India day thirteen
29.10.2015 - 29.10.2015
It was an apologetic Mehar who greeted us this morning – for the first time on the trip he had been unable to fill up with petrol the previous evening so we would have to stop on our way out of Udaipur. Of course this didn’t bother us in the slightest as it was a matter of minutes to stop at the petrol station and it gave me an opportunity to photograph more of India’s colourful lorries.
Our destination today was Bundi, but on the way we would visit the hilltop fort of Chittaurgarh, which occupies a prime position on a ridge of land above the modern day town of Chittor. From there a winding road ascends beneath seven gates to enter the fort. Inside are temples, palaces and towers, in various states of repair and many covered in beautiful and fascinating carvings. And all have a story to tell.
Part of the fort from the ramparts
Chittaurgarh, or Chittorgarh as it is sometimes written, is the largest fort in India and indeed in the whole of Asia. From the 8th century, when it was built, to the 10th, and again from the 13th to the 16th, when it was finally abandoned after Akbar successfully laid siege to it, this fort was the capital of the kingdom of Mewar. The tales of battles fought here, of heroism and sacrifice, still resonate in the hearts of Indians it seems, although they are not much told outside the country and relatively few foreign tourists visit the fort. That is a pity, as it has a special atmosphere very different to the other forts on the tourist trails such as Jaisalmer or Agra’s Red Fort, owing in part at least to its more ruined state.
The three most significant events during the fort’s history were all sieges. The first was led by Allaudin Khilji, his eyes on Queen Padmini of Chittaur, in 1303 A.D. The second, in 1535, was led by Bahadur Shah of Gujurat, and the third in 1568 by the Mughal emperor Akbar. On all three occasions the women of the court committed Jauhar, mass immolation, rather than be seized and no doubt raped by the invading army. It is the bravery of these women, as well as the men who resisted the attacks, that has made Chittaurgarh such a byword for heroism among Indians.
We had been told in Jaisalmer that it was the only still-occupied fort in India, a fact that you will read in many sources. But when we came to Chittaurgarh we found that here too people still make their homes, in a village at the northern end of the fort. On arriving inside the fort, Mehar drove us to this village, as our guide lived there. We were later told that it had a population of about 5,000, living in this small area of the fort to which, under its UNESCO listed status (as part of a group of six Rajasthan hill forts which also includes Jaisalmer and Jaipur), residential occupation is restricted.
Village temple and resident
We only saw a little of the village, which seemed to me at the same time unremarkable and yet extremely so – an ordinary-looking Rajasthani village in this very extraordinary setting. A sprinkling of temples, a variety of houses (a few quite smart, the rest less so, many painted Brahmin blue and all pretty old), cows and pigs wandering the streets …
The guide arranged for us by our tour company, Parvati Sukhwal, is a resident of the village in the fort, where she runs this guesthouse with her husband. She met us on arrival and welcomed us in her home with great Italian coffee (easily the best cup of coffee I had while in India) and a chance to use one of the guest bathrooms to freshen up after our drive. This gave me a chance to see one of the bedrooms as well as the public areas, so although we didn’t stay here I could see that while it is a fairly simple guesthouse, it is clearly run with a great deal of care and pride and in a very nicely restored haveli. The rooms are all en suite and vegetarian meals are available. Parvati in fact invited us back for a lunch of tomato soup and we would have loved to have accepted but we had our own accommodation already booked some distance away in Bundi and knew we would have to leave straight after our visit to the fort to get there on time.
The guesthouse is run in partnership with a Swiss couple who live in Europe but visit frequently (that explains the good coffee!), and employs a number of local people. Both Parvati and her husband are qualified guides and offer tours of the fort and other nearby sights. But although she was supposed to be our guide, she explained that she had only recently had a baby and rather than leave him had arranged for her nephew to show us around. He was relatively young and I wasn’t sure at first whether he would make a good replacement, but I needn’t have worried. He proved to be one of the best guides we had in Rajasthan – very knowledgeable about the fort and the many stories associated with it, speaking good English and never rushing us when we wanted to take photos.
Our guide (drawing a plan of the fort for us)
Our tour started by the reservoir in front of the Shiva Temple. Chittaurgarh is also sometimes referred to as the “Water Fort” because 40% of its area was given over to water bodies including ponds, reservoirs and wells. There were once 84 in total and together they held enough water to supply the fort for four years, meeting the water needs of an army of 50,000.
Reservoir with temple beyond
Of these, 22 still remain. At our young guide’s suggestion, we stopped on the road that runs along the east side of the fort, which is relatively untravelled (most visitors stay around the “big” sights on the west side), for views of this reservoir. Beyond it is a Shiva temple dating from the 15th century. This location is not far from the inhabited village area and as you can see some locals use it for clothes washing. The combination of ancient temple and present-day activity made it a great photo stop, and having it to ourselves was a bonus.
Washing clothes at the Shiva Temple
Jain Tower and Temple
This is one of two similar ornately carved towers at Chittaurgarh, and is located on the east side of the fort (the other, the Victory Tower, is on the west side – we will see it later). Also known as the Tower of Fame, or Kirti Stambh, this was built by a wealthy Jain merchant, Jijaji Rathod, in the 12th century.
The tower is 22 metres high and is dedicated to Adinathji, the 1st Jain Teerthankar, and the carvings include naked Thirthankar figures – their nakedness indicating that the tower is associated with the Digambars (a Jain sect known as the “sky-clad” who do not believe in covering the natural body) There are also some rather appealing elephants. The little pavilion at the top was added in the 15th century.
Next to the tower is a small Jain temple which we went inside. The tower is a place of pilgrimage for Jains and this temple is still active. Some websites label pictures of this as the “Meera Temple” but I believe that this is a different temple on the other side of the complex, near the larger Khumbh-Shyam Temple.
Arriving in the fort from the town of Chittor, which lies on its west side, you will pass through a series of seven gates: Padan Pol, Bhairon Pol, Hanuman Pol, Ganesh Pol, Jodla Pol, Laxman Pol and the main entry gate, Ram Pol (Lord Rama’s Gate). But here on the east there is another impressive gate or “pol”, which is known as the Sun Gate or Suraj Pol because of this location. The heavy wooden gates are studded with iron spikes (just visible on the left side of my photo) to repel attack by elephants.
From this vantage point you have a great view of the plain below. Today this is peaceful farmland, with a small village also called Suraj Pol, after the gate. But in the past this was the site of many bloody battles, as the warriors of Chittaurgarh rode out to face their enemies and were often slaughtered. In the regular battles between Mughal invaders and Rajput rulers here, the Rajputs would do anything to avoid being captured alive and enslaved or tortured, so they would ride to their deaths rather than continue to resist the siege when defeat became inevitable – this practice was known as the saka. For the same reason the women would practice jauhar, mass immolation, along with their children – since the Mughals were believed to rape even the bodies of dead women.
Chittaurgarh is renowned for the three major acts of jauhar committed here, after defeat in three sieges. The first of these was led by Allaudin Khilji in 1303, the second in 1535 by Bahadur Shah of Gujurat, and the third in 1568 by the Mughal emperor Akbar.
View from Suraj Pol
This seems to be another of the less visited sights in the fort and we had it to ourselves when our guide brought us here. It dates from the 12th century and is dedicated to Shiva – or rather, was dedicated to Shiva; it is now in ruins and many of its carvings defaced, so it is no longer considered holy, according to our guide. Nevertheless, it holds a beautiful image of the three faces of Shiva. A three-faced Shiva like this is known as Trimurti. The heads show him in his three forms: creation, protection, and destruction. In Hindu belief, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. His role is to preserve the balance of the universe through destruction in order to generate renewal.
By the way, and to avoid any confusion, the Samidheswar Mahadev Temple nearer the Victory Tower also has a three-faced Shiva which you will see photos of more often than this one, as it is more visited.
There are good views from here of the Victory Tower which we will visit shortly.
Padmini Palace and Jal Mahal
Padmini Palace and Jal Mahal
Jal Mahal from the palace
Perhaps the most visited and photographed of Chittaurgarh’s many ruins is this, Padmini’s Palace. This is due as much to the story of Padmini as it is to the building itself.
Maharani Padmini was the wife of Rana Ratan Singh, and very beautiful. Hearing of her beauty Ala-ud-din Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, laid siege to Chittaurgarh hoping to capture her. After seven months of siege, when those inside the fort were close to collapse, Ala-ud-din proposed to spare them if he could be granted one glimpse of Padmini. Ratan Singh agreed but didn’t permit a direct look. Instead a mirror was placed here in the building today known as Padmini’s Palace, while she sat on the steps of the small building in the lake, the Jal Mahal. Pretending himself to be satisfied, Ala-ud-din Khilji asked Ratan Singh to accompany him to the gate of the fort to see him off, and as the Rajputs were unused to subterfuge, Singh agreed.
Of course it was a trap, and he was captured by the Sultan’s army. Again Ala-ud-din proposed a deal – if Padmini would agree to go with him, her husband would be released. So she hatched a plan, agreeing to go with Singh only if her entourage of servants and companions could accompany her, as befitted a queen. Her wish was granted, but the palanquins that went with her to the gates of the fort held not maidservants but soldiers, who attacked the invading troops. Defeated Ala-ud-din retreated – only to return again the following year with more and better soldiers.
This time Chittaurgarh could not hold out and the Rajputs were overpowered. Their warriors died on the battlefield and Padmini led the women of the fort into the burning pyres in the first of the three acts of Jauhar to be performed here.
The other instances of Jauhar followed the two sieges of 1528 and 1568. Although similar to the practice of Sati, which we had heard so much about in Jaisalmer, it differs from it in that in the latter a widow or concubine committed suicide as a sign of devotion to her dead husband and grief at his death, while Jauhar was usually a mass act and was motivated by a desire to avoid being captured and raped by the invading Muslims – that is, to prevent something happening rather than a response to something that had happened.
Jal Mahal detail
On the ramparts
This was another spot that our young guide led us to, which we would never have found on our own. About half way between Padmini Palace and the Victory Tower a path leads off to the left (if driving north) through a grey kissing gate. You walk across some scrubby ground for about five minutes and at the end climb on to the wall. If you then walk right for about 100 metres, you will get excellent views of the modern town of Chittor below and several of the fort buildings.
View from the ramparts
The Victory Tower or Vijaya Stambha rivals the Padmini Palace as the most visited and photographed sight in Chittaurgarh, and here you will certainly encounter the crowds. But as it is one of an impressive group of buildings, that is hardly surprising.
The tower is 37.19 metres high and was built by Maharana Kumbha in 1448 to commemorate his victory over Mahmud Shah I Khalji, the Sultan of Malwa, eight years earlier. It is part of red sandstone and part white marble, and is carved with images of gods and goddesses, seasons, weapons, musical instruments etc. Although we didn’t do so, it is possible to climb its nine stories and the views of the fort must be great from the top.
Also in this part of the fort are several temples, including the Kalika Mata Temple which was built in the 8th century as a Sun temple but destroyed in the 14th century siege by Ala-ud-din Khilji. It was restored and rededicated to the Goddess Kali. Nearby is a partly ruined temple that frames the tower for good photos.
Victory Tower from ruined temple
These temples look down on a garden that marks the spot where, according to our guide, some of the famous acts of Jauhar were carried out. Beyond is the Samadhishwar Temple dedicated to Shiva which dates from the 11th century and was renovated in 1428. Like the Adbhutnath Temple it contains an image of Trimurti Shiva, that is, three-faced, but we didn’t go in as we were running out of time at this point if we were to reach Bundi that afternoon.
The monkeys of Chittaurgarh
On the path leading to and from the Victory Tower we encountered a large troop of langur monkeys. They were totally unafraid of people, being obviously very accustomed to the attentions of passing tourists. Consequently, I got my best monkey photos of the whole trip here!
India’s langurs are Grey or Hanuman Langurs (the latter name taken from the Hindu god). They are a pale or yellowish grey with a black face and long tails (up to 100 cm and always longer than their body). I found them very attractive, with expressive faces and the tail curled rather elegantly. They are increasingly moving away from their natural habitats, which include forests, mountains and grasslands, to more urban environments. They are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and are therefore less likely to be regarded as pests than macaques, although they do regularly steal food and crops.
This was also one of the spots on this trip where we found ourselves starring in other people’s photos, as a group of visiting school boys were all keen to pose with us here. In the end we had to turn down their requests as we knew we still had some distance to drive to reach Bundi that afternoon …