Of Sieges And Sacrifices

Among the grand forts of Rajasthan, Chittor Fort has been a coveted crown for power seekers and an emotional tale for history lovers.

Temple dedicated to Shiva in the fort, Rajasthan, India

The baby sat in the mother’s lap, head bent, as she took out the ticks from the furry back. Another gang was gorging on a packet of chips. Young ones clung to the branches of the odd tree standing in the middle of the immaculate green gardens. On the surface it seemed to be a playground for langoors, where humans were welcome only if they offered something to eat to these black-faced, long-tailed primates. But the land simmered with tales of sieges, sacrifice and honour. Watching the tourists busy taking selfies, it was difficult to believe I was standing on the jauhar sthal, the very ground where thousands of Rajput women had sacrificed their lives on a sandalwood pyre.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mammoth Chittor fort was once the capital of Mewar, ruled by the Rajputs from the 7th -16th century. Located on a rocky plateau, on the banks of the river Berach, the magnificent structure covers an area of approx 700 acres.

Tower of victory near Jauhar sthal

As our guide talked about the annual jauhar mela (held in March-April) which commemorated the sacrifices of these brave women, I travelled back a few hundred years when the raging fire had turned the sky black, when tears flew down the cheeks and sorrow filled the hearts of those who saw these women burning.

“Can I take a selfie with you?” a young girl broke my morbid thoughts. The sky was clear, the sun was shining. No selfie for me! I walked towards the Samadhisvara temple, dedicated to Shiva, nearby. On the edge of the hill, was the gaumukh reservoir. This was probably the most holy water body in the fort. At one time the fort had 84 water bodies, now only 22 were left. “The opening in the cliff is like a cow’s mouth. And there was so much water in the fort that soldiers could have stayed alive for four years, even if there was no rain,” explained the guide.

Fascinated by the fort wall curving its way up into the hill, and the city far below, I could have got lost in time again. But there was more to see. Even as the guide was hurrying up, I had to stop to take a picture of the 122 ft-high Vijay Stambha. Built over 10 years, between 1458 and 1468, by Rana Kumbha, it commemorated his victory over Mahmud Shah I Khalji, the Sultan of Malwa, in 1440.

One more stop — for some tea and samosa — and we were off to the legendary Padmini Mahal. Battle stories continued. The curvy one mile long road leading to the fort was through seven gates — Paidal Pol, Bhairon Pol, Hanuman Pol, Ganesh Pol, Jorla Pol, Laxman Pol, and the final Ram Pol. Even today, there are around 5,000 people living in the fort and the gates closed around sunset for tourists. Our guide was busy citing facts — there were 65 structures, comprising four palaces, 19 temples and four memorials. But we could relive only a small part of history. It was a mysterious world with tunnels, warriors, queens and nothing ordinary seemed to thrive here.

Originally Chitrakuta, the fort is believed to have been built by Chitranga, a king of the local Maurya dynasty (nothing to do with Chandragupta Maurya) and named after him. But some legends say that the fort goes back to the times of Mahabharat and was built by Bhima. Around 728 CE or 734 CE, a Guhila (Gahlot) ruler Bappa Rawal captured the fort; historians differ on this too. Some say that the Guhilas did not control Chittor before the reign of Allata.

“Look at those roosters,” I almost screamed seeing a lot of bright strutters sitting on a tree. The history lesson was interrupted. This was Kalika Mata mandir and roosters were offerings to the goddess. They never came to any harm. The car stopped and we entered the gardens of Padmini Mahal, the palace of Rani Padmini, wife of Rana Rattan Singh. The beautiful Rani’s sacrifice and tragic end are legendary. The saga of power and bloodshed started when Alauddin Khalji, the Sultan of Delhi, fell in love with her.

Walking through the gardens, we reached the wall from where the water moat surrounding the palace was visible. Legend says that Alauddin stood on the opposite side where a long mirror was installed. She came out on the steps of her palace. Seeing her reflection in the mirror, the Sultan was besotted. A long battle ensued and he killed the king. To protect her honour, Rani Padmini committed jauhar along with other Rajput women in 1303. And the tragic legend became the inspiration for Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem Padmavat (1540). The room with the mirror has been closed, but the turmoil of the legendary beauty and her sacrifice lives on.

However, everything is cyclical in nature. Much later in time, Hammir Singh, a king of the Sisodia branch of the Guhilas, captured the fort and Chittor rose again (reigned between1326–1364). His successors included Rana Kumbha (1433–68) and Rana Sanga (1509–27).

Rana Kumbha’s palace or rather what is left of the palace is the oldest monument in the fort. The palace included elephant and horse stables and a temple of Lord Shiva but we only saw a long line of restored windows in the jnana mahal. The tunnels were closed for snakes lived there.

History says that Maharana Udai Singh, the founder of Udaipur, was also born in Kumbha Palace. Legend claims that he was saved by his maid Panna Dhai. She substituted her son in his place who was killed, while the prince was taken away to safety in a fruit basket.

Chittor Fort certainly wasn’t a place where peace reigned for long. In 1535, Bahadur Shah of Gujarat captured it. Then the second big jauhar took place — Rani Karnavati and other women willingly gave up their lives.

The battles continued. Mughal emperor Humayun drove Bahadur Shah out and the Sisodias regained control of the fort. This was also for quite a short time, for Mughal emperor Akbar wanted to capture the entire northern belt and the mighty fort was once again a battlefield. He captured the fort in 1567–68. The women again committed jauhar.

Zig-zagging through tales of bloodshed, we reached the temple of Rani Meera. Her sacrifice was for Lord Krishna. Most of us know she was tortured and even poisoned by her in-laws for this absolute devotion, but was saved by the lord himself. But a temple dedicated to her was a surprise.

Born in 1498 in Metra, Rajasthan, this Rajput princess was married to Rana Kumbha, ruler of Chittor. Of course, her devotion didn’t vanish and her family life didn’t flourish. Every year on sharad purnima (her birth anniversary), a three-day music and art Meera Mahotsav is held here.

By now, only the last rays of the sun were visible. We were outside the Jain temple dedicated to Adinath. Chittor was also a famous Jain centre, as evidence from the Jain inscriptions at Mathura from the Kushana period (1st-3rd centuries) shows. The temple bells rang and the evening prayers resonated in the air. But my eyes travelled to the magnificent kirti stambha. There were many more tales to discover, but maybe another trip and another time.

Water bodies inside the fort made it self-sufficient

What to see

· The nine-storied Vijay Stamaba is 122 ft high with a 47 square feet base. This has a narrow circular staircase of 157 steps. The dome, added later, was damaged by lightning and repaired in the 19th century. The view from the eighth floor is spectacular, I was told, but tourists are no longer allowed in.

· Kirti Stambha or the tower of fame is a 72 ft-high marvel. Dedicated to the first Jain tirthankar Adinath, it was built by a Jain merchant Jijaji Rathod. Dating to the 12thcentury, Jain sculptures carved on it, there is a narrow stairway with 54 steps leading to the top.

· Near Kumbha Palace is the Nau Lakha Bandar aka the nine lakh treasury. And the Fateh Prakash Palace is a museum housing sculptures.

· Among the temples are Singa Chowri temple, Goddess Tulja Bhavani Temple and the Kalika Mata Temple.

· There is a Tope Khana near the Goddess Tulja Bhavani Temple with some cannons.

How To Reach Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, India

  • Most international flights land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi at T3.
  • There are flights to Udaipur from Delhi.
  • (By road: The city is well connected with Delhi, Mumbai, Ajmer, Bundi, Kota, Udaipur and more cities.
  • By rail: The fort is around 2km from the station. There are direct trains from Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Udaipur, Ajmer, Jaipur and Kota.
  • By Air: The nearest airport is Dabok Airport in Udaipur (70km) and has good connectivity with major cities.)
  • Where to stay
  • jüSTa Lake Nahargarh Palace, Bassi Fort Palace, Castle Bijaipur

Things To Keep In Mind

1. Preferably wear cotton clothes and cover yourself. India is a tourist-friendly but a little conservative country, so there can be unwanted attention.

2. Carry a water bottle, some places are not clean.

3. Carry some sunscreen, medicines and first-aid kit.

4. Keep your passport under lock and key.

5. Bargaining is a good idea in the market. Keeping some cash handy works well.

6. There are many beggars but it is not a good idea to encourage them.

7. Locals ask for money if you want to take their photographs, so change is handy. It’s better than begging.

8. When trying street food, make sure you have a strong stomach.

9. Everyone pretends to be a guide, but is not. You can ask for credentials.

10. Temples are sacred spots and keeping them that way helps. Donations are an individual choice.

What Would Help

The article originally appeared in Femina, March 1, 2018 (North India edition)

India-based journalist, photographer and videographer, worked with Outlook Traveller, Swagat and written for patriot.in. Mail: ambicagulati@gmail.com