Sunday Reading

The Great Wall of India

The Kumbhalgarh Fort remains one of the strongest forts of India and bears testimony to the genius and splendour of war tactics and the architectural finesse of people who lived long ago

The Great Wall of India

You must have heard about the Great Wall of China — the longest wall in the world, built more than a millennium ago. But what if we told you that one of the longest walls in the world is in India? Yes, that indeed is true. Built in the 15th century, this wall is nestled between thirteen towering mountain peaks in the desert of Rajasthan and surrounds the ancient fort of Kumbhalgarh, some 80 km from the city of Udaipur.

Extending some 36 km around the perimeter of the Kumbhalgarh Fort on the westerly range of the Aravalli Hills, it snakes through valleys, bearing a striking resemblance to its distant cousin in China. The fort was built by Rana Kumbha, the ruler of the kingdom of Mewar. It is also the birthplace of one of the most revered Rajput kings and the warrior whom the Mughals most feared — Maharana Pratap.

Though the fort in its present state was built by Rana Kumbha, the area was considered to be of high strategic importance long before the Sisodia Dynasty came to power. Historians believe that the very first fort to occupy the spot was built as early as the 3rd century. Back then, it was King Samprati, the grandson of the great Mauryan King Ashoka, who got the fort constructed. At that time, the village around the fort was called Machhind, and so the fort was named Machhindrapur. A majority of historians consider King Samprati a peace-loving and courageous king. He had managed to establish several Jain centres across different Arab countries, including Iran.

Stuff for legends

Kumbhalgarh separated the Mewar kingdom from the Marwar kingdom, and was a safe haven in times of war. According to legends, Udai Singh, Rana Kumbha’s son, who went on to inherit the throne, was smuggled into the fort as an infant by his nanny, Panna dhai, when Chittorgarh, Mewar’s capital, was under siege in 1535. Legends have it that she replaced the prince with her own son, who was killed by the enemy!

It is not very clear though as to what happened in the region or with the site of the fort until the beginning of the 14th century. At that point, Allauddin Khilji occupied the area. He was one of the greatest rulers of the Khilji dynasty, who was running successful campaigns on the Indian subcontinent, acquiring territories of even the southernmost parts of it. He had invaded most of Rajasthan and attacked Mewar incessantly. And so, Rana Kumbha decided to rebuild the fort with a long wall so it could    be used as a refuge if the Rajput kings felt vulnerable in their palaces. The wall was also built to separate Mewar from Marwar, which eventually brought prosperity and progress to the region. Unlike the Great Wall of China, which took more than 1,800 years to complete, the Great Wall of India, as the fortification of Kumbhalgarh Fort is often referred to, took just a little over a decade and a half to finish. In their heydays, the Mewar kings built a chain of fortresses, which spread from the Aravalli mountains in the north, to southern Rajasthan. During his reign, Rana Kumbha is said to have built around thirty-two forts, of which Kumbhalgarh was the largest. 

THE GORY STORY

It is said that Rana Kumbha initially wanted to build a fort at Keliwada, which was about 7 kms from the present site. But each time the fort wall began to be built, it would collapse midway. Rana Kumbha failed multiple times in constructing the mammoth wall until he went to a saint who suggested the present-day spot for the fort and said a human sacrifice was needed to construct it. But who would volunteer to be killed? When no one came up for some time, the saint himself volunteered to sacrifice his life. The saint said to Rana Kumbha: ‘I’ll climb the hill, Rana, and you follow me. The point where I stop first, build the main entrance of the fort there. I’ll climb up further and when I stop for the second time, I will sacrifice myself and you build a temple there. Where my body falls, that mark will be the last point of the great wall.’ The king agreed reluctantly and walked with the saint right up to the present entrance of the fort and did as was suggested by the saint.

 AN ARCHITECTURAL WONDER

 The snake-like wall to the main fort seems to go up endlessly, as if to reach out to the clouds. Then, you see   a fort sitting on top of a hill, some 3,600 feet above sea level. Designed by one of the most famous architects of that time, named Mandan, who was also a theorist and author in Rana Kumbha’s court, the fort was built with strict adherence to Vastu Shastra. The fort has 15-feet-thick frontal walls that house seven gates of which Haathi Pol, Hanuman Pol and Ram Pol are the major gates. (‘Pol’ in the local language means main gate).

If you walk to the fort, passing through the different pols, you cannot but marvel at how clever the design of the fort is! There are sharp turns and congested staircases, designed to slow down invaders. There are eyeholes in the battlement that work as binoculars — one can look down at the whole valley and see any approaching enemy! The path on the ramparts is wide enough for eight horses to walk side by side at the same time — built to offer a stronghold in case of an attack. There are strategic spots along the wall that allowed the soldiers a clear view of the Thar Desert and the distant Aravalli Range. And yet, despite its spread and massive structure, it is beautifully hidden between the hills, which speaks a great deal about the brilliant planning and architecture of ancient Indians. Many an enemy must have gone round in circles trying to find where the fort is, as it can only be spotted from a mere 500 metres from any side. 

Built entirely out of sturdy stone blocks more than five centuries ago, the fort has withstood the vagaries of nature and stands tall and strong as if it was built just yesterday! It is indeed an architectural wonder and a testimony of the talents of the architects of that era.

A JOURNEY BACK IN TIME

Inside the double-storeyed fort, there are patches of greenery, open courtyards and terraces. There are also some noteworthy structures such as the king’s and queen’s chambers, the watchtower, the rainwater reservoirs and the cannon room. There are different sections with rooms constructed inside the fort and given different names like Badal Mahal, Kumbha Mahal, etc. The courtyard is attached to two royal chambers — one each for men and women, both connected with a corridor. The royal kitchen once stood close to these chambers. To feed the thousands of people who lived inside the fort, a giant kitchen was constructed, complete with stone chimneys. Though the kitchen was segregated into two sections for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, the fact that both kinds were cooked under the same roof is an instance of harmony and tolerance that could be inspirational today.

Kumbhalgarh Fort has some five ancient cannons on display in a special section called the ‘top khana’ (a room for cannons), which give a glimpse of the scale and grandeur of the Rana’s armoury during the fort’s heydays. It is said that Rana Kumbha used to light giant lamps, which used 100 kg cotton and 50 kg pure ghee, to provide light to the farmers working at night. The lamps used to glow so brightly that their brightness would reach across miles.

 A PALACE OF CLOUDS

 The fort’s highest point is the Badal Mahal, or Palace of Clouds. It’s a room where the king and queen are said to have caught up over a good view of the hills. From the window of the Badal Mahal, it feels as if the clouds are flying right above your head.

This room gives almost a bird’s-eye view of the fort and the Aravalli Range, winding out to the horizon for as far as one’s eyes can follow. Certain sections have beautiful elephant carvings, painted in natural colours. It is from this spot that the portion of the wall that separates Mewar from Marwar can be seen.

Also in Sunday Reading:  A Monument with No Pillars

 AN ALMOST INVINCIBLE FORT

 Counted as one of the most invincible forts in India, the Kumbhalgarh Fort must have been a tough challenge for the invading armies in the medieval era—and it must have left them wondering how to breach the famed and impregnable wall of the fort!

The fort remained almost invincible throughout the Mewar rulers’ era. It took the combined forces of Emperor Akbar, Raja Uday Singh of Marwar, Raja Man Singh of Amer, the Mirzas of Gujarat and a water crisis, for the fort to finally be invaded. The invaders poisoned the fort’s source of drinking water and the Rajputs had to surrender due to a shortage of water. Shahbaz Khan, a general of Emperor Akbar, took control of the fort in the late 1500s. In 1818, the Marathas took over the fort.

There’s something indomitable about a fort’s seemingly endless walls — most of which stretch from hill to hill, like a huge anaconda waiting to spring into action. While most Indian forts are either on hilltop vantage points or in the midst of some forest as a protective cover, the Kumbhalgarh Fort has both. It stretches across a hill range, giving a clear line of vision from miles away; it also lies in the heart of what is now a wildlife sanctuary. Kumbhalgarh Fort, along with five other forts of Rajasthan, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the group ‘Hill Forts of Rajasthan’ in 2013.

Call it strategic inaccessibility, revolutionary design or nature’s mercy, the Kumbhalgarh Fort remains one of the strongest forts of India and bears testimony to the genius and splendour of war tactics and the architectural finesse of people who lived long, long ago…

 — Excerpted from A Dozen and a Half Stories - Strange and Mysterious Places the World Forgot by Arti Muthanna Singh and Mamta Nainy with permission from Rupa Publications

 

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