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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

(Published in on November 2, 2011, retrieved from

While Rajasthan’s city palaces are handsome structures, built for aesthetic appeal and sensory gratification, the forts are sturdy bulwarks, sprawling across hillsides, their dense walls burying delicate zenana mahals and latticed terraces.

Fortified to repulse attacks, and riddled with secret tunnels, the forts, many of which look like they’ve leapt out of fantasy tales, have something on offer for everyone – ruins for the imaginative, museums for the geeks, views for the trigger-happy, and solitude for the loners.

If you’re on a trip to this desert state, here are some forts you shouldn’t miss.

Bala Quila

This six-century old fort stands precariously on a 300-metre high cliff, in the scenic town of Alwar. Looming in the skyline, nearly 600 metres above sea level, it’s one of the most expansive castles in the country. The ramparts run 5 kilometres from North to South, and 1.6 kilometres from East to West.

Eight huge towers encompass 446 openings for musketry. While most of this once magnificent fort is in ruins, and in the process of being restored, the towers still stand solid. There are 15 sizeable ones, and more than 50 small towers, within the fort.

The Bala Quila is rather special, because it is one of the few forts that wasn’t built by Rajput rulers. Constructed in 1492 by Hasan Khan Mewati, it passed into the hands of Jat and Mughal rulers for the next three centuries. It was only in 1775 that it was conquered by Maharao Raja Pratap Singh, who promptly founded the town of Alwar around it.

Only shells and explanatory boards remain of buildings that were once Jal Mahal, Nikumbh Mahal, and venerated temples. However, ironically enough, rather more evidence of the existence of the oldest fortress in the premises – the one built by Alaghu Rai in 1049 AD – stands today.

Amer Fort

Amer Fort is an anomaly of sorts – for one, it looks more like a holiday palace than a buttress, set on a low hill overlooking a lake. Second, the area of the town it presides over is just four square kilometres. Third, the fort has a uniformity of colour and design that suggests it was conceived by a single architect. However, it turns out the various annexes and walls on its four levels were added over three centuries!

Made of red sandstone, with white marble domes, the fort was first occupied by
Raja Man Singh (1589-1614). Construction of the fort is believed to have begun in 1592. The state of Amer had been under the rule of the Kuchwaha Rajputs for much longer, though – since 1037 – and continued to be the capital till 1728, when the rulers shifted to Jaipur. The fort derived its name from the amber jewels used to decorate its inner walls.

Several decades after the building had begun, Ganesh Pol, the gateway that allows access to the inner chambers of the palace from the main courtyard (Jaleb Chowk), was built on the orders of Raja Jai Singh. Scalloped and frescoed, this ornate entrance was crowned by the Suhag Mandir, where the ladies of the palace would assemble to watch state functions through latticed screens. Near this gate is the temple of Shila Devi, a Chaitanya Goddess whose idol was gifted to Raja Man Singh when he defeated the Raja of Jessore in 1604. The more romantic version of the tale says the Raja of Jessore gifted Man Singh a slab of black stone, said to be the one on which Kamsa killed the siblings of Lord Krishna. The holy stone was offered in exchange for the return of the Kingdom of Jessore. Man Singh agreed to the terms, and had an image of Goddess Durga carved from the stone.

The even more whimsical version of the story is: Before setting out for war against the Raja of Jessore, Raja Man Singh prayed to Goddess Kali. He had a dream in which the Goddess asked him to scour the sea bed for an idol of hers, install it in a temple and worship it. After winning the battle, Man Singh retrieved the idol, carved out of a single stone. The Goddess was annually propitiated with an animal sacrifice for the next four centuries, till the practice was banned by law in 1980.

The enormous gateway to the palace itself was built by Sawai Jai Singh (1699-1743), nearly a century later. Though it has frescoes on its outer surface, its focus is on functionality rather than beauty. Curiously, the passageway through it doesn’t lead in a straight line to the palace. This aberration in the geometry is thought to be for reasons of security – intruders would find it hard to look inside without exposing their own locations, which would allow the soldiers on the ramparts to take clear aim.

Another gate, the Chand Pol is best known for housing the naubatkhana above it. This room was used to store kettle drums (nakkaaraa), flutes, and other wind instruments, including the karna, shehnai and shankh, which made up the naubat. This school of music had strict protocol, such as that the audience must remain completely silent, and is thought to date back at least to the time of Alexander.

The Diwan-e-Aam, a hall modelled on the pillared, wall-less Islamic durbar, was completed in 1592. It became the court where the King gave audiences to his subjects and met his officials on special occasions that called for celebration – victories at war, his birthdays, the birth of his sons, and religious festivals. The ornate roof, patterned with elephant heads and vines, is supported by two rows of pillars. The outer columns are made of sandstone, and the inner ones of marble. Centuries later, the colonnaded arches would be converted into offices housing the Government Secretariat, from where the administration of Amer was carried out. The last known occupant of the fort, Sawai Ram Singh (1835-80), had the rear portion of the Diwan-e-Aam converted into a billiards hall.

Across the enormous courtyard, with separate entrances from the main palace and the Sheesh Mahal – the Palace of Mirrors, where the ladies of the palace assembled – is the hammam. The hearth just outside was used to heat water, and separate tubs of hot and cold water were stacked inside. The hammam is connected to several rooms off a long corridor, which were apparently used for massages and ablutions.

The Sheesh Mahal, located off the upper courtyard, is the biggest draw for tourists inside the fort. It is said a single ray of light would be bounced off mirrors placed at just the right angles, so that it lit up the entire hall. Even today, the brilliant glasswork dazzles visitors, and the palace stays bright even as the rest of the fort succumbs to the gloaming. One of the most famed carvings at this palace is the ‘magic flower’. This marble fresco, depending on which perspective it is viewed from, depicts one of seven designs – a lotus, a hooded cobra, a corn cob, a scorpion, an elephant’s trunk, a lion’s tail or a fishtail.

Separated from the Sheesh Mahal by a garden, complete with shrubs cut in geometric patterns, miniature mazes and a central fountain, is the Sukh Mandir or the Diwan-e-Khas. This chamber, with marble-inlayed sandalwood doors leading to two rooms off the side and a veranda overlooking the garden, was the summer retreat of the royal family. The closed wall of the veranda used to be fitted with a perforated marble screen, through which water would cascade down from a tank on the roof. The waterfall would cool the chamber, and dance across the precious jewels that were once fixed on to the inner walls of the veranda. One can still make out the settings for the stones, and the faded remains of wall paintings.

On the Western side of the fort is a tunnel that connects it to Jaigarh Fort. Running under the ground for most of the distance, the last part of the tunnel was an exposed, roofless pathway. Peeping into the entrance, one sees sconces where torches must once have been placed. The tunnel was accessible from the Sukh Mandir, the Man Singh Palace as well as the women’s quarters.

Looking down from the terrace of the women’s quarters – the Zenana Deorhi – one can see several huge kadais, in which food for the entire palace must have been prepared. An adult of average height can just about see into the kadai over its rim.

Incidentally, the Amer Fort was the site of controversy during the 2009 shooting of the Salman Khan starrer Veer. The film crew was accused of damaging a 500-year-old canopy, several walls, courtyard tiles, and a roof.


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