“This heaven like place was completed in the Hijri year 1008 [1599 AD], being built in a period of 25 years, having been most meticulously designed and expertly decorated. Just as the heavens should always be laden with rain, so also this stately building, the foundation of the Maharaj’s longevity and wealth, be preserved from any kind of damage.”
~ Excerpt from the English translation of a Persian plaque inside the Zenana, Amer Fort.
Part of the six ‘Hill Forts of Rajasthan’ UNESCO World Heritage Site, Amer Fort rises high above the placid waters of Maota Lake. Its magnificent Rajput-Mughal edifices reminiscent of the power of the Kachhwaha Rajputs and their strategic ties with the Mughal empire. For 128 years, Mirza Raja Man Singh I’s labour of love served as the administrative base and royal residence of the Amber kingdom. That is, until 1727 when Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II decided to move the capital to Jaipur some 15 kilometres away.
Most travellers simply visit the fort, gush in wonder, and leave. But there is more to Amer than just this glorious marvel. Much more, beyond the fort.
Centuries-old weathered stone steps from the rear end of Amer Fort lead down into Amer town. Dating back to before the fort, the little town is over a thousand years old, established by Meena chief Raja Alan Singh in 967 AD and later conquered by the Kachhwaha clan of Rajputs in 1037 AD. This is where the common folks worked, played, and prayed. Where the earlier medieval palace still stands amongst stone temples and stepwells. Where crumbling havelis line cobbled lanes filled with mythical legends and historic tales.
Dear Reader, this is my photo essay on Amer, and all it offers—the fort and beyond. I hope you enjoy the read and images. 🙂
AMER FORT AND ITS ARCHITECTURAL TREASURES …
Amer Fort, the administrative and residential base of the Kachhwaha Rajputs flanks the Maota Lake. Over the centuries, various rulers added to the fort’s glory, most notably, Mirza Raja Man Singh I, Mirza Raja Jai Singh I and Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, turning it into the splendid work of art and architecture it is today.
Whether it be the imposing Singh Pol which leads into the imperial palace from the Jaleb Chowk [Great Courtyard] or the Sattais Kacheri [27 Courts] where the 27 superintendents of the 27 administrative departments worked from, each architectural element fits the fort’s aesthetics with perfect ease.
A little story warrants mention here. Next to the Singh Pol is the Shila Devi Temple with an idol of goddess Durga. The story goes that Mirza Raja Man Singh I was in Jessore [present day Bangladesh] in 1604 AD fighting a losing battle on behalf of Mughal emperor Akbar. He prayed to the goddess who assured him that if he’d retrieve her statue from the sea, victory would be his. He did the needful, and lo behold he won the war. Since then, to this day, her effigy has been worshipped in the Amer Fort.
Mughal in style, the Diwan-e-Aam or public audience hall is Mirza Raja Jai Singh I’s handiwork. Made of marble and red sandstone, the roof resembles a tent canopy. Of special mention are the elephant-shaped brackets topping the pillars and the row of red sandstone pillars on the outside to downplay the room’s beauty. The latter, just so the Mughals would not get jealous.
Factoid: Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II [1835–80], India’s first photographer-king and an avid billiards player, turned the back area into a billiards room. The tables are still there.
Decorated with gods, goddesses, geometric and floral patterns painted in natural organic colours, the three-storeyed ceremonial Ganesh Pol is named after the image of the god Ganesh in the central arch. On the gate’s third level is Suhag Mandir which served as a lookout window for the royal ladies to have a dekko at the happenings in the courtyards and audience halls below.
Visual delights abound in the Amer Fort. Take for instance the Magic Flower marble panel. Depending on which portion you hide, the carving appears to be a fish tail, lotus, hooded cobra, elephant trunk, lion’s tail, crab or scorpio. And then there’s the Aaram Bagh next to Sukh Niwas. A sunken hexagonal garden with a star-shaped pool fed by water channels, it is pure eye candy.
This is Amer Fort’s pièce de résistance: Sheesh Mahal or Diwan-e-Khas. Covered with mirror-work and glass inlays on the outside and inlay, mirror-work and gilding on the inside, it is where the king held meetings with key, important people. It is easy to be bowled over by the exquisite walls, but don’t forget to look up at the ceilings. That is where all the magic is.
At the farthest end of the fort, in its deepest recesses, is the oldest part. The Zenana, which housed the queens, concubines, female attendants and queen mother, hidden from the world by secret tunnels and passageways, and guarded by an army of eunuchs.
Twelve palaces for Mirza Raja Man Singh I’s 12 wives surround a 12-pillared baradari or pavilion where the royal ladies met and were entertained with music and dance. No males, whatsoever, were allowed in the Zenana except for one—the king himself.
Lastly, the back-end of Amer Fort: The servant quarters with Jaigarh Fort in the background. It is also the exit route for tourists.
… AND BEYOND: A WALK THROUGH AMER TOWN
The first structure one encounters on the way down from Amer Fort to Amer [or Amber], the town, is Jagat Shiromani Temple , a poetic synthesis of three different stones, and four different styles. It is dedicated to Jagat Singh, Mirza Raja Man Singh I’s eldest son who died in battle. Built by Jagat’s mother Queen Kanakwati, it is a Krishna temple wherein Krishna is Jagat Shiromani, the ‘Head Jewel of the Idol of Lord Vishnu.’
According to legend, the idol of Krishna inside [standing figure, bottom left] is the very same one Mira Bai, wife of the King of Mewar [Udaipur] and Krishna’s most ardent devotee ever, worshipped. It was brought to Jaipur for safekeeping when the Mughals attacked Mewar.
Before Amer Fort came into being, the royal family lived in a much simpler, smaller palace—the Palace Below Hill. And that’s the next stop. Made of sandstone and lime, it contains all the expected royal structures, albeit simpler: A Diwan-e-Aam, coronation area [the cenotaph in the right image], Zenana, and a temple built by Queen Balabai. The temple, dedicated to Narsinghji, an incarnation of Vishnu, is now its main claim to fame.
Back in the old days there was a popular belief: “Jab tak Narsingh dehliz mein, tab tak Raj hatheli mein.” Meaning “As long as Narsingh is inside the threshold, the crown is guaranteed.” Ironically, the effigy was stolen in 1947, and royalty in India came to an end the same year. Some claim the current statue inside is the retrieved original; others doubt it.
Meet Santosh Kumar Vyas [right]. He is the priest at Ambikeshwar Mahadev Temple, the Shiva temple some 10 feet below the ground, from where Amer or Amber gets its name. Santosh used to be a yoga teacher in Germany. He came back to take care of his ailing parent. Santosh is also the first name of my mother. She passed away in July this year. And I was born in Germany. At times all the dots in the universe seem to connect.
And another legend. 5,000 years ago, King Ambikesh had a cow that would only give milk at one particular spot in the forest. Upon digging the site, the king unearthed a shivling. He built a temple at the exact spot and called it Ambikeshwar Mahadev Temple. The shivling lies inside the hole shown in the image above.
Isn’t the above scene delightful! Panna Mian ka Kund is the philanthropic gesture of an eunuch and leading official in Mirza Raja Jai Singh I’s Amer court [17th Century]. Based on rain water harvesting principles, and surrounded on three sides with eight storeys of steps leading down to the water, the Kund was a source of water and a community centre in the past. Panna Mian’s Kund may not be the prettiest or largest stepwell in India, but it sure is the most atmospheric!
Further down the road is Amer town’s only museum, Anokhi Museum.
Ever been fascinated by Jaipur’s traditional hand block-printed fabrics? If this centuries-old art form has received national, and even worldwide, recognition, it is mainly because of ‘Anokhi’ and the dedication of John Singh and his family who have spent their lives making the craft a household name through their brand and museum, the latter housed in a 16th Century haveli in Amer. The museum is the story of the craftspeople and the craft, lovingly shared by the craftspeople themselves.
Amer Fort’s Sound and Light Show puts the entire story of Amer together, from Amer’s inception a thousand years ago to the building of the fort, Amer Fort’s abandonment in the 18th Century by royalty and reopening in the 20th Century to the general public. The perfect end to a perfect day under a velvety-dark star-studded sky. ❤
Travel tips [please check prevailing Covid 19 restrictions before planning your trip]:
- Amer Fort timings: 8:00 am – 5:30 pm. The fort is best explored in the mornings.
- There’s an excellent free downloadable audio guide on Amer Fort, amongst other Indian heritage sites, called Audio Odigos. It is produced by the Government of India tourism department. For more info, click here.
- Located inside Amer Fort, Cafe Coffee Day’s back terrace has gorgeous views of Jaigarh Fort. Makes for the perfect lunch break.
- I explored Amer town with the in-depth, off-the-beaten-path Amber Heritage Trail run by Virasat Experiences.
- Anokhi Museum timings: 10:30 am – 5:00 pm. The museum is closed from 31 May to 15 July for gallery maintenance. A charming cafe serves beverages and organic cookies.
- Amer Fort Sound and Light Show: 6:30 pm. Tickets are available at the counter just before the show.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my 35-day solo and independent road trip through Rajasthan from 17 October to 20 November, 2021. To read more posts in my Rajasthan series, click here.]