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A few hours in the Blue City

India day nine


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The blue houses of Jodhpur, seen from Mehrangarh Fort

On the edge of the Thar Desert lies Rajasthan’s second city, Jodhpur. Often known as the Blue City, because of its many blue painted houses, it is also, due to the desert heat, the Sun City.

We only spent a few hours here, en route between Dechu and Narlai. It was enough for a good visit to the fort and a short walk in the markets of the old city. The briefness of this visit may account in part for why this was not my favourite of the cities we visited in Rajasthan, as may the less good than usual guiding. Nevertheless, we were glad we had visited the Blue City.

Mehrangarh Fort

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We started our explorations (and spent most of our time) at the Mehrangarh Fort which towers above the city of Jodhpur. The oldest part dates from around 1460 when it was founded here by Rao Jodha, the fifteenth ruler of Rathore, who moved his capital here from Mandore, nine kilometres to the north. It is from him that the city takes its name. Jodha’s chosen site for his fort and palace was this hill known as Bhaurcheeria, the “mountain of birds” or Cheeriatunk, “the Bird's Beak”. According to a legend, in order to build here he had to evict the hill’s only resident, a hermit known as Cheeria Nathji, the Lord of the Birds. The hermit cursed Jodha and his fort: “May your citadel forever suffer a scarcity of water!” Rao Jodha managed to appease the hermit by building a house for him in the city, and a temple in the fort near his cave, but this was only partially successful, as even today the area is plagued by a drought every few years.

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Jai Pol

Jodha also buried a man, Rajiya Bambi, alive in the fort’s foundations as a form of sacrifice to ensure the gods would look kindly on his endeavours! In return Rajiya’s family were promised that they would be forever looked after and protected by the rulers of Rathore – a promise that has apparently been kept to this day. Some even say that up to four men were entombed alive, one in each corner of the fort. Of these, one was supposed to have been Rajiya's own son and another a Brahmin named Mehran. The story of the three additional men is however disputed, as it seems unlikely that Jodha would pick two men from the same family, while a Hindu king sacrificing a Brahmin, i.e. a priest, seems equally implausible. Those who believe the legend point to the name of the fort, Mehrangarh, to prove its likelihood, while those who dispute it argue that the fort is named for the sun, known as “mehr” in Rajasthani.

Over the centuries that followed the Rathore family grew in power and as they did so they further developed and expanded their fort. Its battlements were strengthened by Rao Maldev (1532-1562), during whose reign they were at the height of their power. The main gates, Fateh Pol and Jai Pol, were each built to celebrate a great victory – against the Mughals in 1707, and against the army of Jaipur a hundred years later. Much of the palace that we see today is from the period of Maharaja Jaswant Singh (1638-1678). And perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Rathores in all of this is that Mehrangarh Fort has never once been successfully captured in a siege, standing firm through every onslaught.

Incidentally, while Jodhpur is now part of the State of Rajasthan there is still a maharaja, although his title is mostly just decorative. He has a shiny new (well, early 20th century) palace in another part of the city, and his own website: www.maharajajodhpur.com/. But the Mehrangarh Fort still belongs to the family and is administered as a trust, established by the maharaja, Gaj Singh II, in 1972. The trust looks after the fort and the museum within it.

Our visit started as we passed through the Jai Pol (Victory Gate). This was built by Maharaja Man Singh in 1806 to commemorate victories over the armies of Jaipur and Bikaner. On the outside of this gate are some interesting paintings depicting these battles.

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Jai Pol battle scenes

Beyond this point you have a choice – a steep climb uphill through several more gates or, for a small additional fee (35 IR in 2015), taking the lift which has been cleverly cut into the rock. This had been prepaid for us by TransIndus and I wasn’t sorry to take advantage of it, but after our visit we walked down so we did get to see the other gates.

The lift deposited us in the Shrinagar Chowk or Anointment Courtyard. This was used for royal ceremonies such as the anointing of maharajas and you can see a throne used for the crowning of the current Maharaja Gaj Singh II. A board nearby has photos of that event.

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Shrinagar Chowk

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Throne and coronation scenes

From Shrinagar Chowk you get wonderful views of the city below.

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We lingered a while in the courtyard as a dance performance was taking place, part of the Jodhpur RIFF. This is the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, and it was something of a bonus for us that it was happening while we were here, as our tour of the fort was punctuated with music and dance performances. There is a week-long programme of staged performances, in the Mehrangarh Fort and elsewhere in the city, featuring Rajasthani, Indian and some international performers – I spotted Scottish folk, reggae (with musicians from Ghana, Iran, Germany and Bolivia), Brazilian Latin and Spanish flamenco among others. We didn’t get a chance to attend any of these, as we were only here for a few hours, but we did benefit from the several semi-impromptu performances that were taking place in different parts of the fort. These are described in the programme as “Fort Festivities” and are held on the first three whole days of the event (we were here on the second). The programme website in 2015 (www.jodhpurriff.org/) described these as follows:

“As you wander through the Mehrangarh Museum in the fort, taste the myriad flavours of a variety of traditional dance forms reflecting the distinctive root traditions of Rajasthan – some known and some not so well known. Various forms including Terahtaali, a devotional dance form of Kamad community honouring their folk hero Baba Ramdev; Kalbeliya, probably amongst the best internationally known of Rajasthan's nomadic communities, easily claiming to be the state's resident experts on snakes; Gair, the martial looking visual spectacle from Marwar”

I especially enjoyed the first performance we watched, in the Shrinagar Chowk, and made a little video of the dancers. I also found a good video on YouTube of another Gair dance performance and one of the Terahtaali.

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RIFF performers

Mehrangarh Fort: museum exhibits

Unlike many of the other forts we visited, much of Mehrangarh is devoted to museum-style exhibits rather than restored rooms – in fact, there are fourteen display rooms and just four “period rooms”. While this made a change, on the whole I preferred seeing the old furniture etc. in a room setting. It’s possible too that my experience of visiting these displays was adversely affected by our guide who, although informative, seemed much of the time to be in a bit of a rush, and in particular irritated us by several times by insisting that Indian visitors move aside to let us look in a display case. We would have been more than happy to take our turn, or to look at something else instead while we waited.

Having said all that, there was lots to enjoy and admire here. I was especially fascinated by the howdahs and palanquins displayed in the rooms around the Shrinagar Chowk, and our guide was helpful in pointing out the different constructions and designs. The howdahs were made of wood, and many were beautifully decorated in silver or gold. They were used by maharajas for travel or hunting (hence the lion that appears on many of them) and all have an additional smaller seat for a servant to sit and fan the important passenger.

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Howdahs

The palanquins could be used by men or women, and the design differs accordingly, with those for ladies having screens or curtains for privacy and little peepholes so they could look out.

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In the Palanquin Gallery

Other collections are dotted throughout the complex. Among those we saw were the paintings (in the regional Marwar style – very rich and colourful), various weapons (many of them intricately worked but of less appeal for me) and various treasures and textiles.

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Another of the exhibits

Mehrangarh Fort: state rooms

Although there are some wonderful treasures in the museum collections, and I liked a lot of what we saw, the best part of the fort for me were the four period or state rooms. I loved the richness of these rooms which are on the whole in very good condition – perhaps in part because you are not able to enter any but have to look in from a doorway.

Palace of Flowers / Phool Mahal

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This, possibly the grandest of the state rooms, was created by Maharaja Abhaya Singh (1724-1749) and decorated with gold seized in Gujarat as war booty. It is thought to have been the maharaja’s pleasure palace, where he would sit on his throne and be entertained by dancing girls, music etc. It was also used for private celebrations, such as birthdays. It was modified in the mid 19th century and the paintings around the cornice date from that time, although the wall and column painting is original.

Hall of Mirrors / Sheesh Mahal

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This is in the Raiput style, different from the Mughal Sheesh Mahals we had seen elsewhere (such as the Amber Fort) in having larger, more evenly shaped pieces of mirror rather than small mosaic fragments. Also, there are paintings superimposed on the mirror work in places and these show religious figures (among them Brahma, Shiva, Krishna and Ganesh all sit enthroned; while elsewhere Krishna plays the flute and Rama and Sita confer with Hanuman). These paintings have led to the conclusion that this palace was used not for the rather decadent pleasures enjoyed in such richly adorned rooms elsewhere but for worship or, as our guide suggested, meditation.

Takhat Vilas

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This colourful room was built by Maharaja Takhat Singh (1843-1873), the last of Jodhpur's rulers to live in the Mehrangarh Fort. It blends traditional styles with some more recent influences. Takhat clearly liked colour, as the glass balls hanging from the ceiling like giant Christmas ornaments show. There are also beautiful paintings on the walls and on the wooden ceiling beams, showing various scenes – some religious, some from folk tales and even a favourite sport of the Rathores, pig-sticking. The floor here is painted to look like a carpet.

Pearl Palace / Moti Mahal

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This is the largest and I believe the oldest of the period rooms at Mehrangarh, having been built by Raja Sur Singh (1595-1619). It was used as a hall of private audience, where the maharaja could discuss matters of state with his closest advisors. It is located within the Zenana or ladies’ section of the complex and has five alcoves which lead to hidden balconies where, it is thought, the queen and most favoured ladies of the court could listen in on the discussions and later their views sought by the maharaja. If this is so, he must have been somewhat ahead of his time in recognising the value of female advice!

Some more images from Mehrangarh Fort

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Visitors to the fort

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Museum guards

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Interior, and old doorway

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Leaving the fort

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At the Gadisar Lake in Jaisalmer we had seen the memorials to the wives who had committed sati (self-immolation) following the death of their husband, as was the custom in this part of the world at one time among the upper castes. We were to be reminded of that again here at Mehrangarh Fort. After our visit, as we descended the path down through the various gates, we saw by the Loha Pol (Iron Gate) these handprints on the wall. There are 31 on this side (the right as you go down) and five on the other. They commemorate the royal queens who immolated themselves on the death of their husbands, the maharajas. Among them were the six queens said to have immolated themselves on Ajit Singh’s funeral pyre in 1724 (as did 58 concubines though I don’t know if they were accorded any memorial).

The old city

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Ghanta Ghar and market

After our visit to the fort we went into the heart of the old city where bustling Sardar Market lies in the shadow of the old clock tower, Ghanta Ghar. The tower was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh (1880-1911), after whom the market is named. Our guide pointed out that it looked very English, but we thought it looked more Indian!

The market is, as are most markets, a great place for photography. Although there are tourists here aplenty, and also plenty of the items tourists love to buy (bangles, textiles etc.) it is very much a local market too, with streets selling all sorts of everyday foods and practical items. We walked through an area where most stalls had fruits or vegetables or herbs – one selling nothing but apples, another only shallots and yet another with mounds of fragrant coriander.

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Market stalls

In the surrounding streets we found small shops with a wider variety of goods, tiny temples tucked among them, and a few houses and hotels painted in the traditional Brahmin blue. And everywhere something else to photograph!

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Old town street scenes

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Jodhpur is often referred to as the Blue City, and with good reason. Many houses in the old city are washed in a soft shade of blue. Traditionally this colour was used only by Brahmins and is still most noticeable on the north side of town, known as Brahmpuri, where many of them live. There are two commonly cited reasons. One is practical – the colour is made by adding copper sulphate to the lime wash, because the copper is thought to repel the termites that live in this desert region. In the past this copper was expensive, so only the upper castes, the Brahmins, could afford it. The other reason sometimes given is one of status, as blue is a royal colour and the Brahmins wanted to associate themselves with royalty.

Today though, we were told, this blue shade one of the cheapest colour washes to buy, and people of all castes use it. We were also to find that it is not exclusive to Jodhpur as we saw many such blue houses in Bundi, among other places. Disappointingly we didn’t have time to walk the streets of Brahmpuri but we did find some beautiful blue-washed houses dotted around the market area of the old city.

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And, as everywhere we went in India, I found myself taking almost as many photos of the local people as I did of the sights. Characterful faces, colourful clothing and a way of life rather different from ours in England made for endless fascination. We passed one shop where the owner was hard at work giving it a new coat of paint ready for the festival season, and what a bright, cheerful colour he had chosen.

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Later our guide persuaded us to visit a shop selling what I had to admit were very lovely fabrics, but I resisted the urge to buy and instead sat back and enjoyed the patter of the rather flamboyant young man trying to persuade me to part with my money. You can see him below, modelling a shawl in a design he claimed was created especially for Donna Karan – or was this one for Hermes or some other famous designer???

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I know there was much in Jodhpur that we didn’t get to see, notably those blue Brahmin houses of Brahmpuri, but we still had some miles to cover to get to our destination for that night, Narlai …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:21 Archived in India Tagged people history india colour fort market music festival jodhpur rajasthan Comments (4)

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