I arrive at Kumbhalgarh. I am to stay here two nights. My hotel is palatial, massively so and way beyond anyone’s definition of ‘comfort’, the rooms set as a series of small bungalows that rise from the entrance gate via a series of terraces that overlook a swimming pool. The hotel is apparently owned by a descendent of Kumbhalgarh’s warrior families, the Rathones of Ghanerao; the descendent, and I, never did get to be personally introduced.
I’m not really certain how I have got here, apparently elevated above my normal humble station in life, guest of royalty I mean, even if they are slightly removed from the direct line of descent. And royalty in India isn’t quite what it used to be. It’s all just so very odd, the fact that I have paid money, admittedly through my tour operator, for the privilege, not really solving the riddle. Surely even petty royals must have entrance standards to uphold. Since the fall of empire there are lots in Britain who have fallen on hard times but even they are a bit picky with whom they let in through the front gate, in particular jumped up ex convicts from the antipodes. But what really captures my interest and attention here at this moment is the magnificent mountain and hill country that surrounds. For this privilege I have paid absolutely nothing. I get to look at it ‘Scot free’ and without the imposition of a time limit.
The drive from Udaipur to Kumbhalgarh was scheduled to take about two hours. The road runs through a semi-arid terrain of tall hills that at this time of the year are brown and fragile looking, their surface clothed now mainly with leafless trees and sparse shrubs, the grass dry and burnt back by lack of rain. It’s as if they are waiting for a box of incediary matches and the ready hand of an arsonist. In places walls of dry packed stone creep upwards from the valley floor towards the ridge top that flanks the roadway. There is not a thing resembling a barbed wire fence, it is all stonework, and stonework set at such an angle on hillsides, the making of the fences hard to envisage. Who toiled at these lines of demarcation, for that is what they must certainly be? We drive at no great speed, sharing the road with little competing traffic, a recording of traditional Sufi music flowing out rhythmically from the car’s CD player, the compact disc courtesy of the driver. I suspect my silent humming of old rock and roll songs may not have always been so silent, the driver’s music being a polite way of putting salve to the ears of my companions, and his. But I enjoyed his choice of an alternative. I could hum to almost anything. Somewhere on the way I pass the time-erased shadow of a friend who, years earlier, had ventured from Udaipur to Kumbhalgarh by rented motor scooter, along this very same road. The possibility of seeing some image of him was not to be easily dismissed for I was in a land long caressed by the metaphysical, such that you just never did quite know who or what might be perched high up on a tree limb keeping tabs on you.
The journey takes longer than anticipated and in the absence of trees broad enough to obscure acts of necessity we stop, strategically, alongside a large stone wall. The wall is of a height low enough to scale, high enough to hide behind. There are no houses within sight and no one at work in adjacent fields, so modesty is preserved. Sometimes it is the little things in life that bring the greatest comfort. I have long treasured the wise words, these being ‘that in the later years of life one should appreciate the things that still reliably function, not dwell on those parts of the body that have slowed or fallen to a state beyond repair’. A little further on we pass a group of foreigners on bicycles. The bikes are modern, of the space age composite alloy variety, their paintwork gleaming, not at all like the tried and true indigenous brands I have so far seen. Each rider sports a metallic-hued safety helmet of swept-back aerodynamic design, each decked in tight hugging lycra fabric bike shorts and matching slim cut shirt. I am aware that the great wall of the Kumbhalgarh fort is not far off and I fear my anticipated quiet stroll along its spacious ramparts will be spoilt by hordes of Western pleasure seekers, each astride pedalled vehicles whose drive chains, via a suitable choice of gear, efficiently transfer energy into traction and forward movement. I should revel in human ingenuity inventing a device, the operation of which is not dependent on the burning of fossil hydrocarbons. Nonetheless, my selfishness wins out, for their effect will be to totally ruin the harmony of my planned walk. In summary, these expensively dressed riders of bicycles I take to be an intrusive foretaste of what lays before me. Popularity attracts like bees to honey and flies to dead meat, and I had already been told that Kumbhalgarh was very popular, and very expensive. My driver is evidently aware of the nature of my nights lodging for he stops at a roadside vendor where he purchases great stocks of potato crisps and bottled spring water, all for me. The streets of Udaipur had given me a taste of what popularity might entail. I would be jostling cheek by jowl on Kumbhalgarh’s walls with hordes of chardonnay and latte sipping tourists. I’d be outnumbered, out-dressed and out-financed. The walls reputedly were of such a design that they could accommodate seven horses abreast. That translates into how many bikes? Tourists, don’t you just hate them!
I register at my hotel, unpack, and adjust to my surrounds. I meet my fort guide at 11 am in front of the Ram Pol gate. He has been waiting since 8.30. At that hour I was at Udaipur probably brushing my teeth, or hauling my luggage out to my waiting tour car. Nobody had thought to tell the guide what time I would arrive, and nobody thought to tell me when I was supposed to meet him. I was a little embarrassed, and the guide was a little flustered. Understandably so, as the fort wall is said by some optimistic tourist brochures to be 36 kilometres long, by more scholarly sources a much reduced 14 kilometres; yet reportedly the second or third longest continuous man made wall in the world, the Great Wall of China being the longest, and the Dingo Fence of Outback Australia not counted even though it was pretty long. For some reason nobody ever mentions Hadrian’s Wall or the Antonine Wall, of Roman Britain fame, as contenders. Strange that. Hadrian’s Wall was built in 120 CE, is 120 kilometres long, but admittedly a bit broken thanks to rampant quarrying well into the 19th Century by common country people with no sense of history. The good bits that remain are there largely due to the foresight of a certain John Clayton, who, distressed by the quantities of stone local folk were carrying off in wheelbarrows, purchased some of the better sections of Roman wall then remaining. The lesser known, more northerly located Antonine Wall was begun in 142 CE, and is somewhat shorter at 63 kilometres. Built mainly of turf on stone foundations, what little is left of the Antonine Wall spans from the Firth of Forth in western Scotland all the way to the Firth of Clyde on the east coast. Maybe I’m comparing apples and pears when querying why these two British walls didn’t make the cut. But my quibbling aside, I had a long walk ahead of me, there was only a limited number of daylight hours to do it in, and besides, the guide had a family to go home to. I didn’t want his wife getting overly fretful about his late homecoming or his supper going cold. Neither I nor the guide had brought a torch along, and the prospects of a bright moonlight night to facilitate a late safe return were slim. I had a bottle of water, and enthusiasm. That was it.
The Kumbhalgarh Fortress is about architecture and history. It projects both on a grand scale, and unlike so much of the other stonework earlier people have bequeathed to the planet, this is in a state of outstanding repair. Its massive frontal walls stand in a manner that no forewarning can lessen. They are nearly five metres thick, glaring and unornamented, their visual impact cold and confronting, the broad bastions intensifying the sense of power and resistance. They are things of war, their function horribly removed from the dalliances of court life and the comely bodies of courtesans. It’s like being at the foot of a giant. You feel puny, of no consequence. From the heights of Kumbhalgarh it is possible to look out upon the Aravalli Ranges, and surrounding it all is the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary covering an area of 578 km2.
Kumbhalgarh is built on a hilltop 1100 metres above sea level and occupies a strategic position separating Mewar from Marwar. It is located on the site of an earlier citadel built in the 2nd Century BCE by the Jaina prince, Samprati, great grandson of Asoka. The fortress is entered from the south by a gate called the Aret Pol, then by a succession of gateways known as Halla Pol, Hanuman Poll, Ram Pol and Vijay Pol. The Hannuman Pol enshrines an image of Hanuman, this brought by Maharana Kumbha from Mandhavpur; I’m guessing the town of the same name on the Gujarat coast to the west. Three further gateways, Bhairon Pol, Nimboo Pol and Paghra Pol, give progressive entry to the palace complex on the hilltop summit that commands the surrounding landscape. It appears that the Ram Pol was used principally by the ruling class while the Vijay Pol to the east gave entrance to all others. Further to the east of the main cluster of gateways and buildings is the Danibatta Gate which connects Mewar with the region of Marwar. Several smaller entrances gave emergency exit and entry. Fixed to the wall between the Ram Pol and Vijay Pol are three stone heads, these indicating three women who betrayed the entrance to the fortress at a time of Mughal invasion. For their betrayal the women were bricked up alive in the walls of the fort.
At the highest point stands the majestic and imposing Badal Mahal, ‘the Palace of Cloud’, the two-storeyed palace built by Maharana Fateh Singh (1885-1930 CE). It is an historically very recent addition constructed over an earlier building. Located below this is the palace of Maharana Kumbha, and the Jhalia Ka Malia, or Palace of Queen Jhali, this believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu Rajput hero Maharana Pratap. Prominent buildings inside the main fortress entrance include the Ganesh temple, the Neel Kanth Mahadev, Parsvanatha temple, the Kheda Devi, and several Jain temples. In the distance can be viewed the Golerao group of buildings, these being nine shrines enclosed by a circular wall. The Neel Kanth Mahadev is a Shiva temple built in 1458 CE, the Parsvanatha temple was built several years earlier and houses an image of Jaina Tirthankara Parsvanatha. Located in the northern part of the fortress is the Pitalia Dev, a Jain shrine built in 1455. Scattered about are numerous other buildings and features. I will not have time to visit any but those closest to the wall.