Thursday, 12 April 2012

Travel: Chittaurgarh ~ Stones of Rajput valour

(Note: This travelogue dates back to 2000)

All that is left of Chittaurgarh today are ruins. All the remnants of royalty shifted when Maharaja Udai Singh built Udaipur in 1567 A.D., and the centre of Mewari power moved there.

Yet, incredible stories of Rajput valour linger amidst the crumbling stones of this magnificent fortress, 90 km from Udaipur. The stories resound from the ornate, umbrella-shaped chhatris, the broken walls and the decaying pillars of the 8th century Sun temple that Muslim invaders desecrated. The ruling Suryavansh, or Sun dynasty, later changed its allegiance to Kali, installed in the adjacent Kalika Mata temple built in the 14th century. For doesn't Ma Kali symbolise power and valour?

As the stories surround us, we wonder: What is history? And what is myth? How much is folklore? What is the truth? It is impossible to draw borderlines for, at every turn, the shadows merge.

Chittaurgarh was once the capital of the Suryavansh rulers of Mewar, the extended area around Udaipur. The Rajput lineage of Rana Kumbha and Rana Bikramjeet ruled from this fort city or garh, built by the later Maurya rulers in the 7th century A.D., spra wling over 700 acres atop a 180-metre-high hill.

Rana Kumbha's expansive palace evokes the exquisite Rani Padmini, whose complexion was so porcelain-fine that they say one could see the water run down her throat as she drank. Hearing of her legendary beauty, the powerful Allauddin Khilji from Delhi laid siege to Chittaurgarh for six months in 1303.

Padmini's husband, Rana Ratan Singh, feared that Allauddin would lay Chittaurgarh waste if he was denied a glimpse of her dazzling beauty. So, her two brothers escorted Allauddin to a hall in a pavilion opposite Padmini's zenana mahal in the lake. From here, Allauddin was permitted to view in a mirror her reflection on the sun-rippled waters of the lake.

Even more obsessed after this tantalising vision, Allauddin asked Rana Ratan Singh to conduct him safely out of the fort through the seven well-guarded pols or gates of Chittaurgarh. But the Khilji broke his word of honour by taking the Rana prisoner out side the fort. He then sent his swordsmen galloping back to Rani Padmini, seeking her surrender.

The queen seemed to acquiesce. She sought 700 palanquins from him, so that she could travel with all her companions. And she sent them back to Allauddin filled with warriors in zenana costumes. By accident, one of Allauddin's retainers lifted the veil of one of the sahelis or companions -- to find a well-groomed moustache under it! Inevitably, a massacre of the Rajputs ensued.

Fearing dishonour, Padmini, 16,000 of her sahelis and their children voluntarily climbed onto a pyre in an underground passageway of Rana Kumbha's palace -- in the ultimate self-sacrifice called jauhar!

And thus, another page was added to Rajput lore. The golden idol of the Suryavansh is now installed in Udaipur's City Palace, where the dynasty still `reigns'.The stones of Chittaurgarh deify Meerabai, the wife of Rana Bhojraj and daughter-in-law of Rana Kumbha. The exquisite inner sanctum of the Kumbha Shyam temple, with its intricately carved pillars, is enshrined in folk memory. In her temple, the forlorn princess worshipped Lord Krishna, pining for the lord who was not the Rana she had wed in real life.

Vish ka pyala Ranaji ne bheja/ Peevat Meera nachi re... (The Rana sent her a bowl of poison/ Meera drank it and danced on)... The inner hall seems to echo all our favourite Meera bhajans.

A stone's throw away, a yawning gap in the outermost wall of the fortress allows us a panoramic view of today's prosaic town of Chittaurgarh.

In this thrice-ravaged fortress settlement, the 37-metre-high Vijay Stambh stands proud and tall, its nine storeys rich with carved scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata -- the Gitopadesh, Arjuna's penance, the encounter with Jatayu, the vanquishing of Ravana... It was built in 1440 by Maharana Kumbha to mark his victories over the Muslim rulers of Malwa and Gujarat.

A short distance away stands the adorned stone facade of the 22-metre-high Kirti Stambh or Tower of Fame, built in the 12th century by a wealthy Jain merchant. Dedicated to Adinathji, the first of the Jain tirthankaras, it is decorated with figures from the Jain pantheon.

``The rulers of the Suryavansh were not very educated, though they were brave,'' explains our guide. ``The Jains kept accounts for them and wrote their letters. As a reward, Jain temples were built for them.''

He continues with his narrative under the shade of a neem tree outside Rana Kumbha's palace. ``You know, it was during the rule of Rana Bikramjeet in 1553 that Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, attacked Chittaur again. The Rajputs were outnumbered com pletely, though they fought bravely to the last man... Finally, the jauhar at the fortress was led by Rani Karnavati, a princess from Bundi. As the women and children climbed into the ritual fire, the valiant warriors clad in saffron robes rode out towar ds a certain death.''

Karnavati's infant son, Udai Singh, was smuggled out of the citadel to Bundi in a basket of fruit by a faithful maidservant, who sacrificed her own baby son at the altar.

By the time he inherited the throne of Chittaur, Udai Singh had learnt that discretion was a saner option than valour. When the Mughal Emperor Akbar invaded the fortress in 1567, Udai Singh fled to establish the beautiful lake city of Udaipur, leaving be hind two 16-year-old heroes to defend his fortress -- they were Jaimal of Bednore and Patta of Kelwa. The ruins of their palaces testify to their last stand. Like most chivalrous Rajputs, these young braves died after the jauhar at the fortress was complete.

``And then, Akbar razed the fort to rubble. Chittaurgarh was never inhabited again,'' concludes our guide.
Except that the stones of the fortress still sing of these stories. And through them, Chittaurgarh lives on today, peopled for all time.

(The Hindu Business Line, 2000)

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