“I long not to visit Ganga Sagar, Rameshwar or Kashi. It is only for Chittor that my eyes are always thirsty.”
Rajasthan’s folklore and ballads are filled with mention of Chittorgarh. Take this one as well for instance:
“If there is a fort to be reckoned with, it is Chittorgarh. The rest are mere fortresses.”
It was not just the bastions, masonry, and structures these lines referred to, which were of course mighty, but also its men and women and their unshakable grit.
Considered one of Rajasthan’s most formidable forts, Chittorgarh was famous for its sophisticated military architecture, wealth, and heroic rulers. It served as Mewar’s capital from the dynasty’s founding in the 8th Century to 1553 when Udaipur was established, and continued to be used until Mewar became part of independent India.
Despite three sieges over 1,300 years, Mewar’s rulers always managed to regain control of it. Whilst most other Rajput kingdoms surrendered to the Mughals, Mewar and Chittorgarh stood firm. When it did go into an alliance it was, more often than not, on its own terms.
The fort complex, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprises seven city gates, 65 historical buildings, four palaces, 19 large temples and 20 water bodies [there were 84 back in its heyday to meet the needs of its 50,000-strong army for up to four years] spread over 700 acres, 590 feet above the ground. A village is enclosed within its walls since medieval times.
Let me take you on a virtual journey through Chittorgarh, filled with stories of valour, jauhar, and gods. 🙂
WAR-HEROES AND THEIR INSPIRATIONAL TALES OF VALOUR
Heroism and Chittorgarh in medieval Rajputana were inseparable. The two almost synonymous with each other.
For its rulers, valour was not just about being courageous. It was a homage to the gods. It was about keeping one’s word, and fighting on the battlefield till death or victory. It was a way of life that had been ingrained by the dynasty’s founder Bappa Rawal in the 8th Century, and which stayed till the very end.
Credited with staving off the Arabs, Bappa Rawal captured Chittorgarh, then called Chitrakuta and established the Kingdom of Mewar in 728. Two of his descendants, in particular, took his version of valour to a whole new dimension in Chittorgarh. They were Maharana Kumbha and Maharana Sanga.
Maharana Kumbha ruled Mewar from 1433 to 1468, during which he built or restored 32 forts of Mewar’s 84, including the impregnable Kumbhalgarh Fort named after him. The kingdom reached its zenith under his rule, with both Gujarat and Malwa a part of the territory. But Maharana Kumbha was not just an incredibly brave warrior. He was also a poet, patron of the arts, scholar and musician, and invented the Vichitra Veena.
Often away on military campaigns, his home in Chittorgarh was the Kumbha Palace, a majestic multi-storeyed edifice with residential structures and open courtyards. Despite being in ruins now, the dressed stone walls, corridors and domed ceilings, decorated with bands of carvings and evocative jharokas tower over the grounds, much like the persona of its chief resident.
You may also like to read: The glories of Mewar: impregnable Kumbhalgarh and exquisite Ranakpur.
Soaring above the stone temples in Chittorgarh’s spiritual heart is the 9-storeyed Vijaya Stambh [Tower of Victory] erected by Maharana Kumbha to commemorate his victory over Malwa in 1440. It rises to a height of 37.2 metres and is profusely covered with sculptures of gods and goddesses, both inside and outside.
However, bravery was not just a man’s prerogative in Chittorgarh. To protect Uday Singh II, the founder of Udaipur and Maharana Sanga’s son, his nursemaid Panna Dai substituted her own child with him in Kumbha Palace in 1537. She did this to ensure the royal prince could be ushered to safety when he was about to be killed by his uncle Banvir who had usurped the throne.
An indication of the extent to which Chittorgarh’s bravery could go to is Maharana Sanga, Maharana Kumbha’s grandson [r. 1508 – 28]. Described as one of the greatest Indian kings, bravest of all Rajputs, and even the ‘Hindu Emperor of Northern India’, Mewar spanned across most of western and central India during his reign. He fought unflinchingly till death, sans an eye and an arm, and lame.
No story about Chittorgarh’s bravery would be deemed complete without mention of Jaimal and Patta.
The year was 1567. Mughal Emperor Akbar had made up his mind to conquer Chittorgarh. Whilst its ruler Uday Singh II left Chittorgarh to ensure his own safety, Jaimal and 16-year-old Patta were put in charge of the fort together with 8,000 Rajputs. Both the men were killed in battle as they fearlessly shielded Chittorgarh from Akbar’s ruthless army.
The Jaimal and Patta Palace served as their memorial, then and now, lest anyone in Chittorgarh were to forget the sacrifice of these two extraordinary ordinary men.
Vijaya Stambh, a 9-storeyed sculptured ode to Maharana Kumbha’s victory over Malwa in 1440.
Jaimal and Patta Palace honours Chittorgarh’s two 16th Century bravehearts.
Kumbha Palace inside the fort is a massive palace complex. Its grandeur, a befitting home, for Chittorgarh’s famous war-heroes.
THREE JAUHARS AND THOUSANDS OF SELF-IMMOLATED WOMEN
The year was 1303. The day, 28th of January. Mewar’s mines were rich in silver, zinc, and other precious metals. Rulers, both far and wide, had had their eyes on this immense mineral wealth for a while. They were equally aware of its capital Chittorgarh’s power and invincibility, so refrained from any move. Except for Delhi Sultanate’s Alauddin Khilji.
Armed with thousands of soldiers, Alauddin Khilji made his way across the Aravalli Hills, from Delhi to Chittorgarh, where he set up camp and led an eight-month long siege punctuated with numerous attacks. But Chittorgarh’s ruler Rawal Ratan Singh stood firm, despite his small army in comparison to Alauddin Khilji’s, and refused to surrender. Food and supplies eventually ran out. Death was imminent—whether by starvation or loss at battle.
What followed was a Rajput ritual steeped in char and ash. Led by their queen Rani Padmini, some eleven hundred women inside the fort, dressed in their bridal finery, walked into blazing flames at night, chanting Vedic texts in an act of self-immolation. It was nothing new. The practice of Jauhar had been carried out in India since ancient times to avoid dishonour in the face of inevitable defeat by invading armies. Better to die by one’s own hands than be raped, tortured or turned into slaves.
In a related ritual known as Shaka, Rawal Ratan Singh and his soldiers then smeared the ash from the pyre on their foreheads, dressed up in saffron clothes, and marched towards their death on the battlefield.
Two-hundred-and-thirty-seven years later, in 1540, these events became the inspiration for the epic poem Padmavat written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. It was a story woven around unrequited love on Khilji’s part for Rawal Ratan Singh’s fictional queen Padmavati. In 2018, the poem was translated into popular cinema and immortalized for posterity.
Over the following centuries, the events of 1303 were to be repeated not once, but twice. Each time at an equally gruesome scale.
The second Jauhar held inside the fort walls of Chittorgarh was led by Rani Karnavati, wife of Maharana Sanga. Her husband had been assassinated in 1528, shortly after a battle against the Mughal Emperor Babur. Bahadur Shah, Sultan of Gujarat, seeing this as an opportunity to capture Mewar decided to lay siege to the fort in 1535.
Desperate for help, Chittorgarh’s Rajputs and Rani Karnavati appealed to the then Mughal ruler, Emperor Humayun for protection. The queen firming up the request with a Rakhi, a Hindu ritual carried out between brothers and sisters. Humayun agreed, immediately stopped his campaigning and made his way to the fort. But he was unable to reach in time. As the Gujarat forces edged closer, Rani Karnavati, having lost all hope, walked into the flames with 13,000 other women.
By the time Humayun reached, all of Chittorgarh’s able men had been killed in battle, all its women burnt to death.
Chittorgarh’s third Jauhar was, ironically, because of Mughal Emperor Humayun’s own son, Emperor Akbar who attacked the city in 1567. Fully prepared for doom after a lengthy siege, the women burnt themselves to death in the Spring of 1568. Akbar, furious at Chittorgarh’s defiance, slaughtered over 40,000 of its unarmed inhabitants after capturing the fort.
It was a massacre that to-date gives Chittorgarh’s residents the jitters.
Rani Padmini’s Palace in the lake is a much later structure touted as the original after the success of the Bollywood movie Padmavat. Across it, on the banks is Jal Mahal.
Jauhar Sthal, a yajna or havan kund, is where a fire was burnt and offerings made as per Vedic rituals. It lies in the grounds where the three Jauhars took place.
EXQUISITE TEMPLES TO HOUSE THE BRAVEHEARTS’ GODS
If valour and Chittorgarh went hand-in-hand, for the local populace it was valour and faith that were inexplicably tied. Bravery was a homage to the gods, and the gods protected the brave.
Chittorgarh’s various rulers had their own personal favourite deities who they worshipped with much passion. Each king built or added to a temple in his god’s honour. The wealthy Jain trading community, meanwhile, showered their tirthankaras with intricate lace-like edifices in gratitude. All these co-exist within the fort’s ramparts in a seamless tapestry of carved stone, not just as places of worship, but as centres of religious culture and learning as well.
The oldest structures inside the fort are two water bodies, and of the two, Bhimlat Kund is believed to have been created first, by none other than Bhima of the epic poem Mahabharata in 1500 BC. Legend claims he had come here to learn the secrets of immortality from a sage, but his impatience came in the way. In anger, he stamped the ground and freshwater spurted out from the rock.
Gaumukh Kund, Chittorgarh’s centrepiece around which its grandest temples and the Jauhar grounds huddle together, lies on the fort’s western edge. Water from the rock fissures drain into the reservoir which literally means ‘Mouth of the Cow’. A ‘Tirth Raj’ for the locals, no pilgrimage to any part of India is counted as complete, unless wrapped up with a prayer in Gaumukh Kund’s waters.
Right next to Gaumukh Kund is the Samadhisvara Temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Constructed in the 11th Century, it was restored in the 13th and 15th Centuries. It is identified by the nandi under a canopy and the three-faced Shiva inside the sanctum. Profuse carvings on its facades and pillars include scenes from everyday life, hunting, and battle, celestial beings in erotic poses, deities, and royal processions.
Of special interest from a historical point of view is the Kumbha Shyam Temple, and next to it the Meera Bai Temple, both a short distance away and both built by Maharana Kumbha [r. 1433 – 68]. The legendary Bhakti saint Meera Bai [1498 – 1547], Maharana Sanga’s daughter-in-law and an ardent devotee of Krishna, is said to have prayed here. She refused to do Sati on her husband’s death and went to Vrindavan instead to spend her last days praying to Krishna, who she considered to be her real husband.
Built in the 8th and 9th Centuries, Kumbha Shyam Temple was destroyed by Alauddin Khilji in 1303. Maharana Kumbha restored it, but in a rather innovative way. Instead of trashing any of the older sculptures, he incorporated them all into the temple’s protective wall.
Jainism flourished in Chittorgarh, as attested by its numerous Jain temples and the towering Kirti Stambh or Tower of Fame, Chittorgarh’s most iconic monument. Seven storeys high and covered with fine sculptures of Jain tirthankaras, it was commissioned by a rich Jain trader Jeeja Bhagerwala in the 12th Century.
One of Chittorgarh’s loveliest temples, however, is Sringar Chauri, a Jain temple dedicated to the tirthankara Shantinath, near Kumbha’s Palace. An inscription on its western door states it was built by Velaka, the son of Maharana Kumbha’s treasurer in 1448. Banvir, the ruler who usurped the throne and wanted to kill Uday Singh II [but failed] had covered the temple with a wall. This wall has since been broken and the temple stands in all its glory.
Bhimlat Kund, believed to have been created by Bhima, of the epic poem Mahabharata, is but one of 20 large water bodies inside Chittorgarh.
Chittorgarh’s ultimate pilgrimage site: Gaumukh Kund.
May no part of heritage be destroyed. The 15th Century Kumbha Shyam Temple and Meera Bai Temple are enclosed in a wall patchworked with the original 8th Century sculptures.
Sacred and the secular interweave in perfect harmony at Maharana Raimal’s 15th Century Adhbutnath Shiva Temple.
Kirti Stambh, Chittorgarh’s most iconic monument is a 12th Century 7-storey tower dedicated to the merits of Jainism.
Symbolic in its placement, Sringar Chauri, breaks free of a dictatorial ruler’s bounding wall.
- Staying: I stayed overnight at the charming and super-hospitable, family-run Padmini Haveli inside the fort.
- Guide: Parvati Sukhwal, the co-owner of Padmini Haveli took me around on an in-depth tour of the fort on her scooty. Since I was staying the night, I also walked back to the ruins at sunrise the next day to explore more.
- Getting to Chittorgarh: I used Rajputana Cabs for an intercity drop from Udaipur.
Parvati Sukhwal, my ever-smiling and highly-knowledgeable guide at Chittorgarh. Plus, she’s an excellent scooty rider. ❤
[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.]