It’s a hot and dusty day in February and the mid-day sun is relentless as is the perspiration that trickles down my back. And yet, I feel cold and shiver as if some one has walked over my grave.
I am at Chittorgarh Fort, the erstwhile capital of Mewar, and at the site that was once the cremation ground for members of the royal family. The site is also known as the Mahasati Sthal as this is where widowed queens would commit sati. According to the guide, from the vast quantities of ash found at this site, this is also where at least one of the three jauhars — ritualistic mass suicide through immolation committed by women and their young children in the face of certain defeat to Muslim invaders — that Chittorgarh Fort has witnessed happened.
Death before dishonour is a code that all Rajputs — men and women — lived by. While for men this meant dying in battle; for women, this translated into jauhar instead of being captured by the Muslim invaders. Available literature and ballads say that as the jauhar ritual began, the men would dress up in saffron clothes and ride out to fight their final battle and into certain death.
I feel an immense degree of sadness mixed with revulsion as I listen to the guide describing the jauhars. Though my eyes close automatically as if to keep out the horror, my mind conjures of images of this description and devastation. I try to recollect my day at the Fort in an attempt to divert my mind.
I had arrived at Chittaur earlier that morning on a day trip from Udaipur. My first impression of the town — as I made my way to the Chittorgarh Fort by auto-rickshaw — was that of a nondescript, neglected, shabby, tourist town, like other tourist towns I have seen in India. By tourist towns, I mean those towns which exist around popular tourist sites, but do not reap any benefit from the tourist footfall and always provide a stark contrast to the comparatively better maintained monuments. (Think Agra and the Taj and you’ll know what I mean.) If it were not for the many shop signs, unimaginatively named after the most famous queen of Chittaur, Rani Padmini, I could have been in any tourist town in India.
After a while this monotony becomes depressing, and I can’t wait to reach the Fort. Almost on cue, the first of the many gates of Chittorgarh Fort comes up. Our guide is waiting for us there. Greetings are exchanged, he gets into the rickshaw and launches right away into the history of the Fort and it’s significance to the region even as the auto-rickshaw continues on it way to the top.
Chittorgarh Fort is built on a south-eastern plateau of the Aravallis that rises about 500 ft from ground level. The Fort covers an area of about 8 sq.km making it the largest fort in India. Built by the Mauryas between the 5th and the 8th centuries, it had been occupied by the Rajputs and rulers from Gujarat with periodic assaults by Muslim rulers. Chittorgarh was the capital of the Kingdom of Mewar till Udai Singh II shifted it to a more secure location, Udaipur, in 1559.
The Fort has also seen epic battles fought over it and has experienced 3 sieges between the 15th and 16th centuries, each one more horrific than the other. Travelling through the Fort, its many gates and winding roads, and noting its various security measures, I find it difficult to believe that the Fort was ever conquered. But history says otherwise !
In its heyday, there were about 70,000 people living within the Fort walls; today, only a fraction of that number resides in settlements scattered through the Fort. When we reach the top it is to see constructions in various states of ruin and exhibiting Hindu, Jain and Mughal architecture. While the temples appear to be in good condition, others like Rana Kumbha’s Palace, the first complex I visit, are in ruins.
During his rule (1433–1468), Rana Kumbha renovated large portions of the Fort and built new structures and added to the existing ones as well.
Though the Palace, which is believed to be the oldest structure in the Fort, is in ruins today, it is not too difficult to imagine the magnificent structure that it once must have been. As the guide points out where the Rana used to watch the sun rise and pray every morning, where the musicians used to perform, where the women’s section of the palace used to be, where the underground escape routes used to be… it is also not too difficult to travel back in time to a different era.
The ruins of Rana Kumbha’s Palace also gives excellent views of the extent and expanse of the Fort. Seeing the distance between the various monuments in the Fort, I am suddenly thankful for the auto-rickshaw that will ferry us from monument to monument.
The next place we visit is the 15th-century Kumbhashyam Temple dedicated to Krishna. Built by Rana Kumbha in 1449, it is an exquisitely carved temple that just took my breath away. Though the guide says that the temple represents the Indo-Aryan type of architecture, I’m not sure as to what it means and he wasn’t able to elaborate either. Inside the temple walls are covered with panels depicting stories from the life of Krishna, and from the Vishnu Purana.
There is a smaller temple in the compound of the Kumbhashyam Temple, which the guide points out as the Mira Temple. And that’s when I remember that the poet-saint Mirabai was married into Mewar’s royal family and she must have lived in Chittorgarh for at least some time.
Though locals believe that this is where Mirabai worshipped, the guide told me that this was not so and this was only a memorial temple, which is similar in architecture to the Kumbhashyam Temple, but smaller in scale and not as detailed. The biggest difference was in the interiors and the temple really looked like a badly designed TV set and it didn’t help that Hindi film versions of Mirabai’s songs were blaring from the loudspeakers. I had a hard time keeping a straight face as I looked around.
My next visit was to the Vijay Sthambh or the Victory Tower, again constructed by Rana Kumbha to commemorate his victory over the Sultan of Malwa in 1437. It is 9 storeys tall and intricately carved with various Hindu deities. The word “Allah” is inscribed in Arabic in the 3rd and 8th storeys.
Though one can climb all the way to the and I was all set to do so, I had to drop the idea. A 100-strong group of male tourists descended on the Vijay Sthambh just as I reached there and proceeded to completely take over the space. They ran up and down the stairs, screamed, howled, jeered and basically made a complete nuisance of themselves.
I wisely decided to forsake exploration of this intriguing structure and decided to see as much as I could through the zoom of my camera lens.
Our next halt is Rani Padmini’s Palace, which was originally built in the middle of a lotus pond. During Rani Padmini’s time, this must have been a really beautiful place, with flower gardens and a lotus filled pond. But today, the stagnant pond is foul-smelling, and the damp, moss-covered walls only makes me feel slightly nauseous. Even the existing palace is a 19th century reconstruction. But this does not seem to deter tourists as after Vijay Sthamb, this is the most visited place in Chittorgarh Fort due to the legend that surrounds Rani Padmini, the beautiful queen of Rawal Ratan Singh I, then ruler of Mewar.
Tales of her beauty travelled far and wide and reached the court of the Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji. This led to the first siege of Chittorgarh in 1303 when Khilji cut off the Fort’s food supply for 6 months. Legend has it that Khilji agreed to lift the siege if he was allowed a glimpse of Rani Padmini. This was agreed to and through a complex system of mirrors, Khilji had a glimpse of Rani Padmini from the guest room of the Men’s Palace built across the pond from Rani Padmini’s Palace.
Khilji went back on his word and demanded that Rani Padmini be handed over to him. Ratan Singh refused and a battle ensued in which 30,000 Rajputs were killed. When it was certain that Khilji would storm the Fort, Padmini and other women committed jauhar, the first of Chittorgarh’s three such events.
I can’t help wondering how the Rajputs would have even allowed an unknown man, and a Muslim at that, to have a glimpse of their queen. Wouldn’t this have been equivalent to dishonour? And isn’t death before dishonour the code for the Rajputs?
Our final halt at Chittorgarh Fort is a large open clearing around which there are Hindu and Jain temples, a raised pavilion and ruins scattered about. This is the royal cremation ground. A path leads to a water tank known as the Gaumukh Kund, which was the main source of water at the Fort during the numerous sieges. An underground spring feeds water to the tank from a structure shaped like a cow’s mouth — hence, the name. The water is considered to be holy and I actually saw people removing the green scum that floated on the water’s surface to drink it.
Chittorgarh Fort epitomises the romantic and historical image that Rajasthan evokes of Rajput valour and bravery, sacrifice and honour and much more. It is also, perhaps, the most famous of all forts that most school children in India study. At least, this is the only Fort I remember in detail from my history books and it was a Fort that I had been wanting to visit for a long time. I don’t know what I expected — grandness in scale and size, magnificent views of the city from all around, matching my imagination of the place with the place… I got all that, but I also got a large and unexpected dose of melancholy and tremendous sadness that touches the heart and brings a lump to your throat
I leave the Fort with a prayer for all the brave men, women and children who had to die in Chittorgarh, in battle or in jauhar.
Forts of Rajasthan Series
- Forts of Rajasthan – 1: The Junagarh Fort of Bikaner
- Forts of Rajasthan – 2: The golden fort of Jaisalmer
- Forts of Rajasthan – 3: Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur
- Forts of Rajasthan – 4: Kumbhalgarh Fort