In 1994, Sue Carpenter a free-lance journalist from
England, was on a visit to India. One memorable evening, she lay on a
roof-top in Jaisalmer and the magic of the place took hold of her, as they
say the place often does.
For, Jaisalmer is an 800 year old mercantile town in the
Thar desert that stood strategically on the trade route from central Asia
and beyond. It's rulers fortified the town with an encircling fort and set
up guards on it's ramparts and turrets. Caravans loaded with goods for the
Indian hinterland entered her massive gates. Secure and prosperous, the bazaar boomed with life and was lined with establishments catering to the
visitors from strange lands. Jaisalmer's merchants, as astute and wily as
those of Venice, bought the goods for distribution in India and sold what
they had gathered in their warehouses. 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.
For 700 years life was an exciting and seemingly eternal
joy. Jaisalmer's rude awakening was at the turn of the last century. As
Bombay opened up as a port, trade found the sea routes more convenient.
Jaisalmer's economy began to flounder and in the 1900s, her businessmen
began to leave in search of new opportunities, elsewhere in India.
About a 100 years later, in 1994, Sue Carpenter's own
reverie was to be rudely shaken. 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 relevance.
For instance, should expedient concrete constructions that are
bare-box tourist utilities, be allowed to elbow out hand-crafted pieces of old architecture.
No doubt Jaisalmer's tradition of water carriers from the near-by ponds in
the desert needed to be upgraded; but should the planners and
administrators not have taken lessons from other heritage towns around the
world? Instead, their solution was a network of water pipes mis-matched
with the drainages. The resulting profligacy with water use, over runs the drains and is
literally drowning this gem of a town.
Several visitors have shaken their heads in sorrow,
cluck-clucked and went away.
But Sue Carpenter decided she would fight to save the
town. Being a journalist readily published by the likes of the Times of
London, the New Scientist and Harpers & Queen, helped. She began by writing
about Jaisalmer's predicament. An early attempt to form activist groups
in India came to naught. There was then, much bemused commiseration at her attempts at
'getting anything done at all in India'.
Jaisalmer's spell on her however, appears to be strong.
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. JiJ 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. Work is on, out there! Now!
Sue carries on her campaign to spread awareness and raise
funds. In October 2000 and January 2001, she will personally play the guide to groups
of concerned Indophiles, brought to Jaisalmer and Rajasthan, to see
for themselves what needs to be done.
Visitors to this page are particularly requested to go to
the JiJ site [see link below] and learn more of the work by this friend of
India. And support her work in whatever way, they are able.
She is hopeful of saving Jaisalmer. 'We are not fighting
an endless war, but a contained battle, and the finances - millions rather
than tens of hundreds of millions - are attainable. Perhaps one individual
can make a difference', she says.
Surely, Sue Carpenter belongs with the many heroic Ranis
of Rajasthan who at various times fought for preserving their culture and
Jeopardy is the official website of Sue Carpenter's campaign. Click this
link to learn more.
If you are
interested in Jaisalmer or Rajasthan, there is a related story on this
site you'd love to read.