The best time to visit Kumbhalgarh is during the monsoons, when the sky comes down on the forests; the clouds touch the massive walls of the fort; the peaks of green mountains covered with white cotton balls of mist look like decorous Indian wives. Situated 84 kms north of Udaipur city, the way to Kumbhalgarh is through narrow, winding roads, cut between deep gorges on one side; and green mountains with brown edges jutting out, on the other.
Quaint bridges break the monochromatic pattern of the black road, lying ahead like a curly snake. Below the bridges flow swift, sparkling streams with broad strips of pebbles bordering them. The reflections of the green mountains fall on the transparent waters, closeted between huge chunks of rocks. As the road winds higher up, the mountains become greener, the gorges deeper and the mountain crests tighten their slippery-satin cloaks of mist. Near the streams, village women with hordes of children tend to their cattle. A man sleeps peacefully on a rectangular rock beside a stream, while his cow grazes on newly-grown grass. A glimpse of an orange scarf can be seen through the thick foliage on the mountains. It’s a brightly-clad girl bringing her errant goat down.
As the road climbs higher, the surroundings become quieter, people become scarcer, until the age-blackened walls of Kumbhalgarh fort stare at us like a Hindu hermit, with sagacity and resignation. The fort was built by Maharana Kumbha in the 15th century. It stands on a craggy hill, 1087 metres above sea level and 213 metres above the pass at its foot. It is said that whenever Rana Kumbha started building the fort, it would crumble into rubble. A sage who lived in a cave nearby, advised him to offer human sacrifice at the site to appease the reigning deity. At such a high altitude, it was difficult to get a living person. So the sage volunteered to be sacrificed. The king, after some deliberations, accepted the proposal and the sage was beheaded. He walked in that state for some time and the fort was built on the spot where he fell down.
At the entrance, on both sides of the fort, the black wall puffs up like a bloated stomach. We enter through an arch called the Halla Pol. Then we come to the Kumbhalgarh fort complex which abounds in many palaces,gardens,water-storage facilities and 365 temples. Some temples have crumbled down. In some, the yellow walls have become dark due to age but all proclaim an unmistakable grandeur. The temples of Nilkanth Mahadeo and Kumbhaswami stand up peerless.
The main attraction of Kumbhalgarh fort is of course the massive 20 feet thick boundary wall, which stretches along the mountain like a prehistoric animal for 36 kms and is second only to the Great Wall of China. It changes according to the topography. In some places it is wide enough for a vehicle to pass through; in other places it is a narrow strip. The crenelated wall is topped by a horse-shoe type of arch.
We pass through various arched gates called Bhairav Pol, Nimbu Pol and Chaugan Pol. Steep steps are attached to a part of the wall, which serve as a short-cut to a crumbling palace standing on a conical hill, with hanging balconies and mountain-facing windows. Close to the palace, is a tunnel yawning into darkness but now covered with tangles of thickets and brambles. We bend our heads down, enter very narrow lanes, pass through a door and come to a small stretch of wilderness, which might once have been a garden. Steps without banisters branch out in two directions. We take the left one and climb up to Ganesh Pol, where is situated the ‘Hawa Mahal’ or palace of the winds.
Built by Maharana Fateh Singhji, it’s a yellow two-storey structure with the driveway sloping up in small waves. The rooms on the outer side are locked. We enter through an arched doorway and come to a huge, open courtyard. Except for a temple and a circular structure, which might once have housed the holy basil plant, the stone-flagged courtyard is completely bare.
Rooms opening to arched verandas encircle the courtyard. All the rooms have double arches. This is a special feature of the Hawa Mahal, as is seen in the outer façade too. The spandrels of the arches have a delicate floral design in sea-green and pink. The dados have beautiful paintings of prancing elephants. The windows are just rectangular traceries with casement seats, wide enough for a lovelorn couple to sit and inhale the perfume of the green forests. Light filtering in through the traceries makes strange patterns on the walls. If you fix your eyes close to the traceries, the misty mountains beckon you. The rooms are circular or hexagonal in shape; the ceiling spirals up in a cone; the walls might have once been moss-green but now it is littered with names cruelly etched all over, such as, Nandini+ Ankit. ‘Naresh loves Aruna’ proclaims loudly from one of the spandrels.
Though at the entry of each gate ,there are notices warning that the monuments are protected buildings and should not be harmed in any way; yet base, ignoble minds have scribbled their names as if to say, “What we can’t build, let’s deface.” We climb narrow, dark steps and come to a terrace which again encircles the quadrangular Garth. The sandy desert of Marwar stretches before us and the Aravali range stands as a sentinel. A few more steps lead us to a tiny, circular terrace with walls so high that nothing can be visible, except the open sky above.
We climb down, which is very easy, compared to the difficult climb uphill. Some teenage school boys cross us with a lackadaisical attitude, more interested in the pretty, foreign tourists, than the magnificence of the fort. Yes,they are the ones, who like, awkward, poisonous spiders scribble names in the dark, mysterious rooms. The names are written in an educated, English handwriting which show that they study in good schools. That they have learnt nothing is of course another matter, because Social Studies in high school teaches that one of the duties of a good citizen is to preserve heritage buildings.
The kings might have dealt with them severely, perhaps trampling them under elephants or hurling them into empty space. That was a different time altogether. All along the way there are temples and palaces, stables covered with thick undergrowth, a rectangular swimming pool filled with parrot-green water, steps covered with moss, skeletal remains of a ladies’ changing room, with only its ceiling and the side wall remaining.
Then the rain falls. It’s at first a steady drizzle, a sort of highland shower. We take shelter under the arches of the gates but it shows no sign of diminishing. So we climb down. Then it falls in torrents.
Unlike Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh fort was captured only once in its entire history. Akbar,the Mughal emperor needed the help of the rulers of Amber and Marwar to break its defences, which was made easier by the poisoning of its water line. Once, a flower girl acted as a spy and tried to show the way to the enemy by strewing petals on the path. She was caught and buried alive. One of the walls show a faint outline of a human figure, supposedly of the hapless girl.
It is not easy to leave behind the gracious silence of Kumbhalgarh fort, with the dense forests and mountains acting as silent backdrops. The magical splendour of the fort which has resisted great attacks and where the rulers of the Mewar dynasty took refuge during times of danger, recedes in the background but carves a chunk of space in our memory.
By Bulbul Niyogi