August 24, 2017

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan

For Shakshi, who is an excellent researcher-conservationist and a treasure trove of information about Mehrangarh. Many of the folk legends and architectural details incorporated herein would not have been possible without her unwavering assistance.


“Out of the city and over the hill, into the spaces where Time stands still,
Under the tall trees, touching old wood, taking the way where warriors once stood;
Crossing the little bridge, losing my way, but finding a friendly place where I can stay…
Cast away care and come roaming with me, where the grass is still green and the air is still free.”
– Ruskin Bond, Anglo-Indian poet-writer

Formidable waves of humanity, ceaselessly twirling and whirling, crashing on themselves and spontaneously disintegrating, each individual a particle capable of heading into a million unique directions. No wonder my heart palpitates as I stroll along the platforms at Old Delhi railway station. Though travelling is an addiction, nothing makes me feel more vulnerable, more disoriented, than the very thought of heading into the unknown amidst a surge of faceless, restless crowds.

I wonder if this is how Bruce Wayne felt when he embarked on his momentous journey from Gotham City to learn about the ways of the cruel and corrupt world prior to becoming Batman. Why am I thinking of Batman? Because certain scenes in the movie “Batman: Dark Knight Rises” were shot with Mehrangarh Fort, the impregnable Rajput stronghold where I was headed, in the background.

Mehrangarh - Enormity emerging from the mountain

It is impossible to think Rajasthan and not visualize the expansive Thar Desert and moustachioed Rajputs – mighty horse/camel-mounted warriors adorned with priceless jewels, vivid red and yellow turbans flamboyantly perched on their heads against the brown-gold desert background, and fierce swords and daggers glinting at their sides. Though now reduced to a fraction of their erstwhile illustriousness best epitomized by the BSF's camel regiments, the Rajputs draw inspiration from their history which is replete with numerous instances of prodigious valour and extraordinary nobility of character.

There is little concurrence among historians regarding the Rajputs’ origins, and genealogical records are incomprehensibly comingled, but it is conjectured that they are descended from an agglomeration of warrior classes among Scythian, Kushana, Hun and Gurjara invaders who poured into the country from the North-West, conquered vast territories, consolidated politico-economic power (at the cost of numerous tribes indigenous to Rajasthan and the North-West) and gradually assimilated into Hinduism and its allied institutions (such as caste system). Unfettered with tethers of history (or plausibility!) and endowed with matchless poetic imagination, their royal bards conceived fabulous pedigrees to affiliate them to mythical Mahabharata and Ramayana heroes (“Chandravanshi/Suryavanshi”) and intermittently also reconstructed and interpolated mythological legends to claim genesis from sacrificial fire (“Agnikula”).

Embodying unparalleled imagination - Phool Mahal facade

Fast forward eight centuries, our tale begins with the Rathore kingdom of Marwar, established in AD 1226 by Rao Sihaji/Sheoji (reign AD 1226-73), grandson of Maharaja Jaichandra of the Gahadavala Dynasty of Kannauj. Maharaja Jaichandra, the most distinguished sovereign of his time, is remembered even today because of his vituperative enmity with Raja Prithviraj Chauhan of Delhi-Ajmer which allowed Shihabuddin Muhammad Ghuri and Qutbuddin Aibak to overrun Northern India and establish the Delhi Sultanate in AD 1192 (more details here – Pixelated Memories - Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, Delhi). Kannauj fell barely two years after Delhi, compelling Maharaja Jaichandra’s descendants to seek refuge in the desert wilderness of “Marusthal/Marudesa”, the “Land of Death”, as Rajasthan was then known.

Like most ancient kingdoms, Marwar too traces its origins to murder and mayhem – first that introduced by Muhammad Ghuri's fanatic expeditions, then the cold-blooded mass murder committed by Rao Sihaji to eliminate those very Brahmin chiefs who persuaded him to settle with them in Marwar. Recognizing the precariousness of their existence as the Turkish Muslim armies rampaged across the whole country north of Vindhyas, piecemeal decimating and devouring kingdom after kingdom, Rao Sihaji’s sons decided to refrain from endeavouring to re-conquer Kannauj and instead began cementing their control over Marwar through a policy of territorial aggression, politico-economic consolidation and marital/military alliances.

One such alliance was forged by Rao Chunda (reign AD 1394-1422), 11th in line from Rao Sihaji, by marrying his daughter Rani Hansa Bai to Maharana Lakha Singh (reign AD 1382-1421) of the Sisodia kingdom of Mewar, thereby perpetually interweaving the convoluted histories of the powerful houses of Marwar and Mewar. Rao Chunda also overran Mandore and therein raised the capital of Marwar.

Juxtaposing intangible cultural heritage against architectural brilliance -
Jhanki Mahal facade

Following the demise of Maharana Lakha in AD 1421, Rao Chunda dispatched his son Rao Ranmal (reign AD 1427-38) to Mewar to assist Rani Hansa Bai in undertaking the administration on behalf of her minor son Maharana Mokal Singh (reign AD 1421-33). Together the brother-sister conspired to exile Rana Chunda, eldest son of Maharana Lakha (from another of his numerous wives), despite the fact that he had without a second's hesitation surrendered his crown and inheritance in favor of his younger brother, thereby earning the sobriquet “Bhishma of Mewar” for his virtuosity and worldly renunciation.

Even after his ascension as the 15th sovereign of Marwar in AD 1427, Rao Ranmal continued officiating as advisor not only to his nephew but also after he was assassinated to his juvenile son Maharana Kumbha (reign AD 1433-68). His own sister however had him slaughtered with his retainers at the hands of Rana Chunda (whom she recalled in distress) in AD 1438 when it became apparent that he intended to transplant the Rathore clan to Mewar and would not relent even if he had to obliterate his grandnephew in the process. His bloodlust not quenched despite massacring 700 Rathore horsemen in the ensuing butchery, Rana Chunda ferociously pursued Rao Ranmal’s 24 sons and expelled them from their capital Mandore where thereafter he headquartered forces led by his own sons Rana Kanta and Rana Manja.

Epitomizing elegance - Jhanki Mahal facade

The celebrated tales of the house of Marwar and the city of Jodhpur begin in earnest with this sudden politico-administrative upheaval which witnessed the emergence of Rao Jodha (reign AD 1438-89), son of Rao Ranmal, as the unchallenged leader of the Rathores despite vitriolic opposition from his brothers and continuous harassment from the fierce armies of Rana Chunda.

But though he was an exceptional warlord who quickly re-consolidated his forces and resources and also involved his distant relative Rao Nara of Nadol in the confrontation, Rao Jodha failed to translate his perseverance and military proficiency into immediate success. For 12 years, he endeavoured in vain to penetrate Mandore’s defenses while his wherewithal diminished and his adversities amplified. Meanwhile, Rana Chunda also annexed Nadol as chastisement. In parallel, Maharana Kumbha, who would go on to be recognized as the most prominent Rajput warlord of his time, had already begun achieving renown in Mewar by his enthusiasm for warfare, administration and arts and architecture.

Folk legend goes that it was at this crucial junction that Rao Jodha, exiled, isolated and disheartened, was reduced to anonymously seek alms at a peasant dwelling. He burnt his fingers in a bowl of “khichdi” (rice-and-lentil gruel), prompting the peasant’s wife to snidely remark that he was committing the same folly which their sovereign was, since khichdi is hottest in the center of the bowl and cooler along the peripheries. The Rao wisely deciphered the allegory and began annexing smaller fortresses and garrisons surrounding Mandore. It is of course astonishing that he did not conceive the same himself and had to be schooled in military tactics by illiterate peasants! The lore also does not specify how he remunerated his troops if he himself was dependent for sustenance on peasants’ magnanimity.

Spellbinding symmetry

Capitalizing on the situation while Maharana Kumbha was engrossed in fending off joint aggression by the Sultans of Gujarat and Malwa, Rao Jodha occupied Mandore in AD 1453. Rana Kanta and Rana Manja, sons of Rana Chunda, were pursued and killed. Realizing the jeopardy their kingdoms were in against the Muslim sovereigns of Delhi, Gujarat and Malwa, the two sides agreed to re-conciliate and mutually demarcate their respective spheres of influence. Though disconsolate and infuriated, Rana Chunda, the “Bhishma of Mewar” who earlier relinquished his birthright to his younger brother, now resigned his vengeance on a single command of his sovereign and decreed thus,

“Anwal, anwal Mewar, Bawal, bawal Marwar”
“Wherever the yellow blossoms of Anwal sprout shall be Mewar’s, the remaining Marwar’s”

In accordance with Rajput tradition of never refusing assistance when beseeched, Rao Jodha remained true to the vow of alliance he had given Maharana Kumbha and deployed an enormous army to help him apprehend and execute the assassins of his father Maharana Mokal Singh.

“Who would imagine, after such deadly feuds between these rival States, that in the very next succession these hostile frays were not only buried in oblivion, but that the prince of Marwar abjured ‘his turban and his bed’ till he had revenged the assassination of the prince of Chittor, and restored his infant heir to his rights? The annals of these States afford numerous instances of the same hasty, overbearing temperament governing all; easily moved to strife, impatient of revenge, and steadfast in its gratification. But this satisfied, resentment subsides. A daughter of the offender given to wife banishes its remembrance, and when the bard joins the lately rival names in the couplet, each will complacently curl his mustachio over his lip as he hears his ‘renown expand like the lotus’, and thus ‘the feud is extinguished’. Thus have they gone on from time immemorial, and will continue, till what we may fear to contemplate.”
– Colonel James Tod, English East India Company Officer and Oriental scholar
“Annals and antiquities of Rajasthan: Volume I” (1829)

Rao Chunda's decree - No yellow blossoms in Marwar.
(Here's a Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus) instead)

By AD 1455, Rao Jodha had expanded his dominions manifolds and compelled the sovereigns of Bundi and Ajmer to acknowledge his suzerainty. Four years later, perceiving the vulnerability of the fortress at Mandore against his numerous foes, he resolved to raise an impregnable stronghold atop the almost inaccessible Bhaur-chiriya eyrie (also spelled Bhaurcheeria, “Birds’ mountain”), a 410-feet high outcrop 9 kilometers from Mandore. The enormous castle, complete with extensive fortifications 125-feet high and breathtaking palaces, was christened “Mehrangarh” (“Citadel of Sun”) since the Rathores of Marwar claim descent from “Mihir”, the anthropologic manifestation of Sun. It was also referred to as “Jodhagarh” (“Jodha's Castle”, but also translated as “House of Strife” since “Jodha” = “Warrior” in Hindi) from which derived the name of the inhabitation that soon enveloped it – Jodhpur.

It is now known that the Bhaur-Chiriya outcrop and the associated rocky projections (such as those in Rao Jodha Desert Park adjacent, fodder for another post) are unique geological features composed of Rhyolite rock that was produced by explosive volcanic activity approximately 600-750 million years ago. Christened Jodhpur-Malani Igneous Suite Contact, this natural projection is classified as a National Geological Monument by the Geological Survey of India (GSI). There are 26 Geological Monuments in the country. This, coincidentally, was my second – the first being the Peninsular Gneiss Rock in Lal Bagh, Bangalore (refer Pixelated Memories - Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens).

The nucleus of the fortress bequeathed by Rao Jodha to his successors was expanded, reconstructed and embellished by them time and again both with defensive fortifications and enchanting adornments. The most extensive structural additions date to the glorious incumbencies of Rao Maldeo (reign AD 1532-62), Maharaja Jaswant Singh (reign AD 1638-78), Maharaja Ajit Singh (reign AD 1679-1724), Maharaja Takhat Singh (reign AD 1843-72) and Maharaja Hanwant Singh (reign AD 1947-52).

Eclectic fusion of traditional Rajasthani and Gujarati architecture -
Legacy of Maharaja Takhat Singh?

It is impossible to be in Jodhpur and not feel overawed by the epic proportions of the massive stronghold. The entire city appears lilliputian nestled in its all-encompassing shadow. Wherever one goes, wherever one reposes, the sandstone immensity is always in the background. Yet it is never intimidating. On the contrary, the subdued magnificence of the irregular agglomeration of gigantic towers and elegant palaces persistently enchants in the truest sense of the word and beckons visitors to itself like the Pied Piper of Hamlin. Witnessing the leviathan barbicans and the long row of mammoth bastions stretched across the entire outcrop, one can be forgiven for believing that this isn't the handiwork of mere mortals but giants.

“Jodhpur's House of Strife is the work of giants... Above everything, a mark for miles around, towers the dun-red pile of the Fort which is also a Palace. This is set upon sandstone rock whose sharper features have been worn smooth by the wash of the windblown sand. It is monstrous… wherever it wanders, the eye comes back at last to its fantastic bulk. There is no greenery on the rock, nothing but fierce sunlight or black shadow… rock and masonry are so curiously blended in this great pile that he who walks through it loses sense of being among buildings. It is as though he walked through mountain-gorges. The stone-paved, inclined planes, and the tunnel-like passages driven under a hundred feet height of buildings, increase this impression. In many places the wall and rock runs up unbroken by any window for forty feet.”
– Rudyard Kipling, English poet-writer-journalist, “Out of India” (1895)

City skylines be like! - View from Gulab Sagar tank near Ghanta Ghar

So daunting are the gargantuan fortress’ defenses that it isn’t uncommon to overhear gossip-peddling guides recount how it has never been subjugated or subjected to escalade in a direct siege throughout its history. Wrong, but close – it fell but only once, though then too when Rathore fought Rathore in the civil strife that manifested immediately following Rao Jodha’s demise when his disinherited eldest son Rao Bika (founded Bikaner which he ruled over AD 1485-1504) audaciously stormed the near-invincible stronghold and received his estranged brothers’ unconditional surrender. 

Jodhpur prospered during medieval times on account of being located along the trade highway connecting north and north-western India with the western states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Modern-day Jodhpur, in contrast, is a small city with scant pleasures to offer. Thankfully, wonderful guesthouses offering rooms at very affordable prices are among these. The entire circumference of Bhaur-chiriya outcrop, particularly the Ghanta Ghar area (more on that in another post), is in fact sprinkled with scores of guesthouses interspersed with colorful hole-in-the-wall shops, ubiquitous handicrafts stores, and roadside confectioneries offering teatime fritters and delicious omelets.

From here on, there are two ways to reach the fortress-palace – hire a cab/auto (for Rs 100-120) to traverse a scenic 5-kilometer long route around the city, or hike a considerably tough albeit only 500-meter (20 minute) trek beginning from a nondescript downtown street near Ghanta Ghar and crisscrossing the settlement immediately contiguous to the outcrop. One can imagine the endless royal retinue, with sinewy horses, exotic camels and majestic lumbering elephants caparisoned with colorfully embroidered cloth, leisurely negotiating its way along the precipitous trek even as inhabitants of the neighborhood lined the fringes, heads bowed, hands folded, to pay respect to their sovereign.

Trek of the celestial retinue (but no Goddesses!), painted on the Jai Pol

Though the locals appear unbothered with the contour of the trek, I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. Did I mention that those who developed this steep pathway also continuously envisaged imaginative ways of punishing enemy assailants who might take this shortcut (ha!) and therefore all along abhorred even the slightest hint of shade against the scorching summer sun? They sure did not foresee a chubby camera-toting guy hobbling around centuries later! Thankfully, the singular perspective of the imposing battlements witnessed along the way amply recompenses momentary breathlessness and vertigo. With huge towers reaching out sharply to the infinite sky, the expansive fortress stands guard like an indomitable sentinel, indifferent to the puny houses relentlessly mushrooming around it. These ruthless defenses are not the kind that an invading army could even imagine scaling in a hurry.

Slightly prior to the entrance to the fort proper, dwarfed by the impressive fortifications, yet assiduously maintaining its distinct identity, stands the stately memorial of Thakur Shyam Singh Chauhan who fell defending the capital against the combined armies of Amber, Mewar, Bikaner and Pokhran during the Siege of Mehrangarh (1806). A beautiful off-white chattri (umbrella dome mounted on pillars) adorned with finely-carved scallop leaf ornamentation along its peripheries and miniature onion domes along the cardinal directions, the memorial was commissioned by Maharaja Man Singh (reign AD 1803-43) who also endowed Thakur Shyam Singh's descendants with an irrevocable land grant (now a heritage hotel).

Thakur Shyam Singh's chattri - A monument in its own right elsewhere, a minuscule fraction of the imposing whole here

Entrance to the fort is through the monumental Jai Pol (“Gate of Victory”) which, though merely a barbican, is decorated with exquisite plasterwork patterns and spectacular paintings depicting on one side of the entrance arch the more prominent deities among the extensive Hindu pantheon and on the other side the royal train in one panel and the Rao galloping with the chief queen on a gorgeous white steed in another. On a plinth adjoining the gateway is a diminutive shrine dedicated to Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed, pot-bellied Hindu deity of auspiciousness, knowledge and divine blessings.

Jai Pol was constructed by Maharaja Man Singh in AD 1808-10 following the aforementioned siege, as was another memorial, a relatively unsophisticated chattri celebrating the exceptional valor of Soda Kirat Singh in the battle. The ticket counter is located along the rear of the mighty gateway.

Also located a stone’s throw away from the gate is the small mausoleum of Bhure Khan, another soldier who also fell during the siege. Folklore goes that Bhure Khan's spirit began manifesting gloomily in the dreams of his regimental brothers when his grave was being unearthed to allow for the construction of Jai Pol. Alarmed by this supernatural development, Maharaja Man Singh immediately had the exhumation halted and established a perpetual allowance (which continues till date) for the purchase of embroidered cloth and various other items of veneration for the grave.

Gateway at the end of the trek (phew!) - Jai Pol

Parallel to Jai Pol is the Dedh Kangura Pol (“One-and-half battlement gate”), a rather constricted passageway flanked only on one side by a substantial bastion. The bastion was brutally scarred by cannon fire during the Siege of Mehrangarh (1806) following which Maharaja Man Singh was induced to strengthen the fortifications and undertake the construction of Jai Pol. It is imperative herein to transgress and discuss the siege because of its recurrent association with several individuals interred/cremated in and around the stronghold as well as the introduction of additional layers of defenses.

The timeless struggle for supremacy among descendants of a deceased sovereign, even while traditionally or at least nominally subscribing to the right of primogeniture, constitutes the background of numerous wars of succession throughout the history of the various dynasties that ruled across the country (and the world). Resourcefully capitalizing on the tragic demise of his grandfather Maharaja Vijay Singh (reign AD 1753-93), Bheem Singh (reign AD 1793-1803) ascended the throne of Jodhpur-Marwar as its 31st sovereign after having his uncles and other immediate relatives mercilessly assassinated. Ten horrific years passed thus committing parricide, expelling disgusted feudal lords and sequestering their estates, when the deceitful usurper himself suddenly expired while besieging the unassailable fortress of Jalore where had been smuggled Man Singh, the last surviving claimant of royal blood.

Battle-scarred - Dedh Kangura Pol

Maharaja Man Singh (reign AD 1803-43) had just inherited the powers and prerogatives of the sovereign of Jodhpur-Marwar when his distant cousins and subordinates Thakur Sawai Singh Champawat of Pokhran (reign AD 1781-1808) and Maharaja Surat Singh Rathore of Bikaner (reign AD 1787-1828) raised the standard of war on behalf of Dhonkal Singh, posthumous son of Maharaja Bheem Singh. Regarding the nefarious claim of the pretender superior to that of Maharaja Man Singh's, a vast army of Rathore aristocracy and feudal levies also collected around the former's banner. At the same time, Sawai Maharaja Jagat Singh Kachhwaha II of Amber (reign AD 1803-18) also readily joined the confederacy against Jodhpur with the objective of vanquishing and humiliating Maharaja Man Singh since they both coveted Princess Krishna Kunwari of Mewar. I'm sure Maharaja Man Singh must have felt exactly like Cersei Lannister in the ongoing season of “Game of Thrones” –

“Enemies to the east. Enemies to the south. Enemies to the west. Enemies to the north.
Enemies everywhere. We’re surrounded by traitors.”

Against the miniscule 5,000-strong army composed chiefly of feudal levies still loyal to Maharaja Man Singh, the confederate army 100,000-strong effortlessly entered and plundered Jodhpur city, it being practically undefended vis-à-vis Mehrangarh, and began bombarding the impenetrable stronghold with relentless cannon fire. Enormous guns were somehow mounted on the crown of the rock-strewn Singhoria hill opposite the fortress (in Rao Jodha Desert Park now) and these shattered the castellation of Dedh Kangura Pol. Though the little breach was inconsequential against the invincible fortress, it infuriated Maharaja Man Singh so much that he offered  permanent grant of a village to any gunner who could destroy the enemy batteries. The latter were duly shattered to pieces and the siege now devolved into a battle of wits to determine who would blink first.

A siege against this monstrosity? Ha! - View from Rao Jodha Park

“The siege had lasted five months without any diminution of the ardour of the defenders; and although the defences of the north-east angle were destroyed, the besiegers, having a perpendicular rock of eighty feet to ascend before they could get to the breach, were not nearer their object, and, in fact, without shells, the castle of Jodha would laugh a siege to scorn. The numerous and motley force under the banners of Jaipur and the pretender, became clamorous for pay; the forage was exhausted, and the partisan horse were obliged to bivouac in the distant districts to the south.”
– Colonel James Tod, English East India Company Officer and Oriental scholar
“Annals and antiquities of Rajasthan: Volume II” (1829)

It was under these circumstances that the sovereign of Bikaner withdrew from the confederacy. Exigencies of the emergency demanded irregular measures and Maharaja Man Singh directed his lieutenant Nawab Amir Khan Pathan to besiege Amber (Jaipur) which was left imprudently undefended by Sawai Maharaja Jagat Singh II. The confederacy instantaneously shattered. The embarrassed Sawai Maharaja Jagat Singh II was obliged to seek Maratha assistance to safeguard his train during the retreat, but the remaining scattered armies were pursued and plundered. Throughout Rajput history, exceedingly rare are instances of fraudulent conduct and even the lowliest soldiers consider ambuscades, camouflages and feigning retreats in warfare below their dignity, yet now Nawab Amir Khan engaged in various treacheries to decimate the forces of Thakur Sawai Singh Champawat and Dhonkal Singh. He also obligated Bikaner to surrender Rs 200,000 as reparations and reiterate the suzerainty of Jodhpur.

Snare the hare - Were such bewitching swords also used in the siege?
Daulat Khana Mahal museum

Shortly afterwards, Maharaja Man Singh married the sister of Sawai Maharaja Jagat Singh II and gave him his daughter in marriage to indicate the normalization of relations between the two kingdoms. Nawab Amir Khan went on to achieve astonishing pre-eminence in the court of Marwar and could literally get away with murder even though it was common knowledge that he was instrumental in the conspiracy hatched in AD 1816 to assassinate Raj Purohit Deonath Badri and Sindhi Indra Raj, Maharaja Man Singh’s spiritual preceptor and financial advisor respectively.

Depressed by the loss of all his relatives and advisors, the Maharaja himself gradually succumbed to insanity and over the next few years ruthlessly executed the entire cabal of avaricious officials and feudatories whom he suspected of corruption, subversion and treason. One of the last constructive decisions he undertook was to commission opposite the fortress a chattri-like memorial dedicated to Sindhi Indra Raj. Also marked across the road from it is the spot where was cremated Purohit Guman Singh who was slain without mercy fighting the ferocious Pathan soldiers who murdered Raj Purohit Deonath Badri. No tourists ever stop to photograph or read the epithets on these.

Forgotten and ignored - Sindhi Indra Raj's memorial

Beyond the Dedh Kangura gateway, the passageway sharply turns along a hairpin bend and becomes steeply inclined, leading up to Amriti Pol aka Lakha Pol. Only a couple of steps up the incline a small plaque embedded in the wall commemorates the martyrdom of Rajaram Meghwal who volunteered to be interred alive in the fortress’ foundations when it was being constructed! Why though, one might inquire.

It isn’t common knowledge that when Rao Jodha determined that the fort at Mandore would not withstand concerted enemy attacks, he was encouraged to transfer his capital to Bhaur-chiriya outcrop by Chiriya Nathji, an accomplished ascetic who alone resided there in a secluded cave performing religious penances and extreme self-mortification. Subsequently enraged when the Rao expelled him from his meditation grounds and did not heed his anguished remonstrations against overtaking the entire rocky eminence, he spitefully cursed the city to forever suffer scarcity of water and offer subsistence to neither man nor animal. Expressing remorse afterwards (but not before Rao Jodha beseeched him for reconciliation and promised the handover of a natural cave for his residence and the establishment of a shrine dedicated to him), the coercive sage demanded voluntarily-offered human sacrifice for propitiating supernatural forces to diminish the effects of the eternal malediction – thus, Rajaram Meghwal’s grotesque entombment in lieu of Rao Jodha's promise of providing for his descendants.

Not that the sacrifice did any good. Groundwater in and around the city remained brackish, and droughts are till date commonplace. Eventually, Rao Jodha and his descendants were impelled to fall back on more mortal measures, developing an extensive system of water management structures – humongous man-made lakes and beautiful step-wells (“baoli/jhalra”) interconnected by a substantial crisscross of rainwater aqueducts (“nahar”). These edifices were sadly allowed to disintegrate and disappear after the advent of tap water, but their monumental ruins still remain littered across the laid-back city.

Interestingly, one comes across iterations of the same folklore in association with many fortress-capitals across the country, say for instance Bangalore Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Bangalore Fort). In each case apparently, innocent individuals were wantonly slaughtered/buried alive to sanctify these edifices against some recluse’s malediction or some supernatural spirit’s malevolent undertakings. But in the case of Jodhpur, I find the perpetration of human sacrifice surprising considering that Rao Jodha had in fact invited Karni Mata, an ascetic warrior-priestess who is till date revered across Rajasthan as an incarnation of Goddess Durga, to lay the corner-stone of the fortress. Did the Goddess not oppose human sacrifice?

The trek's finally over! - Looking back from the threshold of Amriti Pol

The Amriti Pol was constructed as part of another phase of structural reinforcement undertaken by Rao Maldeo (reign AD 1532-62), the most impressive sovereign of Marwar since the kingdom’s inception.

Unequalled in warfare and statecraft, Rao Maldeo expanded his dominions manifolds, subjugating the kingdoms of Bikaner, Ajmer, Nagaur, Jalore, Sambhar, Siwana, Phalodi, Pokhran, Merta and Tonk, and making inroads even into the suburbs of Amber and Mewar. Determined to retain his expansive territorial acquisitions against enemy incursions, he had constructed numerous fortifications across Marwar and stationed therein formidable garrisons. His unstoppable war machine remained unchallenged throughout the epochal reigns of Mughal Emperors Zahiruddin Babur (reign AD 1526-30) and Nasiruddin Humayun (reign AD 1530-40 and 1555-56), but was eventually treacherously brought to a standstill in the Battle of Sammel (1544) by Emperor Sher Shah Suri (reign AD 1540-45) who, after witnessing the phenomenal competence and tenacity with which Marwar’s commanders fought, justly exclaimed that “he nearly lost the empire of Hindustan for a handful of barley” (alluding to the inhospitality and poverty of Marwar).

Thereafter Jodhpur was annexed and Mehrangarh garrisoned with Muslim armies but Rao Maldeo succeeded in repudiating their fearsome might in less than a year and augmented the fortress’ existing defences with Amriti Pol and the 125-feet towering battlements existential now. The alluring city, which had so far been irresponsibly left undefended, was also encircled with a continuous wall pierced intermittently with military outposts and majestic gateways combining both form and function.

Throughout the fortress, it is impossible to escape the transcendent baritones wafting over the endless sea of magnificent palaces

Loha Pol (“Iron Gate”), the fifth of seven gateways punctuating the fortifications, constitutes the extremity of the original defenses as envisaged by Rao Jodha. It was partially reconstructed by Maharaja Man Singh. Comprising two perpendicular arms and an enormous iron gate studded with sharp nails to prevent war-elephants from skull-bashing their way in, the gateway is probably the most forbidding of all outworks in the fortress-complex. I wouldn’t want to be the elephant going against this monstrosity of an entrance!

On a platform inside the gargantuan gateway assemble traditional folk singers vocalizing in deep baritones to the tune of traditional Indian drums, ek-tara (classical single-stringed instrument) and Ravana-hatha (violin believed to have been invented by Ravana, the mythological demon king from Ramayana who was married to Mandodari, princess of Mandore).

But instead of being engulfed by the melodious notes in a palliative evocation of Rajput folklore and auditory culture, visitors are instantaneously seized by a flurry of disquieting emotions brought about by sets of vermillion handprint reliefs on each side of the entrance arch. Redolent of the abominable Hindu practice of Sati (in/voluntary immolation of widows and concubines on the funeral pyre of their deceased husband), the symbolic depictions, 31 on one wall and 5 on the opposite, reveal the ludicrous meritorious connotations that the outrageous practice came to be associated with, especially among Rajput royalty, many of whom wholeheartedly argued that the Sati attained atonement for her and her husband’s sins and ensured their reunion in the endless chain of re-births. The sheer ridiculousness of the logic that a woman would want reunion with an individual who expects her to tortuously incinerate herself as penance for his sins when he dies seems to have escaped their medieval mindsets!

The Dark Ages

“Why was the widow drugged heavily right after the husband’s death? When she was put on the pyre, she was strapped down in a cage made of raw bamboo, lest the sati decides to escape the pain of getting burned alive! Thick smoke used to be created through the burning of ghee and coir, so no one could see her terrible torture and feel fear! Countless drums would be beaten and conches blown loudly so no one heard her cries, her screams, her pleas for mercy!”
– Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bengali writer, “Narir Mulya” (1917)

Mercifully the practice was outlawed in AD 1829 by Governor-General William Bentinck (officiated AD 1828-35), thanks in part to the persistence of Hindu socio-religious reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Christian missionary William Carey, but British legislations extended only to Presidency regions and Sati continued unabated in (administratively autonomous) princely states for more than two decades thence. Jodhpur forbade the custom only in AD 1852.

It is emphasised that initially instead of reducing the incidence of the horrendous practice, the prohibition on the contrary reinforced its ubiquity and rendered it an act of religious defiance against Christian proselytizing. Perhaps that explains why, even though it’s known that 7, 63 and 27 women perished on the funeral pyres of Rao Satal (reign AD 1489-92), Maharaja Ajit Singh (reign AD 1679-1724) and Maharaja Bheem Singh (reign AD 1793-1803) respectively, only the mass Sati committed by Maharaja Man Singh’s 15 widows, 13 concubines and an unknown number of slave girls in AD 1843 – the only legal instance of Sati in Jodhpur after the 1829 promulgation – is commemorated here.

Regrettably, the last royal Sati (albeit illegal) was also in Jodhpur – in 1953, abetted by her children and relatives, Sugandh Kanwar, wife of Brigadier Jabbar Singh, grandson of Maharaja Takhat Singh (reign AD 1843-73), secretly committed Sati on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Witness to uncountable horrors, treacheries and mysteries -
Deepak chowk facade

Though masquerading as an unadorned entranceway, Loha Pol is not merely a stupendous time portal introducing unsuspecting visitors to grim medieval history, it also constitutes the physical demarcation between the invincible defenses on one side and the exaggerated opulence of the royals on the other.

From here on, crowning the featureless fortifications looming on either side far, far above visitors are resplendent red-pink sandstone palaces and passageways unsurpassed in sophistication of conception, exquisiteness of execution and sumptuousness of proportion. Reflecting eternally on the tremendous expertise and explosive confidence of the stonemasons who painstakingly fashioned these, the enthralling symmetry of the numerous motifs that constitute the delicate sandstone lattice screens here could easily be mistaken as having been engraved in wax or wood. Unarguably this rhapsody of artistic intricacy co-mingling so spontaneously with architectural barrenness is the spectacular work of jewellers among elves employing not malleable precious metals but sheer ruthless stone.

It is heartbreaking that the elegant refinement of craftsmanship, so meticulously developed over numerous centuries, was so ephemeral that it has entirely disappeared from the country and survives only as sporadic vestiges such as these distinguished specimens here, among the very last of their exalted kind.

Rajasthan's best kept secrets! - Jhanki Mahal and Phool Mahal (rear)

Disguised as a stunted entranceway (vis-à-vis the aforementioned various gateways) but actually a staircase leading up to the public palaces, Suraj Pol (“Sun Gate”), pierced into a side wall a stone’s throw from Loha Pol, is among the oldest sections of the fortress-complex.

(Instead of proceeding to the palaces via the gateway, one can alternatively head straight and explore the fortress’ defenses and the two shrines consecrated along the precipitous ramparts – more on these later.)

Most of the extravagant palaces surrounding Suraj Pol were commissioned by Maharaja Jaswant Singh (reign AD 1638-78) who was among the most experienced aristocrat-generals in the courts of Mughal Emperors Shihabuddin Shahjahan (reign AD 1628-58) and Aurangzeb Alamgir (reign AD 1658-1707). This was an epochal period, full of unequalled tumult, interminable bloodletting and treasonous intrigues, not only in the history of Rajputana, but the entire country. Not surprisingly, both Emperors were perpetually suspicious about the Rajputs' intentions and did not feel very comfortable allowing Maharaja Jaswant Singh to remain near Delhi for long. It is therefore especially noteworthy that he managed to find the inspiration, inclination and energy to undertake these laborious architectural endeavours even while being continuously transferred from one turbulent province to another throughout his life. Of course, it needs be noted that many of these dazzling edifices have probably undergone a sea change from their original forms on account of subsequent renovation, reconstruction and redecoration.

Electric hues and exquisite designs - A section of the Cradle gallery

The public section of the palace area is fragmented into a series of gorgeous edifices demarcated by four expansive courtyards (“chowk”) – Sringar chowk, Daulat Khana chowk, Deepak chowk and Holi chowk, in that order. Four exceptionally well-maintained period rooms (Sheesh Mahal, Phool Mahal, Takhat Vilas and Moti Mahal) and a vividly painted Cradle gallery constitute the highlights of this section.

The charismatic Sringar chowk (“Anointment square”), immediately contiguous with Suraj Pol, is studded with the most elaborately conceived and executed stone lattice screens I have witnessed in my life. Each panel is meticulously perforated to render a mind-boggling plethora of minuscule motifs collectively culminating in lovely little vases and life-like peacocks enveloped in rococo explosions of intertwined floral patterns. One would not be indulging in hyperbole in stating that this singular specimen of stone craftsmanship can effortlessly shame even the most dexterous Chinese/Japanese paper-cutters!

As the nomenclature suggests, Sringar chowk was the site of coronation of successive sovereigns after Rao Jodha. In a corner has been placed a white marble throne so lifelessly designed that it is completely incongruous with its fabulous surroundings and makes me wonder if it is only a symbolic replica.

Endless multitudes of latticework motifs - Sringar chowk courtyard

The two halls adjoining Sringar chowk have been converted into small museums displaying palanquins and elephant howdahs respectively.

Several kinds of wooden palanquins, covered and uncovered, decorated with lacquer, bright paints, gold foil and mirror adornments, are exhibited in the first gallery. There’s a peculiar one fashioned as a chair surmounted on a litter, and another flanked by childish wooden peacocks so thoroughly dust-encrusted that their original multicolored exuberance has all but vanished.

The elephant howdah gallery too has several wonderful specimens – a majority of them layered with reliefs of floral scrolls and roaring lions – though these too intermittently suffer from the same depressing lacklustre and ill-maintenance.

Without disregarding the fact that Mehrangarh Museum Trust is among the most esteemed monument conservation agencies in the country and the celebrated fortress has been consistently ranked #1 among tourist sites in India by several national and international journals/surveys, the exhibits could unquestionably be better managed. I would’ve ranked the place somewhere in the middle – admittedly, it is not, say Hazarduari Rajbari at Hetampur (refer Pixelated Memories - Hetampur Hazarduari Rajbari, Bengal), but it isn’t the National Museum at Delhi or the Wadiyar Palace at Bangalore either (refer Pixelated Memories - National Museum, Delhi and Pixelated Memories - Bangalore Palace, Karnataka).

The kings are no longer kings, the throne is still incongruous

Daulat Khana chowk (“Treasury square”), the second courtyard, was constructed by Maharaja Ajit Singh (reign AD 1679-1724) in AD 1718 for the organisation of grand durbars on the occasion of important festivals. It is fringed on three sides by three absolutely irresistible palaces – Daulat Khana Mahal (“Treasury”), Phool Mahal (“Palace of Flowers”) and Jhanki Mahal (“Palace of Glimpses”).

Jhanki Mahal, which straddles both Sringar chowk and Daulat Khana chowk and is therefore the first edifice in the straightforward architectural scheme surrounding the latter courtyard, is actually explored last in a top-to-bottom manner because one first heads, or is rather ushered along a circuitous arrow-marked route, to Daulat Khana Mahal and thereon to Phool Mahal. I shall therefore return to discuss its mesmerizing interiors later. As regards its exteriors, the palace, commissioned by Maharaja Takhat Singh who was endowed with very intriguing artistic tastes, is layered throughout with exceedingly intricate stone latticework screens behind which royal ladies would repose and observe the proceedings of both the courtyards without themselves being perceived. 

Prior to venturing into this cluster of palaces, one can instead step through a narrow passageway off one corner and explore the desolate rear courtyard (more a frightening overhang over the precipitous cliffs that almost imperceptibly merge with the soaring outworks!). The (paid) elevator facility available at the ticket counter terminates here in the form of a thick brickwork shaft – I’m not sure how helpful this arrangement is, considering that one missed out all the gateways, memorials, and Sringar chowk and the adjoining galleries, but still has to traverse up-and-down several flights of stairs to explore the remaining palaces.

Not a single soul manifested here while I pranced and danced and photographed around for what seemed like a long, long time (but was probably not more than 20 minutes). The silence was deafening. I could’ve just sat down amidst the cannons positioned along the peripheries, royally enjoying the tremendous winds that afflict these heights and sporadically feeling melancholy for the alternately discolored and weather-blackened sandstone walls forgotten by conservation authorities. But that would not have been half as fun as peeping into the adjoining locked halls and trying to determine if there was some way to sneak in.

Embellished by over a dozen generations - Daulat Khana Mahal (center), Phool Mahal (right) and Jhanki Mahal (left)

Reminiscent of tangy lemon pies served with dollops of cream, the unusual Daulat Khana Mahal is painted delightful tart-yellow with off-white highlights that contrast brightly against the burnished reds of the rest of the fortress and the brilliant blues of the sky. Not limited to the color scheme, the uniqueness also extends to the artistic aesthetics – endowed with twin rows of miniature onion domes, it is the only edifice (except the two shrines) upon the entire eyrie that is not prominently pierced with lattice screens.

True to its name, inside are exhibited some of the most priceless treasures of the royal family of Jodhpur, including numerous well-preserved medieval coins, shimmering Bidri wares, and truly spellbinding swords with hilts resembling lion heads, parrots etc. I could not take my eyes off one such sword whose hilt was most unexpectedly fashioned as a beyond-belief beautiful “Makara” devouring a mid-leap hare poised on the head of a miniature lion! (picture above) “Makara” are mythical entities possessing the body of a fish, the tusks and trunk of an elephant, the limbs of a lion and the tail of a peacock.

A life-like silver idol of Goddess Gangaur, dressed in traditional Rajasthani attire and jewellery, is also displayed towards the exit. The Goddess, whose name derives from “Gana-Gauri”, the union of Goddess Gauri and Lord Shiva (Hindu God of death, destruction and procreation), is worshipped by unmarried girls desirous of a suitable match and by married women for their husbands’ longevity.

The place of honor among these exorbitant exhibits however is reserved for Mahadol, an elaborate gilded palanquin captured (besides 40 million Rupees and military accouterments of every description) as war booty by Maharaja Abhay Singh (reign AD 1724-49) from “Nawab Mubariz-ul-Mulk Sarbuland Khan Dilawar Jung” Muhammad Rafi, renegade Governor of Gujarat, in the Battle of Ahmedabad (AD 1730).

Still fit for royalty - Mahadol, Daulat Khana Mahal museum

Towards the right of Daulat Khana Mahal is the Phool Mahal building, an extravagant edifice whose projecting windows (“jharokha”) and inverted hyperbolic eaves (“chajja”) are invariably more sumptuous compared to the other palaces. A helical staircase within leads to the floor-length miniature paintings gallery, textiles gallery, Sheesh Mahal (“Hall of Mirrors”) and Phool Mahal (“Hall of Flowers”), each located at a different levels within the building. The miniature paintings gallery was closed when I visited.

The textile collection at Mehrangarh is believed to be the largest and finest of its kind in India, and houses garments, tents, tapestries and roof hangings belonging to 18th-20th centuries AD. These include the “Shahi Lal Dera” (“Royal Red Tent”), a magnificent velvet tent 4-meters high embroidered with glittering gold thread. It belonged to Emperor Shahjahan or Aurangzeb and was snatched during war, it isn’t clear when. Sadly, it is so huge that it is rarely unfolded and remains tucked in the Moti Mahal palace.

Drapes of royalty - A section of the (unimaginatively named) textile gallery

Thankfully, the textile collection here has not been wasted and turned into a dusty old (albeit enormous) wardrobe like the one in Bangalore Palace (refer Pixelated Memories - Bangalore Palace). The Mehrangarh Museum Trust has laboriously undertaken the conservation and restoration of Rajasthan's intangible cultural, literary, textile and musical heritage, and has also committed to various other exertions such as establishment of restaurants and souvenir stores in the fortress and commencement of knowledge-sharing collaborations with local schools and educational institutes. These efforts have served commendably towards resuscitating the fortress-complex and Jodhpur’s tourism-linked economy and the Trust most certainly exemplifies a conservation model that can be emulated elsewhere across the country.

This adulation does not in any way whatsoever condone the various acts of omission and commission on the part of the Trust though. I am especially disappointed that they've quoted Rudyard Kipling in a garbled manner to weave a very eloquent but erroneous panegyric about Mehrangarh. The inaccuracy is further compounded because very few bloggers in India undertake any sort of fact/quote check, and misinterpretations/mistakes, especially those originating from credible sources like the Trust, magnify manifolds because of recurrent replication until eventually they are reflected on almost every blog/website.

Wonderland, upside-down - Stepping into the Phool Mahal

Sheesh Mahal, as the name suggests, is studded throughout with mirrors cut into a variety of shapes that spatially supplement and lustrously reflect the various religious scenes inscribed in stucco around the hall. In one panel is enthroned Goddess Durga, the feminine manifestation of primordial universal energy, flanked on either side by devotees and tigers. In another, the subject is Lord Krishna, the playboy-strategist-statesman-cowherd-warrior-philosopher who supposedly lived some 5,000 years ago and is regarded as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment. The roof is accessorized with tightly packed Christmas baubles which were added later along with the chandelier.

Interestingly, Sheesh Mahal was the bedchamber of Maharaja Ajit Singh. I can only imagine how irresistible it would have appeared in the scintillating yellow-gold glow of candlelight and earthen oil lamps. But also spare a thought for the sheer amount of labour that royal servants would’ve had to exert to polish the thousands of irregularly-shaped mirror pieces that constitute this kaleidoscopic mosaic and keep them completely free of dust and smudge! To their relief though, relatively larger fragments of mirror are used here unlike many Mughal palaces which were embedded with hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces.

Sheesh Mahal - More a shrine than a bedchamber

Drenched profusely in blinding-bright gold and adorned with convoluted tangles of multicolored floral scrolls, Phool Mahal, the most outstanding hall in the fortress, lends its name to the building it is housed in. With light dramatically reflecting from the painted windowpanes into millions of multi-hued shards and life-like painted portraits of previous sovereigns regally gazing down from their gold-ensconced frames along the roof, the opulent hall, with its luxurious oriental carpets and expensive tapestries, would magically transform every night into a scene of inebriation and adult festivities, overflowing with wine and mouth-watering delicacies, rendered dream-like by the manifolds talents of versatile musicians and beautiful dancing girls.

Constructed for these private celebrations, leisurely pursuits and confidential meetings by Maharaja Abhay Singh after his triumphant return from Ahmedabad (from where came the considerable amount of gold requisite for these enviable adornments), the glittering glimmering hall displays mixed Rajput-Mughal architectural influences. The engrailed arches and the fluted pillars with their elaborate capitals and lotus bases are inspired by Emperor Shahjahan’s innovations in the fortress-palaces at Delhi and Agra (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort, Delhi), but the dazzling gold work, serpentine floral patterns, exquisite frescoes and painted-glass panes have Rajput origins. Maharaja Takhat Singh (reign AD 1843-73) had the ceiling and roof mouldings repainted to incorporate his and his nine sons’ likeness in the scheme.

Interestingly, the bright paints used here were created through traditional processes by dissolving natural colors in a concoction of glue and cow urine which has fungicidal and anti-corrosion properties.

Gold, glue and cow urine! I'm still ambivalent towards this palace.

A staircase opposite Phool Mahal leads to the roof which connects to the roof of the Daulat Khana Mahal where is located the Selaih Khana (“Armoury”), a collection of traditional arms and shields. On exhibit are several excellent watered-steel swords (many with gold hilts inlaid with precious stones), masterfully crafted daggers, ferociously curved Khanjars, exceedingly long spears, Persian knives with painstakingly carved ivory handles, leather-covered shields and rifles. My favourite here is a pair of “Bhuj”, heavy axe-knives from Gujarat with gold bases fashioned as ornamental elephant heads. Also kept alongside are elongated daggers resembling ice-picks that could be concealed in the Bhujs’ long shafts.

More impressive than the displays themselves is that every item is meticulously labelled and curated, not only in Selaih Khana but all other galleries in the fortress as well. Large information panels intersperse all major displays, and it is astonishing to see people halt selfie sessions to read, discuss and occasionally snigger about exhibits. Obviously, printed curation is constrained by limitations of space and aesthetics, but the Museum Trust has also updated (almost) exhaustive details about galleries, period rooms and most objects on display on their website and Facebook page (links in the end). Such effort on the part of museum authorities is seldom seen outside major galleries located in metropolitan cities, and is unheard of in relatively less popular backwaters like Jodhpur – point in case, the museum in Mandore Gardens, only 9 kilometers from Mehrangarh, is absolute rubbish. In fact, I refuse to even classify it as a museum, and I should be paid to go see it rather than the other way around! I'll blog about it in another article.

Fascinating collection

After the Selaih Khana, the aforementioned arrow-marked route directs one to a narrow opening interlinking the roofs of Daulat Khana Mahal and Jhanki Mahal, and thence to Takhat Vilas, Maharaja Takhat Singh’s personal apartment and the most startling hall in the fortress-palace. Every inch of the floor-length bedchamber, including the floor and windowpanes, is gaudily painted to present a graphic potpourri of unrelated scenes from mythology, folklore, warfare and everyday life (Indian and European) scattered amidst a smattering of countless patterns. Bewildered I wondered how the Maharaja slept in this frivolous room considering one’s attention would restlessly flitter from painted panel to panel.

Apparently he did not!

The story goes like this – a minor branch of the Rathore clan of Jodhpur-Marwar was established in Idar (Gujarat) in AD 1730 by Maharaja Anand Singh (reign AD 1731-53) who impulsively conquered the tiny kingdom while marching to Ahmedabad with his elder brother Maharaja Abhay Singh. Maharaja Anand Singh’s descendants also annexed Ahmednagar (Maharashtra) and delegated its suzerainty to yet another minor branch of the Idar family. Maharaja Takhat Singh, sovereign of Ahmednagar (AD 1841-43), belonged to this Idar-Ahmednagar lineage, very distant cousins of the Rathore family of Jodhpur. Heartbroken by the premature demise of all his sons, Maharaja Man Singh was persuaded by his queens to adopt Maharaja Takhat Singh and proclaim him his successor. Maharaja Takhat Singh promptly resigned his Ahmednagar dominions to his Idar cousins and rushed to Jodhpur where he was crowned sovereign of Marwar following the demise of Maharaja Man Singh in AD 1843. He soon however acquired a reputation for debauchery and excessive indulgence (by modern standards)!

Such eccentricity! Curiouser and curiouser! - Takhat Vilas

The subcontinent had over the past century gradually come under the in/direct control of the English East India Company. Powerful regional sovereigns – Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah of Bengal, Mahadaji Scindia of Gwalior, Fath Ali Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, etc – were all dead, and impressive fortress-strongholds were fast becoming redundant in the absence of mutual aggression and perpetual warfare (the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857/First War of Independence was still a decade and a half away). With little else to do, Maharaja Takhat Singh began indulging in chronic womanizing besides other pursuits like polo. Like a pampered teen, he probably used his newfound affluence and breathtaking fortress to impress women, marrying 30 of them over the next 30 years and enrolling at least 19 others as royal concubines! Thus was my query answered. Why would he accessorize the palace the way he did – Christmas baubles dangle from roof rafters! – when he had at his disposal all the resources and accumulated spoils of a 600-year old kingdom would sadly remain unanswered to perplexed visitors.

“The fighting-instinct thrown back upon itself, must have some sort of outlet; and a merciful Providence wisely ordains that the Kings of the East in the nineteenth century shall take pleasure in “shopping” on an imperial scale… gilt blown glass Christmas-tree balls do not go well with the splendours of a Palace that might have been built by Titans and coloured by the morning sun. But there are excuses to be made for Kings who have no work to do – at least such work as their fathers understood best.”
– Rudyard Kipling, English poet-writer-journalist, “Out of India” (1895)

I also find it very revolting that the otherwise pretentious bedchamber has been accessorized with dust-covered mattresses and an unpleasant wooden bed no different from ordinary charpoys used across the country. Did the Maharaja actually use them, or are they substitutes placed here for want of originals? In any case, I'm sure they could have been better kept?

Quite the moustache! - Portrait of Maharaja Takhat Singh, Phool Mahal

The remaining portions of Jhanki Mahal have been converted into curatorial offices and hold little interest, except of architectural nature, for visitors. A constricted hallway on the ground floor houses the Cradle gallery where are displayed several fancy cradles adorned with small blue-and-gold figurines of birds, elephants, mythological deities, arrays of servants and musicians, etc. Many of these cradles are ceremonial ones used on the occasion of Janamashtami festivities (celebrations associated with Lord Krishna’s birth). The vivid designs painted on the roof(s) of Jhanki Mahal are also noteworthy.

Outside hangs a huge realistic painting by German-Indian artist Archibald H. Müeller depicting Veer Durgadas Rathore who for close to three decades (AD 1679-1707) waged a fierce guerrilla war against Emperor Aurangzeb's repugnant machinations and indefatigable armies to secure the recognition of Maharaja Ajit Singh, Maharaja Jaswant Singh's posthumous son, as the rightful sovereign of Jodhpur.

Cradles, baubles and trinkets

Thereafter one is suddenly disgorged back into the blistering sunlight in yet another courtyard, a small one this time, christened Deepak chowk (“Lamp-lit square”) perhaps because of the prodigious amounts of midnight oil burnt by clerks who would assemble everyday in the adjoining rooms to revise administrative and financial records received from the various bureaucratic/military departments and tributary chiefs.

Along each corner of the courtyard is located a small rectangular alcove in which are etched various religious symbols – the Shri Yantra (mystical Tantric diagram) in the first, Lord Shiva's trident in the second, an (unbelievably detailed!) enthroned individual wearing a comical conical cap in the penultimate, and in the last the androgynous “Ardhanarishvara” depiction of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati (composite male-female celestial form split vertically down the middle).

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!” - Holi chowk courtyard

Deepak chowk connects to Holi chowk, the last public section of the fortress, where is located Moti Mahal (“Hall of Pearls”), so designated because of the pearl-like iridescence imparted to it by the use of seashell-derived limestone plaster which renders it the most solemn palace in the fortress. Solemn, sadly, does not translate to unforgettable vis-à-vis an impregnable stronghold and its constituent color-saturated halls.

Unlike Holi chowk where the Maharaja and his queens and concubines celebrated all the important festivals, Moti Mahal was strictly for military/administrative brainstorming. But the august edifice, commissioned by Maharaja Sur Singh (reign AD 1595-1619), was equipped with an innovative appendage – alcoves behind the throne led to balconies from where queens could listen to court proceedings without themselves being detected (more on this medieval socio-cultural aspect later).

An entire side of the hall is pierced by huge painted-glass windows. Witnessing sunlight filtering through these in magical colors and bouncing off the sober walls and the hundreds of perfectly polished mirrors arranged all along the gold-leaf decorated roof is soothing to the extent of being intensely sleep-inducing!

Old-world refinement at its finest - Moti Mahal

The end of the tour of the fortress-palace’s exhilarating interiors is marked by the blotted pink buildings surrounding Zenana Deorhi chowk (“Women’s square”) which are said to be decorated with more than 250 different stone latticework designs (of which a large many are irresistibly bewitching to say the least).

Oblivious to the overwhelming vagaries of time and nature, towering impenetrable in every direction, and clamouring ceaselessly for absolute attention, this unparalleled mound of excruciatingly-detailed filigree windows and millions of minute other projections, carved dexterously enough to appear crafted from soft sandalwood, soars high into the infinite sky as if reaching out to demarcate its own permanent acquisition of an infinitesimal corner of it. One wonders if the women who resided here – queens and concubines – saw it as such, confined to it throughout their eventful lives as they were under the watchful eyes of eunuch guards, egress restricted only to ceremonial occasions and the eventual Sati.

Feminine charm - Zenana Deorhi facade

An enormous numbers of factors need be referenced while discussing medieval notions of women’s seclusion (“zenana”) and chastity (“purdah”) and their contravention of and coexistence with notions of gender equality and socio-economic self-determination, especially while contrasting this with widespread polygamy and systematically institutionalized concubine relationships among Rajput royalty.

In the context of Jodhpur-Marwar, royal marriages were predominantly politically determined and queens were graded hierarchically according to seniority and political expediency. Concubines were also classified in two broad categories – ordinary (“pardayat”) and intimate (“paswan”) – and a number of subcategories. All royal ladies were entitled to private apartments in Zenana Deorhi, retinues of servants and palanquin-bearers, and numerous political prerogatives and socio-economic privileges depending on the aforementioned hierarchical order. They were financially independent for their day-to-day expenditure. Additionally, queens were also authorized to draw upon state resources for commissioning public works and philanthropic undertakings. They could also forbid their husband, the sovereign, from allocating apartments in Zenana Deorhi to his concubines, as happened in the case of Maharaja Takhat Singh whose queens were exhausted with his excessive philandering. Not to be outdone, he commissioned the standalone Chokhelao Bagh palace in another section of the fortress for the purpose.

Locked away from prying eyes - Rear apartments, Zenana Deorhi

If one has money to splurge, a section of the Zenana Deorhi has been converted into the Mehrangarh Museum shop where can be purchased exorbitantly priced t-shirts, elephant coasters and jewellery. Some well-researched books are also available, again marked at stupendous prices. Don’t miss the painted door adorned with faded images of various Hindu deities in the corner adjacent the souvenir store.

Another wing of the Deorhi has been converted into a scholars’ retreat where reside researchers and conservationists employed in the fortress/museum. Though this section is out of bounds for ordinary visitors, I was able to access it thanks to my friend Shakshi who works with the Museum Trust’s department of textile conservation. Shakshi also showed me the moderately-proportioned rear courtyard section of Zenana Deorhi, one of the most unforgettable palaces I’ve stepped in, laden as it is with lace-like delicate latticework screens, exquisite projecting windows, off-white stucco finish resembling marble, and telltale gorgeous facades festooned with plaster and paintwork details that would not have been out of place in one of Emperor Shahjahan’s fairy tale marble edifices. Of course, much of my unbounded appreciation for this hidden corner can be chalked up to having a solitary run of the place with no incorrigible guides regurgitating ridiculous stories or selfie-clicking tourists stepping into my frame.

Forgotten princesses, secluded palaces

Three hours since I stepped through the enormous Jai Pol, it was now time for lunch and I was back at Shakshi’s side. There are three café/restaurants within the fortress – Palki, which is located close to the ticket counter and serves moderately-priced breakfast snacks and confectioneries, Café Mehran, a full-fledged restaurant offering exorbitantly-priced traditional Rajasthani lunch combos, and Café Chokhelao (aka Mehran Terrace), located in Chokhelao Bagh palace and renowned for very expensive candle-lit dinners with the majestic fortress lit red-orange looming in the background. Conservationists employed by the Trust get discount at all of them. Shakshi says that's the only reason I was with her, but she’s lying.

I recommend the Lal Maans (red meat) combo at Café Mehran – bite-sized mutton in spicy watery gravy served with boiled rice, salad and chapattis – priced at Rs 600. The mutton was soft and perfectly diced, and the portions are almost sufficient for two. The servers, who were without exception in the 55-65 age group (I might be wrong though), were exceedingly soft-spoken and courteously waited upon patrons as if they were modern-day Maharajas which I found very embarrassing. The decor – soothing blue and lemon walls decorated with life-size portraits of erstwhile Maharajas – is also interesting. Cost for two – Rs 1,000.

The brownies and mirchi vadas (spicy fried fritters stuffed with mashed potatoes and chilli) at Café Palki are also okay, though nothing worth writing about.

The Serpent Goddess' shrine framed against the expansive Blue City

Satiated, I found myself back at Suraj Pol to explore the ramparts and the two shrines on the other side. The transition from palaces to defenses, and by corollary opulence to exclusive functionality and artistic austerity, is abrupt, the only interlude being the simplistic though not unadorned temple dedicated to Goddess Nagnechia, a serpent divinity half-woman half-snake, whom the Rathores revere as “Kuldevi” (clan deity) and whose idol Rao Jodha specially brought from Mandore and established here in AD 1460.

The temple's painted gateway is adorned with murals depicting Lord Ganesha in one panel and one of the Maharajas worshipping the enthroned Goddess in another. The temple itself comprises of a large cloister-enveloped courtyard with a moderately-proportioned four-cell sanctum at the far-end where are consecrated bronze idols of Lord Shiva, Lord Krishna and Goddess Hingla besides Goddess Nagnechia.

An obscure eight-armed folk goddess, Hingla ji is considered the patron deity of Kshatriyas (warrior caste) because she provided sanctuary to the descendants of Emperor Kartavirya Arjuna (aka Sahasrabahu Arjuna) of the (probably mythological) ancient kingdom of Haihaya/Mahishmati when Lord Parashurama, another incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was ruthlessly annihilating all the Kshatriyas off the face of the earth.

The sanctum's exterior walls too are painted gorgeously to depict the royal retinue on the march, perhaps referencing Rao Jodha’s journey to Mandore and back to transfer the Goddess’ idol from the old city to the new. The expansive temple courtyard is also the site of the annual Navratri festivities during which the silver idol of Goddess Gangaur from Daulat Khana Mahal is brought here in a palanquin in a colorful musical procession and worshipped alongside Goddesses Nagnechia and Hinglaji.

Bedecked like a bride - Gangaur, Goddess of marital bliss,
Daulat Khana Mahal museum

Venturing further along the ramparts, abutting the eventual extremity of the colossal fortress is located the second shrine which is consecrated to Goddess Chamunda, a manifestation of Goddess Kali, the ferocious black-skinned blood-drenched personification of death and destruction. This tiny edifice was partially reconstructed by Maharaja Takhat Singh in AD 1857 as the original structure was severely damaged in an explosion caused by lightning striking a gunpowder store nearby.

The juxtaposition of the old and the new in the temple's aesthetics, especially the exquisitely crafted and perfectly polished stone festooning and banana-blossom roof against the older, relatively unsophisticated sculptures of muscular gatekeepers, lean “Gandharvas” (celestial musicians), and short and chubby “Ashtadikas” (mythical guardians of the directions), makes for very interesting photography compositions.

Folklore associated with the shrine describes how the fierce but munificent Goddess would manifest in Rao Jodha’s dreams and apprise him of military strategies to be employed in difficult wars. In one such iteration of these fantastical Homeric dreams, he was informed that the enemy sovereign’s armour could only be pierced if attacked in a particular manner which shall be conveyed to him on the battlefield by the Goddess manifesting in the form of an eagle. Lo and behold! An eagle materialized next to him during the course of the battle and he instinctively felled the enemy sovereign with a single arrow. All of this within the span of a few seconds, even before the eagle could resume its flight and disappear into nothingness.

If Serpent Goddess wasn't enough, how about Eagle Goddess?
Goddess Chamunda's temple

Beginning that day, eagles came to be revered in Jodhpur as benevolent aspects of the Goddess and it’s prophesied that the city shall prosper as long as these magnificent birds of prey fly above Mehrangarh. As a sanguine nod to the tale’s authenticity, an eagle with outspread wings and a raised talon (symbolic of being in the process of resuming its flight after communicating the Goddess’ missive to Rao Jodha) features on the royal family’s multicolored flag and coat-of-arms.

The downside of this and the other tales is that they caricature Rao Jodha. Here’s an unequalled warrior who cannot fathom war manoeuvres that are apparent to peasant women but understands eagles! Think of all the literature and sitcom references that can be generated from this one sentence. Pokémon, anyone? Perhaps he was Newt Scamander speaking bird Parseltongue? Nope, actually the Goddess was Brandon Stark warging in eagles because there aren't many ravens in Rajasthan! Overlooked in this absurd storytelling is the fact that the Rao raised an invulnerable stronghold, one of the finest I've come across in my sojourns.

I would not put too much stock in the tale of the Goddess manifesting as an eagle either. Apparently, the 330 million deities in the Hindu pantheon appeared as flora, fauna and even miraculously-originating idols with alarming frequency. The Vaidyanatheswara temple in Talakadu commemorates Lord Shiva incarnating as a tree (refer Pixelated Memories - Sand-submerged temples of Talakadu, Karnataka). The 50+ Shakti Peethas scattered across the subcontinent house tiny stone fragments believed to be Goddess Sati's body parts. The Kankalitala Shakti Peetha in fact grew around a water tank in which it's said the Goddess' waist lies submerged! (refer Pixelated Memories - Kankalitala Shaktipeetha, Bengal).

The Old Gods and the New

Between the two shrines, the long walkway along the cannon-mounted ramparts overlooks the enchanting city lethargically sprawled encircled by hills so distant that it is difficult to perceive where they become one with the great desert lying beyond. In the distance rises the humongous profile of Umaid Bhawan palace. In the immediate vicinity the contours of the city, an ever-multiplying sea of miniature Lego blocks predominantly painted blue in continuation with a medieval scheme of color-coded caste discrimination.

From here, the laid-back Blue City suddenly seems deserted, the deluge of humanity vanishes magically. No multicolored flags flutter on invisible clotheslines, nor do vehicles create an ear-splitting ruckus. Only incalculable multitudes of swifts swoop and pirouette in every direction against the ink-black overcast skies, while giant eagles trace successively smaller circles overhead in a scene reminiscent of “The Lord of the Rings”.  Alas, the moment of all-comprehension and self-discovery was not to be – another bunch of hyperactive, incessantly chattering visitors appears without premonition, a guard huffing and puffing in tow, cajoling the reckless ones to not cross the railings along the precipice and click selfies elsewhere.

Umaid Bhavan - Palace at the threshold of the Great Desert

It had begun drizzling again. I had planned the two-day trip under the assumption that monsoon and the associated swarms of tourists were still a month away, but unexpectedly it pitter-pattered intermittently on both days, though thankfully the tourists did not materialize, at least not in incredulous numbers.

I was compelled to skip the Chokhelao Bagh palace, but the sudden downpour magically rendered the already spellbinding landscape into an unbelievable explosion of drenched hues, a visual tiramisu of sorts – inky-black sky stretching as far as the eye could see, yellow-orange towers and castellations, pink-red palaces gradually assuming darker shades, brightly glistening greys of the oft-trodden cobbled stone walkways, and the expanse of the violet-blue city underneath punctuated by occasional brick reds, dull oranges and cement greys, hemmed by the dark green-browns of the wilderness beyond. Each thunderclap sent innumerable swifts in flights of rapturous frenzy and the already overcast skies were soon saturated with agitated black pinpricks zigzagging around like notorious little pixies.

The breathtaking scene was impossible to photograph and is incredibly difficult to describe. As I stood there on the ramparts taking in the colors and the majesty of Mehrangarh, I  could not help but drift back to Rajasthan tourism’s newly launched track song –

“Maati maange painjani, Bangdi pehne baadli
Dedo dedo baavdo, Ghor-mator baavdi”

(“The land is wearing anklets, the sky is wearing bangles
The clouds in a happy frenzy have taken different shapes, the beautiful revolving rotund earth”)

Chokhelao Bagh, Maharaja Takhat Singh's special pleasure palace
(square building on left)

Location: Jodhpur is located 600 kilometers from Delhi. There is regular train and bus service between the two cities. I personally prefer Mandore Express and Delhi Serai Rohilla - Jodhpur Superfast since they're both overnight trains on both up and down routes.
Open: All days except Mondays, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 100 (Rs 50 for senior citizens and students), Foreigners: Rs 600, including audio guide and elevator charges (Rs 500 for senior citizens and students)
Still camera charges: Indians: Rs 100, Foreigners: Rs 25
Video camera charges: Indians: Rs 200, Foreigners: Rs 50
Audio guide facility: Rs 170 (Rs 100 for senior citizens and students) (applicable only for Indian citizens)
Time required for sightseeing: 3 hrs (not including lunch at the restaurants)
Time required to explore Jodhpur in its entirety: 2 days (not including the numerous baolis/jhalras)
Charges/person inclusive of food and lodging in Jodhpur: Rs 3,000 for 2 days, 1 night stay (assuming hotel charges Rs 1,000/day). This does not not include travel from-and-to Delhi/elsewhere.
Relevant Links -
Other Geological Monuments in the country -
Other fortress-palaces in the country -
Other heritage cities in the country -
Other important museums in the country -
Suggested Reading -
  1. - "Reinventing Rajasthan's master musicians" (March 15, 2016) by Geoff Wood
  2. - "Annals and antiquities of Rajasthan" by Lieut.-Col. James Tod
  3. - The Blue City of Jodhpur
  4. - Sati handprints, Jodhpur, India
  5. - "Spring-cleaning India's most magnificent tent" (May 14, 2017) by Melissa Klugt
  6. - "A city's psyche" (May 03, 2015) by Akhil Kadidal
  7. (Official Facebook page of Mehrangarh Museum Trust)
  8. - Jodhpur genealogy (AD 1226 - present)
  9. - Photo essay "The Queen's Diary" by Tashi Tobgyal
  10. - "Embodying Royal Concubinage - Some aspects of concubinage in royal Rajput household of Marwar, (Western Rajasthan) C. 16th-18th centuries" by Priyanka Khanna
  11. - The practice of Sati (widow burning) (May 02, 2017) by Linda Heaphy
  12. - Mehrangarh Fort – The Exterior
  13. - "A 550-year old backdrop to the stars" (July 26, 2012) by Gayatri Jayaraman
  14. - "Restoring a movable palace from the Mughal era" (June 7, 2017) by Surbhi Kapila
  15. - Architecture (Official website of Mehrangarh Museum Trust)
  16. - Arms & Armour
  17. - Period rooms
  18. - The splendour of Marwar region of Thar desert
  19. - Jodhpur genealogy (AD 1226 - present)
  20. - An Honourable Man (Durgadas Rathore)
  21. - BSF and its Camel Contingent
  22. - "Pleasure palace" (June 20, 2009) by William Dalrymple
  23. - Battle of Sammel
  24. - Durgadas Rathore
  25. - Jodhpur
  26. - Jodhpur Group – Malani Igneous Suite Contact
  27. - Jodhpur State
  28. - Karni Mata
  29. - Maharaja Takht Singh
  30. - Rao Nara
  31. - Rajasthan Tourism Ad compilation

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