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The hotel’s website said Chittorgarh Fort was only an hour away. As the crow flies. But no crows were on duty in Rajasthan that day, and Google denied there were any roads at all between ancient forts at Kumbhalgarh and Chittorgarh. Our driver was dubious but we headed out anyway. Over five hours later, we arrived.

Okay, we did stop to take pictures of a brick making factory and its kilns, because it was incredible to watch an artisan process that really hasn’t changed in centuries. Brick-making observation was thirsty work, so we stopped for chai. Because…chai! (image credit: all photos unless otherwise noted are ©Jayalakshmy Ayyer & Janine Smith)

Then we stopped for lunch in the upstairs dining room where the ‘stairs’ were actually a ladder leaning against the outside of the building. Risk life and limb for parathas? SO worth it!

The delays allowed Jaya to tell us the horrifying/ romantic/ heartbreaking story of the ancient fort. Some early stories mention an 8th century fort, the pivotal link in the defense of the Mewar kingdom. Historical records document three main sieges by Mughal invaders, beginning in 1303. That one, according to legend anyway, started with a queen named Padmini. She was a legendary beauty, wife of the Rajput ruler Ratan Singh. As Chittogarh was the most powerful fort guarding the Hindu Mewar kingdom against Moslem Mughal invaders, it was a natural target. But according to legend, their leader, Sultan Alauddin Khilji, heard of Padmini’s extraordinary beauty and requested the king to allow him to see her just once. As it was the custom that women covered their heads in presence of strangers (men), it wasn’t possible to allow this. But on repeated requests the king relented and showed her reflection in a mirror as Padmini was in her palace at the lower level. This mirrored glimpse made Alauddin desperate to possess the queen and he laid siege to the fort.

When defeat was certain, Indian women would sometimes commit jauhar—a ritual suicide by fire. This was not the sati practiced by Hindu widows on the death of a husband. Instead it was a chivalric suicide committed—usually in Hindu/Moslem conflicts—in the name of preserving the women’s honor, and only when catastrophic loss is imminent and inevitable. Typically this was accompanied by saka, in which the men march out to face inevitable death. [Image credit: Jauhar scene from controversial movie Padmaavat directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and loosely—some say very loosely—based on epic poem Padmavat written in 1540 by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. The movie sparked riots across India before its release in 2018.] 

According to the legend, when the siege of Chittorgarh in 1303 was about to end in certain defeat, Rani (Queen) Padmini and 13,000 women committed jauhar, throwing themselves into a fire as 50,000 of their men marched out to defeat in saka. Alauddin’s forces slaughtered the fort’s defenders, and the infuriated leader ordered the fort sacked and many buildings destroyed.

End of the story? Not at all. The defeated ruler’s grandson managed to regain control of the fort for his dynasty. But Chittorgarh remained a tempting target. When Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat attacked the fort in 1535, the Queen Mother, Rani Jawaharbhai, led her army to sata on the battlefield, while another 13000 women committed the second jauhar of Chittorgarh when their queen lit massed gunpowder inside the fort. [image credit: Princess Padmavati, ca. 1765, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris]

Although the victors fought among themselves, allowing the defeated Mewar forces to regain control of Chittogarh, they were again attacked in 1567, this time by Mughal Emperor Akbar. When Akbar’s forces were successful, the last defenders marched out of the fort in sata, while 8,000 women committed jauhar.

Jaya finished the story. Janine and I stared. We had questions, so many questions. “It must have taken a long time. 13,000 women burning. Did everybody wait their turn? Who kept the fire going? And did they jump in at the end? What if someone changed their mind?”

Jaya shook her head. “It was almost 700 years ago. Either way they would all be dead now.”

There just wasn’t much Janine or I could say to that. But luckily, we’d reached the massive, battle-scarred walls of Chittorgarh, enclosing over a square mile of territory.

Our first stop was the Vijaya Stambha, the huge, densely-carved victory tower erected by Rana Kumbha, the warrior-king who constructed and/or rebuilt the virtually impenetrable defensive line of 84 fortresses guarding the Mewar kingdom. To celebrate his victory over the combined armies of Malwa and Gujarat led by Mahmud Khilji, the tower was constructed in 1440 and dedicated to Vishnu.**
**[From the Winner-Tells-All files… Interestingly, after the same battle, the Malwa ruler, Sultan Mahzmud also built a Victory Tower at Mandu in 1443. However, since his was a mere seven-stories, and is now in ruins, I’m guessing bragging rights rest with the Chittorgarh Victory Tower.]

We were told the views from the top of the nine-story (118 feet/36m) tower are amazing. We were also told the steeply ancient steps were very narrow and winding, and involved careful negotiations between those ascending and descending. We decided photos of the gorgeous exterior carvings would be fine.

After the tower, we wandered through other ruined palaces and buildings, and on to the 11th century Shiva temple complex, Samadhisvara Temple.

It was heartbreaking to see the once-gorgeous Hindu temples whose carvings were deliberately smashed by victorious Mughal conquerors so they could never be used for worship again.

We saw the 14th century Kalika Mata Temple, built on the site of a destroyed 8th century Sun Temple.

Indian tourist attempting to feed his wife to the local monkeys. One of the enduring mysteries of India is how many tourists think monkeys are adorable—instead of wily, agile, strong, and (let’s face it) opportunistically vicious. We watched, amazed, as parents encouraged their unsuspecting children to feed and even pet the monkeys, with the predictable and often bloody results.

Jaya was particularly looking forward to visiting the small Meerabai Temple at Chittorgarh Fort. As we headed over, she told us the story of a radical feminist poet (our words), Princess Meerabai, born around 1500. Her family arranged a marriage to the crown prince of Mewar. When he died only a few years later, the young widow devoted her life to worship of Krishna as a member of the more egalitarian Bhakti sect (which eventually became Sikhism.) She spent her days in dance and song praising the god, and caring for the religious poor.

Her royal in-laws were Not Pleased. They felt a more dutiful widow would show proper family feeling by worshiping their familial deity, not wearing ankle bracelets made of strings of bells, and of course, committing sati (ritual suicide). [image credit: pxfuel.com]

Taking in-law issues to a whole new level, there were several attempts on Meerabai’s life. A basket of flowers arrived with a poisonous snake hidden inside, but when the snake touched her, it turned into a religious figurine. Another time her in-laws insisted she drink a cup of poison, but the princess remained unharmed. When they demanded she drown herself, she agreed but her body wouldn’t sink. A bed of nails didn’t harm her.

I thought about family dinners. It must have been difficult to arrange the seating plan. “No, don’t put Meerabai between Auntie and Cousin Jay. Auntie tried to drown her, and Jay is still upset at losing his favorite snake… Just put her on the end next to the Queen Mother, who is deaf as a post and won’t mind if Meerabai sings her whole epic poetry cycle. And anyway, it’s not as if she’ll eat anything we give her after that whole poisoning thing. Some people can really hold a grudge.”

Meera Temple at Chittorgarh Fort. Finally all agreed Meerabai was a saint whose devotion to Krishna protected her from all harm. She built an exquisite temple in Chittorgarh, but left the in-laws-from-hell behind to travel, dance, compose poetry and song, and live the life of the Bhakti saint-poet.

Legend says when the royal family tried to bring her back to Chittorgarh, she slipped away to a temple room containing only an idol of Krishna. When they came to look for her, Meerabai’s shawl was draped over the idol, a sign she had merged with her god.

Today there are over a thousand song/poems attributed to the free-spirited princess, although scholars put the actual number at closer to 200.

While we marveled at mass suicides and princess-poets, our driver Dashrath was exploring his inner warrior, complete with costume and horse.

Our last stop was the seasonally-dry lake where Queen Padmini’s bathing palace stood with its beautiful stepwell, site of Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s legendary glimpse of her in a mirror.

Knowing Jaya would want an early start the next day, we headed back to Jaipur, arriving in time for the traditional music and ladies dancing while balancing pots of fire on their heads, sometimes from little platforms of spikes. As one does.

When we got back to our rooms, we found a… towel thing. After consulting with the hall steward, it was identified as a rabbit. When he saw our enthusiasm, Laxman offered to show us how it was done. And—since this is a full-service travel memoir blog—we’re proud to pass that important life skill on to you, complete with dodgy low-light video. No telling when you might need to make a towel creature to impress your guests. You’re welcome.