The story of the Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur begins with a curse.
There was once a King and like all self-respecting kings of his time, he wanted a grand and imposing fort at an impressive location. One day, he came across the location of his dreams — an isolated hill. The King ordered his men to immediately clear the hill of inhabitants and lay the foundations for the construction of the fort.
Only one man lived on the hill — a man considered holy by the local people around and known as Chidiyawale Baba. He was called thus as he took care of birds and fed them and spoke to them. Chidiyawale Baba was so furious at being evicted from the hill that he cursed the King with recurrent drought in his kingdom. Shaken and now contrite, the King went to Chidiyawale Baba to ask for forgiveness and to request him to cancel the curse. The Baba said that words once uttered could not be taken back, but the effect of the curse could be reversed if a selfless sacrifice was offered. In other words, someone had to volunteer to die by being buried alive on the hill.
The King came away dejected as he did not think anyone would volunteer. But that very evening, a man by the name of Rajaram Meghwal presented himself before the King and volunteered for the deed. A relieved (and, I’m sure, delighted) King accepted and on an auspicious day and time and at an auspicious site on the hill, Meghwal was buried alive. Rao Jodha, the King, then laid the foundation to building the Mehrangarh Fort in 1459.
It is afternoon on a day in February and I am at Mehrangarh Fort at the site where Meghwal’s memorial plaque marks the spot where he was buried alive, and listening to the audio guide detailing the entire story. I can’t help wondering if Meghwal’s selfless sacrifice was as painless and smooth as the story I had just heard. But the audio guide has no further information to offer, and as I found out later this is not even mentioned in most guidebooks on Mehrangarh.
So to get on with the story of Mehrangarh and my impressions of this grand Fort…
Mehrangarh Fort is built on a hillock of rhyolite columns that rises 400 feet above the surrounding plains. The city of Jodhpur grew and developed around the Fort, which has been the headquarters of the Rathore clan that ruled this area for over 5 centuries. Generations of the royal family lived here, sometimes moving out of the Fort, but mostly living within. The Fort has lived through occupation, sieges from neighbouring kingdoms and what not.
Mehrangarh, which means ‘Fort of the Sun’, is over 500 yards long making it one of the largest forts in India. At its highest, the fort rise to 120 feet and at its thickest it is about 70 feet. Yes, it is a formidable fort all around and dominates the landscape. Mehrangarh is built in such a way that it looks like the hillock has sprouted the Fort.
Visitors to Mehrangarh Fort enter through the Jai Pol, which was built in the 19th century by Maharaja Man Singh. This gate was not the main gate then and was only used as an outer rear gate. The original main gate to the Fort is hardly used and the popular tourist trail actually bypasses that access road. Visitors have the option of going up to the highest level by elevator and then walking back, or doing both the ascent and descent on foot.
I chose the latter option and with an audio guide this turned out to be a good choice. I was able to just wander around and set my pace and basically see what I wanted to or avoid what I didn’t want to. Of course, there were some that I could not escape seeing — like Meghwal’s memorial or the mural of sati handprints at the entrance of one of the inner gates. The audio guide narrated a grim, chilling account of how women commited sati.
The widowed women would come bedecked in their jewels and finery and pass through the palace doors and fort gates for the last time. As they left, they would leave a vermilion stained hand imprint on the wall for posterity.
A silent procession would follow the women to the temple where they would give away their jewellery and then proceed to the join their dead husbands on the funeral pyre. The women would not scream or cry as the flames burned them alive.
The sati handprints that I saw in Bikaner and Jaisalmer had brought tears to my eyes, but by the time I finished listening to the audio guide, I was crying quite openly. Even though I reasoned to myself that this had happened at a different time, a different context, different social order, different everything, it didn’t change the fact that the women were human beings and were burnt alive. I was quite shaken and had to wait for while to compose myself, before I could continue with the rest of the tour.
Since the Fort and the various buildings inside were built over 500 years, the architectural styles vary and it’s quite fascinating to see the buildings from different periods existing side by side. The different gates, guardrooms, chowks, palaces, and so on are a visual testament to the building history of the last 5 centuries and the influences that shaped them.
After the Foundation was laid in 1459, the first phase of building activity was during the reign of Maldeo (1531-62). The next phase of major construction happened after 2 centuries during the rule of Maharaja Ajit Singh (1707-24), followed by a phase of construction during the reign of Takhat Singh (1843-72). The final, brief, phase was during Maharaja Hanwant Singh’s rule (1947-52).
The ornately carved palaces hold some of the most stunning treasures that I saw during my trip to various palaces and museums in Rajasthan—silver howdahs, silver and gold palanquins, miniatures, paintings, swords, jewellery boxes, cradles and cribs…
It is from Mehrangarh Fort that one can see and understand why Jodhpur is called the blue city.
Brahmapuri or the city of brahmins shimmers a startling and enticing view from the Fort. At one point only brahmins could live in Brahmapuri and were also the only community allowed to paint the exteriors of their houses this color.
The blue, so characteristic of Jodhpur, is derived from indigo and acts as a heat and mosquito repellant. But as I found out, Mehrangarh Fort doesn’t just offer views of the blue city of Jodhpur; it has a lot of stunning blue to offer within the Fort complex itself.
Mehrangarh Fort caters to all kinds of tourists and does it rather well without letting anyone feel left out. There are activities like ‘how to tie a turban’ to ‘how to play chess’ to folk music performances to having your palm read, etc. The Fort offers quiet spots for contemplation and fantastic photo-ops for the serious or click-happy photographer. As for those interested in culture, design and history, the Fort offers it all and there can’t be a better place than Mehrangarh. The Fort employees are courteous and polite, but firm with the more ‘exuberant’ tourists. The Fort is clean and there is adequate water and food available. I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best maintained and managed of all the Forts in Rajasthan that I visited in February.
But for once, I did not have the urge to time travel as I normally do when I visit places of historical significance. I was glad to just be a tourist and admire and delight or feel sadness or despair from my 21st century context. If the story of Meghwal’s sacrifice made me uneasy, the sati panel and the story behind it left me deeply saddened and disturbed. As I walked down to the exit, I stopped at both the sati panel and Meghwal’s memorial plaque and say a little prayer for them.
The sun is setting as I leave Mehrangarh, and never have I felt so thankful to be born in this day and age.
Forts of Rajasthan Series
- Forts of Rajasthan – 1: The Junagarh Fort of Bikaner
- Forts of Rajasthan – 2: The golden fort of Jaisalmer
- Forts of Rajasthan – 4: Kumbhalgarh Fort
- Forts of Rajasthan – 5: Chittorgarh Fort