January 8, 2014
After observing the early morning rituals by the holy Pushkar lake, Sunil and I continued our car journey through Rajasthan and proceeded to another spectacular site, usually skipped by most travelers, Chittorgarh Fort. Located about 180 kms from Pushkar, Chittorgarh is the largest fort complex in India regarded as the epitome of Chattari Rajput pride, romance, spirit and tragedy, for the people of Chittorgarh on three occasions chose definite death (jauhar) before surrender. Even though, it is presently nothing more than a ruined citadel, for people of Rajasthan, it remains a symbol of all that was brave, true and noble in glorious Rajput tradition.
They say, Chittor, a magnificent 6 kms long fortification perched on top of 180 m cliffs, was built by the Maurya in the 7th century B.C. Mauryan dynasty ended in 271 B.C and till the 7th century A.D. the fort was ruled by Chitrangada Mori (where the name Chittor originated from). In 734 A.D. Bappa Rawal, the founder of the kingdom of Mewar, seized Chittorgarh and made it his capital (another version says that he received Chittor as a part of the dowry after marrying the last Solanki princess). For 834 years, the fort remained the capital of Mewar kingdom, which stretched from Gujarat to Ajmer. It was one of the most contested seats of power in India and a place of the most glorious battles fought over its possession. With only brief interruptions, Chittorgarh has always remained in possession of the Sisodias of the Guhilot clan of Rajputs.
Trice in its history, the fort was conquered and each time it ended in honorable yet horrific tradition of jauhar – the males of the fort, dressed in saffron robes drove to fight the enemy till imminent death, while women committed act of self-immolation by jumping into a funeral pyre.
The first attack was by Alauddin Khilji Sultan of Delhi in 1303 A.D. According to my beautiful guide and host Parvati, Alauddin was given a parrot as a present and every time this parrot saw Alauddin’s wives, he kept shouting that Rani Padmini of Mewar was yet the most beautiful woman in the world. Infuriated but intrigued, Alauddin gathered a huge army to march on Chittorgarh and acquire Rani Padmini, if she was indeed as beautiful as parrot was saying. Upon reaching the great walls of the fort, Alauddin deceitfully promised Maharana Rawal Ratan Singh to allow him to take a look at Padmini, after which he would withdraw the army back to Delhi. Because no man but the king-husband could see Rani Padmini, they came up with a solution – Rani would sit on the steps of her palace in the middle of the lake, looking into water, while Alauddin would stand in the palace on the bank of the lake, with his back to the window but looking in the mirror at the reflection of Rani in the lake. Upon seeing her in the mirror, Alauddin fell desperately in love and ordered his army to capture the fort and its queen. Rani Padmini along with other citizens of Chittorgarh committed jauhar, but the legend of her beauty until present day told and re-told by people of Rajasthan.
The fort was recaptured in 1326 by the young Hamir Singh and by the 16th century Mewar had became the leading Rajput state. Rana Sanga of Mewar led the combined Rajput forces against the first Mughal emperor Babur in 1527, but was defeated at the Battle of Khanwa. In 1535, Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, besieged the fort again causing immense carnage. Just like in 1303, 32,000 men rode out to face certain death, while Rani Karnavati led women to commit an act of self-immolation.
Jauhar was perform for the third time after Akbar the Great captured Chittorgarh in 1568, after which the capital was permanently moved to Udaipur, a residency of the young heir Rana Udai Singh II since 1559.
Chittorgarh was never rebuilt nor re-populated. A small village still exists on the top of the hill, surrounded by the authentic and partially restored walls of the fort. I was lucky to reserve a room at, perhaps, the only available accommodation in the fort – Padmini Haveli, a 90 year old converted school beautifully restored and run by the local family. I can’t deny that it was perhaps the most beautiful and authentic historic hotel I have stayed in India.
Sunil and I reached Chittorgarh around 2 pm and after entering one of its 7 gates, Ram Pol, we drove into the fort’s settlement. Sunil has never been to Chittorgarh before, because most of his clients neither knew about it, nor had time to visit this off “traditional Ajmer-Udaipur route” site. I happened to treat myself with yet another fantastic historic site away from foreign crowds. We would have hard time navigating the narrow ancient streets had we not met a beautiful young lady in pink saree riding a moped. It was Parvati – the owner of Padmini Haveli, and since I was her only guest that day, she figured that a car with a blonde girl inside was heading towards the hotel. She showed us the way to the Haveli, a porter boy helped me with my luggage and after having a delicious cup of tea in the courtyard, Parvati took me around the fort (Rs.800). I couldn’t have wished for a better guide!
We took Sunil with us since Chittorgarh covers a huge area but the circular road within the fort links all the gates and provides access to all the monuments (ruined palaces and 130 temples) within the fort walls. The guide book recommended 3 hours to see everything, however, it took us almost 5 hours, even with a car.
After paying for the entry ticket (Rs.100) we went to explore the largest and oldest structure in Chittorgarh – Kumbha Palace. Presently, this magnificent palace complex provides only faint glimpses of pristine glory of the Rajputs. Maharana Kumbha (1433-1468) made several additions and alterations to the previous palaces on that site. Two gates lead to the Kumbha Palace , Badi Pol and Suraj Pol, and during its remarkable past, the Palace consisted of multiple apartments, The Surya Gokhra, Zenana Mahal (women’s palace), Kanwar Pade ka Mahal, elephant and horses stables, a Shiva temple and other residential buildings and courtyards. Both, the exterior and interior of the remaining structures, are interactively carved and decorated with canopied balconies, making it very easy for visitors to imagine their previous splendor and luxury.
Maharana Udai Singh II, the founder of Udaipur, was born here. The legend says that his maid, Panna Dai, saved the prince by replacing him with her own son as a decoy, while Udai Singh was spirited away in a fruit basket. Thus, the dynasty was saved. This is also the Palace where Rani Padmini, consigned herself to the funeral pyre in one of the underground cellars, committing an act of jauhar along with many other women.
On the other side of Kumbha Palace is a small but beautiful and active Kumbhaswamin Temple (originally dedicated to Varaha but now to Lord Krishna) renovated by Maharana Kumbha. Raised on high plinth, it comprises of a sanctum, a mandapa, a portico and an open pradakshina path. Built in the ornate Indo-Aryan style, the interior of mandapa is composed of twenty pillars with a roof built in the form of pyramid. Its carved panels illustrate 15th century Mewar life. In front of the temple is an image of Garuda under the canopy supported by four pillars. The sanctum appears to be original and shows bold podium moldings decorated with sculptured niches.
On the south, there is another smaller shrine called Meera Mandir, associated with the mystic-poetess Meera Bai, a 16th century Mewar royal who was poisoned by her brother-in-law, but survived due to the blessing of Krishna. She is one of the most famous historical figures whose compositions are still popular throughout North India. Meera Bai was the most passionate worshipper of lord Krishna, and legend has it, that her love for Krishna epitomized by her final disappearance in the temple of Krishna in Dwarka. She is believed to have entered the sanctum of the temple in the state of ecstasy after which the sanctum’s door shut on their own. When re-opened later, Meera Bai was no where to be found, but her saree was seen enwrapped around the idol of Lord Krishma, symbolizing her final union with the Lord.
Right before the famous Chittorgarh landmark – Vijaya Stambha- I noticed another very different and definitely old temple Sammidheshwar Mahadev (also called Mokalji’s Temple because it was restored by Maharana Mokal in 1428 A.D.). The temple was built by Raja Bhoj in the 6th century, and contains the inscription on the western wall of the temple, left by Kumarapala, the Chalukyan ruler of Gujarat, when he visited the temple soon after conquering Arana Raja, the Chauhan ruler of Ajmer in 1150 A.D.
The Sanctum of the temple (Garbhagriha) has three idols joined in a single statue representing all 3 Hindu gods together – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Middle idol stands for Vishnu, left for Brahma and right for Shiva. The centered idol of Vishnu has big eyes as if he is watching the world; idol of Brahma is regenerating the world; and the idol of Shiva, with a gap in his mouth, looks as if it is swallowing the world.
Down beyond the Sammidheshwar Temple is the most picturesque place in the fort – Gaumukh Reservoir – a deep water tank carved out on the edge of the cliff. It takes its name from a spring that feeds the tank from gaumukh (cow’s mouth).
It was getting late and Parvati rushed me to see the symbol of Chittorgarh – Vijay Stambha or Victory Tower. The Stambha was built in 1448 A.D. by Maharana Kumbha to commemorate his victory over Sultan of Malwa in 1440 A.D. Dedicated to Vishnu, it rises 37.19 m high in nine exquisitely carved storeys distinctly marked with openings and balconies at every face of each story. The entire tower, inside and out, covered with architectural ornaments and inscribed images of gods and goddesses, seasons, weapons and musical instruments etc. It is regarded as a veritable textbook of Hindu iconography.
After paying additional Rs.50, I climbed the 157 narrow stairs to the 8th floor and enjoyed not only the splendid views of the Chittorgarh, but also the beautifully carved interior. Luckily, I reached the top floor when there was no one there, so I could spend a few moments on my own, savoring the beauty and uniqueness of this place.
Below the Vijay Stambha is the Mahasati area with many sati (widow suicide by immolation) stones – this was a royal cremation ground and place where 13,000 women committed jauhar during the second siege of Chittorgarh by Bahadur Shah in 1535.
There were a few Indian tourist groups in the fort, and I guess my presence attracted a lot of attention since I was the only foreigner. Noticing Indian freak-ish obsession and unhealthy interest towards me, I tried to walk as closely to Parvati as possible, hiding my face and hair in a long scarf. However, even all measures of precaution didn’t help because two men approached me and tried to rip the clothes off my head while shoving their phone cameras straight into my face. One guy pulled the edge of my scarf , which was wrapped around my neck, with such force that I started to chock grasping for air. But Parvati pushed them away before they could completely suffocate me. I don’t know how long it would go on for, if not for a man from another group who ran over and started beating the men harassing me. Police came running too and without assessing the scene bombarded the assaulters with their rubber bats. After about 10 minutes of thrashing, with a huge circus of Indians surrounding us, both men were led towards me and put on their knees (weird!!!) to ask for my forgiveness.
I can’t deny that I was a bit shaken by this experience, so Parvati pushed me in the car and we drove to check out two more sites, notably the famous Padmini Palace located in the middle of the lake. A three-storyed white structure (a 19th century reconstruction of the original) crowned with chhatris became the forerunner of other palaces built in the state with the concept of Jal Mahal (palace surrounded by water). It was in this palace Alauddin was allowed to glimpse at the mirrored water reflection of Rani Padmani, wife of Maharana Ratan Singh, which led to the death of Maharana, distraction of Chittorgarh and act of jauhar. Rani Padmani’s beauty was compared to that of Cleopatra and her life story is an eternal legend in the history of Chittor.
I wish, I had more time to spend in the palace by the lake, overlooking the Padmini Palace to soak up its charm and fully comprehend the importance of the historical event that took place there, but it was getting dark very quickly and Parvati was rushing us back to the Haveli. Along the road we stopped by 22 m high Kirti Stambha (Tower of Fame). Built in the 12th century by Bagherwal Jain merchant Jijaji Rathod, the tower is dedicated to Adinath, the first Jain tirthankar (just like the one in Ajmer) and decorated with naked figures of various other tirthankars of the Jain pantheon indicating that it is a monument of the Digambara (sky-clad) order. Apparently, a narrow stairway with 54 steps leads through the six storeys to the top, but it was already closed when I checked in. There is a 14th century Jain temple right next to the Kirti Stambha where I was allowed to enter and explore.
After releasing Sunil at the end of the day, I finally got to enjoy the blissful Padmini Haveli. Parvati, whose husband was on a tour with German tourists, introduced me to her lovely children and told me about the restoration process that transformed the old ruined school into this incredible and comfortable hotel. Having witnessed myself the heights male chauvinism reached in India, I truly admired Parvati. After spending a day with this gorgeous, soft and gentle, yet bold, determine and busines- oriented lady, I wish I could get to know her better. She wasn’t born in Chittorgarh but married to a Rajput from the fort (and she mentioned a few times how proud her husband, whom i didn’t get a chance to meet, was about his Rajput heritage). A Swiss family helped to restore an old school that belonged to her husband’s family and now Parvati, pretty much single-handedly runs all operations in the hotel. She learnt the history of Chittorgarh from her husband’s grandmother, who was, if i am not mistaken, the first female guide in the fort. I couldn’t have desired a better company.
After a delicious home-cooked dinner, I climbed to the roof of the Haveli, where I enjoyed all colors of universe coming down on the Chittor Fort in a form of a beautiful sunset. By the end of this long day I wished I stayed in Chittorgarh and Padmini Haveli for longer than one night.