India day four
20.10.2015 - 20.10.2015
The Amber Fort
Amber Fort from Maota Lake
This is what a fort should look like, perhaps – high on a hill, dominating the surrounding countryside, large and apparently impregnable. But climb the hill and pass through those fortified gates, and you find yourself in another world – a world of elegant and sumptuous palace architecture, mirrored halls and pretty gardens.
Amber or Amer Fort (in any case, the “b” is not pronounced) is situated about 11 kilometres from Jaipur and usually visited from there. There has been a fort here since the 10th century AD but most of the current buildings date from the 17th.
We came to Amer on the morning of our day spent in and around Jaipur, and spent several hours exploring the various courtyards and beautiful buildings here – with more time in our schedule we could easily have spent longer! As well as the wonderful decorative features, I loved the views from the fort of Maota Lake at the foot of the hill and the surrounding landscape.
The fort was established in what was the Kachwaha capital by the then king, Man Singh I, in 1529, on the site of an earlier 10th / 11th century fort. It was added to significantly in the early 17th century by his grandson Jai Singh I who was an army general during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (he who built the Taj Mahal – I fancied I saw his influence in places here, if only in the use of white marble). In 1727 the Kachwahas shifted their capital to Jaipur but continued to maintain the fort, partly because it is home to an important temple, the Shila Devi Temple.
The name "amber" derives not from the colour of the sandstone, as I had assumed prior to visiting, but from the goddess Amba Mata (Mother Earth) who was worshiped by local tribes here long before the fort was built.
Your first view of the fort will probably be, as ours was, from the far side of Maota Lake. It is worth stopping here for some time as it’s the perfect spot from which to take some photos. As well as Amer Fort you can see the neighbouring Jaigarh Fort, part of the same defensive complex. The lake is also a good place for bird-watching it seems – I spotted several stilts, egrets and herons.
It was very busy when we were here, not only with tourists but also groups of pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Saraswati Puja festival at the temple in the fort. Their colourful flags and clothing added to the charm of the scene and really got our camera shutter fingers busy!
Pilgrims by Maota Lake
Elephant or jeep?
The most popular way to visit the fort is by ascending the hill on an elephant, but we were here at the time of the major Hindu festival, Saraswati Puja, and the elephants had been given a holiday. We were to see why when we arrived in the fort and saw the courtyard they normally occupy, Jaleb Chowk, taken over by the pilgrims. From a conversation overheard at our Jaipur hotel I gather that tourists who were disappointed by the lack of elephant rides at this time could choose to do one somewhere else nearby – although I guess that it wouldn’t be the same as arriving in a fort by this means. And in any case, there has been some criticism by animal welfare groups of the way in which elephants are kept and used here (poor housing conditions and abuse of the animals). Our tour company TransIndus doesn’t recommend tourists riding them to the fort and, much as I love the romantic idea, I would have followed their advice even had the option been open to us. As it was, it was a choice of a long hot uphill walk or a jeep. You can guess which I chose – especially as the jeep had been prepaid and included in our tour cost.
It’s quite a bumpy ride as you rattle upwards through the narrow streets of the small town of Amer that lies in the shadow of the fort, but an interesting one as you get glimpses of local life in passing. Don’t hope to take many photos though, as it’s more or less impossible to hold a camera still!
View of the fort's walls from where we caught the jeep
Musician by arrival area
Taking the jeep meant that we arrived at a different gate from those walking – the Moon Gate (Chand Pol) rather than the Sun Gate (Suraj Pol, where the elephants when operating also arrive). But both gates lead to the same point, the Jaleb Chowk.
This large courtyard, the first of a series we will pass through, was the fort’s parade ground. I have seen the name translated variously as ““the quadrangle where horses and elephants are tethered” and “a place for soldiers to assemble”, but in practice both were true even if only one (I believe the latter) is an accurate translation. Here the Maharaja would inspect his troops and here those same troops would, on returning from battle, display their war loot. The women of the palace could look down on these scenes from the screened windows above.
Today it is usually the place where the elephants that bring tourists to the fort are tethered, but as I have explained, when we visited the courtyard had been taken over by the many groups of pilgrims visiting the temple that lies just off one corner of Jaleb Chowk, to mark the festival of Saraswati Puja. So for us it was a different, but very colourful scene.
There are two gates opening on to Jaleb Chowk – on the eastern side the Sun Gate or Suraj Pol, and on the west the Moon Gate, Chand Pol. Stately processions would have entered the fort only through the Suraj Pol. In my photo above, taken from the next level, the Sun Gate is on the right and the Moon Gate on the left. You can see the many temporary canopies erected to shield pilgrims from the sun as they waited their turn to go into the Sila Devi temple. This lies in the south west corner (bottom left of my photo and out of shot). This is where the Maharajas used to offer animal sacrifices (usually a buffalo) until that practice was stopped here, I think in the 1980s (if I remember our guide’s talk accurately). Today’s pilgrims bring offerings of food instead. We weren’t able to go inside the temple because of the festival but I believe it is usually possible.
In the photo below you can see the Sun Gate more clearly, and pilgrims gathering nearby, probably having just completed the walk up to the fort. On the distant hills you can see the old walls that still surround Amber and Jaigarh Forts, and just a corner of the latter in the top left.
Jaleb Chowk and Suraj Pol
Pilgrims and pilgrim flag
On the south side of the courtyard is a wide staircase leading up through the Singh Pol (Lion Gate) to the next part of the palace.
Singh Pol from the far side
The second courtyard of the fort is dominated by the Hall of Public Audience or Diwan-i-Am. As the name suggests, this was where the Maharajah would meet the people, respond to petitions and settle disputes. It was also the place where certain festivities were celebrated – victory in battle, the birthday of the Maharajah and more. It was constructed in the early 17th century, built from red sandstone and marble, and modelled on similar halls in Mughal palaces. It combines Mughal and Raiput styles, with decorative elements such as elephant trunk brackets and vines. The roof is supported by sandstone columns on the outer edges and marble ones within.
You can get some great views from here of the Saffron Garden or Kesar Kyaari on Maota Lake below. It is named for the saffron flowers that used to be planted here.
View of Maota Lake and Kesar Kyaari
While we were here there was some minor restoration work going on and it was interesting to watch the men working to clean the carvings and bring them back to their best.
Taking a break from restoration work
Restoring the Diwan-i-Am
Next to the Diwan-I-Am is the Sattais Katcheri, where scribes would sit to receive and record revenue brought to the Maharaja. I have read that both this and the Diwan-i-Am are frequented by monkeys but there were none here when we visited, perhaps because of the restoration work in progress.
From this courtyard the fort’s best known gate leads to a third.
The Ganesh Pol, or Elephant Gate, connects the second and third courtyards, and is the most richly decorated of all the gates here – a riot of colour, both frescoes and mosaics, with flowers, vines, flower vases and intricate geometric designs. The design of a large central arch flanked by two smaller ones on each side, one above the other, shows the influence of Mughal architecture here (the Taj Mahal has the same arrangement, for instance) and has led to speculation that it was made by Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, rather than his father, Jai Singh I.
Above the main arch is a fresco depicting Ganesh, the Hindu god, with the customary mouse at his feet and on either side a slender cypress tree. Unusually Ganesh is here shown in profile rather than the more usual face forward pose. Walking beneath him you must make two right-angled turns through the gate – a design intended to impede invading armies.
From the lattice-screened walkway above the gate, known as the Suhag Mandir, the ladies could look down on the activity in and around the Diwan-I-Am. Also from here the maharani would await the maharaja’s return from battle and sprinkle scented water and flowers down on him in welcome and gratitude for his safe homecoming.
After passing through the gate you will be able to climb to the Suhag Mandir yourself to enjoy the same views the ladies in purdah would have had, and to get good views too of the next courtyard.
Aram Bagh and Sukh Mandir
Passing through the Ganesh Pol you come to the third courtyard, the heart of the private part of the palace where the maharaja held court. Unlike the earlier ones, which are paved, this has a garden laid out in the traditional Mughal charbagh style, divided into symmetrical quarters. In the centre is a star-shaped pool. You can get a good view from above by ascending the stairs above the Ganesh Pol to the Suhag Mandir, which gives you an opportunity to really appreciate the symmetry of this style of garden.
Aram Bagh and sweeper
Sukh Mandir details
To your right as you look from the gate is the Sukh Mandir, known as the “pleasure palace” or “temple of contentment”. This was where a maharaja would relax, no doubt with his maharani (queen) and some of the women of the harem. It is clearly designed for such relaxation. A channel running through it carries water which flows out into the pool of the Aram Bagh, helping to keep the marble rooms cool. The doors are of sandalwood and ivory, and the walls are decorated in a more subtle, restful style than the ornate rooms elsewhere – quite a contrast to the Jai Mandir which lies on the opposite side of the gardens.
Jai Mandir and Sheesh Mahal
Opposite the Sukh Mandir on the other side of the Aram Bagh (that is, your left as you pass through the Ganesh Pol) is possibly the most sumptuous building within the fort and also its most famous. The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is divided into three sections – the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) on the ground floor at the front, the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) behind this, and the Jas Mandir (Hall of Glory) on the upper floor – although some sources refer to the whole of the lower part as the Sheesh Mahal. Certainly its decorations merit that. Ceilings and walls are studded with thousands of small pieces of glass and mirrors, reflecting light and a multitude of images and colours.
One explanation for the decoration that I read is that the queen was not allowed to sleep in the open air although she loved to see the stars shining. So the king ordered his architects to design a room where she could do that, as the candlelight reflected from all the mirrors was said to resemble a thousand stars. I think this explanation is unlikely however, as the queen would have slept in the women’s quarters around the fourth courtyard, the Zenana. It was probably the maharaja himself therefore who liked to sleep under the stars!
Around the outside of the Jai Mandir are marble panels carved with exotic flowers and little insects. Some of the flowers are said to imitate other insects and animals such as a hooded cobra (look at the leaf near the bottom right of the first photo below).
Jai Mandir: details of carvings
The final courtyard in the complex is the Zenana. This is the oldest part of the fort, built at the end of the 16th century during the reign of Raja Man Singh I. It originally formed the main palace but was later converted into the Zenana or "women's quarters" to house his twelve wives and concubines. Each queen/maharani and concubine had her individual suite of rooms here so the maharaja could visit one without the others knowing. In the centre of the courtyard is a covered pavilion, the Baradari, which formed the gathering place for the women. Here they would gossip and no doubt try to assert their own status within the ranks based on wealth, looks and the frequency of the maharaja’s visits!
Unfortunately I had a small problem with my camera here, which jammed – I think the heat got to it, as it did a couple of times on this trip. It sorted itself after turning off and waiting a while, but by then we were on our way out of the fort. The heat must have got to me too, as stupidly I didn’t think to take any photos on my phone! So at this point I run out of images …
We also ran out of energy around here too, and decided to head back to the city for refreshments and to see some of the sights there. On the way though, we made one further stop, to see the Jal Mahal.
Jal Mahal: the Lake Palace
We stopped briefly for photos here on our way back into town from the Amber Fort. The Jal Mahal sits in the south west corner of Man Sagar Lake, a man-made lake created in the 16th century when a dam was built across the Darbhawati River to address water shortage problems in Amer. The palace itself is thought to have been used for Maharajah picnics and duck hunting parties, but no one seems quite sure. It is partly sunk, with four floors hidden under water (when the lake is full), and has been neglected for over 200 years, but our guide told us there are now plans to restore it and open it as a hotel. If done well (and the Indians do these things very well) it will be an amazing place to stay!
The lake too has been badly neglected in the past, with pollution caused by untreated sewage and a build-up of silt on the lake bed. In recent years a number of bodies, including tourism and government organisations, have worked together to address this and the lake has been considerably cleaned up. A sign of this is the gradual return of bird life, although not in the numbers and variety (yet) that they once were. Nevertheless just from the roadside I spotted a number of egrets, Chinese cormorants, a brown heron and a few moorhens.
We were here in the morning when unfortunately the light is not at its best for photographs – I imagine it could be wonderful in the late afternoon or at sunset. However we did have an interesting encounter here which made the stop more memorable. On the terrace overlooking the lake we met an enterprising young lad offering to show us some magic. We decided to invest a few rupees in his performance and he performed some sleight of hand tricks with coins, cups and small stones. At times it was easy to spot him palming the objects, but at other times he surprised us, making the coins "pass through Chris's head" from ear to ear, pass from his ear to my nose, and even from my ear to fall from Chris's "private parts"!! It was entertaining to hear his patter and well worth the 50 rupees our guide suggested we give him. If you want to see him and enjoy one of his tricks, check out my little video.
After this we headed back into the city, and our explorations there will form the subject of my next entry ...