Published: January 31st 2007November 7th 2006
Tourists are Maharajas in Amber Fort, where the former royalty reminisces its lost charm.
A procession of decorated elephants snake through the winding stone path to the Amber Fort. Rajasthani men in their traditional dress and flashy turbans ride their big pets on a neat line. Amused foreign tourists, playing to the mood with hired headgear, silver ornaments and tilak, fight their fears atop the animals’ spines. The scene looks a straight lift from David Lean's A Passage to India.
All it takes to end the romance is a shower of snort from the beast.
Located 11 kilometres east of Jaipur on the road to New Delhi, Amber was the ancient capital of the Kachwaha clan of Rajputs, who founded Jaipur. The formidable fort, protected by a vast lake and steep walkway, overlooks the pass on the Aravalli mountain range. The Kachwahas presided over their fiefdom from the strategic citadel from 1592 to 1728, when they shifted their capital to Jaipur.
Our plan is to cover at least three palaces/forts in a day in Jaipur. On the list are Amber Fort, Jaigarh Fort, Jal Mahal and Hawa Mahal. On a bus from the busy junction near Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, we see the water-guarded Jal Mahal along National Highway 8. Our first
A portico covered with bacchanalian motifs in Amber Fort.
stop would be Amber Palace. There are no buses to Jaigarh Fort, a few kilometers away.
Beyond a vast moat and long ramparts stand the imposing sandstone structure. Three generations of kings have left their mark on the fort, where Rajput and Mughal styles converge. Walking past beautiful gardens and the elephant riders, we enter the fort. As at all Indian tourist sites, there are special counters for foreigners to buy entry tickets. They pay dollars and we rupees.
Perhaps the only time when the foreign exchange-challenged native traveller is favoured in Rajasthan. Elsewhere in the state, shop owners refuse to accept coins lesser than Re 1. Even two coins of 50 paise won't do. It's obsolete here, they say. After all, this is a land where riches and splendour were as vast as the desert.
Amber Fort too was built on the spoils of war. Raja Man Singh, who had fought with the Mughals, built the fort as a treasure house and symbol of power. The Meenas, who controlled the area, became loyal to the victor. Amber or Amer became the seat of power. Man Singh's successors Jai Singh I and Jai Sing II built upon
Jaigarh Fort by the reservoir in Amer looks over the barren mountainscape of the Aravalli ranges.
Ganesh Pol, a gateway guarded by the divine elephant, leads to an open-air parlour. Then a series of narrow paths - up and down, left and right - leads the visitor to deserted dark quarters or splendid structures. The palace complex comprises temples and lounges. Sheesh Mahal, a building studded with hundreds of mirrors, reflects the lavish charm of royalty.
Roaming the royal houses, we come across a portico covered with bacchanalian motifs. Wine and poetry might have flowed here as in Omar Khayyam. Workmen are busy sprucing up the palace. Yonder, the rampart winds up a hill. We descend from the palace through a shaky ladder put up by the workers. We decide to trek.
The stone-paved path is deserted but for an occasional group. Cow dung replaces elephant dropping on the tedious path. Pleasure trips end at the lower palace, we thought. Uphill, another rampart. We took it for an outpost or watchtower of Amber Fort. There another counter awaits us. Money per head, per camera, per video camera…
We are on the Hill of the Eagles (Chilh ka Tola), where Jai Singh II built Jaigarh Fort in 1726. There are as
A view of the Amber Palace from the Jaigarh Fort, 400 feet above.
many people there as in Amber Fort. While we trekked the distance, most tourists drove there on a longer tarred road. Amber and Jaigarh are twin forts. An underground passage linked the two installations, a guard tells me. Like all secret paths of the past, it has been blocked, he adds.
The legendary treasures of the Maharajas, it was believed, were hidden in the Jaigarh Fort. Even after spending on Amber, Jaigarh and the numerous forts and palaces in the new capital Jaipur, the riches were enough to sustain the lavish lifestyle of the warrior-kings. In 1976, the Indian government dried up the 60,00,000-gallon water tank in the fort in search of the legendary treasure, in vain.
The huge underground tank, supported by 81 pillars, which harvest rainwater through a network of canals, was meant for emergency. Inhabitants of Jaigarh and Amber fetched water from a reservoir tucked away in the barren mountainscape. The treasury, with which Jai Singh II founded Jaipur, was hidden in the small tanks behind the big one.
The tanks protected the riches and strengthened the fort against any siege. Jaigarh Fort is a classic example of the military architecture of medieval India. The vantage point and tough terrain gave the fort’s occupant an edge over intruders. A museum inside the fort offers a history of arms - from the crude to the refined. Guns, axes, swords, shields, muskets…the long hall has inherited the memories of bloody battles.
The fort boasts of a cannon foundry and feared firearms. An inscription on Bajrang Vana, built in 1691, says the cannon was driven to the battlefield by 32 oxen. Jaivana, arguably the world’s largest cannon on wheels, eclipses Bajrang Vana. The barrel itself weighs 50 tons and legend has it that four elephants were needed to move it. The gigantic weapon, built in 1720, was never put to use in a battleground.
If the museum is all about wars and warriors, the Lakshmi Vilas Palace still dreams of love and lovers. Dance, music, puppetry…princes and princesses had a rocking party here. Dining halls, where the king and the queen entertained their guests, now house mannequins assembled around a feast. A Mughal garden, where royalty gave in to exotic dancers and enthralling musicians, may magically come alive in a moonlit night. But for now, puppetry is the only surviving art in this fort.
The kings did not even get a chance to be puppet leaders. Princely states were absorbed into the republic and privy purses were abolished later. Bhavani Singh, who inherited a kingdom of lore, dominates the photograph collection in the museum. Black & white memories of the former Indian military officer, who served on many warfronts.
A king who never ruled in a fort that never fell.
Back in Pink City, Hawa Mahal, which welcomes the wind through its numerous windows, is closed for the day. The old Rajput capital has exhausted us, anyway. We roam around Jaipur in cycle rickshaws till a sleeper bus takes us to New Delhi.