Sunday, 31 July 2011

Day 161: Chittor (08/07/2011)

When you are travelling, there are days when you rush frantically from place to place trying to see everything in the limited time allotted.

And then there are the really busy days.

A good proportion of people travelling from Pushkar go on to Udaipur which involves a three hour stop over at the train station in Ajmer. What can you do in three hours? Have a long lunch? Find an ATM? Catch up on some reading?

Or hop in a tuk-tuk, drive 15km from town, climb 500m and then spend the afternoon in a mad whirlwind of triumph and disaster, heroism and tragedy whilst travelling 14km around the walls and features of the largest fort ever constructed.

Chittorghar – for those of you who have been paying attention to previous fort related posts, meaning ‘Chittor at the top of the mountain’ – is a little off the beaten track but so worth a visit that Ajmer should market itself as close to the now diminutive hamlet of Chittor rather than the other way around.

Maresh wound the tuk-tuk through the series of hair-pin bends that snake up the mountain side, under the arches of one immense gate after another. Just the aspect of the approach through any number of concentric rings of defensive walls is an awesome sight. What lies within is so superb as to be really quite unbelievable.

What is better though, is the tale of Chittor that evokes the very best and worst of chivalry and honour. Its history is littered with great sieges and valiant survival, against all odds. The fort was defended to the last by successive leaders who, with all credit to their men, held out against vastly superior forces and when defeat was inevitable, rode out in full ceremonial dress to attack the besiegers in the certain knowledge that they would die but die honourably.

Such is the size of the fort that on one occasion, 36,000 women committed mass suicide rather than fall into the hands of the attackers when the city was about to fall and the men had ridden out to certain death. Within its walls it encloses huge forested areas where tigers and wild boar were hunted. It has 86 step wells, each probably holding upwards of 100,000 litres of drinking water. The population within the walls was estimated to have been 250,000. The walls are 50m high in places. The gates are beyond sensible counting.

In 1500, the most powerful Mughal Emperor, Akbar is said to have taken a romantic interest in Padmini, a beautiful princess of the ruling Chittor dynasty. Even with his own enormous army and those of his two allies, the siege was long and costly. Eventually Akbar breached Chittor’s defences and entered the fort. Such was the tenacity of the defenders that he held it for only two days before it was recaptured and Akbar was expelled.

What has survived the ravages of warfare is a sublime collection of temples, palaces and monuments that make Chittor unique in both scale and content.

We arrived as the skies were clouding over and within 20 minutes the monsoon unleashed its most ferocious onslaught to date and we were forced to hide in the remains of the ruined royal temple. In the darkness of one room we stood and watched as the rain lashed down. Behind us a previously invisible cow sighed at the intrusion and so we left her to her privacy and dashed across a rain drenched courtyard to join a motley group of gardeners and guides under an arched walkway, there being no tourists apart from us. Behind us the resident dogs congregated to watch the rain come down, some of them not old enough to have seen it before.

The ancient stone gutters did their work and hundreds of gallons of rain water gushed from outlets at regular intervals along the balustrades, before crashing onto the ancient paving stones below. Soaked monkeys reached down from the roofs into the horizontal fountains of water to drink or just to play or sat waiting for the weather to break so that the tourists would return to feeding them.

Time was always pressing us but we raced around the perimeter to see the ornate carved sandstone Jain temple miles from its nearest rival spectacle. We climbed one of the two ornately carved Victory towers, built in 1408 and consisting of 9 stories and 155 steps, mostly in semi-darkness and each one harassed by an unending line of savage and beautiful statues and reliefs depicting birth, life, sex and death. We paused at some stunning step wells, full of the usual emerald green water and descending gracefully to the water’s surface by a geometrically perfect line of 600 year old steps that could have been constructed yesterday.

At Padmini’s palace, the source of much of Chittor’s Troyesque troubles, we marvelled at her gardens and her isolated tower in the middle of a giant step well. All the while we wondered what she must have looked like in the flesh to enchant the most powerful man on the sub-continent into such a colossal and ultimately doomed adventure to possess her.

Reluctantly, we dragged ourselves away and returned with Maresh to the station to undertake the final leg of the journey to Udaipur.

Chittor was not just a pleasant diversion. It surpassed most of what we have seen in India.

Should more people see it?

Probably not, is the selfish answer.

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