06 November, 2011

Magnificent Amber Fort

A fascinating weekend in Jaipur would not have been complete without a visit to the nearby Amber Fort, the original seat of the Kachwaha Rajputs before they moved court to Jaipur. Having to catch the Shatabdi Express to Delhi in the afternoon, I had several hours to spare so I set course for the fort soon after breakfast. A friendly taxi driver who had taken me around Jaipur the previous day, had left his contact with me and was available within minutes after I called him.

Amber Fort is a mere 10-km from Jaipur, so we drove at a leisurely pace, with the driver volunteering an informative commentary on the way. With a certain bit of pride, he told me that crime was non-existent in Jaipur and its environs, as locals were aware that it would adversely affect tourism which is a major source of their livelihood. Just out of the city limits of Jaipur, we came across the beautiful Jal Mahal seemingly afloat on the tranquil waters of Man Sagar Lake. Built by the immeasurably fat Maharaja Madho Singh (mota raja) in the mid-eighteenth century, the palace was a pleasure retreat used for hunting and picnic parties. Nowadays, the Man Sagar Lake is a well-protected bird sanctuary and quite popular with bird watchers.

Soon after we drove past the lake, a smattering of shallow hills came into view. The forested ravines and ridges of this isolated stretch of the Aravalli Range seemingly provided protection against any invader from the north and east. This fact that was not lost on Raja Man Singh I who started building the fort atop the crest of a hilly outcrop in 1592, on the remnants of an earlier structure dating back to the 11th century. The Kachwaha rulers went beyond merely bolstering their physical defences and, sealed their security by unique alliances with their Mughal tormentors, as we shall see in a while.

As the driver parked the taxi which was to wait for me for two hours, several men thronged around, enthusiastically yelling in an incomprehensible cacophony of which I could only make out the word ‘haathi’. They were offering stately elephant rides to the fort just 400 metres away! A two-way ride on a shared howdah cost 2,000 rupees while an elephant all to oneself cost twice as much. Any Westerner would be lucky to manage a ride for less than five to six grand. Having stayed in the Narain Niwas Palace the previous night, I had had my feel of the maharajas, not to forget the pinch on the pocket for the extravaganza! I, therefore, opted for a brisk trek up the zigzagging path to the fort.

Approaching the fort from the eastern side, the eye meets a well-maintained garden on the right and the picturesque Maotha Lake on the left. Jutting into the lake is a terraced garden known as the Kesar Kyari Bagh, named after the saffron flowers once planted in its star-shaped flower beds. What a sight it must have been to watch a raft of saffron floating on the turquoise lake, seen from the heights of the fort!

Entering through the east-facing Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) – the rising sun being an emblem of the Kachwahas – one finds himself in a large quadrangular courtyard, the Jaleb Chowk that was once used as a parade ground and quarter guard. Today, well-stocked souvenir and snack shops line the courtyard. Tourists can be counted in hundreds at any given time.

A flight of stairs, as well as a thoughtfully constructed later day ramp for the handicapped visitors, leads to the Diwan-i-Aam (Hall of Public Audience). The adjoining Sattais Kutcheri, with its 27 pillared patio, was used by the court scribes to maintain records and draft petitions for review by the maharaja. The family temple of the Kachwahas dedicated to Shila Devi lies on the adjacent side. I shuffled past hurriedly, lest it seemed rude for not offering a quick prayer outside its solid silver door, as done by most Hindu visitors.

The formidably built and beautifully frescoed Ganesh Pol (Gate of the Elephant-god) leads to the royal quarters and the harem. Atop the three-tiered gateway is a filigreed terrace from where the ladies could watch functions held in the Diwan-i-Aam. Purdah amongst the royal Rajput women was followed rigidly, much like the practice prevalent amongst all Muslim rulers of India. The original Mughal jaali or the filigree screen was, thus, found by the Rajputs to be an expedient architectural contrivance to keep their women from the prying eyes of the commoners.

Stepping beyond, into the royal sanctum, is a Mughal-style four-quartered garden known as Aram Bagh. Flanking it on the left is the Jai Mandir whose masterpiece is the glittering mirror-encrusted Sheesh Mahal on the ground floor, which served as the Hall of Private Audience. The top floor housed the maharaja’s private living chambers. Across the Aram Bagh on the opposite side is the Sukh Niwas or Pleasure Palace, complete with water running through open channels for an air-conditioned effect, much needed in an area where temperatures routinely cross 45ÂșC.

The last courtyard houses what is known as the Zenana Mahal, originally the palace of Raja Man Singh I. Suites on three sides, with a central baradari pavilion where the royal ladies could cavort, form the main palace complex. Generally sparse in their matrimonial assets, only one maharaja with thirty wives and concubines came close to beating the Mughals at their favourite hobby. “Well-stocked for the whole month”, quipped one of the sharp visitors to the fort, when the tour guide reported the peak occupancy of the Kachwaha zenana!

The power – and the pleasure that goes with it – had to be achieved and secured by force of arms, usually. Unfortunately, in the face of zealous Muslim adventurers, whether the Mughals or the Sultans before them, the Rajputs were seldom able to put up a united stand. Centuries of siege and subjugation had become too much for the proud Rajputs. Seeing this state of affairs Raja Bharmal of Amber made an offer that could make even the stoutest of kings drool. For the Kachwahas, there would be no more jauhars, the collective suicides in the face of defeat.

On a cold wintry morning, the marriage party accompanying the beautiful Princess Hira Kumari left Amber Fort for nearby Sambhar, where Emperor Akbar’s retinue was waiting to receive the bride. In a matrimonial alliance of convenience, Raja Bharmal had decided to give away his daughter to a Muslim emperor, thus sealing an alliance that brought the House of Kachwahas a breather from centuries of constant feuding. Mariam Zamani, Emperor Jahangir’s mother, well-remembered by a Lahore mosque of the same name near the railway station, was none other than Hira Kumari.

Having become familiar with much of Amber Fort, I could imagine Hira Kumari being led to the Shila Devi temple for invoking the idol’s benedictions before the start of a new but uncertain life. Then, amid the wail of shehnais, a sad farewell at Jaleb Chowk would soon have been followed by a cheerful welcome at Agra, full of Mughal fanfare. Much pleased by the offering, Emperor Akbar returned the Kachwaha favour by promoting his new brother-in-law’s son, Raja Man Singh, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Mughal Army. Akbar went even beyond that, by including him amongst his famous inner circle of Nauratans (Nine Jewels).

The pattern set by his father led Raja Bhagwant Das to offer his daughter Princess Manbhawati to Emperor Jahangir; she was later to become the mother of Prince Khusrau. Thus continued an alliance amongst some of the most unlikely partners, but which turned out to be advantageous to the Mughals and Rajputs alike. I should have been careful to specify which particular Rajputs, for the other ruling clans were none too happy about this arrangement. The Sisodias of Mewar, the Bhattis of Marwar & Bikaner and, the Rathores of Jodhpur considered that Rajput honour had been defiled, for their credo demanded death to such dishonour. For those who saw to it that their women burnt themselves on the pyres every time they were vanquished, offering daughters as pawns was considered the ultimate in shame. In the event, the Kachwahas turned out to be one of the most prosperous and largest Rajput houses till the abolition of the Princely States after Independence. The Mughals too, having managed to cover their western flank, were able to expand their empire in other directions, unhindered.

The fortunes of the town fell when Amber Fort started to suffer water shortages in the 17th century. So grave was the problem that Maharaja Jai Singh II decided to abandon the fort and start building a new city of Jaipur in 1727. The abandoned fort fell into neglect, but lately, conservation efforts have paid off and the fort has recovered much of its former glory. Having seen Amber Fort, with which Lahore Fort shares much in architectural and functional detail as well as place names, one wishes that we too could do more about conservation. Sadly, given the prevalent security situation, the effort might be questionable as few tourists would be there to repay the expenses.

© M KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 6 November 2011.