Post 59 – Day 33 ‘A Very Big Wall’ (Pt 2)

Post 59a Post 59b Post 59c Post 59d Post 59e

Sometimes advertisements lie, sometimes they tell the truth. Other times the truth and the lie find a happy balance and everyone walks away generally content with either their margin of profit or their quality or quantity of purchase. All the advertisements and reviews I had read about the Kumbhalgarh fortress wall said it was long and it was wide. At no time was the word ‘intimidating’ used, nor was it ever implied. I had walked a day walk of over 30 kilometres in length when I was young; the high tops trek through the Warrumbungles National Park in central New South Wales to be exact. On a weekly basis I am known to scramble about windy escarpments, rocky talus slopes and steep forests, and so I thought I’d have not too great a difficulty, just take it slowly and enjoy. I’d probably be back around dark. I’m glad the advertisements lied, for the truth would have left me opting for Plan B, this being spending the better part of the next two days idling along the gentle trails that led to the many shrines, temples and villages that are located within the circuit of the walls.

I should have noticed things might not be as they should be by the quantity and height of dry vegetation that covered the steps. Not a lot of feet had trampled upon it. Any half-trained bush tracker would have seen straight off that this was a route not often travelled. Not me, I just believed the brochures, swallowed their clever words with total faith, and proceeded on.

All started well, the fortress-like Badal Mahal, high placed though it was, progressively receding on the western skyline, and the surrounding expanse of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary assuming greater prominence. I left the last of the Jain temples behind, passed a solitary langur and a lone water buffalo, both disinterested in my presence, and made the Danniwatta Gate without too much bother. There I undertook a detailed inspection of its weathered wood and iron, did lots of sidewards sightseeing and poking between exposed bits of textured geology, all the time, fast disappearing as Time was, taking close-up photographs of interesting plant life, and always on the look out for unfamiliar creatures. I noted the prevalence of what I took to be succulent-leaved shrubs of the family Euphorbiaceae, and I even managed to spot woodpeckers and a jackal, but just missed an interesting pigeon feeding in a tree; couldn’t even guess at the species.

But just like what follows in life, after you are born, from then on things went down hill. They went down hill rather steeply, and they went down hill frequently, the steepness only seeming to get more steep, not less. Then they went up hill at just as an acute an angle. The whole wall was precision built. Not a masonry joint out of plumb, not an edge misshapen. It is crafted out of what must be millions of chiselled blocks of stone, the outer flanking ones symmetrically and identically curved at their top, usually neatly cut through in the centre to provide spy and shooting holes. It is impossible to imagine how so long a structure could be so perfectly built, and built with such precision through terrain of such topographical torture. More significantly, each block of fitted stone that comprised the battlements was cut and squared so sharply that to stumble and fall on their sharp edges was likely to result in serious injury, or worse. The catch being that if, by good fortune, the lesser of these two likelihoods happened no ambulance would dramatically appear at your side, no rescue helicopter ‘care flight’ would whisk you off to a state of the art hospital, and no doctor would appear from just round the bend, medical bag in hand. Besides ‘I was the doctor’, just the wrong kind. I’d doctored quite a few sheep and children, and stitched up a few varieties of wildlife in my time, but that aside, being patient and medical deliverer at the same time is a difficult exercise, especially if critical limbs are out of action. Some people put a lot of currency on willpower but it has its limits, and it sure didn’t get the Germans to Moscow, thankfully, not even those that were self-proclaimed ‘übermenschen’. A hike out and return for rescue by my guide was likely to be a round trip of quite some hours. It was a thought not at all assuaged by the knowledge I had travel insurance. In this situation travel insurance seemed to have little or no practical value.

Up and down I go. With each ‘down’ my knees start to warn that they will fail, with each ‘up’ I am reminded I was a much younger man when I did the Warrumbungles ‘high tops’. It also reminded me just how hard that walk had been. Forty years on and its painfully obvious I had not grown younger. Going down my knees vacillate between pain and numbness, going up my chest increasingly screams for air. Every now and then tiny side steps provide zigzag descent to lower courses of masonry, but they provide it only on provision that you project your body out into space, me often having to swing out further and around vegetation that has taken hold in a crevice. I’ve climbed vertical cliffs on old steel ladders, my freezing hands in the dead cold of winter clinging perilously to the metal. I did this in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. I didn’t like heights then, and in my halcyon years I had steadfastly refused to grow any fonder of them. If I was a vindictive person I could have thrown myself off, and fallen to my death, just to prove to the concocters of tourist information pamphlets how dangerous it all was. To turn back at this late stage was going to be just as difficult as pressing on. There was no prospect of a passing bus to take me back to the hotel, and no better chance of being picked up by a brace of horses out for a lazy mountain canter with their riders. Belatedly I now realised that references to how many horses could fit abreast on the wall was just an allusion to its width. The only horses that might gallop in my direction would be hypothetical ones. It was me, and my two feet.

Thankfully there were occasional intervening flat sections that allowed snatched minutes of respite. These gentler sections also gave me the opportunity to enjoy the outlook onto the panorama of surrounding hills and ravines, the long stone fences off in the distance that someone had spent untold days in the construction and maintenance of, and to contemplate the sheer marvel of this place and what was achieved here. No doubt at a cost. Even if your life against an enemy was the incentive for its construction, just how was the wall manned and defended? Many points seemed to offer opportunity for assault, uphill and difficult as that might be, but such an extensive defensive position demanded large forces. Lots of men were needed. Place too few along its length and it’s not that hard for a couple of assassins with a long ladder, sharp knives and bitter intent to ferret up over the battlement and scurry away to the nearest palace for a bit of bloody infamy. It was built at a time after all, when brothers, uncles and close cousins didn’t always happily get along and were all too ready to act on their animosity. The fortress guards not only had to be housed, fed and watered, all of them had to walk up and down this precipitous path, just like me; and presumably they’d be wearing armour and didn’t get too much time to slouch about enjoying the scenery and wildlife. Nice thoughts, clumsily stated as they might be, however, the panoramic vistas also foretold what lay ahead for far off, and hugging in ascent of the ever present slopes, wound the wall. Out of sight, beyond view, it wound on; kilometre after kilometre. It was like a movie scene where the background keeps receding, no matter how fast you attempt to quicken your approach.

There is a paradox posed by the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno. He lived in the 5th Century BCE, at a town called Elea in southern Italy. Not an unusual place for a Greek to live at that time for in that century Greek colonies dotted Italy, Sicily, and even southern France at a place we now call Marseilles. Some of them, like Syracuse, grew more powerful than the better known city states back east. One of them, Sybaris, was so renowned as a city of wealth and comfort, that it bequeathed the word ‘sybarite’, meaning a person devoted to pleasure and luxury, to the English language; though you don’t often hear it used in general conversation these days. Anyway, Zeno is thought to have written a book on ‘Infinity’. Sadly it, the book, has been lost. He was mystified by the idea of a continuous series known as the ‘Continuum’ and set the argument that any prescribed distance could be divided by half, each resultant half then being able to be divided by half again. And so on and so on, in effect each divided half capable of being further divided without limit. Thus there must be an infinite number of pieces within any given distance no matter how small that distance was. Consequently, goes Zen’s paradox, we could never cross a room because one would have to pass an infinite number of points before reaching the other side. You would have to move past the smallest infinitesimal point at an infinitely fast speed. Zeno’s argument suggests we should not be capable of moving any distance at all and so motion itself is predicted to be impossible. Under normal circumstances experience would assure me that in practice this is not so, but here on this wall, at this moment in the day, Zeno’s paradox is looking increasingly possible, probable even.

My shirt is soaked with perspiration. The afternoon is well advanced, a long steep section of wall lay before me, and more steep sections rose beyond that. If I had commenced the walk when the guide was first expecting my arrival all would likely have passed ok, and I would have reached the base of the fortress palace on the far horizon well before nightfall. But I was running out of daylight, and I had run out of time. One other small matter sat as an obstacle to completing the wall walk before dark. I had been running all day on half a lung. Several days of incessant coughing had taken its toll. I was stopping for air with greater frequency, and the gasping didn’t always deliver oxygen. I could see the look of concern on my guide’s face. I could also see the same look on the face of my partner, for she had been with me all the way. I was well past the wall’s half way mark but it was an impossible task, at best a foolish one, to proceed. Back down the wall in the vicinity of the Sandh Ka Gate was a narrow dirt track. By a gentler and kinder path it gave a more direct route through a narrow valley, and past little green fields and scattered hamlets, to the fortress entry gate. I would return tomorrow.

I wash my clothes, and consume a banana and several cups of honeyed tea. I am not well, not very well at all, and take something for the pain. All night I lay in my room, a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hung, clear and centrally positioned, on my door.


The Khumbhalgarh Fortress was first built during the 15th Century by Maharana Kumbha, and subsequently enlarged through the 19th Century. Maharana Kumbha lived from 1433 to 1468 CE, was ruler of Mewar, and was at the vanguard of 15th Century Hindu resurgence in north-west India against Mughal dominance. If he was given to travel he might have witnessed the final fall of what was left of the Byzantine Empire. Legend claims that in 1443, following repeated but failed attempts to build the fort wall, Maharana Kumbha sought the advice of a wise man. He was told that a voluntary human sacrifice was required. Wherever the head fell there a temple should be built, the fort and the wall to be built where the rest of the body lay. Apart from the minor detail that you might need a particularly large and lengthy person to fulfil the required dimensions of the building project, understandably and not surprisingly no volunteer could be coerced into making such a lengthy and mortal commitment to the project’s success. However, eventually a pilgrim, or a soldier, or a pilgrim who was a soldier, was found and volunteered to be decapitated. The Hanuman Pol, the fortress’s main gate, contains a shrine to commemorate the sacrifice.

Kumbhalgarh is the largest of the many forts designed by Maharana Kumbha, and next to Chittorgarh fort was the most important fortification in Mewar, a realm that at its zenith spread from Ranthambore to Gwalior and included vast tracts of present day Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Its ramparts surround the Shero Mallah Valley, and these fell only once in its history. The walls are strengthened by bastions and watch towers, the design of the fort’s narrow staircases conveys that its purpose was that of a defensive refuge for Mewar’s rulers in times of trouble, not a palace for princely ceremony. In 1535 the infant king to be of Mewar, Udai Singh, was smuggled there when Chittorgarh was under siege by the Mughal army of the Emperor Akbar and his allies. Udai Singh grew, and survived, to be the 53rd ruler of the Mewar Dynasty, as Udai Singh II, living from 1522 to 1572 CE. He was born in Chittor, and when the Sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, sacked Chittor in 1534 the young Udai Singh was sent to Bundi for his safety. In 1537 his uncle Bandir usurped the throne and tried to kill Udai Singh also, but Udai’s nurse Panna Dhai sacrificed her own child to save the young prince. She took him to Kumbhalgarh where he lived in secret for 2 years disguised as the nephew of the governor Asha Shah Devpura. In 1540 he was crowned in Kumbhalgarh by the nobles of Mewar and, after eventually defeating Bandir, Udai Singh returned to Chittor later founding Udaipur in 1559.

Kumbhalgarh is also considered, with some controversy, the birth place of Maharana Pratap Singh I (1540-1597), son of Udai Singh II and Maharani Jeevanthkanwar. Maharana Pratap Singh was the eldest of Udai Singh’s 25 sons and was accorded the title of Crown Prince. In 1567, when Crown Prince Pratap was 27, the Mewar capital was under siege by the Emperor Akbar. Consequently a temporary government was set up in Gogunda. Prior to his death Udai Singh had made known that he wished his son Jagmal to succeed him. Although the eldest, and therefore next in line to the throne, in deference to his father’s wishes the Crown Prince stepped aside to allow his half brother Jagmal to ascend to the throne. But this was not to the agreement of the nobles who forced Jagmal to step down. This he did, but in doing so vowed revenge and left to join the armies of the Mughal emperor. Pratap moved his capital to Kumbhalgarh, there advising his subjects to disperse to the hills and mountains of the Aravalli Ranges. From there the army of Mewar raided Mughal positions and trade caravans going from Dehli to Surat.

In particular Pratap’s forces guarded the strategically positioned Haldighati Pass as this provided the only viable route north from Udaipur. In 1576 an army of 20,000 Rajputs from Mewar opposed a Mughal army estimated to number 80,000. Though the ensuing battle was fierce it was to prove indecisive. Maharana Pratap is esteemed for his bravery and chivalry, and especially for his heroic opposition to Akbar. He was a ‘freedom fighter’, his struggle with the emperor characterised as part of a much grander struggle between Hindus and invading Muslims, a conflict that was to surface again in the terror of Indian Partition and later conflicts with the newly formed Islamic state of Pakistan.

In his perseverance against overwhelming odds and his refusal to acknowledge defeat Pratap resembles Britain’s Winston Churchill. Like Churchill in 1940, Pratap found himself the captain of resistance against the otherwise devouring Mughal Empire. A Hindu Rajput, Maharana Pratap Singh I saw the Mughals as invading foreigners, not just against his own homeland of Mewar, but of all India. After the Battle of Haldghati he increasingly resorted to the tactics of guerrilla warfare, and used such stratagems as ‘scorched earth’, the evacuation of entire populations from the path of advancing Mughal forces, and raids deep into enemy territory. Though ultimately Pratap failed to defeat the Mughals during his own reign his military tactics, employed later by others, paved the way for the eventual downfall of the Mughal Empire.

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