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Posted by Tim on Jan 22, 2010
The Walls of Kumbhalgarh

It is the year 1535.

In the Indian kingdom of Mewar, a mighty fortress named Chittor is under siege. The proud inhabitants, people of the Rajput line, know that there is no way to hold out, no way to win.

Their defiant queen is a widow named Karmavati. She has been scrambling to protect her people, and has even sought help from the Muslim Emperor Humayan. There is a Hindu tradition in which a girl gives her bother a kind of flower called a rakhi: she ties it around his wrist, and he promises to look after her. The queen has sent one of these flowers to Emperor Humayan, asking him to come to her aid as a brother would to a sister. But there has been no reply.

She does not know that he was moved by her gesture, and his forces are even now riding to her rescue. He will not arrive in time.

The people of Mewar decide that they shall not lay down in defeat. Looking to their Rajput traditions, they turn to the ritual of jauhar. Rather than face capture and enslavement, all of the women and children in the fort burn themselves alive.

13,000 of them.

As they begin, the men of the fort arm themselves for battle. They don the saffron-colored robes of martyrdom, and charge out through the front gates. With their wives and children now dead, they have nothing to live for, and look for solace and honor by dying courageously in battle. And so falls the fort of Chittor.

Nearby, in the town of Bundi, a boy named Udai is now the heir to the kingdom of Mewar. Wanting the crown for themselves, his uncles send assassins to kill him. His nurse hears of the plot, and has her own son dress in the prince's clothes, sacrificing him so that Udai can escape.

He flees to another fort. A fort named Kumbhalgarh.


The Seven Gates

'The walls of KumbhalgarhOur car drove through the imposing outermost gates of Kumbhalgarh. Shortly afterward, we were able to catch our fist glimpse of the fort itself.

It is a structure so vast as to almost defy description. The massive stone walls snake around it, up and down the slopes of the Aravali Mountains, for dozens upon dozens of miles. Multiple sources seem to agree that next to China's Great Wall, the walls surrounding Kumbhalgarh (pronounced kum-bol-gar) are the longest in the world. The outermost walls are over fifteen feet wide: wide enough for six horsemen to ride abreast along their length.

'The walls of the fort snake off into the distanceTo get to the heart of the fort, to the sumptuous Badal Mahal palace at the top, you have to pass through seven massive gates. The walls loop around it as they cascade down the hill and off into the valleys below, creating a series of nested circles, each one providing more protection than the last.

It's as if you built seven different forts, one inside another. Each ring contains homes, farms, and temples – there are over three hundred Jain and Hindu temples within these walls, some of which predate the fort itself by hundreds of years.

If you were an invading force, Kumbhalgarh would present a pretty imposing challenge. It's no wonder the place was only ever overwhelmed once in its long and storied history.


Approach to the Palace

We arranged to meet up with our driver again after about three hours, and began making our way into the heart of the fort.

'From the palace you can see for miles in every directionAs we walked up the steep, narrow pathways and passed through gate after gate, more and more of the surrounding countryside came into view. On a clear day, you can stand at one of the palace windows and see all the way to the massive Thar desert, which lays miles away to the north and west.

Eventually, we came to the Nimboo Pol, the seventh and last of Kumbhalgarh's gates. Passing through, we stepped into a large courtyard and gazed up at the palace itself.

'The spectacular palace crowning Kumbhalgarh fortConstructed in the 1800's, this palace rests atop the fort like a crown. Where the rest of Kumbhalgarh is composed of hulking masses of dark stone, the palace has a lighter, more ethereal feel. Frescoes covered the walls of the apartments inside, and the delightful inner courtyard sparkled in the sunshine. Other than one man sitting on a stool in the courtyard reading a newspaper, we had the entire place to ourselves.

We spent quite some time exploring the palace's many apartments, our footsteps echoing against the polished stone floors. It was a breathtaking sight, made all the more so by how empty it was. The silence was eerie.

And then that silence was broken.


Children

We heard them before we saw them: the sounds of talking, laughing, running and playing. And then they poured up onto the rooftop where we stood.

School students. Dozens and dozens of them, on some sort of field trip.

'Surrounded by school studentsAs much as we'd been enjoying the solitude of exploring the fort by ourselves, the exuberant energy of the students was even better. We suddenly found ourselves surrounded by smiles, exchanging greetings in English and Hindi, and the subjects of much giggling and furtive glances.

Off at the other end of the rooftop, their teacher began trying to take roll call, and had to reprimand several of the boys who were so focused on us that they weren't paying him any attention. Not wanting to cause any trouble, we hurried off to engage in further exploration. (Jessica also put her headscarf on, which seemed to help make us slightly less of an irresistible distraction.)

'Exploring the ruins of KumbhalgarhNot long afterward, though, the teacher released them to investigate the fort on their own. As we explored the maze of ruined walls surrounding the palace, we acquired an animated gaggle of companions. Together we carefully ascended crumbling staircases to peer into desolate courtyards. We squeezed through half-collapsed doorways to examine darkened, forgotten rooms. And we ascended lonely towers to gaze out at the world laid out below our feet.

'The birthplace of Maharana Pratap, greatest of the Mewar kingsAt one point, we came across a sign bearing the inscription "Birthplace of Maharana Pratap." At the time, we had absolutely no idea who Maharana Pratap was: the greatest of the Mewar kings. Considered to be perhaps the most admirable Rajput of all time, he was seen as an embodiment of all qualities esteemed by these proud people. He spent his entire life at war with the invading armies of the conqueror Akbar the great, a struggle that made him a shining symbol of Indian patriotism and freedom.

None of which would ever have happened if his father Udai – when he was a terrified, hunted 13-year-old boy – hadn't found solace and safety in a fort named Kumbhalgarh.


The Guardhouse

As we prepared to head back through the seventh gate and make our way down through the fort to where our car was waiting, I saw one more view I wanted to take in.

'The guardhouse at the seventh gate of KumbhalgarhThe gate was surrounded by and beneath a decaying old guardhouse. A deteriorated old flight of what could charitably be called stairs ran up the side of it and provided access to the top. I wanted to pop up there for one last glimpse of the inner ring of the fort.

Jessica wasn't thrilled with the condition of the stairs, but I assured her I'd be very careful, and that I'd be back in a minute or two. As it turned out, the first batch of steps were in better shape than they looked, leading up to a sturdy oaken double-door. It was there that things got tricky – the stairs leading from there to the roof were only a few inches wide, requiring me to press up against the wall to keep from falling.

Soon enough, though, I was atop the battered old guardhouse. Above me towered the gleaming palace of Badal Mahal. Below me, I could see the retreating mob of schoolchildren, their teacher skillfully shepherding them back to the entrance gate. And in every direction, as far as I could see, the mighty walls of Kumbhalgarh wove through the Aravali Mountains.

It was then I noticed that I could hear Jessica talking to someone.


A Dozen New Friends

It took me forever to safely navigate my way back to the ground. When I did, I discovered that she was holding court to a small crowd of people.

'Our new friends from GujuratIt turned out to be a large family on vacation from Gujurat, an Indian state to the south. They had already become quite taken with Jessica (and who could blame them?) by the time I joined them all.

One of our favorite things about India was how magnificently friendly everybody was. It seemed that not a day went by without us making a new friend or two.

Or, in this case, twelve.

We stood together in the shade of the ancient guardhouse for perhaps ten minutes, talking. They were thrilled to find out we were on our honeymoon, and invited us to stay at their house if we ever made our way to Gujurat. They beamed at hearing how much we'd fallen in love with their country. And, of course, they insisted we stand with them for a photo or two.

I remember thinking at the time that it was almost a nexus of everything I loved about India. The fourteen of us stood at the summit of a fairy-tale fort, rich with history and spellbinding stories. We were surrounded in every direction by landscapes of breathtaking beauty. And here we had met a group of complete strangers who already felt like something closer to friends.

All you'd need to do is throw in a few amiable dogs and a nice bowl of kaju curry, and you'd have it all.

Have we mentioned recently how much we loved India?

Emerald Flame
January 22, 2010 at 7:49pm
I'm so happy to read that you did not kill yourself climbing those scary stairs of the guard tower.

I must say I am rather intrigued at how you two keep making friends in foreign countries, but then again you two are so damn cute how could anyone resist you?

One of these days (when Emily and I have the money) we (that is you two, me and Emily) are going to go with you to Paris or some other fascinating city. I'd love the thought of having an adventure with my beloved hedgehogs. :)

Tim the hedgehog
January 23, 2010 at 11:36am

I must say I am rather intrigued at how you two keep making friends in foreign countries, but then again you two are so damn cute how could anyone resist you?

Aw, shucks. :)

One of these days (when Emily and I have the money) we (that is you two, me and Emily) are going to go with you to Paris or some other fascinating city. I'd love the thought of having an adventure with my beloved hedgehogs.

Sounds like a plan. We'd love to go exploring with you two! :D

Philsie
January 25, 2010 at 11:05am
Oh Timmy…I would be beat as climbing up there…Beat as bro..
Tim the hedgehog
January 25, 2010 at 11:38am
"Ahh no! I'm beat, bro! Beat as!"

"Hey bro!"

"Ahhh, hey, bro!"

"What are you doing, bro?"

"Bro, I'm beat as!"

"Ohhh, Philsie! You're beat as!"

"Tell me something I don't know!"

Janet
January 26, 2010 at 3:48am
As I read the description of the fort with 7 gates I was suddenly looking for 7 stars and one white tree.
I have found my multitude of friends from India truely open-armed and smiling people.
January 27, 2010 at 3:49pm

As I read the description of the fort with 7 gates I was suddenly looking for 7 stars and one white tree.

Now I'm needing a LoTR fix! It's been far too long since Tim and I have watched any of the movies. (The copies we own have been completely worn down: we brought them with us on our round-the-world trip and they were much beloved.)


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