R for Royal: The Many Myths of Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort

In Rajasthan, the past is always present.  
Mehrangarh Fort Jodhpur Rajasthan
Mehrangarh Fort, carved in red sandstone, is one of India's largest and best-preserved forts. Photo: Manuel Menal/Flickr/Creative Commons (bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

“The raja of Jaisalmer is a drunk, and that of Udaipur too.” Our host was emphatic in her statement, although her soft, withered-by-age gentle tone suggested otherwise. There was something else too—a kind of a need, a desire driven by past ghosts and the present’s demons, to have us agree. We feigned surprise—“Oh, that’s terrible!”—and nodded. Her blue sari wrapped itself impeccably around her frail frame, but there was an unexpected confidence in her gait as she walked to and fro the small courtyard overfilled with vines, bougainvillea shrubs, sunbathing chirping sparrows and squirrels that peeled the bark off the shrubbery. She was history’s child, sated by stories from the past and appalled by the present.

“His royal highness is truly a gentle soul. He loves his people,” she continued, as she spoke about the current Maharaja of Jodhpur, nostalgia now simmering on the hot January asphalt outside, and on the soft wrinkles of her forehead. Nostalgia dripped from her voice when she spoke of the crown prince’s polo accident and the townspeople’s subsequent prayers to his health, and her aforementioned rubbishing of the other royalties; it bubbled under the surface as she recalled her own family’s connections with royalty, checking off names from a list of who’s who; it threatened to explode when we told her we’d stayed at another resort in another town whose former owner was a royal himself, and she blurted out, without meaning to, that the current owner was a “baniya” (merchant).

Here in Jodhpur, on the edge of the vast nothingness that is the Thar, nostalgia had attached itself to its soul. Here, the present was ephemeral; the present meant modern amenities – hot water, roads, Wi-Fi—and not much more. As with most ephemera, this too shall pass. Here, history was more alive than anywhere else – as visitors, we were reminded everywhere that this city was once the capital of Marwar, a Rajputana princely state whose very name suggested it was built on blood and war, invasion and expansion, sieges and forts. Here, the past was permanent; the present, simply a milestone on the long highway of antiquity.

Mehrangarh Fort Jodhpur Rajasthan

The palaces in Mehrangarh Fort have been built by several kings over five centuries. Photo: Hector Garcia/Flickr/Creative Commons (bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

***

High up, on top of a massive hill, the sun beat hard on what must have been a sight to behold in the medieval ages. One could perfectly imagine desert-wearied caravans overcoming dunes and sandstorms to behold the Mehrangarh Fort, perhaps thinking they’ve finally arrived at the one true king’s domain. The citadel is still impregnable, shooing its visitors around in an anti-clockwise routine that takes them from point A to point B in an orderly fashion – a perfect antithesis to most heritage sites in India, where the visitor is left free to explore. The thick baritone of the audio guide welcomes you, accompanied by bugles and drums, followed by the current maharaja’s voice itself. The audio guide compels you to shrug off the chains of the present, and instead embrace the past – no subaltern histories here, no alternative retellings of the political economy; only a history of the royal family and its association with the city that their ancestor, Rao Jodha, founded in the 15th century.

Plaque Mehrangarh Fort Jodhpur Rajasthan

A plaque to Raja Ram Meghwal, who sacrificed his life to lift the curse on Mehrangarh Fort. Photo: Amish Mulmi

So it is with great turmoil that one reads about Raja Ram Meghwal – a nobleman who sacrificed his life in service of Rao Jodha, not in warfare, but as a supernatural deterrent against the elements. “Legend” has it that the fort was cursed to be drought-prone by the one holy man who was displaced off the mountain where Jodha wanted his citadel, and the ruler took an extreme measure to ward off the curse: the fort demanded blood, and Raja Ram Meghwal provided it. He agreed to be buried alive into the very foundations; his reward, a plaque that commemorates him, and a grant of land to his family in perpetuity.

As with myth, so with history: the past is the Mirror of Erised; one can look into it and see whatever one wants to see. So, one imagines, walking up the steep incline and the age-worn stones: a procession of elephants; noblemen discussing matters of state and invasions, or political intrigue; the royal women peering through the small chinks in the sandstone windows that overlook the courtyards; ordinary folk prostrating themselves at the sight of their rulers; a city in blue, waiting to be ruled. One also imagines the boom of cannons, the slashing of swords, the swashbuckling tales of valour as personified in Kipling’s stories, the loud trumpets, the tedious and often exaggerated stories of shikaar (the hunt). A fort is, in effect, a medium to suspend disbelief; even without the stories, one’s imagination runs amok, and more so in a citadel suspended above a city, so high that even the kites fly below its ramparts.

Without the myths, there can be no stories. Without the myths, the stark reality of history is a droll courtesan, a bore. Thus, the imprint of little palms, no bigger than that of an adolescent child and laid out in a curiously non-aligned fashion, project outwards from one of the many tall walls. We are told by the baritone voice that they are those of the sati, the object of Lord Bentinck’s singular crusade and once the sole recourse of the Hindu upper-caste widow, who threw themselves onto the pyre after a particularly heavy defeat. Unlike Raja Ram Meghwal, no one recalls their names.

That is why history must be buffeted with myth: without the legends, history appears to be a cruel wraith, unforgiving, perturbing. That is why the sati are worshipped as goddesses, for without the aura of divinity around them, we cannot comprehend their actions. And that is why Raja Ram Meghwal lies buried in these foundations, his sacrifice marked with a wreath that constantly reminds visitors that the fort wouldn’t exist without him.

***

The past remains a constant companion as the audio tour guides you on age-worn stone paths. The hubbub of streaming visitors mingles with the pigeons that constantly flit across the courtyards. And above the courtyards, the latticed windows reserved for the royal women, bound by the purdah, but curious. In the throne room, there is a small alcove above a pillar, and the audio guide gently reminds us that’s where the queen sat, eavesdropping on the intrigues below her, advising her king afterwards.

Ahead of us are a group of ten or twelve outsiders. They come replete with water bottles and a guide, the quintessential monument man. They move from room to room, inquisitive, curious, talkative. They pepper the guide with questions; his replies are well-rehearsed, as if he alone knows his lines in this play.

Mehrangarh Fort Sati Jodhpur Rajasthan

The hand imprints of the sati at Mehrangarh Fort. Photo: Ravas51/Flickr/Creative Commons (bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

“This was the queen’s palanquin when she went to England!”

The almost-robotic click of a cellphone camera follows.

“This was Akbar’s sword!”

“This is the elephant howdah!”

“This is where Jodha Akbar was shot.”

“This was the king’s bedroom, and that was his bed!”

A titter, and a query: “Why is the bed so small?”

It is a small bed; it is nondescript. It looks like any of the charpoys one finds at the highway dhabas, except this one is covered in a red-and-gold banner. And at best, it may be sufficient for a boy on the verge of adulthood.

The guide has expected this; it is his moment. He delivers the coup de grace with exceptional finesse: “You see, in those days, men used to be short, but stoutly built.” He puffs out his chest in a practiced motion, and there are more titters. His audience is pleased, and he has done his job.

“What did the king do when his queen came to him at night?”

A hushed silence; a few giggles; an uncomfortable sneer – the latter, the guide’s.

***

In 1971, India decided – or rather, Indira Gandhi did – that its erstwhile rulers would not receive the monthly privy purse that the British had generously allocated their former allies when they left – the sums, of course, were typically dependent on the hierarchy of the ruling house: the higher the number of gun salutes, the higher the funds. In her quest to become India’s socialist maharani, Mrs Gandhi removed the last vestiges of any royal connection to the government of the day. Whether she expected the former rulers to themselves join politics and come back to haunt her, or support her, is not known.

Hookah Mehrangarh Fort Jodhpur Rajasthan

A glimpse into the royal past at Mehrangarh Fort. Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbera/Flickr/Creative Commons (bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

Marwar, the land of war, does not seemingly care for the loss of a measly purse. Its rulers don’t seem to, either; they now occupy a wing of their palace, while an ultra-luxury hotel leases out the rest. Royalty is still a premium, although you can now pretend to be one if you have the money. The palace itself stands quaintly on top of a crest within the city; its glittering yellow sandstone a lone sun in the vast solar system of urbanity that revolves around it. My host tells me the palace was built during a period of great drought, because “His royal highness wanted to do something for the people who had nothing to eat.” Her loaded statement would haunt the socialist, but for her, it is as matter-of-fact as the sparrows and the squirrels that eat away her bougainvilleas. One marvels at how simple truth appears to her; one wishes for the same innocence, uncorrupted, unbridled.

It is here, in Marwar and the state that was once named Rajputana, that one witnesses how a myth is built. Among these gargantuan towers and a sea of blue roofs, among the rugged landscape of a land steeped in the past, myths foster. They grow, they evolve, and they become much more than stories. They become part of the land, until it is impossible to distinguish myth from truth, until truth is a pale imitation of the fabrication, while the stories become, as Naipaul has written, “a sufficient explanation of the creation and decay” of the ruins that surround an individual in a place like this.

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