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Thursday, December 29, 2011

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(Published in as 'The Sentinels of Rajasthan, Part 2', retrieved from

A few weeks ago, I'd written a piece on Bala Quila and Amer Fort here. The next in the series is the majestic Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur, a grand structure where sturdiness meets aesthetic.

Mehrangarh Fort

As one drives into Jodhpur, the first thing that catches the eye is a startlingly huge, stark structure, its pink-and-yellow facade rising majestically against a sky that is the same shade of vivid blue as the tiny houses clustered around the hillock where the fort is mounted.
Built in the fifteenth century, Mehrangarh is one of the largest forts in India. Since its foundation stone was laid by Rao Jodha in 1459, the fort has seen several structural modifications, and artistic additions.

Tourists are sent up to the highest level of the fort by lift, and work their way through the courtyards to the base of the fort. The museum tour begins with a collection of howdahs, used by Rajas for riding elephants. The oldest of these carriers, made of wood encased in thick embossed silver polished foil, dates back to the eighteenth century.

The ornate centrepiece in the room is a grand palanquin brought back to the fort by Raja Abhay Singh as war bounty after defeating Sarbuland Khan, the Governor of Gujarat, at Mahadol in 1730. The gilt-domed palanquin has intricately carved woodwork, painted in the Gujarati style. The eaves of its canopy are moulded from beaten, cast and cut iron.

The museum also has a collection of royal cradles, musical instruments, furniture and miniatures. The armoury is a tourist favourite for its collection of legendary swords – those of Akbar the Great, Timur the Lame, and Rao Jodha.

As one stares in wonder at the carved panels, latticed windows and filigreed panes of the walls, seemingly more elaborate on each level on the upward spiral, one is startled by an ugly reminder of the violence of the times the fort has seen – holes in a wall near the second gate, Dedh Kamgra Pol, where a cannonball broke into the fortress.

The management of the fort has recently opened an aerial ‘zip’ tour – those who register are strapped on to a cable and literally swung from one end of the fort to the other. While a board says people of ages from 10 to 80 are eligible for the ride, one may want to take a look at the small print.

The less adventurous may want to wander around the Chokhelao Garden – the two-hundred year-old pleasure garden has been restored to what the renovators claim is its original glory. The upper terrace has flower beds, from which bright blossoms glow in the afternoon sun. On the lower terrace is the Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden), where white chandni and kamini flowers, meant for night viewing, huddle close in the heat. The paintings placed strategically in the garden depict rather kitschy scenes – music and dance performances, lovers making eyes at each other under the shade of trees, outdoor darbars, and giggling women. Now, a restaurant on the uppermost terrace, with a view of the garden, ramparts and city beyond, offers moonlit dinners.

The fort is home to some of the most opulent indulgences of the kings who lived in it – the Phool Mahal (Palace of Flowers) built for Abhay Singh (1724-49) has a ceiling fashioned out of gold filigree work and mirrors. The walls are covered with an eccentric mix of panels, personifying the Hindustani classical raags in their various moods, depicting Gods and Goddesses in their various avatars, and royals as they go about various stately tasks, not the least of which involves sniffing at roses. With its stained glass windows, latticed screens, flamboyant ceiling and dramatic colours, this is believed to be the grandest room in the fort.

An equally capricious creation was commissioned by Takhat Singh (1843-73), the last ruler of Jodhpur to live in Mehrangarh. Known rather unimaginatively as Takhat Vilas, this bedchamber is decorated from floor to ceiling with paintings. Even the wooden panels on the ceiling are painted and inlaid. From beams on the roof hang balls made of lacquer. The floor has been painted to look like a carpet. The art on the walls ranges from Rajput miniature to Madhubani painting to the portrait of a European woman. One can’t be blamed for thinking the room looks a little bit like a joint project of Leonardo da Vinci, Reza Abbasi and Picasso.

Yet another stunning room is the Moti Mahal (The Pearl Palace) which is one of the oldest surviving rooms in the fort, dating back to the sixteenth century. Built on the orders of Raja Sur Singh, its walls are polished with chunam and dotted with niches for lamps. The ceiling is wrought from gilt, with mirrors filling in the spaces. The room also has five sheltered alcoves, from which the queens would observe the proceedings at court, hidden from view.

The Sheesha Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) is very different in style from the Mughal-influenced one at the Amer Fort. The mirrors here are large rectangles and hexagons. The only tiny pieces are to be found embedded in the paintings adorning the walls.

There are several rather disturbing legends associated with Mehrangarh Fort. It is believed that when Rao Jodha wanted to build the fort, he had to force a hermit called Chiria Nathji – the Lord of the Birds – to move from his home on the hill. The furious ascetic cursed the land with drought. Jodha tried to appease him by building a house and a temple in the fort for his use, but the city suffered from a paucity of water nevertheless. Jodha then decided that burying a man alive would do the trick, and even more incredibly, found a willing victim. Jodha promised that his Royal House – the clan of Rathores – would look after the descendants of the man, Rajiya Bhambi. Apparently, his descendants continue to honour the 600- year old pact.

Another story has to do with the handprints that can still be seen at the seventh and final gateway to the fort complex. Apparently, the marks were made by the queens who committed sati on the pyre of Maharaja Man Singh in 1843.


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