From Bundi there is a direct train to Chittorgarh, that famous capital of the Rajputs of Mewar. The first bus is at 7 am and the train departs only ten minutes later. So I opt for train. It is bound to be cheaper and more comfortable for the long distance I have to cover today.
Things don’t actually pan out the way they are planned. The train is an hour late. I occupy myself in making a sketch while I wait. The passenger train eventually arrives. For the three-hour ride to Chittorgarh I have a good nap. I step out of the station, have an early lunch at a restaurant close by and hop on to a shared tempo. I am heading straight to the famous fort of Chittorgarh. The tempo drops me at a market place where I change to another tempo going to the fort. The road winds up in sharp bends, passing once in a while under a fortified stone gateway. Walls and ramparts surround the approach at many levels. I can already feel the touch of medieval India.
How medieval? The Sisodia clan of Rajputs who ruled from Chittorgarh exercised power from the 7th through the 16th centuries. Their heyday came during the reign of Rana Kumbha in the 15th century. When I get off at the ticket counter, I can see the entire town of Chittorgarh spread out below me. The view is quite spectacular. The truth is that this fort and its vast ruins are spread out on the plateau of a high ridge. I think it is quite a few kilometers from one end of the ridge to the other.
Touts approach me for business. It might be a good idea to hire an auto-rickshaw. The ruins appear vast and exploring them with my backpack is going to be difficult. On second thoughts, I enjoy walking much more. So I settle for a more leisurely exploration of the ruins. The first temple I come across is the Sringar Chauri Temple, a Jain temple from the 15th century. It is apparent that there was a great deal of tolerance amongst Hindus and Jains even then. The temple has two mukha mandapas but only the northern one stands. The domes and the main shikara are gone. What survive today are modern reconstructions. The outer walls are packed with reliefs, friezes and traditional mouldings. For a small temple, they are splendid. In fact, the modest scale of the temple gives emphasis to the wealth of stone carvings.
Inside, the space is octagonal with triangular corners. Eastern and southern sides have vestibules below jali screens. Uniquely the main mandapa has a 5-foot high plinth on which four pillars stand to support horizontal beams. This space is probably the main shrine and might have housed in the past the main deity. The other temple next to it has a more traditional architecture. Its mukha mandapa is gone, the mandapa surives and so does the sanctum with what’s left of the shikara on top.
I leave these temples, enter through a gateway and arrive at the inner ruins. One of the old palaces here has a beautiful facade. Corner octagonal towers with domes frame the palace. Arcaded terrace at midlevel is a unique architectural element. Projected pavilions at the center break the monotony of the long facade. I walk past it to visit another Jain temple. I admire the carvings. This temple is still in active use. The shikaras are superb and so are the reliefs on the outer walls. Dancers twist and turn their lithe bodies. Their dresses are decorative. Their large earrings are conspicuous. Their hair styles are elaborate. Lotus half medallions decorate the bases in a standard frieze. Before one deity, two elephants tussle. It is a marvellous detail.
The temple affords a good view of the palace next door. From this temple, beyond an old wall hung with pretty bougainvillas, and across an vast open space, I see a tall Jain tower and a temple next to it. I will have to visit them later.
A little distance from here is the famous Vijaya Stambha or Victory Tower. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, this was built in 1448 AD by Maharana Kumbha to commemorate his victory over the Sultan of Malwa. The tower has nine levels. The stairs are narrow, alternately rising through the center and winding by the sides. The tower is a masterpiece. Some of the sculptures are superb. The view of the entire ridge from the tower is spectacular. Jali screens decorate the highest level under a dome. At most levels balconies projected out on all sides.
The temple of Siddeshwara has a superb shikara packed with miniature shikaras, everything sculpted to fine detail. The mandapa is covered with a vesara shikara instead of the simpler dome. Entrance porches too contain similar superb vesara style shikaras. The walls are packed with reliefs. There is not a lot of difference between this one and the Jain temples of the area. The same artists are likely to have worked on them.
A long flight of steps descend to a water tank between two walls of the fort. From the outer wall it is a steep drop by the cliff. This is supposedly a holy tank. I see a couple of local women washing the day’s laundry. On the other side is a small shrine which is popular with pilgrims. I think this one is called the Neelkant Mahadev Temple. What is impressive here is the fort wall and crenellations towering high above the shrine.
Most people visit the Kalimata Temple up here. Vendors and crowds are outside this temple. It does not interest me. I explore Patta Haveli nearby. It is a ruin that’s as romantic as the old palaces of Datia or Orchha. What survives is a three-storeyed building with projected balconies, sculpted parapets, chhajjas, voluted brackets, domes, pyramidal articulations and trapezoidal roofs. About the haveli are stone walls in ruins and in some cases only visible foundations. There are certain scenes here that make it picture perfect.
I walk to the Padmini Palace. Rajput queens have been as brave as their men. Padmini is one of them. Her beauty tempted Alauddin Khilji who later attacked Chittorgarh in 1303 AD. When the city fell, the queen and many other women committed jauhar, the act of jumping into fire. In modern times, definition of bravery is bound to be different.
Her palace stands at the margins of Padmini Lake where another building by the name of Jal Mahal stands. The lawns and low hedges here are nicely maintained. The lake is mostly dry and in this state it reveals a rocky bed. What inspires me in this palace is a corridor leading into inner rooms by plain doorways. Each room is divided into two partitions separated by triple arches beautifully cusped. Balconies project from the outer partition into the corridor. I can imagine the use of these rooms, a perfect place for relaxation and a seamless transition from outer to inner spaces.
It is a long walk from here back to where I started. Then I take a deviation to the Kirti Stambha, the Jain tower I had seen earlier. Images of Jain tirthankaras decorate the tower. The tower is smaller than the Victory Tower but older by at least two centuries. At the top is a square pavilion with pillared projections on all four sides. This 12-pillared hall at the top is impressive. Pillared projections at the lowest level are equally impressive. In terms of art, this tower is no less a masterpiece, perhaps more so, when compared to the other.
The tower is locked but I am standing at the edge of the ridge. I can see the landscape for miles, flat dry plains nearby and low hills far away. The shadow of the tower falls across before me as I view the landscape. I spend a few minutes studying the reliefs on the Jain temple next to the tower.
Back at the center of the ruins, there are many more things to cover. I visit the Kumbhaswamin Temple. Originally dedicated to Varaha, the boar-faced image is now in a niche in the back outer wall of the sanctum. Another huge statue of Vishnu adorns an aedicule at the back above a half-pillared balcony. The shikara is tall and lofty. A stunning vesara style shikara covers the mandapa. There is a pradakshinapatha around the inner sanctum. Projected balconies are beautiful articulations of this temple. In the same complex, nearby is a cenotaph and a temple dedicated to Meera Bai. I learn that this great saint poet hails from Chittorgarh.
The final stop for the day is back at the start where the old palaces of Chittorgarh stand, particularly the palace of Rana Kumbha. This is an incredible ruin affording grand views of the town below. It shows proudly its natural defences reinforced by man-made fort ramparts and bastions. The ruins are wonderful on their own but the setting sun adds a golden touch to the old bricks and crumbling mortar. High palaces are seen in perspective of fallen walls, bare foundations and roofless structures. I can easily imagine the grandeur that was once of this place.
There is something romantic about a ruin which cannot be sensed when it is restored to its former glory. A ruin as this calls to imagination and inspires reflection. Time plays its game constantly. With every passing minute the shadows lengthen, the light shifts and perspectives change. The ruin I see now is not the same one a minute later. Parrots squawk. Pigeons coo. Otherwise the ruins are quiet. I imagine hearing battle cries and swords clashing. I am the only visitor left. I walk through one of the rooms on the second level of the palace. In a small courtyard, I am surrounded by stone walls. I descend some stone stairs and go through dark passages. Silhouettes of domes, pillars and crenellations hide the setting sun. The glory of the Rajputs lives on in these ruins.
I had planned to wander through the ruins of Chittorgarh for a few hours and proceed to Nathdwara by nightfall. But Chittorgarh has kept me interested for a good six hours. I’ll have to spend the night here. I walk back to town in the first darkness of the night. The moon is just beginning to rise. I pass beneath the old gates one after another. I see the crenellations and ramparts lit up in places. By chance I spot Giridhar Guest House on the first road to town. Yes, he has vacancies and he will let me have a room. The place is empty when I check in but soon I am joined by a large group of local Rajasthani tourists. I bet they are more pilgrims than inquisitive tourists.
I freshen up and head out for dinner. Try as I might, I do not manage to find a single decent restaurant in town. I settle for an offering of daal bhati, something I really like except that here I am not enthused by the hygiene. There is roaring fire outside the restaurant. The fire is fuelled by cakes of cowdung. A flat pan with bhati is getting cooked two feet from the fire. The bhatis are only half-cooked and certainly not to my preference. I am not enamoured by the accompaniments either. I feel queasy in the stomach department. I know I’m going to have a problem tomorrow.
Back at the guest house, I climb up to the roof. The moon is a long way up in the sky. Up on the ridge, the fort ramparts are visible. The view of the fort at night is beautiful. One of the temples is lit up. The Tower of Victory stands proudly as a symbol of Rajput bravery.