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How Rajasthan’s forts, over centuries, witnessed history in the making

A photographic journey through the forts of Rajasthan in Rita and Vijai Sharma’s new book

Standing tall: Kumbhalgarh Fort Wikimedia Commons/ Varada Phadkay

Written by Parveen Talha

The Forts of Rajasthan surprises the reader with the canvas of its detail and generous spread of striking pictures in an easy-to-carry hardcover format. What drew this reviewer was the rhythm of the text and its harmony with the camera. The author-couple, Rita and Vijai Sharma, have made the pen and photographs work as one for capturing the forts in their landscape of history and architecture.

The book goes beyond expectations. While recognising Chittorgarh as “an amphitheatre of history”, it also includes garhis on Jaisalmer’s bulge on the Tanot-Longewala international desert frontier. Among the forts is Siwana on the road to Barmer, Jalore with its long history of combating sieges and Nagaur with its restored interiors. Mewar, Marwar, Hadoti and the Dhundhar regions are well covered, including Gagron, a formidable fort, built between two rivers in Jhalawar, which, over the centuries, hosted Alauddin Khilji, Rana Kumbha, Rana Sanga, Humayun and Akbar.

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The need to connect the dots of history has led to highlighting some sequences in the book. For instance, Bayana fort was the staging point for the decisive Battle of Khanwa between Sanga and Babur that led to the consolidation of the Mughals in north India. The book’s postscript explains what had prevented the epochal battle of Khanwa from going the Rajput way and becoming a turning point. After Khanwa, as Sanga was on his way to Chanderi to strengthen the forces against Babur, he was poisoned. The postscript notes that Sanga’s last days ought to be of interest in view of Khanwa’s 500th anniversary in 2027.

The book captures the scale of fortifications in Rajasthan, a region on the crossroads of invasions. Much earlier than the Rajputs, the Bhils and other indigenous communities made enclosures of mud and early bricks for safety from marauders and wild animals. As time passed, they built sturdier defences. The Meenas also had a strong presence in the region. Central to the book are the Rajputs who traced themselves to the sun, moon and fire gods. Their presence is from the end of Harshavardhana’s reign in the seventh century AD. The Jat kingdoms came later, a highlight of their history being the humiliation of General Gerard Lake, a veteran of several campaigns overseas, at Bharatpur (1805).

The Forts of Rajasthan By Rita Sharma and Vijai Sharma Rupa Publications
192 pages

The sweep of the book’s pictures includes the Haldighati pass, a lamp marking Akbar’s camp during his siege of Chittorgarh, a dargah (shrine) in hill-top Ajmer fort and an irrigation stepwell in Kumbhalgarh. The topography is captured well. Watch towers and forts were built according to the terrain. Ajmer, Alwar, Amber and Bundi had hill forts. Jaisalmer is a desert fort on the caravan route to Multan and Afghanistan. Bayana fort, originally of the Jadaun Rajputs, stands on a granite hill, its ruins dominated by an incomplete minar going back to the Lodis (1451-1526). Mehrangarh in Jodhpur was built on a gigantic rock. The spread of Mewar’s Chittorgarh and Kumbhalgarh forts on running hills is a reminder of school history with the battle sagas of Kumbha, Sanga and Pratap, and figures like Rani Padmini, Panna dai and Patta.

The book refers to the mazaar (tomb) at Haldighati of Hakim Khan Suri, the artillery chief of Rana Pratap. Mewar had steadfastly resisted the Khiljis but they bonded with the Afghans and Mewatis to combat the fury of the early Mughals. Amber stood for Rajput-Mughal understanding while Mewar’s Chittorgarh was for resistance. Akbar married a princess of Amber, who became the mother of Jehangir. Shah Jahan was the son of a Rajput princess from Jodhpur. The book, in this light, looks at aspects that enabled the sustenance of ruling dynasties. There’s also the story of Marwar’s Maldeo in Jodhpur who emerged as the Rajput voice after Sanga.

The story of the forts in the book is not about harems and shikaar. It uses the bastions and ramparts to recount tales of valour and stubborn bravery. There is another side, too — about jharokhas and chhajjas, wall paintings, the craft of glass decorations, the workmanship of decorative motifs, lattice work and floral carvings. There were corridors and courtyards to be negotiated for reaching the living areas of the women, children and their retainers who lived in the palaces in a fascinating balance of life within the forts.

The preface and postscript in the book, along with the introduction, provide a useful synopsis. The chapters comprehensively cover Rajasthan’s charismatic forts with their turrets and terraces, ramparts and bastions, silhouettes and never-to-submit imprint. The book is a valuable contribution towards addressing the evolving demand for knowledge about how the past influences the present. It is a must-read book for anyone interested in Rajasthan and India’s heritage.

Parveen Talha is a writer and a former member of the Union Public Service Commission

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