285km (177 miles) W of Jodhpur; 333km (206 miles) SW of Bikaner

Jaisalmer was founded by Rao Jaisal in 1156 as a substitute for his more vulnerable capital at Lodurva, making it the oldest "living" fortified city in Rajasthan. For many, a visit here is the start of an enduring romance. Located in the heart of the Thar Desert on the far western border of India (55km/34 miles from Pakistan), it was strategically positioned on one of the central Asian trade routes, and fortunes were made by the Rajputs and Jain merchants who levied enormous taxes on caravans laden with silks, opium and spices, particularly during the 14th and 16th centuries. In the 18th century, some merchants, wanting to expand their homes, moved out of the fort to settle on the plateau below. Much as in the Shekhawati region, the wealth generated by their taxes was used to decorate the havelis of these wealthy Jain businessmen. Where frescoes satisfied the Shekhawats, here power was expressed by the construction of mansions whose soft sandstone facades were embellished with intricate, almost lacelike carvings. These oft-photographed sandstone mansions are indeed breathtakingly beautiful, but it is Sonar Killa, literally "Golden Fort," that makes it worth traveling this far west. It may not be as impressive or as clean as Jodhpur's Mehrangarh Fort, but its charm lies in the fact that this is the world's only inhabited medieval fort, its families living in homes they have colonized for more than 800 years. Unfortunately this charm is being eroded by the unchecked proliferation of hotels -- with close to 40 at the last count.

Built entirely from yellow sandstone, the fort rises like a giant sand castle from its desert environs, with great views from the overhanging cannon ramparts; stare down on the city and desert vista, and you get a sense of how forts such as these once served the most basic of needs: protection against invaders from the plateau below. Sadly within you will find a place that has been commercialized -- its alleys lined with goods for sale and buzzing with traffic (tuk-tuks, hawkers, and tourists), excessive pollution (no bins or sewage infrastructure, and watch out for the cow dung), yet still with an awesome sense of timelessness (bar the motorcycles and persistent salesmanship). It takes no more than a few hours to tour the fort, including stops to visit the Jain and Hindu temples. And if you want to ride a camel into the sunset, Jaisalmer is one of the places to do it, as is Bikaner. So plan to spend 2 or more nights here, not least because it takes so long to get here (until the new airport is finished, that is) but also to acclimatize to the desert pace and climate, and seek out the essence of this border town.

The Liquid Lifeline

The environment of western Rajasthan is harsh, semidesert and receives very little rainfall. The region is infamous for its fragile and inhospitable eco-system characterized by sandy soils, scarce surface water, depleted groundwater supplies, sparse vegetation cover, low humidity and high transpiration. Drought is a common recurrence and has occurred for 43 out of the last 50 years. Its largely rural inhabitants depend on an agro-pastoral economy and operate in great uncertainty regarding rainfall and subsistence. The Indira Gandhi canal, one of the biggest projects in India was introduced to address this need in March 1958 and was finally completed in 1986. Commencing from the Harika Barrage, a few miles below the confluence of the Sutlej and Beas rivers in Punjab State, the canal runs south southwest in Punjab and Haryana and retracts most of Rajasthan for a total of 650km (404 miles). The canal has provided a guarantee of water from the Himalayas and while it is a life-giver that has changed the face of the Thar Desert and has checked its encroachment, it has consequently changed much of the conservation culture and farming methods in the area. This presumptuousness has also extended to the hospitality industry, so much so that the new 150-plus roomed hotels in Jaisalmer all have large bathtubs in the bathrooms with TV's. Vote with your feet and at all times use water sparingly.

A Scarce Resource -- The very late, rather weak -- and for some -- absent monsoon rains of 2009 have been cause for alarm and panic in a country that 2 years ago endured a severe drought, especially when 70% of the nation is rural and relies substantially on subsistence farming and agriculture. Alongside shocking stats (Paddy Cultivation Area Shrinks by 20%; Distress Cattle Sale Rampant in Jhabua), full-page ads in the daily papers with appeals to save water and advertised rates of relief have become commonplace. State governments publicize compensation rates and also to appease panicked constituents. For example, in Haryana, compensation is set at Rs 2,700 per acre for wheat, paddy, and cotton and Rs 2,100 for other crops in case the damage to the standing crops is 51% and above. Other states have promulgated public works programs offering remuneration for up to 100 days of community service. Besides this construction of new water canals, repair of old canals and deeper wells are being sunk ensuring equitable distribution of water throughout the state. Such is the concern that one state qualified its tasks as "being carried out in the entire state on war footing." That's not to say that farmers are not doing their bit. Many have formed arrangements where they collectively irrigate a designated area and share the spoils, ensuring that at least they have some guarantee of success.