ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the Rathore capitals of Mandore and Jodhpur in Rajasthan to find out what makes Mehrangarh Fort so invincible and other secrets of the walled city
No matter where you are in Jodhpur, you cannot escape the looming presence of the citadel of Mehrangarh, which dominates the city’s skyline. Perched at 400 ft on a rocky hill, the intricacy of its jharokhas (windows) and architectural grandeur moved Rudyard Kipling to call it ‘the work of angels and giants’. From Indique, the rooftop restaurant at Pal Haveli, a stunning 18th century heritage hotel, the red sandstone fort gleamed like a ruby in the early morning sun. By night, halogen lights transformed it into a bejeweled tiara resting upon Jodhpur’s proud forehead. But under all its glitter, Mehrangarh hides a grim tale of sacrifice.
When Rao Jodha chose to move the Rathore citadel from nearby Mandore in 1459, he selected the hillock of Bhaurcheeria (Mountain of Birds), the dwelling of an ascetic called Mehran Baba or Cheeria Nathji. The moment the king’s men evicted the sage, the constructed walls collapsed. Though a temple was built at his dhuni (place of penance), the sage cursed that the place would be drought-ridden and to make the fort unassailable, a man had to be buried alive in its foundations!
A humble skinner Rajaram Meghwal (or Rajiya Bhambi) volunteered on the condition that his family would be looked after till perpetuity by the king. True to his wish, even today, his descendants live in Raj Bagh and a stone tablet opposite Rao Jodha ji’s Phalsa (the original fort entrance) commemorates the incident. Every year on Jodhpur’s founding day (May 12), the Maharaja worships the skinner’s tools and felicitates Rajiya’s kin.
A guided tour or an audio guide, available in 7 languages, is the best way to explore the marvelous fort, which spills onto many levels. Legend has it that after a foreign dignitary grumbled about the effort required to see the fort, the Maharaja promptly installed an elevator, making Mehrangarh one of the rare forts in India with a lift! Tourists usually buy a 1-way ticket to reach the seventh floor and then amble down its wide cobbled pathways through a series of pols (gateways).
Cheeky signs like ‘Lungs at Work, Please Don’t Smoke’ caution visitors while the gold filigree ceiling at Phool Mahal, the wall-to-wall paintings at Takhat Vilas and view of the famed Blue City behind the fort are sure to leave one breathless. Contrary to popular belief, the houses were painted blue not to ward off mosquitoes but given a fresh coat of paint every time a family member returned from a pilgrimage. Since most inhabitants of the old city were Vaishnavites, the colour represented their blue-skinned god.
With well-displayed exhibits showcased by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, a library of rare manuscripts, an art conservation centre, museum shop and café, it’s easy to understand why Time Magazine chose Mehrangarh as the Best Fortress in Asia in 2007. No trip would be complete without a royal dinner at Chokelao Bagh, a restored 200-year-old garden at the base of the fort. At night, the white chandni flowers and the sweet-smelling kamini infuse the Mehtab Bagh or Moonlight Garden in the lower terrace with heavenly perfumes while the restaurant on the upper terrace comes alive with folk performances. Nearby, the royal cenotaph at Jaswant Thada, built in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II in 1899, is a beautiful structure in white marble where the kings were laid to rest. The distinct silhouette of Ajit Bhavan can also be seen in the distance.
But there are other ways to experience the fort – take a zipline with Flying Fox or do a heritage Mehrangarh walk with Virasat Journeys, down Jodhpur’s historic galis (streets) dotted with temples and shops. Within the precincts of the walled city in the shadow of the Clock Tower built by Maharaja Sardar Singh are antique stores and legendary shops selling sweets, itar (perfumes), grains and garments. Mishrilal at Ghanta Ghar have been churning out their signature ‘Makhaniya lassi’, special rabdi and doodh-jalebi for over five generations. Under the Sardar Market arch is Vicky’s famous ‘Amalate (omelette) Shop – Recommended by Lonely Planet’! And when you’ve had your fill of Jodhpur, head to Mandore, the old battle-scarred capital of Marwar, which most visitors tend to overlook.
Popularly believed to be the birthplace of Ravana’s wife Mandodari, though no historical evidence supports the theory, Mandore was once the ancient Mandavyapura, an important centre of art and architecture. The old fort that caps the hill was acquired by the Gurjar Pratiharas, captured repeatedly by the sultans of Delhi and eventually received as a gift in marriage by the Rathore ruler Rao Chunda. Fine monuments like the cenotaphs dedicated to the members of the royal family, the Janana Mahal built as a summer palace for the royal ladies during the reign of Maharaja Ajit Singh ji (1707-1724) and the Government Museum are definitely worth a look.
South of Jodhpur, just off the busy NH-65 lie the Bishnoi villages of Khejarli, Guda Bishnoiya and Rohet where centuries-old tradition still survives. After the customary opium ceremony, the local equivalent of smoking a peace pipe, our host, Jodha Ram Bishnoi elaborated on the Bishnois. In late 15th century Guru Jambhoji laid down 29 (bish-noi) conservation principles as per which all life forms were considered sacred. Bishnois revere the blackbuck and protect it with their life, as a leading Bollywood star found out.
At Tal Chhapar, every Bishnoi family donates a kilo of bajra (pearl millet) each month to a community store. After wandering the plains all day, herds of blackbuck assemble around Bishnoi hamlets, to be lovingly fed at dusk. At Khejarli village a sacred grove of khejri trees is another living reminder of the inextricable link between Bishnois and nature. In 1730, a Bishnoi lady called Amrita Devi clung to a khejri tree, which was being cut to provide fuel for the lime kilns to build the Maharaja’s palace. Following her example, her two daughters, husband and 359 other villagers clung to the trees and gave up their lives.
The very land of Rajasthan was soaked in the blood and toil of its proud, fearless people. After hearing fantastic tales and visiting strange temples (like the Deshnok Temple where locals worship rats as their reincarnated ancestors), we thought we had seen it all, until we discovered a shrine dedicated to the Bullet motorcycle!
The roadside temple of Motorcycle Baba or Bullet Banna near Rohet is easy to miss. Dedicated to Om Singh Rathore of Chotilla village, who died here in a accident in 1988, the 350 cc Bullet is enshrined alongside Om Banna’s garlanded photo. Local folklore contends that after the cops impounded the bike, it disappeared from the police station and was found parked at the crash site the next morning. Each time the bike was seized, it magically returned to the accident-prone spot.
Recognizing it as divine will, a temple was built at the site where travelers stop to pray for a safe passage. We joined a small group of worshippers lighting incense. There was no prayer on their lips, nor any incredulity in their eyes; just a brief ritual, before they drove off into the dead of the night…
Where to Stay:
Where to Eat:
Shri Mishrilal Hotel
Clock Tower, Jodhpur
Author: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 8 January, 2012 in Deccan Herald (Sunday edition).