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Thursday, December 29, 2011

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(Published in as 'The Sentinels of Rajasthan, Part 3', retrieved from

I'd written about Bala Quila and Amer Fort here, and about Mehrangarh Fort here. In the final edition of this series on the forts of Rajasthan, here's a look at Sonar Quila - which I've wanted to visit ever since I saw Ray's film - and Chittaurgarh Fort, quite a city in itself.

Sonar Quila

The sunlight in Jaisalmer filters through moody clouds, to bounce off the honey-gold walls of what looks like a gigantic sand castle – the Sonar Quila, or Jaisalmer Fort, turned into a household name in the 1970s, when it became the focal point of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda movie Shonar Kella (The Golden Fortress).

Built by the Bhatti ruler Jaisala – the man who founded Jaisalmer – in 1156 on the Trikuta Hills, this fort is the second oldest in Rajasthan. Standing at a height of 80 metres, it encompasses an entire village, several temples and a few ostentatious havelis. If you’ve already seen the other forts, filled with the breathtaking results of patient craftsmanship, the ordinariness of the interior of Sonar Quila can be a surprise. A tacky board commemorating the visits of the erstwhile royal family and Amitabh Bachchan to the fortress sits wearily against the ticket counter. Guides beg desperately for business, in the lean season before or after the annual desert fair.

As one looks for the promised ‘combination of Rajput and Islamic architectural styles’, though, one realises that the dignity of the fort lies in its lack of ornament. Its huge ramparts have defended it against repeated attacks over the last millennium, and its paved pathways stubbornly resist wear, even as gutters eat into them and footsteps pound them.

The fort, whose only claims to architectural finesse are relief work on the terrace slabs and an elaborately carved Jain temple, protects everything within it, and that’s all it has to do. It is cleverly constructed, with three layers of walls. The outermost, made of stone blocks, binds the rubble that makes up the hill. The second crawls across the entire hill, folding itself around the fort. The innermost walls, obscured by the second layer, gave soldiers a vantage point to hurl their weapons, rocks and boiling water and oil at enemies, who would get trapped between the two lower walls. The only attacker who captured the fort was Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, and he could only hold it for nine years.

The importance of the fort to the erstwhile Kingdom of Jaisalmer is evident – the statue of Gangaur Mata, the deity taken out of an annual procession during the Gangaur Festival, is housed in the fort.

Sonar Quila once held the entire population of Jaisalmer, and even today, it is estimated that a quarter of the city’s residents live within its walls.

At the bottom of the fort is a 'Government Licensed Bhaang Shop', where women are given a choice between light and medium bhaang, and men between medium and strong bhaang. We went with the medium. I'd recommend that, however feminist or macho you are. It kicks in about an hour into consumption - if you've had bhaang milkshake - and a little sooner if you've had the biscuit. Yes, I tried both. 

Now, the rest of this article is history.

Chittaurgarh Fort

This edifice, spread across seven hundred acres, is believed to be the oldest and largest fortress in India, if not in Asia. The troubled history that saw three infamous jauhars, and several violent battles between the Mughals and Rajputs, dates back to the seventh century.
It was the capital of Mewar from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries, and it was the home of the poet-saint Mirabai. Yet, its fame largely draws from the story of Rani Padmini, whose celebrated beauty would cost her her life.

The queen lived, like all others of her time and beyond, in a secluded palace, and observed strict purdah. Only her husband, Rana Ratan Singh, was allowed to look at her face and hair. And it may have stayed that way if the Rana hadn’t thrown a bard out of his court, on suspicion of being a sorcerer, in 1303.

One day, when Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, was out on a hunt, the bard began to sing a particularly plaintive song. Khilji found his way to the source of the music, and asked him to join his court. The singer replied that his voice was not the most desirable thing the Sultan could take back with him. He then described the beauty of Rani Padmini, relying either on his alleged magical powers or kitchen gossip.

Determined to see Rani Padmini’s face for himself, Khilji called on the Rana. The Rana cordially welcomed him into his court, and Alauddin Khilji’s stay at the fort took on the sheen of a diplomatic visit that would end in a declaration of mutual friendship and support. As Khilji was about to leave, he pleaded with the Rana for a glimpse of the Rani.

Unwilling to disappoint a guest, and yet reluctant to break a custom, the Rana finally hit upon a solution. He told the Sultan he could see a reflection of the Rani in a mirror. But he was not to turn back to look directly at her. The Rana’s code of honour would require him to chop off Khilji’s head if he attempted to. Khilji agreed to the condition. The Rana held up a polished mirror, placed at such an angle that the Rani could not be seen directly even if the Sultan swung round. But Khilji’s sight of the reflection of the queen had quite the same effect as a direct encounter. He thanked the Rana profusely for his graciousness, and took his leave.

As the Rana accompanied him to the gateway, the Sultan hugged him, stabbed him, and had his soldiers bundle the Rana onto a horse, before speeding away with the kidnapped ruler, as his confused, terrified subjects looked on. Alauddin Khilji then sent word to Chittaurgarh to say that he would only release the Rana if Rani Padmini agreed to move into the Sultan’s palace. Such a ransom demand had never been made, and the court was horrified.

But, on the advice of the ministers, Rani Padmini consented, adding a clause – that she should arrive at the Sultan’s palace in royal decorum, accompanied by fifty ladies-in-waiting. The delighted Sultan agreed, and the Rana mourned his own gullibility. As the procession of palanquins arrived, and the Rana burned with shame, the Sultan went out to receive the queen. To his shock, fifty armed warriors leapt out of the palanquins and ambushed his soldiers. The Sultan fled into his palace, and the Rajput warriors rescued Rana Ratan Singh.

The enraged Alauddin Khilji retaliated with a massive attack on Chittaur Fort. As the Rana’s army suffered reversals, and grim news bulletins came from the battlefield, Rani Padmini gathered the women of the palace around her and committed jauhar before the invading army could ransack the palace. Ironically, the Rana’s army beat back Khilji, and the victorious king arrived jubilantly at the doors of his palace, only to be greeted by the sight of his wife’s ashes. Another version of the story says Alauddin Khilji was the victor, and held the fort till it was recaptured by Hammir Singh in 1326.

The fort stayed with the Rajputs till the sixteenth century. In 1535, Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, attacked the fort. As his army swept through the defences of Chittaur, Rani Karnavati led the women of the palace in jauhar. Again, the battle ended in Pyrrhic victory for the Rajputs. The Mughals would ultimately capture the fort in 1568, when Akbar attacked. The invasion resulted in the third jauhar in Chittaur. That was to mark the end of Chittaur’s reign as the capital of Mewar. The Ranas of Mewar ruled from Udaipur, the city to which the infant heir was smuggled away in safety during a siege.

It is in honour of these jauhars, and the bravery of the Rajput warriors, that the Jauhar Mela is held every year in Chittaurgarh. The princely families across Rajasthan take part in the procession.

Fortunately though, the history of this fort is not entirely morbid. This solid structure, with its seven gateways, topped by watchtowers and guarded by iron-spiked doors, was to become the culture capital of the kingdom under the rule of Rana Kumbha (1433-68). It was Rana Kumbha who remodelled the palace where Rani Padmini had immolated herself. A patron of the arts and an accomplished artist himself, he had the exterior walls etched with sculptured bands and embossed with flower heads. The inner walls were studded with precious stones. He invited musicians, intellectuals and poets to stay in his court.

Rana Kumbha fought his share of wars too. He beat back the Sultans of Malwa and Gujarat in 1440, and celebrated his victory by building the 120-foot high Vijaya Stambha, of which nearly every inch is carved with sculptures of Hindu Gods, and scenes from war.

There are two temples within the fort. One is the Kalika Mata Temple, whose original structure is believed to have been built in the eighth century for the Sun God. In the fourteenth century, it was converted into a Kali Temple. 

The other one is the shrine of Mirabai. The place where she worshipped Lord Krishna, close to the Rana Kumbha Palace, has been commemorated by a temple. 


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