north and west travelled through Pakistan but could not reach Jaisalmer only sixty miles from the border. The accident of location that had made medieval Jaisalmer great now worked against it. The Golden City began to die.

Then India and Pakistan went to war in 1965, and again in 1972. Only miles away from the enemy border, Jaisalmer suddenly got attention. Deemed strategic, the Indian government established a military base and built roads and rails to connect it to other major cities of Rajasthan. People surviving on cattle farming and handicrafts after the partition got an economic boost.

Although no longer isolated, Jaisalmer would have remained a backwater, desert town had India not tested its atomic bomb in the Thar Desert in 1974. Months after the test, Indira Ghandi toured the site in a helicopter. The endless desert, the scorching sun. Then in the horizon she saw a mound. The mound slowly began to take shape — a jagged hill, a fort, then suddenly, a giant fortress. This was all recorded on film, and millions across the country saw it on television. A phoenix was ready to rise out of the fire and ashes of an atomic age.


Our caravan trader of five hundred years ago would be surprised to see how little has changed. The city is still the same golden sandstone lace. But, for better or for worse, it has joined the twentieth century. Ugly, black electrical wires criss-cross the once magnificent havelis, discarded plastic bags litter the streets and gutters, gaudy signs decorate dimly-lit stores selling shoddy imitations of once exotic statues and jewelry — another tourist town. Nonetheless, the Golden City survived the sand storms and the assaults of time. Ozymandias, at least this was not in vain.

We tourists come by cars and trains. We no longer carry exotic goods from far-away lands, but money is just as good and just as welcome. We glimpse the glory that was Jaisalmer, its turquoise water, its golden havelisof stone lace against the same blue sky, its gods in the Jain temples still tirelessly staring at each other, its meandering streets full of cows, camels, and bright turbans on nutmeg faces. The women in colorful saris no longer sit behind the lacework walls, but walk in front and mingle with the crowd. We too, walk, smell, and see the golden citadel out of “The Arabian Nights,” and rejoice.

5.75″h x 5.75″w x .75″

A travel story about Jaisalmer, India illustrated with photographs taken in the city.

A board book.

Photo manipulation and layout on a computer and printed on an inkjet printer.


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