Never say die. If only some dead people could say that. And apart from those aged 99, who wants to live to be 100 anyway. Fortunately on this morning of this day I did not need an interceding act of resurrection. I am much the better for the uninterrupted sleep. If Lord Ganesha is feeling beneficent I will complete the transambulation of the Kumbhalgarh fortress wall. If successful in completing its circuit I will also lay claim as author of a new word to those already disfiguring the English language: ‘transambulation’, meaning ‘to move across’. It has the potential to be right up there with the likes of ‘biopedturbation’, and ‘transubstantiation’. I transambulate, you transambulate, we all transambulate, “transambulate together, right now,… after me”. I could almost hear John Lennon singing the lines on his new album, Yoko Ono tapping away in a ‘post-modernist’ tempo somewhere in the background. As I frequently did, I was retreating into a little madness to save myself from insanity, the thought of revisiting the wall. Maybe I had had too much codeine the night before.
Nonetheless, it was going to be a great day. I was on the path towards convincing myself of it. You just needed willpower.
I also figured I needed a better than average first aid kit, numerous packets of salt impregnated potato crisps, at least six bananas, a larger bottle of drinking water, and a backpack to put them in. Fortunately I had them all. I was off, and early as I was my guide was already waiting at the Ram Pol gate to greet me. For a second time I entered under an arch meant for those of higher station. The guide looked a bit surprised, admitting that he half expected me to have abandoned the thought of completing the walk, or the worst case scenario, that I had expired during the night. No such luck for him, for here I am. Or more correctly, there I was.
Though I didn’t make a habit of it, I was occasionally smarter than I sometimes looked. Overnight I had dreamt hard and long on those remaining and terrible stairs. Enlightenment can come in many colours, even in the dark of night when you are tucked up in bed without the slightest flicker of a candle keeping you company. I would not backtrack down the valley, recommencing the ascent where I had earlier left off. Instead, this time I would initiate the walk, from that opposite of yesterday, by starting near the fortress palace and proceeding down hill, eventually encountering the very same path that I had yesterday used to make my exit, my strategic withdrawal. Literally, on my completion I would return again to the fort gate by taking the ‘middle path’; obscure philosophical allusion, poor joke, wise tactic, plus debatable grammar and sentence structure. But I’d still have numerous descents and ascents to contend with, but this time I was hoping they would not be so many, and they would be gentler, gods allowing and ancestors intervening as spiritual advocates and guardians to my benefit.
So through the gate, entry fee paid again, and to the left. The first short section again takes me past the Ganesh temple, but then continues along a dirt path below the Kumbha Palace and the Palace of Queen Jhali. Here the wall is broken and so I must, uninvited, cross through the backyards of several houses, their occupants not at all offended by my trespass, just a little surprised. They and my guide, obviously on familiar terms, greet each other as if this is a regular event. Taking advantage of well-placed stone rubble we climb up on to the wall and then out and along undulating unbroken sections before commencing a series of steep descents followed by several uphill climbs. It looked alarmingly like it might quickly degenerate into a repeat of yesterday’s assault. The views are breathtaking, the thought of calamity terrible, as there is no vehicle access. I walk in, and I am obliged to walk out, with no hope of speedy assistance and recovery. However, on this day my body seems more capable, dare I say, more willing.
Below the wall lies the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, the base of its many ravines lined with evergreen forest, the hills more sparsely clothed in deciduous trees and shrubs. My guide refers to it with pride as a national park. Regardless of its official status it is indeed splendid to behold. It is home to wolf, leopard, sloth bear, hyena, jackal, jungle cat, and grey jungle fowl. There are lots more. Once there were tigers, once there may have even been cheetahs. The Indian Government is considering a proposal to introduce free-ranging Asian lions into the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Presumably these would come from the last remaining population that is now restricted to the Gir Forest in the neighbouring state of Gujarat. I can only applaud the possibility as it is never wise to have the last of any species in one basket, but as a conservation biologist I fear the practical implications and flaws of such a scheme. But then again millions of Indians already live in close proximity to several species of predatory felines, so maybe it is not as overly ambitious and fraught with hazard as it first looks. And if ever carried out it will sure make any future walks along the fortress wall a little more lively, just like when you go trekking amongst the crocodile populated mangroves of northern Australia.
Beyond the sanctuary stretches the haze-shrouded expanse of Marwar, though on this day it shrouds the landscape only like the finest of muslins. The guide’s mother was a Marwar girl, and his father lived on the Mewar side of the border, in one of the small villages enclosed by the fortress wall. Her village was far in the distance, hidden from our view. Goodness knows how they first met. Each week his father trekked out to the distant village of his bride-to-be. His intentions were above reproach. She was worth the effort, the climb lessened by the thought of her. It all worked out, my guide was one of the more obvious results, and just like his father he has lived in his village within the fortress walls ever since. Which no doubt explained his wealth of knowledge on everything from Indian history to wildlife conservation and bushcraft. He also exhibited great patience, but I was polite and did not enquire as to which of his parents he had inherited this from. From his vivid telling of the geography that had at first separated them, both seemed like good candidates. It’s a wonderful love story, Bollywood film directors take note. Amitabh Bachchan could play the role of his father, Preity Zinta that of his mother.
I pass a circular formation of stones dug into the ground, its shape like a drainage pit linked only to itself. But a large grinding stone, a millstone I suppose, divulges what this is meant to be. It was here that the cement to form the battlements was made, the grinding stone turning endlessly around and around, pulled by a tethered beast of some description, so that rocks placed within the circular trench were ground to a powder. I had seen two such circular trenches yesterday but they were without grinding stones so I did not understand their purpose. Further along we reach the Pitalia Dev temple, what I take to be the ruins identified as the Pithiya Shah temple indicated on a map at the fortress entrance, but also known as the Bairath Mata Ka Mandir. The frequent change to spellings can get frustrating for sometimes I am uncertain as to whether my reference sources are referring to two or more objects, or just the one structure or entity. I long ago learned to accept the ‘error factor’ in my interpretation of what lay before me. I have to keep reminding myself it is, or was, a holiday, not a scholarly college sabbatical. Little damage is evident at the temple, no more than what you would expect from several centuries of being exposed to the elements. The many carved figures upon its walls and pillars are numbered with an identifying code by the Archaeological Survey of India so as to track their welfare and fate, for there is a large illicit trade in the sale and purchase of India’s cultural heritage and registration numbers of stolen items are too easily rubbed away clean. The figures are delicate, intricate in their finish, but lack the eroticism that I have come to expect. There is a restraint in the portrayal of nakedness. And the figures have not been vandalised.
Further along we pause for a rest and food. I sharing what I had packed away in anticipation, my guide taking the occasion to show me how to fashion disposable, environmentally friendly, food plates by interlocking green Sal leaves with small twigs. He asks me to exchange American dollars he has previously been given as tips when taking tourists to the fortress palaces. It’s a collection of dollars and cents, the dollar part not adding up to much. I held my thoughts to myself. Not keen to hurry on I peer over the wall down at a shallow ravine, and a blunt ridge that ran parallel to it. Along the ridge was a fence of packed stone, near this was a foot path. I thought the fence identified a property boundary line and confined livestock, but was informed its role was to stop, or at least impede, forest fires. An ingenious construction; I wonder if it works?
The path proved something of a different character for it turned out this is where the trekking parties were taken. “I thought ‘the fortress wall’ was where the trekking parties walked?” I enquired to my guide. “The wall is too hard, we take them down there,” he answered. “I thought you brought people here every week,” I replied. “You are only the third,” and he didn’t flinch a muscle when he said it. Oh, I thought to myself, that’s nice. Silent as my thought was, I gagged on the understatement. Sucked in again, you’d think I’d learnt to read the fine print by now.
The last section of this half of the wall is very steep. It is the down view of the up view of that which had confronted me the day before. I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the descent. Down and down I went, my knees progressively proclaiming that they were due for retirement, my cramped and increasingly abraded hands firmly gripping the upper works of the battlements in case I stumbled, my mind not at all accepting that every now and then I would have to swing out and down on the little side stairs that gave access to broader courses of pavement. But my strategy worked. It was easier going down than the prospect of climbing up. And yes, I reached the ‘middle path’, and began the ascent along the little trail I had trod yesterday, up through the narrow valley that finally surfaced near the Ram Pol fortress gate. It had taken some hours, but the time it took proved, that with an earlier start yesterday the traverse of the wall could have be made in a single day. Of course I might have died after its completion, but that is supposition.
On the ascent of the trail I pass once more the broken dam known as the Badva Talab, the largest of ten dams within the confines of the fortress. I had passed this yesterday but on that occasion my attention was solely on me. The dam is centuries old, and though repaired at various times its massive masonry wall had burst again. The Badva Talab, also known as the Badva Bund, has a maximum upper wall length of about 128 metres and the width of the base is about 68 metres. Its present height is ten metres but available evidence indicates its original height stood at fifteen metres.
I notice that each person that we encounter on the path is greeted by my guide as if these are personally known to him, and they greet him with similar familiarity. There are numerous distinctly placed hamlets within the fortress wall but I’m getting the idea they, and their inhabitants, all interact as members of an extended family. Presumably they have the odd falling out, but the closeness of their lives and their daily work must impose some level of mutual acceptance and dependence. I had noticed before in India that people who do not necessarily know one another come together, if only momentarily, to the aid of each other. Say for example, when a broken down car needs repair, or a flat tyre needs air. They interact freely to complete the task then just seem to go their own ways and may never meet again. I’m not so sure this sort of co-operation would happen in Hometown. Certainly people come together in times of great and shared adversity, as in bushfires and floods, but there are many times when one can be left very much to one’s own devices.
A little past the second dam I come to a tank, the Badwa Bawri. It is half full of green coloured water. Alongside the tank is a large fig tree. And alongside this is a camel driver, a camel driver with a very bloody hand. The hand has a bandage about it, but it seems like it is totally inadequate for whatever malady resides underneath. The driver had gashed his hand on the pack saddle when unloading this from the camel’s back, and though he has had it attended to somewhere, even with the bandage on, it is not a pretty sight. It needs ‘redoctoring’, and so I decide to participate in a little medical malpractice. Besides I had a lot of surgical dressings in my backpack just waiting for the opportunity to be released from their packages and put to their intended use. I did a reasonable job, not too bad at all actually, and whoever had tended to it earlier had done a more than reasonable job too; with what limited medical resources they had available. All the while my guide, grinning openly, made a photographic record on his smart-phone. I part guessed, correctly I think, what brought on some of those smiles. It was the camel driver’s left hand I was working on.
But that wound needed two things, neither of which I could deliver. It needed more than a few stitches, and it needed not to be used again until the wound had healed. There was a big risk of infection. I had lots of antiseptic but I had no needles and suture. I could not close the gash, and the reality of the camel driver’s life was that he was going to go straight back to work hauling his camel around. I could bet on it. He really needed to get down to the local medical aid clinic every day. But that was a good many kilometres away, and I was suspecting the camel driver was thinking he had more pressing things to do than routinely trudge backwards and forwards up and down hill to the medical clinic each day. Knowing the likelihood of this I invested everything I had on that hand. Short of the driver taking to it with a knife, the dressing should have been impervious to anything and would last several days. I made sure that the guide re-enforced to the camel driver the urgency of regular attention. “Daily inspection”, I directed. Guide and camel driver seemed familiar, that this was not their first acquaintance, so I had some hope for his wellbeing. But to be truthful, I have not stopped wondering what became of him.
We parted, and all was happy grins and handshakes. Except I forgot to tell him I was Australian and so missed the chance, miniscule in the grand scheme of world geopolitics as it was, to strengthen the bridge of common understanding between our two countries. And with my accent, in hindsight I fear he just might have mistaken me for a New Zealander.
Just inside the fortress gate is a little cafe. We sit and drink marsala chai. There by our side are six goats of regal countenance, their grey coats speckled with black spots. And up and down the stairs that finally end at the Palace of Cloud, on the fortress’s far summit, wind people of diverse nations, not a single one of which I met along the wall. But we do not part quite yet. I do not call for my tour car, instead my guide and I walk down to the vicinity of the hotel entrance. There by a statue of Maharana Pratap, or was it Udai Singh or Maranaha Kumbha, we say our ‘goodbyes’. My fortress guide had a name, it was ‘Salim’. We are unlikely to meet again.
There was a trick to the Kumbhalgarh Fortress. All was not as it seemed. Its palaces, fortifications, temples, gates, and other structures were all made of stone masonry and mortar, and sometimes kiln-burnt bricks. These stood the test of time relatively well but with Indian Independence came neglect and vandalism. The walls had collapsed at places, parapets were damaged, plaster fell away, and the joints of stone widened due to water seepage and the growth of vegetation. Some palace structures, in particular roofs and ceilings, had suffered damage by water and removal of wooden beams. Temples especially were allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. In response to this damage in 2002 the Archaeological Survey of India initiated major conservation measures.
The collapsed sections of the fortress walls between Hanuman Pol and Vijay Pol, and that at Bhairava Pol, were fully reconstructed and underpinned. Damaged portions of wall near the Ram Pol and Charbhuja temple were also repaired, as was that near the Langan tank. Bulged out bastions near the Halla Poll, and fallen sections there, were underpinned and joints pointed. Extensive repairs to the fort walls were undertaken elsewhere, including the partly collapsed bastion near the birthplace of Maharana Pratap and Topkhana Gate. Dilapidated portions of the Hanuman Pol, Vijay Pol, Ram Pol, Bhairava Pol, Pagda Pol, Nimboo Pol and Halla Pol were also repaired by resetting, pointing joints, and by replastering.
The palace complex required similar attention, with fallen and damaged areas being underpinned, pointed, water-proofed, replastered and repainted; and with decayed material and accumulated waste being removed. Ornamental stucco paintings needed restoration and damaged window panels and doors needed treatment with preservatives. Religious structures especially were subject to extensive programs of restoration. Fallen stones needed sorting and repositioning, decayed and damaged plaster needed to be fully removed and structures replastered. Stairs leading to individual temples and shrines required realignment, re-enforcement and restructuring, and bulging architectural members required resetting and strengthening. Sunken floors needed realignment and ceilings required re-concreting, and missing stones needed to be fixed back in place. Partly dislodged or unaligned features and sculptures had to be removed and reset according to detailed documentation that the project team had first recorded. As an example of the detailed restoration efforts required the Pitalia Dev temple, which I had earlier, but naively, opined as being in a good state of repair was actually in its present condition due to major restoration efforts on the part of the Archaeological Survey of India. The roof needed water-proofing by re-concreting, fallen and bulging sections of its terraces, flooring and steps needed restructuring and resetting, and a new approach pathway was built. But to achieve this, original ground plans and structural and decorative details needed to be fully recorded and laid out, all of the old decayed and damaged concrete needed to be cleared away, discarded and fallen masonry had to be located and assigned within the reconstruction plan, or replaced. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ photos recording the project are instructive, yet this was only one of many. And the repairs were far more rigorous and extensive than I have briefly referenced here.